rambling thoughts on colonialism and feminism

I didn’t freeze, and we appear to have a functioning furnace again, though it’s striving mightily to drag this old heap up from its freezing temperatures to something livable while it’s barely above zero outside. Learned many interesting lessons about survival in the cold without central heating, and also used up a lot of my candles and lamp oil.

But that’s neither here nor there. I want to ramble on about parallels and differences between two different projects of mine. One, Sunlight and Storm, is a fantasy western that was the fourth novel I wrote, back when I was in college. Its first draft sucked rancid goat cheese; its second draft is better, but I still want to rewrite it substantially before it ever goes public, and that will probably not be any time soon. The other is a series I’m contemplating for the future, which would essentially be about scientific expeditions going to study dragons. They share the common characteristics of being in settings that look a lot like our nineteenth century, and they both have female main characters, hence the desire to ramble on about colonialism and feminism.

Colonialism first. It’s kind of unavoidable in a quasi-nineteenth-century setting, in part because colonialism was one of the distinguishing features of that era. I sort of dodged this question in Sunlight and Storm; the New Land, the southern continent I’m using to parallel the Old West, was uninhabited when it was discovered, so there are no Native American equivalents to deal with. On the one hand, this takes away some of the fodder for Western (in the genre sense) plots. On the other hand, those aren’t the plots I’m the most interested in, and it means I don’t have to make the choice between replicating the horrors of the real history, and whitewashing it all into something nice. Especially at the time I was writing this (I was twenty when I wrote it, twenty-one when I rewrote it), I didn’t feel prepared to handle that; I’m not sure I feel prepared for it now. But I’ve also realized that I didn’t dodge the question as much as I thought, because I think I’ve displaced some of it off of people and onto the land itself. How do the different people who come to the New Land relate to their natural environment? This comes up in the stuff that makes Sunlight and Storm a fantasy, and I suspect it’s something I should focus on when I go back to that novel; I think it needs to be more central and well-thought-out to pull the novel together. (And something needs to pull that thing together.) I will probably talk to those friends of mine who study colonialism and get their thoughts on it someday.

The new project’s a different story. As it stands in my head, the first novel would postpone the question, by taking the characters to a place that’s kind of Eastern Europe-y (and they’re from an English-type place). Class will play into it, as they’re upper-class types dealing with peasants, but that isn’t quite the same thing, and it lets me get my feet under myself before I hit the harder stuff. In this case, though, the harder stuff is coming: settings that parallel Africa, Polynesia, the Middle East, China, what have you. And this time, I’m anticipating that in advance, and starting to think about how I will address those encounters in a way that neither trivializes the forces that made nineteenth-century colonialism what it was, nor falls victim to their power. Do I know how I’m going to do this yet? No, though I suspect some of it will come from the main character’s obsessive focus on the object of her study, which leaves her less bothered by differences in people than others of her station might be. It bears more thinking about, though, and at least this time I’m thinking about it in advance.

Feminism . . . och. One of the (many) reasons the first draft of Sunlight and Storm sucked so hard was, it turned into some pretty crappy and shallow feminist preaching along the way. Four women escape their oppressive Victorian lives and find opportunity and self-actualization on the frontier! Please. I managed, in the second draft, to make it a little less “rah women go!,” but the problem is, the novel is about four women escaping their oppressive Victorian lives and finding opportunity and self-actualization on the frontier. Somehow I need to get it on the page in a way that conveys the nuance that I swear is in my head. And I need to do so in the first book; I have a sketchy notion for a trilogy, but I can’t afford to leave all the nuance for books two and three, now can I? I think it was prosewitch who turned up an academic quote that made me realize three of the four women parallel motifs of women in the Old West — the civilized lady, the sturdy frontier woman, and the bad woman — and the fourth, the main character, could be my chance to posit a fourth possibility, that would partly grow out of the nature of the setting (see above about the land and magical aspects thereof). I’m just not sure how to get there, and to certain things I really want to do with the character, without betraying the fact that she starts out a proper Victorian woman, with many of the constraints that implies.

