The Last Unicorn

Here’s the scene and the context: I’m on the phone with my new (white) boyfriend, and bring up one of the organizations that’s near and dear to my heart… Swirl. In case you haven’t heard of Swirl, it’s a national organization that focuses on political and social issues related to mixed race/multicultural people. I’ve found it an amazing resource – a source of reassurance (yes, you too can survive high school), a guide to hygiene (yes, you too can find products that work with your hair), and an example of what happens when a bunch of savvy organizers decide they want to start changing the world (and yes, you too can make a difference).

I was a little wary. My last (white) boyfriend mocked me hard for wanting to start a Swirl chapter in our area, because 1. I’m not really mixed (Black+Latina=Latina-by-courtesy?), 2. monoracial white folks don’t feel welcome in spaces like that (funny, since the antiracist ones seem to like it just fine), and 3. I talk too much about race (possible, but an irrelevant point). I’m not gonna lie to you. This moment was really a test. Can I talk to you about race? Can you, as a white male, really get to know me?

I feel like I’ve spent my life doing that, especially in fandom. I spend an awful lot of my fandom time wedging out a space to be and imagine, googling brown characters obsessively, and developing outrageous fandom favorites based on a little canon and a lot of love. I also spend a lot of inserting myself into the story, a complicated mission possibly made easier by my constant misunderstanding of race-cue words like “pale.” *

This brings me to Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, possibly the first fantasy novel I really fell in love with. I think the first time I read The Last Unicorn, I was about ten — old enough to have stopped expecting the wizards and the princesses to look at all like me. The unicorn slipped under my guard. She’s white, yeah, but she’s also a unicorn, and looking for others like herself. Like me. If there was any sort of quest I could believe in and get behind, any journey I could really understood, it was the struggle to find one’s own likeness in a world full of strangers.

Lame as it may sound, it is the unicorn’s story which led me through the dangerous quicksands of my adolescence into the surprisingly stable ground of my young adulthood. I don’t pretend Beagle meant to write a modern fairy tale about interracial solidarity. I also don’t pretend others necessarily see Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the unicorn’s human companions, as examples of the kind of friendships necessary for one’s sanity in a world that insists you (as a fan/intellectual/feminist/student/noun of color) don’t exist. What I will say is that I was desperate. I had just finished reading the first four books of the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, the novelization of the Buffy the Vampire movie, and a strangely erotic novel called Maia by Richard Adams (in which there were no bunnies :( ). None of these works had anything to do with me; if books could turn their backs and walk away, I imagine these would have fled my table at the library. The Last Unicorn was a godsend, a book I could read myself into, a book with cracks large enough for me to slip in, and find someone like myself. More importantly, and with decidedly awesome physical benefits for both me and my (white) boyfriend, The Last Unicorn taught me that it’s possible to find other misfits in other forms, and to imagine the possibility of friendship.

*And you know what? I firmly maintain that there’s plenty of room for a little bit of Latinidad in the Black family. Tonks is played by Natalia Tena in OotP, and her first name is NYMPHADORA! C’mon. You just don’t know.

Comments

  1. says

    I just read this for the first time last week & wrote about it here. I was always a big fan of the movie, except for the miscasting of Mia Farrow to voice the unicorn. She just doesn’t summon up “magic” to me…

  2. says

    Oh, I love that book. The Last Unicorn is one of those I’ll read every year. Have you read any of Peter S. Beagle’s other works?

    Swirl sounds really great – I think you should go for it with starting a chapter in your area.

  3. Angelica says

    I just had to say that I completely relate regarding the sort of laughing-adversity that you had to face regarding your passion for ethnic issues. I am half Caucasian and half Mexican, and since I grew up in an English-speaking environment, and I look “white”, I’m only Latina-by-courtesy.
    My passion for equality has driven me to promote the acceptance of people of all shapes, colors, and backgrounds; and sometimes I get a laughing reaction to that. The well-educated, physically-fit, “white” girl can sometimes look out of place when taking a stand for minorities. And that is a shame.

