Published Article: Females in Fantasy

A while back I posted about the absence of females in fantasy fiction, an ongoing debate, which provoked quite a heated discussion recently at Tara Moss’s The Book Post. The comments there are something to behold and worthy of a read.

In any case, I reworked my original post and submitted it to Lip, a magazine for girls who “think, feel, create, speak out and live. Girls who aren’t afraid to be themselves.”

As luck would have it, they accepted my submission and this week published my article on their website. Hoorah!

If you’d like to have a read, it’s at: http://lipmag.com/arts/books-arts/heroes-and-heroines-females-in-fantasy/

~storytelling nomad~

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9/11: Breaking free of terror

Ten years on and with 9/11 once more upon us, it is sad to think that this day will forever evoke feelings of such sorrow and unbridled hatred.  The suffering of those involved and affected by the events on that day is utterly unimaginable to me, and I cannot even begin to comprehend the pain they bear, nor the torment faced by those who lost their life to such a tragedy.

Without giving too much time to those responsible, I think it is true to say that I have never really understood such rampant hatred.  I cannot assume motives or grounds for such an operation to be executed, but can only profess my belief that no wrongdoing in this world deserves punishment by such evil.  ‘An eye for an eye’ is never something I have attributed much conviction to, and although I do not consider myself a religious person, I still do not believe that anyone on this Earth has the right to play God and pass the judgement of death on anyone.

At the time, Australia seemed so far removed from what was happening in the US, at least to me anyway.  I watched with disbelief as the events unfolded on TV that day, but couldn’t seem to make sense of what was really happening.  I went to school as usual, and watched as a number of classmates feared for family or friends that lived in the states.  In between classes we would turn on the TV to watch the impact of the planes over and over again as the world began to grasp the severity of the situation.

The following month I had been set to make my very first solo trip overseas.  I had signed up for a three month student exchange program in Italy, and had thought of nothing else since the beginning of the year.  A new suitcase had been bought, a pile of things to take with me piled messily on the floor, and emails with my soon to be host-sister, Sara, had been exchanged.

When my parents started talking about pulling me out of the program, that was when first I felt the events of 9/11 truly influence my life as it was.

I was angry and confused.  How could such hatred ripple so far across the globe to affect my enthusiastic plans to travel a world I had been so excited about exploring?  What had I ever done to these people to warrant such an intrusion on my life?

It was then, I think, that I first began to truly fathom the weight of terrorism, the fear it evoked and the changes it could awaken.

In the end, I was permitted, with much trepidation on my parents’ behalf, to go forward with my student exchange.  They decided that it was in fact probably the safest time to travel, with so much surveillance and the number of safety measures that were then being taken when travelling.  I advocated that such acts of terrorism should not force us to stop living the life we had intended for ourselves, for then they had all but triumphed in crippling us with terror.

When I arrived at Singapore airport, I watched with a speechless curiosity as small troops with large guns patrolled the airport solemnly.

The armed troops may have since receded, the fear numbed, and the memory faded, but the events of 9/11 still resonate loudly in the extra security measures when travelling, the sorrow of those who suffered loss, and in the date that will for many years to come remain a reminder of an innocence we all lost that day.

Despite it all, however, I remain hopeful that time will heal the hurt caused, little by little.   One year ago today, I watched a very close friend of mine take her wedding vows in a church filled with loved ones.  Together we shared a wonderfully happy day and rejoiced in their love, happiness and a bright future.  Together we created a memory that now has me looking back on this date with joy.

We cannot forever dwell in the misery of our past if we are to ever find joy in the pleasures of the future.  Whilst we must grieve those lost and honour them their suffering, whilst we must remain heedful of those who continue to sanction war, death and hatred on the world, I think it is important to remind ourselves not to seize on the hate from which such a tragedy first arose.  Hate and prejudice will not recover loved ones, nor change the past.  Nor will it bring peace to the future.

Before I relieve you all of this rant of mine, I implore you all to read Pico Iyer’s short travel story, The Khareef, which can be found in his book Sun After Dark.  In this spectacular account, Iyer travels to Oman, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, just six weeks before the attacks on the two towers.  I found it an extraordinarily moving account of a journey to a place so far removed from anything we know, and yet chilling in its mysterious allure.  Most importantly, however, it shines a small light on a group of people affected by the events of that day; those that we often spare little thought for.  The ending is spectacular and Iyer is a truly magnificent writer.

Joss Whedon once said, “War is not just the business of death, it is the anithises of life.”  Here’s to hoping that despite the tragedy we relive today, we nonetheless fight to break free of terror and war, and continue to strive for peace and happiness for all.