For just as colonialism is nigh-unavoidable in a setting that looks nineteenth-century, so is feminism, if I want female main characters leading adventurous lives — hence it cropping up again in the new project. And again, I’m in the process of figuring out how to deal with it. The answer seems to be, by a lot of small methods all mixed together. Some of it involves tolerant individuals in her life. Some of it involves deception. Some of it involves a willingness to damn what society thinks of her. I do know that I want to play with the consequences of her choices. Caroline, in Sunlight and Storm, won’t be going back to non-frontier society until the third book, at which point she’s established herself well enough in the New Land that the disapproval of the society she left behind doesn’t have to matter to her as much; she’s not going to stay there. But Isabella, the main character of this new thing, is and always will be operating in the context of her home society, from which she only intermittently escapes. If they don’t like her — and they’re not going to — then that will mean problems for her. And while she may have found a handful of tolerant individuals, they’re definitely the minority. What acceptance Isabella gains over the course of the series, I think, is going to be carved out tooth and claw by her achievements in her travels, where it isn’t just the sort of leeway given to women who made sufficiently entertaining scandals of themselves. People will be embarrassed by Caroline, but gleefully shocked by Isabella.

So there you have it: proof that I’m starting to think about Issues in my writing. It’s a tough thing for me, not because I don’t care about the issues, but because I don’t want them to be carrying capital letters around with them, and there’s a real danger of that happening if I try to address them too overtly. I want this to happen organically, but I can’t do it unconsciously, or I’m going to end up with something like the first draft of Sunlight and Storm. I need to think about it, and then not think about it.

Harumph. <g>

Welcome to the Zen of writing, I guess.

0 Responses to “rambling thoughts on colonialism and feminism”

  1. mindstalk

    Colonialism in fantasy

    Would you find it plausible or acceptable for colonialism to be altered by the presence of magic? I’d say he European advantages were largely disease, superior technology, and perhaps social organization. So a world with widespread magic might be seen as a world with a higher baseline level of “technology”, and thus more resistance to incursions.

    I’ve also been wondering recently if early faliure by Columbus, Cortez, or Pizarro might have slowed things down. The success of Cortez and Pizarro seems to bizarre… the fact that it happened twice might indicate there were good reasons for that, but it’s tempting to imagine such quick conquest of empires was freaky, and that more realistic timelines would have more resistance. And this can interact with magic, if the reason for Cortez failing is that he gets eaten by jaguar-shapechanging Aztec warriors.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Colonialism in fantasy

      In a New World scenario, I’d change disease. If there’s one thing Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) and Charles Mann (1491) agree on — and there really might only be the one — it’s the role disease played in the conquest of the Americas. Both Cortez and Pizarro benefited from it, to choose your two examples; epidemics had destabilized the local populations before the armies ever got there. Providing for some kind of magical healing wouldn’t fix the imbalance entirely, but it would go a long way toward leveling the playing field.

      So yes, I allow for the possibility of magic changing things. I’m still being cautious of how I use it, though, because the temptation is to say “magic makes everything better!” and then the evils of colonialism vanish. Which feels like a cheap out to me.

      • mindstalk

        Re: Colonialism in fantasy

        Yeah, disease would be big, though for the game setting I was thinking of it’d be easier to off Cortez and maybe sink fleets of ships than to save much of the population. Still, if you can slow down the invaders while the population evolves resistance, or prevent strongholds from being established…

        And in Africa disease partly ran the other way, slowing down Europeans, with the slave trade doing much of the damage — plus maybe livestock disease, I’ve heard something about rinderpest killing off native cattle, then something happened with tse-tse.

