deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
[personal profile] deborah
My students all appear great this semester: thoughtful, provocative, and engaged with what one another say. I've had some good teachable moments in class so far, including a moment when a student responded to a critical article's claim that ethnic Americans have seemingly no mythology inherently their own, by saying "well, there was a mythology, but we came here and we wiped out everyone, so then it was gone". (I paraphrase what the student said, and the critical article was Celestine Woo, "Toward a Poetics of Asian American Fantasy: Laurence Yep's Construction of a Bicultural Mythology", Lion and the Unicorn 30:2, April 2006. To be fair to Woo, though the quotation is provocative both in and out of context, she is using "ethnic American" to mean... well, I'm not entirely sure, but I think she is talking about non-immigrant WASP culture. And I should emphasize that the student is one of the smart, thoughtful types who occasionally provides teachable moments because high levels of student engagement sometimes mean that such things get said if we are operating at the pace of a discussion class. Moreover, the student responded thoughtfully to the follow-up discussion.)

I thought I did okay in engaging the students with thinking about that one (apart from some teaching/race fail on my part where I said "Anansi" and meant "Coyote", and what does that say about my brain?), and then came home and read [personal profile] sanguinity's essay "...the native peoples had the most troubles with the immigrants...". And... I know I am absolutely guilty about what she is discussing, and I'd never thought about it in those terms before. I shall have to think back about the conversation in class and see if that conversation carry the same connotations.

Class was loaded in all kinds of ways, actually. We were discussing a book by a PoC which was based loosely on non-Western myths, and one student in the class came from a similar but hardly identical background as the author. She did volunteer that she knew a version of the myths. I haven't yet had enough experience navigating the minefield of not wanting to ask that student to Represent On Behalf Of Her Culture, but also not wanting to speak as an expert about something for which one of my students might have substantially more in-depth knowledge that I do. (It wasn't a set of myths for which I am a subject expert, not even an outsider subject expert.)

It makes me think, though, that whenever I am teaching and talking about some culture which is not my own, I should always act as if one of my students might be from that culture. For all I know it's true, anyway. (It's related to how I started to confront a lot of my own internalized racism; always assume that somebody standing behind me in any conversation is a member of a group I'm discussing. When I realized how much I was self-censoring, that made me realize how much I was saying that needed reeducation.)

Date: 2010-09-20 03:50 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
your last paragraph! I agree very hard with it! thanks for setting that out so clearly.

Date: 2010-09-20 06:37 am (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
Yes, me too. I tend to use "assume you're talking about the family of someone in the room/earshot", but the principle is much the same, I think.

Date: 2010-09-20 06:35 am (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
:: ...I said "Anansi" and meant "Coyote", and what does that say about my brain? ::

...that you've been reading Iktomi stories?


:: and I'd never thought about it in those terms before. ::

May I ask what terms you were thinking about it in? (If you'd rather, privately is fine.) I've been puzzled by some of the reactions to the post.


Woo: in endnote 9, the "whereas" appears to set up "ethnic Americans" and "white Americans" as two different categories of Americans. No?

Considering her endnote 9 against her "no mythologies inherently their own" question, it seems to me that she just overlooked Native Americans altogether: Native Americans in America are certainly less displaced than white Americans from Britain, and she seems to be using the latter as her displacement yardstick.

I think Woo is making a special pleading for white Americans in asserting that they don't have to account for displacement within their mythology. While there's a certain something that comes with feeling able to assert (inaccurately, as you point out in the other post) that this one set of stories are shared by us all, there are also clear issues of displacement in the mythologies of white Americans. The mythologies that go with this land are not the mythologies of Britain, and British mythologies cannot be made to serve. (Referencing my own landscape: there are no British stories about Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens, nor are there British stories about orcas. It is very obvious to me why one so often runs into the phrase, "There is an old Indian tale...")

That said, with respect to this statement from endnote 9(you'd think that was the only thing I read in the whole article), "for self-identified ethnic American groups, the chasm is more evident between their ethnic origin and Britain", I find Malinda Lo's Ash very interesting. Lesbians and East Asians in what is clearly Fantasy Britain, and present without explanation for how they got there: Fantasy Britain had always had lesbians and East Asians.

Date: 2010-09-20 09:34 am (UTC)
steepholm: (Default)
From: [personal profile] steepholm
Woo: in endnote 9, the "whereas" appears to set up "ethnic Americans" and "white Americans" as two different categories of Americans. No?