  4. says

    OtherMARIA, are you on the West Coast? B/C your experience reminds me of a conversation I had on a bus during a 2000 trip to California, in which my seatmate described the difficulties she and her fiance were encountering (she was on her way to visit him and his family) b/c her family was Mexican-American in this country for many generations (a whole mess there, with white people assuming they must be recent immigrants when in fact her folks had been here before theirs ever set foot on Ellis Island) and her boyfriend’s family was African-American, and both their families were a little twitchy about them marrying outside.

    However, on the East Coast where I live, as we discussed with mutual fascination, it’s very different: a large, possibly majority of Latin-Americans in New England are from South America or the Caribbean islands, and many are as much African-American as anyone whose family hails from Harlem or Dorchester – you can’t tell just by looking at someone who looks either “white” or “black” in my town, whether their first language is English, or Spanish, or Portuguese – or French, or Arabic, because we have a small but significant African immigrant community, too, and everyone is all jumbled together, not blocked off in ethnic ghettos. (On my little block I have neighbors from PR, and Sudan, and Quebec, frex, that I know of.)

    On the down side, we have poor infrastructure and rather hellishly cold winters…

  5. The OTHER Maria says

    Hi Bellatrys!

    I’m actually from WMass. :D I really miss New England Latinos — the brief shots of what’s supposed to be Jamaica Plain in *Gone Baby Gone* were the only redeeming features of that mysogynistic piece of crap.

    Anyways, being relevant: While you’re right and there are a lot of Afro-Latinos and Blatinas in New England, in my experience it’s kind of easy to tell if someone identifies as Black Latino or as a Black American. It’s not just the physical features, but the political and social allegiances demonstrated by stuff like clothing or community group memberships, etc., that mark you out as one or the other (or, in my case, as not quite one or the other). It ends up being pretty important — my sister and I were both members of the African American chapter of a minority acheivement group in my HS, and ended up having to switch to the Latino group because there was a lot of confusion about which group we “should” have been assigned to.

  6. says

    Western Mass…you mean there are PEOPLE living out there? Not just trees?? Holy cow!

    Silliness aside, I’ve gotten lost-ish driving out there and felt like I dropped off the map and might emerge into a different ‘verse sometimes – it’s spooky to me how you can have these areas in New England that technically aren’t that big, on the map (and especially not compared to the central Texas of my childhood!) but just go on and on and on and ON with nothing but trees and fields and trees and more fields and oh, hey, there’s a bit of a ruined farmhouse, and the highway is new(ish) so technically I can’t have wandered into Zombipocalypse territory, but where are all the towns???

    And I completely yield to you on that – I, personally, can *sometimes* tell where people are from (generally) before I hear people’s accents, but as an outsider I’m quite aware that I don’t know the cultural markers –
    although here in Manchester, NH, it’s all very weird because everybody in the teenage sets is swapping cultural baggage like crazy, partly because that’s what teenagers *do* and partly because the white kids from the old European immigrant backgrounds find the whitebread pop culture so *boring* that EVERYTHING gets grabbed and remixed, folk culture and pop culture and I’m not sure anybody’s keep track of it all any more as it drifts – I’m waiting for Persian HipHop to percolate into the multicultural mix and then for EVERYBODY’s parents to notice and start freaking out about it, myself.

    But I gather – I don’t *remember* this from my years in TX, because I was too young to realize that I lived in a mixed Anglo- and Mexican neighborhood and attended a school that was iirc about 50-50, where the Garzas and Espinozas and Rodrigueses and the Knights and Allens and Reynolds all lived on the same couple of blocks and were just “Americans” to ourselves – that in the West, from my companion’s surprise that there *were* Latinos who had dark skin and African-looking hair and features, but whose families had been Brazilian or Dominican for centuries and spoke Spanish or Portuguese dialects at home, that the, mm, ‘ethnic’ dynamic is a lot different there.