        You still get evils, you just don’t get colonialism’s evils. For example, the Aztec empire may keep on chugging, or the Inca totalitarianism (AIUI), and Europe might turn on itself more. But for a 1600s game setting it’s nice to protect places for the Europeans to explore while not having a re-hash of history… of course, for a fantastic alt-hist, I’m not sure there’s any solid reason the Americas or Africa have to be left as we found them, my sympathies for Diamond not withstanding.

        • mindstalk

          Re: Colonialism in fantasy

          I guess it’s how much you want “something like our world, with some magic for color and minor changes” vs. “our world for the maps and names, plus magic which run to change things a whole lot”. I’ve been thinking about the latter, a springboard for adventures, you might be going for the former.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Colonialism in fantasy

          As far as evolving resistance goes, there’s some unfortunately depressing evidence (discussed in 1491) that it just wouldn’t happen that fast. It has to do with haplogroups, which I do not claim to be able to explain, but the gist is that a population with a given haplogroup has a better chance of resisting some diseases and a worse chance of resisting others. In Europe, there’s something like 37 haplogroups. In the entirety of the New World, there’s 4. The Americas were settled by such small original populations that genetic diversity here was very limited, which is (they theorize) why the death rates were so astronomically high when European diseases were introduced. It isn’t just that they hadn’t encountered those germs before; it’s that they were genetically disadvantaged in combatting them. When asked whether there would have been any way to prevent such obscene mortality when Europeans showed up, one of the scientists Mann was quoting basically said, no. Not unless you could quarantine the entire hemisphere until such time as vaccines get invented.

          Even if that isn’t strictly true, resistance isn’t going to appear very fast. Unfortunately.

          • mindstalk

            Re: Colonialism in fantasy

            Right, I remember that, from the essay form of “1491” (is there a book now?) Plus, allegedly, their own inexperience with highly contagious diseases, so friends and family would cluster around the sickbed. Europeans didn’t know germ theory, but they did no quarantime: board up the plague victim’s house and run away until they recover enough to claw back out. (Excaggerated for morbid effect. I hope.)

            On the other hand I kind of have the impression that the Iroquois and Cherokees, say, had recovered from the initial plagues — maybe not to full strength, but you weren’t having 90% die every generation. Thing about high death rates is that it’s a strong selection pressure; if it keeps up then either the population *does* evolve fast or else it goes extinct.

            Of course, now some people are saying some of the later Mexcian plagues were actually native hantaviruses from a disturbed rodent population. Which might be the sort of thing an alt-hist can change short of “voila! I ignore biology!”

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Colonialism in fantasy

            Yeah, there’s a book now. And it’s fabulous.

  2. prosewitch

    Hrm… I want to say that the quote I turned up was part of my research on the influence of feminist theory on folklore, and it appeared in one of the earlier articles published… ah, thank goodness for Endnote!

    Stoetlje, Beverley J. “A Helpmate for Man Indeed…” In Women and Folklore: Images and Genres, ed. Claire R. Farrer. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 1975, 1986. 25-41.

    The notes I have typed up are:
    -“The symbolic transformation of images of women that took place on the froniter involved the following initial images: (1) the refined lady symbolizing ‘true womanhood’ defined by Eastern, literary civilization and bringing with her the elements of formal institutionalization–education, religion, ‘high culture’; (2) the ‘backwoods belle’ (the opposite of the delicate, refined lady), who could accomplish fantastic deeds involving strength and capability and had the ability to establish informal elements of institutionalization, in particular the family; and (3) the bad woman, found outside the boundaries of society and in association with sex and sin. These images of women were related to the following male images: (1) the cowboy, mobile, unsettled, and idealistic about women or alienated from them; (2) the cattleman-settler, the aggressive domineering man who conquered the frontier or the wilderness with great success; and (3) the bad man, the outlaw, who operated beyond respectable society.” (40)

    Incidentally, I have this book, and would be willing to loan it to you. Also, I’m always happy to chat feminism, and although postcolonialism isn’t my strong point, I can talk about that too a bit. I was always drawn to images of strong females in fantasy and sci-fi, so feminism has been a conditioning aspect of my involvement with the genre for years now, but there are definitely more and less sophisticated modes of feminism at work in spec fic… hmm, makes me think I should write a paper on it… πŸ˜‰

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s the one. I believe I have that saved to a file somewhere, but I’m too lazy to dig it up. I know I wanted to keep it on hand for future reference, though.

