Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I impulse-ILLed it because — something? Why did I impulse-ILL this book? Was it honestly just because I was tipsy? I have two drinks let’s say once a week, and even so I haven’t impulse-ILLed a book since that one book about internet trolls that was weirdly sympathetic to internet trolls considering how terrible internet trolls are. I believe that what happened was I encountered this book while I was reading up on racebending for this blog post, and I was slightly tipsy and this book looked sooooo gooooooood and anyway it was a GREAT LIFE DECISION.

“Jenny, are you tipsy — while you are writing this?” NO. I am high on theories of racism and academic prose. Which reminds me, has anyone here read Sara Ahmed? I keep meaning to, and then her books keep being checked out of the library. Also, I feel like theory is a young person’s game. Like if I hadn’t read Judith Butler in college for a course, there is a 0% chance I would ever read Judith Butler now. I am better with praxis.

FAIR CRITIQUE.

Anyway, so this book is terrific. Young gets into the racial coding practices in some of the foundational works of fantasy literature — Tolkien if you’re fancy, Howard (he wrote Conan the Barbarian) for pulp — then comes for the nonsense arguments about “historical authenticity” and how they enact a racist vision of an imagined Middle Ages that draws less on evidence than on instinctive feelings about what that era most probably was like. And then there is this whole excellent chapter about orcs and their horde-like nature and racial coding in that, a chapter that includes the subheading “Orc Societies and Cultures,” which despite the utter misery and terrifyingness of our country’s descent into authoritarianism reminded me that in some respects I am awfully lucky to live here and now in a culture where books have subheadings like “Orc Societies and Cultures” and I can just read them willy-nilly.

hello there Mr. Orc I am sure there is no significance to the fact that you have dark skin and all of Our Heroes are white, white, white as the fresh-fallen snow

My God and then she starts talking about postcolonialism in fantasy stories and apparently there is a Cherokee fantasy author called Daniel Heath Justice whose oeuvre I must deposit directly into my brain. And all this talk about NK Jemisin and her depictions of the colonization of language and ideology in the Inheritance trilogy (which you may recall I really liked), and then as if that isn’t enough greatness for one book, an entire chapter on RaceFail ’09. What a terrific motherfucking book. Here’s a thing Heather Young says:

The caveat that representing characters of colour — and indeed any characters from minority and marginalized backgrounds — should be done with respect, and that doing so does not protect an author from criticism or entitle him or her to congratulations is overlooked, dismissed, and/or taken as a restriction according to this construct. The freedom to speak — write — un-censured is constructed as the freedom to write uncensored.

That last sentence is the tidiest way to phrase that sentiment that possibly I have ever seen.

And then there is a whole bibliography full of articles with titles like “Aboriginality in Science Fiction” and “Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc?” No word of a lie, I went through this bibliography line by line and created myself a reading list based on it. Thanks Routledge. Thanks Helen Young. Thanks universe.

  • MumsyNK

    That uncensured/uncensored quote is indeed elegant. Idposting! You funny lady.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    I’ve said it before but although I really liked LOTR (or at least, I liked the first film) I couldn’t help thinking that Jackson’s depiction of Middle-Earth could easily be read as how your average colonial might see the pecking order – Aragorn et al as decent ordinary blokes, the orcs as aboriginals (the dreads really give it away) and finally the elves as the English.

  • CoolCurry

    Sounds like I need to get a hold of this one!

  • I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like I should! An “impulse-ILLed” book that turned out to be a great life decision? How can I pass?

  • I’m not sure I’ve ever accidentally ILL’d a book—too many steps. But if I did surely it’d be something the universe thought I needed to read

  • Akilah

    This is the most delightfully nerdy review I have read in a long time, and I appreciate it so much.

  • I recently saw “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes” by Adilifu Nama and it struck me you might like it. Is this on your list already?