What 9/11 now means to me: My dear friend Ruth and her husband Tim on their wedding day - September 11th 2010

~storytelling nomad~

A Storytelling Utopia: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011

So I mentioned a few posts ago that I had a number of reasons for my recent absence, and today I’m going to share with you one of them.

In Australia there is an ongoing rivalry between the city of Sydney and the city of Melbourne.  Those who live in Sydney claim that they live in the superior city, and those who live in Melbourne claim much the same.  The general consensus, however,  is that Sydney is a financial city, and Melbourne a cultural city.  The Melbourne Writers Festival plays a significant role in this widespread understanding and the number of highly acclaimed national and international guests that attend from year to year, is testament to the festival’s success and the city’s appeal.

This year, I was lucky enough to be selected as a volunteer for the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Woo!  The festival is an annual event that has been running since 1986, and this year joined forces with four other international festivals to form the Word Alliance, now made up of:

  • The Melbourne Writers Festival
  • The Edinburgh International Book Festival
  • The Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing
  • The International Literature Festival in Berlin
  • International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Totally rad.

So what kind of guests are we talking? Pretentious editors? High literature writers? Celebrity journalists?  Well yes, I suspect there are some of those, but the Melbourne Writers Festival is far more than that, and unique in that it observes all kinds of storytelling, not just the award winning, ostentatious kind.  The website elaborates:

Each year, MWF invites novelists, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, journalists, songwriters, bloggers – anyone who’s part of the world of words. We host politicians and artists, policy wonks and pop culture icons, crime writers and high culture theorists. The festival program features an enormous range of literary activity including entertaining discussions, debates, readings, film screenings, interviews, literary banquets, performances, workshops and book launches, as well as a lively schools’ program for primary and secondary students.

Festival Background

Last year they hosted Joss Whedon.  Enough said.

The Golden Ticket

So, as a volunteer I get to make sure people are being orderly, scan their tickets, give directions, have a chat, make sure the guests are comfortable and answer any questions that patrons might have.  My fellow volunteers have so far been awesome, the shifts fun and the patrons very well behaved.  I also get to wear a groovy volunteer shirt.  Win.

The major perk to this gig, however, is my volunteer pass, which gets me into any event over the entire festival.

When I attended my orientation day a few weeks ago, I was astounded at the wide array of events, panels and workshops that were taking place and began to get quite excited at the prospect of attending these events in between my shifts.

One event, the Martin Martini In(k) Concert, merges sounds and image with musician Martin Martini playing in concert whilst four artists illustrate to the tune and inspiration of the music, their images projected onto the walls of the venue.  A totally unique experience, demonstrating that the art of storytelling is far from limited to just words on paper and can be inspired and influenced by anything around you, even sound.

Author Kate Grenville

Today, I attended a session called Why I Read, featuring prominent authors Kate Grenville (pictured left), Tess Gerritsen and Chris Womersley, all discussing the books that they read growing up and the impact it had on their calling as writers.  They also discussed how reading has changed, an echoing theme throughout the festival, and how we can encourage children and teenagers to read more.

Another highlight of the festival is the collection of city walks.  From specialist bookshops to the city’s origins, the guided walks highlight the Melbourne that is inspiration for writers, readers and storytellers.  My favourite of the walks is called Melbourne’s Hidden Dragons, and it takes you on a tour of the stone guardians and silken mascots that are scattered around the city and explores the mythology of the beasts and their presence in storytelling.  Seriously cool right?

One of Melbourne's hidden dragons

And, on Tuesday evening I hope to attend Edinburgh Unbound, described as “Part reading, part gig, part party”.  Basically it is a fusion of Scottish and Australian musicians and storytellers coming together to present an evening of performance, music, film and stories in celebration of the partnership between the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival in our sister UNESCO City of Literature.

It is heartening to note that the attendants of the festival have so far ranged from toddlers to grannies, with no gaps in between.  I like to think this is a positive indication in light of recent discussions regarding ‘the death of the book’ and even ‘the death of the reader’, which today I was assured were both myths.  Yes, fellow writers, you can rest easy.

Young and old, we are still fascinated by the art of storytelling, whether it be through the traditional or graphic novel, music or art, the written or the spoken word.  How we tell the stories may be changing, evolving even, but the fact that we are still telling them and interested in how others tell them is what’s important and is what will keep the art of storytelling alive for a long time to come.

The festival runs from Thursday 25th August to Sunday 4th September and all the information can be found on the Melbourne Writers Festival website at http://www.mwf.com.au/2011/.

~storytelling nomad~

Heroes & Heroines: Females in Fantasy

I recently came across an interesting post over at Words about Words in response to an article posted on the Guardian website yesterday, entitled The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers.