      The feminism question is a pervasive one for me. So much fantasy — and I’m guilty of this in places, though I try to come up with a logic that justifies it, which may or may not ever make it onto the page — so much fantasy just decides its setting has gender equality, and moves on from there. Which ignores the forces that produced gender inequality in the societies fantasy takes as its models. I once wrote a brief article (not for Strange Horizons) about how the quickest fix might be to say that magical healing allows for easier childbirth and lower infant mortality; with that, you can potentially lessen the pressure for women to spend most of their time pregnant and/or caring for children. I really do think that’s one of the most limiting factors, especially in medieval-esque societies.

      That’s one of the things operating in Doppelganger, for example. People probably assume the goddess-based religion is another, but it isn’t really; instead — and I never found a good way to put this into the story — they believe in the transmigration of the soul, including the possibility that you might be born a different sex next time. (I know at least some historical groups that believed in this had more gender equality, since gender was not viewed as an immutable characteristic inscribed on your soul.) The weird situation with the witches is a factor, too; they’re powerful, and they only have daughters.

      I’d be interested to see you identify, even in brief, what you think the “more and less sophisticated modes of feminism at work in spec fic” are.

      • mindstalk

        I think Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace used that fix.

        I don’t know if it’s rare; I’ve seen people on rasfw complain about the “special contraceptive herbs” running around in the absence of a whole system of herbal medicine. Though I guess I just jumped from “easier childbirth” to “sex without pregnancy”. Which also factored into Walton.

        Hodgell’s Kencyrath… Highborn women can control pregnancy but doesn’t do them much good. Not sure about Kendar women, but they don’t seem the type to die in childbirth, and they live considerably longer than normal humans, so that might explain their own egalitarianism. Might be less sexually dimorphic than humans, too.

        • Marie Brennan

          Contraception and abortion have been around a lot longer than people think; sex without pregnancy can be arranged. The deeper issue, in my mind, is whether it’s acceptable in a given society for a woman to make the choice not to have children. Medieval nuns were allowed to; outside of a convent, not so much. You need lots of children in that time period to get a decent number of surviving adults, and if a guy goes through three wives because they keep dying in childbirth, your odds of escaping marriage aren’t good.

  3. d_c_m

    Just to maybe give you a new lense check out Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud 9. It is one of the best plays of the 20th century and it talks about feminism, colonialism, racism, and the big bigoted isms and makes you laugh. It is just amazing.

    And I can so empathize with what you are writing and the only thing I can offer, which of course can be trashed and considered bull, is that perhaps you should trust yourself and your gut as you write. Perhaps your own experiences of sexism, and the subtleties of sexism in both overcoming it and dealing with it, might help.

    Or I’m just full of it, which yes, I will totally accept. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, my own experiences of sexism are . . . well, let me put it this way: either I don’t encounter sexist people — ever — or I’m very good at not noticing them. Seriously, I can only think of two instances, two teachers I had who I know were sexist. I must have bulldozed over the rest of them without realizing it. And while obliviousness may be a useful method of getting by in my own life, it doesn’t fit these characters’ situations, nor does it help me figure out how to handle the situations in stories.

      Not that I’m complaining about how my life has been so good on that front, but you know what I mean. πŸ™‚

  4. chibicharibdys

    Yeah, I’m just starting to discover Issues in my writing, and I’m a little sorry about it because they keep mucking everything up.

    Also, hi! I’m Kate Elliott’s daughter and I am now watching your LJ.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hello, and welcome!

      The best Issues are probably the ones you notice after they’re already in there, but alas, that is not something one can aim for consciously without immediately defeating the purpose.

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