    (I felt so stupid and useless during that conversation trying to talk about something that I’m an outsider to, I was all like “well, I meet people sometimes,” and “well, I got lost outside Cambridge once and ended up in a neighborhood where all the signs were in Portuguese and the ads on the travel agencies were to Rio” and of course at that point I hardly knew anybody on the internet and hadn’t had conversations with South American fans about intra-Brazilian color-based discrimination or anything, but she liked hearing about how there were different Latin-American experiences in different regions of the country (I had a colleague from Chicago who talked about things there, too) and Cali fornia not the whole defining cultural experience no matter what Californians feel *g*)

    (I was also upfront about New England racism which was appreciated even if it was discouraging – nope, it’s not just Cali! – and how I just didn’t *tell* white people any more that as a courier I had never been afraid (not after the first time) driving through Lawrence and Lowell, because, well, okay yeah I’m a fluffy naive multiculturalist – but mostly because, hey, nobody ever gave me any grief, even if I *was* a solitary white/anglo woman, “Excuse me/Good morning/Thank you/Gracias” have always worked just fine for me being ‘majority-minority’… I guess I’m just insanely lucky that way! [/snark])

  7. says

    the brief shots of what’s supposed to be Jamaica Plain in *Gone Baby Gone* were the only redeeming features of that mysogynistic piece of crap.

    I guess I shouldn’t bother to regret missing this one, huh? *g*

    Oh, and hey, comment on actual post! (Knew I’d forgotten something…) One of the things that is so different – was in ’68, and tho’ less in print fantasy now, still isn’t always well done given the number of Faux-Action-Girls out there – about Last Unicorn is that it has a female POV chara, whose choices drive the actions of the story, and who isn’t a Prize, in the end, for any of the male charas. and the way that female is by default Othered Outsider (sadly, in pretty much *every* human culture) whether or not a female chara is *also* Other by virtue of being a Mythical Being, it makes perfect sense (to me at least) that it would have Spoken to you in such a crucial way.

    BTW, I don’t know if you’ve read Diane Duane’s YA stuff, but she has a longrunning series with protagonists who are Latin-American, each of them from different family backgrounds and cultural assimilation types, and it’s all good, and so you have Spanish-spoken-at-home being an Ordinary norm against which the Fantastic Other is contrasted, and somehow she managed to get this published as mainstream YA, and I can’t help but wonder how much good it’s done, both for Latino kids reading stories where the heroine and hero are like them, and Anglo kids reading stories where they’re just assumed to of course be able to identify with a Latina heroine and Latino hero…

  8. The OTHER Maria says

    LOL I’m from Springfield — we have people AND cars. :D Sounds like you must have been past Northamption; it gets very tree-y and rural the further in you get.

    Ohhh, I haven’t looked at Diane Duane’s stuff in ages! I think I’d pretty much aged out of the YA bracket by the time she got to publishing… I’ll def check out her stuff tho, especially since I’m hoping to review more YA stuff. :) The only other book I can think of that did that was Beagle’s *Unicorn Sonata*, which Beagle’s planning on re-releasing in an edited version soon.

  9. says

    Oh, I remember coming upon Springfield and being gobsmacked, just because it felt-like one of those scenes in a corny adventure movie, where Our Heroes are slogging through the trackless jungle and all the sudden come upon this huge shiny technologically-advanced Lost City in the middle of nowhere! It seemed like there should be a John Williams soundtrack playing as I was driving! 8D (Then I continued on into the wilds of Upstate New York…)

    I didn’t get to reading Duane until I was an adult working in a bookstore, unfortunately in some ways, but not in others, as I may have been better able to appreciate the sophistication under the surface, and also because there’s always this feeling that one has read everything worth reading, when slogging through the seas of drek, so “Hey, whole series of good kids’ books I never knew about!” is always a nice feeling. A couple of the middle books are kind of eeeh, after the first trilogy, but it’s really picked up since, and the next one is due out sometime this coming year. (If you’re a Trekkie, btw, she also has a quasi-canonical Star Trek AU, where one of her original series tie-in novels about the Romulans got subsequently Jossed, but readers liked it – and its heroine – so much that she got permission to carry it on into its own AU miniseries all the same.)

