By now most people involved in anti-oppression criticism and sci-fi/fantasy have probably heard of the current race-related imbroglio regarding Patricia C. Wrede’s The Thirteenth Child, which posits an alternative magical North America where Native Americans/Indians never existed. With apparently nary a thought for the moral implications of the fictional non-existence of real-life threatened and sometimes exterminated peoples.
This expanded, as these things do, compounded by Lois McMaster Bujold, who I had previously respected solely on the basis of her impressive work, being “boggled” that most North American Native Nations have websites and blithely assuming that this is the first time PoC/non-white SFF fans have existed to make objections about their (lack of) representation.
I think much of what I could say on those particular subjects has already been said, repeatedly and well, by others; a round-up can be found here if you haven’t previously encountered this mess and want to learn more.
So I want to speak of something else: duet, with which I have a similar difficulty. Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are set in a New Zealand/Tasmania mash-up analogue called “Southland”. It’s a beautifully written series, and I adore the characters. But. But!
Without much plot spoiling: there is much made thematically of writing oneself into the empty land and letting the land write back. There is an emphasis on the way land collects memory and of a country one enters to collect dreams to share with others.
However, not visible in these books are the people who, in reality, first settled and named New Zealand’s spectacular landscape, and the people who settled Tasmania with their own origin myths binding them to the land.
In reality, Māori were discriminated against as a result of European occupation, and are still disadvantaged today. The Palawa were brutalised so thoroughly that they are often claimed to be an extinct people (a claim somewhat problematic to the remaining Palawa). In both cases, the cultural identities of these peoples were so threatened that what remains is the result of determined effort, most of it on their part in the face of considerable opposition.
In the Rainbow Opera duet, they simply never existed.
I read somewhere on Livejournal (and I cannot find it now, so please view the following as unsubstantiated paraphrase from memory) a criticism much like mine: Knox’s response was something along the lines of having wanted to create a fantasy land with the same feel of place as Lewis’ Narnia, which is explicitly and unconsciously English, but with the feel of her native land – ferns and birds and the undefinable New Zealand light. She left out native New Zealanders not out of malice or of ignorance of their existence, but because if they existed in “Southland”, it would have been a land inhabited before her characters arrived, with an entirely different mythos resulting, and different characters required. I recall her writing that she knew she was not in the least qualified to write from that perspective, and thought she would do irredeemable harm in the attempt.
[ETA: Found, by coffeeandink, here! The original post is by cyphomandra, and you can see I did indeed misrepresent Knox's response.]
I can respect that position; but I am not sure that then deciding not to include them at all is a more ethical choice.
The problem is that it in the real world, it wasn’t empty land; but the European settlers often acted as if it was. Neither New Zealand nor Tasmania were terra nullius, and the Eurocentric myths of discovery and colonisation that depend upon that assumption have already done considerable damage; I don’t feel that endorsing those myths through repetition – even in fantasy, even in metaphor – is the hallmark of a moral work. I’m particularly disturbed that the naming of the land, upon which much import is placed in many stories of the Māori, is then appropriated as a power of European dreamers.
It’s difficult to make these criticisms, because Knox is a very fine writer, and in every other respect, these are excellent books. There’s criticism of sexism, of classism, and of demagoguery, and there’s also a lively and intriguing adventure with a beautiful magical system.
But I can’t get away from what’s absent: a gap in the story; a land made vacant through auctorial word and will; the people who walked there first and still, erased as if they had never been.