Now, despite my love of all things fantasy and a slight (read: considerable) reading obsession, I have to admit that until it was pointed out to me recently, I didn’t really notice the distinct lack of female presence in the science fiction and fantasy genre. I mean, I just wanted to get lost in the story, you know? I wasn’t really fussed if it was written by a man, woman or your neighbour’s talking llama, as long as it was well-written, entertaining, and for a few hours a day let me escape to my merry reading bubble.

But try as I may to reach my happy place, I found I simply could not with this new found information. I started noticing the severely unbalanced male to female writer ratio in my book collection and began questioning the male protagonists in my favourite stories. Whatever happened to Harriet Potter, the girl who lived? Did Tolkien not think Frodina could have saved Middle Earth? Surely Bella could have survived in a world without Edward Cullen saving the day every ten pages?

The revelation came to a head, however, on discovering that my favourite author had changed her name from Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, to the ambiguously gender neutral Robin Hobb when she began writing her bestselling series, The Farseer Trilogy, led by male protagonist Fitz. The reason? Apparently boys are reluctant to read anything written by girls for fear of catching girl germs and being subjected to lovey dovey romance scenes when what they’re really after is war, sword fights and Tarzan-like displays of chest-thumping male domination.

“Really?” I hear you ask. Well, apparently Hobb is not the only one afraid of this outcome. J.K. Rowling’s use of her first name initials is not mere happenstance, and when I recently attended this year’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Melbourne, I listened with interest as Australian fantasy author Jennifer Fallon expressed her regret at not giving herself a male pseudonym for similar reasons. In a recent interview she was asked, “If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?” To which she replied:

I’d go to the past, just before I was first published and change my name from Jennifer Fallon to John Fallon. Then all the boys out there who assume that all female fantasy writers write soppy romance fantasies would pick up my books and read them and I’d be much, much richer.

Now, I know boys can be pretty boneheaded, but for it to make such a difference in a society where I like to think we have reached some level of gender equality; for it to have reached the point where authors are putting considerable thought into changing their names in order to sell their books, well that does surprise me. Not to mention, it makes me consider my potential (and at this stage very distant) future in writing fantasy fiction. Should I be considering a male pseudonym?

Similarly, the Words about Words blog that brought me to this discussion also considers the lack of strong female heroes within the genre itself.   I’d like to entertain my suspicions that this has something to do with the fact that many (but by no means all) fantasy novels, are set in a mythical past, often resembling a folkloric history of our own.  Now although fantasy, and all speculative fiction, ultimately has the creative license to build a world that doesn’t adhere to what we know as reality, a reader needs something to connect with, something familiar in order for them to relate to and follow the story without too much effort on their behalf.  This is what M. Thomas refers to in his Teaching fantasy: Overcoming the stigma of fluff, as the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory:

A fantasy novel usually follows the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory.  It has oceans, mountains, forests, and fields.  It has small towns and big cities, usually medieval in setting but not always.  Many fantasy cultures have not yet reached an age of technological sophistication, and most, but not all, deal with some aspect of the supernatural world that has some historical basis in human myth–fairies and elves, for example. (Thomas 2003:60)

I bring you to this point because, if the reader is placed in a medieval type setting, then they might expect some level of medieval type principles, which would result in the men as the warriors and the women bearing the children type structure.  Perhaps this answers to the lack of female heroes? Perhaps not.

Joss Whedon - my brain crush (picture courtesy of screenrant.com)

Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the cult hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the upcoming Avengers movie, may not be a writer of literature, but his writing sits as high as the best of them, and just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with his brain. He created Buffy because he saw an absence of strong female characters and set out to rectify it. He refused to stick by the convention that a heroine needed to be warlike or ‘manly’. Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, a typical sixteen-year old girly girl and Joss is even quoted as saying:

When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea.

Although he struggled to get Buffy off the ground, the show eventually prompted a change in small screen heroines and was significant in influencing the future of strong female characters on television as we now know it.

While I’m reluctant to enter the gender issue debate, I do think it’s worthwhile to recognise the gaps that might exist in any medium, because by doing so we give ourselves the opportunity, as women and as writers, to embrace a potential niche in the market and make it our own. Perhaps, if we pay heed to the absence of female writers and protagonists in fantasy fiction, then we might follow Joss’s example, endeavour to be pioneers, and make female characters more prevalent in the genre without misrepresenting or distorting the credibility of the historical and mythical worlds in which we place them.

Do I detect a challenge?

This post has since been published at Lip Magazine and All that is Wrong with the World.

~storytelling nomad~