  10. The OTHER Maria says

    ;) That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever read about Springfield. Most other locals hate it.

    YA authors are amazing crafters; they’re working with a much finickier group with a much shorter attention span.

    I’m a vague Trekkie — I liked Hoshi in Enterprise but could take or leave large chunks of the series. :P

  11. says

    That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever read about Springfield. Most other locals hate it.

    Well, I didn’t have any time to explore there – I was en route to a distant destination on a time limit – so I don’t know if I would feel more negative if I had, but I tend to like exploring cities so long as they have historical stuff, even tho’ I’m somewhat agoraphobic and intimidated by cities (mass o’ contradictions, that’s me!) and I just loved that big white bridge and the way everything was coming out of the forest, and hey, how could all this be tucked away out here and I not hearing about it? It seemed so much more interesting than, say, Worcester…which I’m okay with, but doesn’t have any glamor at all (except for the Armory) that I have found.

    It’s how I like driving into Providence – even though I HATE the highway exit thing in the middle – because of the layers and layers of buildings old and new, and the way it keeps unfolding, even though I know it’s just as much of a mess and Mundane as anywhere else. (It’s hard to Romanticize a city after you’ve been stuck in stop-start rush-hour traffic in the middle of the summer in it.) But Providence doesn’t leap out of the woods at you.

    And most people seem to despise their native city, partly as a fashion thing, partly from being too close to it. Almost nobody seems to think that their hometown is cool, it always takes strangers to present a new aspect of it.

    YA authors are amazing crafters; they’re working with a much finickier group with a much shorter attention span.

    And also with the problems of lots of censorship and fears of parental outcry, trying to be honest and yet not start witchhunts. Of course adult authors also have to deal with this, but more internally than from exterior pressures imo.

    Trek is a funny thing, btw – it’s so howlingly flawed, and yet it has been such a jumping-off point for so many imaginations and such an influence in the genre, that it is kind of this Matterhorn looming over sf for good and bad. The thing about the tie-in novels is that the better ones both introduced me to authors I wouldn’t have found otherwise – Lawrence Yep, Barbara Hambly – and also made the corny and often-unlikeable TOS accessible and empathic. In a way, they showed what Trek *could* have been, a kind of reaching for a Platonic Ideal of ST. (IOW, exactly what good fanfic is supposed to do.) Duane’s Rihannsu stories took it a step further and created a new character who was so attractive that she got her own cult following, and did worldbuilding for the Romulans that hadn’t been addressed by the show makers, and thus took over that empty imaginative niche in a way that the official “owners” of the story couldn’t undo.

  12. The OTHER Maria says

    Oh, anyone will tell you Worcestor sucks. It got hit bad during the recession in the 90s, I think.

    If you liked the big white bridge then you’ll love it now. The Basketball Hall of Fame (Springfield’s main tourist attraction, besides the huge ass Christmas light displays during December) has been renovated. Its new post looms over the city like Sauron’s long-lost eyeball. Here’s an exciting JPEG that does not begin to convey the sense of menace emitted by the glaring eye of Springfield.

    http://www.sheratonbradley.com/assets/Basketball_Hall.jpg

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3093/2704233514_a077459f59.jpg?v=0

    The Trek thing sort of parallels my feelings about Dragonlance. The actual worldbuilding is a bit trite, but the anthologies? Oh my god. That’s pretty much the only place you find stuff by Nancy Verien Berberick, who owns the shit out of Weis and Hickman’s piss poor prose. Gosh!! I wish she wrote more.

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