Yes. It seems pretty clear that Woo has in mind non-white ethnic groups who have immigrated over the last several centuries. I agree she leaves Native Americans out of the equation. She also doesn't really account for ethnic groups who are white but not British (or "western European" - the two seem to be synonymous for her). Where do, say, the Italians, the Czechs, or indeed gnomicutterance fit in her schema?

I too find it dubious, this idea that white Americans have no mythology of displacement. I'm not American myself, so maybe don't fully understand its function, but I thought that Thanksgiving served precisely this purpose: not just a myth but a eucharist to boot!

(To be fair, we always have had lesbians here in Britain, and I don't see why Fantasy Britain need be denied them. Or are these Lesbians as in "from the island of Lesbos"? Sorry - I've not read Lo's book!)

Date: 2010-09-20 03:58 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
:: Where do, say, the Italians, the Czechs, or indeed gnomicutterance fit in her schema? ::

Thank you. I'm not sure I managed to pull together everything into actual words on the screen last night.

:: but I thought that Thanksgiving served precisely this purpose: not just a myth but a eucharist to boot! ::

Yes! This article about the social history of Thanksgiving as a holiday -- when did it start being celebrated, how did it spread, who was pushing it, why did the school system get so deeply involved -- does a really nice job laying that out. (The article is not nearly so long as those 17 pages of links makes it look: not much text on a page, and a huge chunk of those pages are endnotes.) The article describes an effort to push immigrants from Asia and Eastern and Southern Europe into celebrating a common national mythology.

:: To be fair, we always have had lesbians here in Britain... :

I worded that badly, thank you. Not so much Britain-with-lesbians (because as you point out, of course Britain always had lesbians), as a Britain that is not heteronormative, and which doesn't use sexuality as an identity-construct. Cinderella goes to the ball, leaves with another woman, and no one cares beyond the gossipy "Oh, they've hooked up now? Why does no one ever tell me these things?" This thread and the linked essays might explain better.

As to how it's relevant to Woo's essay, Lo wrote a Cinderella fantasy in which East Asians are just there in fairytale society, and present without any race/ethnicity/nationalism construct that applies to them. They're unremarkably default English like everyone else in the story is unremarkably default English. In Woo's terms (as I understand her), Lo has written a fantasy that is deliberately designed to "close the chasm" between "their origins and Britain", mostly by saying that East Asians were there in the societies of these stories all along, and present in a completely undifferentiated way.

Date: 2010-09-20 04:41 pm (UTC)
steepholm: (Default)
From: [personal profile] steepholm
Thanks so much for the Thanksgiving essay link - that's really fascinating (I'd never even heard of the Fantasticals, who sound like they wandered in from some other kind of festival altogether). And I see now what you were getting at with the lesbians. I wish I could say that Britain wasn't heteronormative, but alas I can't!

Dumbledore is Gay

Date: 2010-09-28 03:39 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
:: I didn't read any of the characters as being of East Asian descent. Did I miss something? ::

I had precisely the same reaction when I read the book. I'd been hearing gossip about how those characters were East Asian, and then found no evidence of that in the book. Apparently, Lo cast them as East Asian and has said so on her blog, but also wanted a world in which the characters were not subject to race as a social construct. She thus found herself in a bind where she couldn't find a clear way to tell the reader what race people were:

Writing About Race in Fantasy Novels
Writing About Race in Fantasy Novels, Part 2

So maybe I should have said that Lo attempted to write a fantasy Britain that had always had East Asians. And that the world she envisioned is interesting in the context of Woo's essay. However, I think it is safe to say that no one who came to the books unprimed would walk away thinking that given characters were East Asian.
Edited (fix broken link) Date: 2010-09-28 03:39 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-09-28 05:58 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
:: I think I was holding up the mindset that... ::

Thank you.

...and I think I may be silent for a while now, while I think about that.

Date: 2010-09-28 04:06 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
Crossed comments! :-)

Yes. From a worldbuilding perspective, I can't come up with a backstory that fits all of the details in the book. Not only is there colonialism and a China trade, but Fantasy Britain is relentlessly British: if there are East Asians in that society, either their ethnic origins are within Britain, or they brought nothing with them but their skin.

Which tweaks me very badly, actually: if those characters really are East Asian, that world has one of the worst cases of assimilate-or-die that I've ever seen.


:: I've been trained in how to read Fantasy Britain, you know? ::

Yes!

...I keep coming back to: can you do what she wanted to do? How do you pull off textual colorblind casting of fairy tales (for what is essentially the same reason that you do colorblind casting of Shakespeare productions) in such a way that you let people know that you did it? And can you even do it in such a way that it plays nicely with the in-story geographies? Writer-brain keeps poking at that, it does.
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