A little over a year ago I met a writer named Catherynne Valente at an SF con. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know one of the most amazing people on the planet and acquainting myself with her fabulous fiction. My favorite of her books (so far) is The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, winner of the 2006 Tiptree award. Last month the much-anticipated second book in the duology, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, finally hit the stores.
I’m only part-way through right now (there are only 24 hours in a day, sadly, and I would spend all of them reading if I didn’t need to eat, sleep, and make money), but so far I’m just as enchanted as I was with the first book. If you love myth and folklore, if you love beautiful language and ambitious books, if you love fantasy, if you love complex, multilayered female characters, then you need to read these books.
Cat’s in the midst of her blog tour (to compliment the book tour she recently finished) and I wanted to make sure that the readers here got an interview I knew you’d be particularly interested in. In it I reference the Fantasy Roundtable discussion I mentioned when looking for participants. Part 1 of that is up at Fantasy magazine today. You should definitely click over there once you’re done here, as it’s another very interesting conversation.
Angry Black Woman: Last week I hosted a roundtable discussion for Fantasy on books and stories by and about PoC. Debbie Notkin and I were agreeing that, though The Orphan’s Tales takes place in a richly realized and not-superficially diverse world, I rarely see this mentioned in reviews or discussions. Am I just missing all the mentions or have you observed this, too?
Catherynne Valente: It is almost never commented on, which always surprises me. I suspect that no matter what I have written, most readers assume white as a base/default race. That is very hard to overcome.
ABW: Some have suggested you almost have to beat people over the head with it, but even the frame story takes place in a clearly Arabian Nights-inspired world. I don’t know how people are missing it.
Catherynne: It’s funny, because in my notes for the cover artist, right at the top of the page it says: Please note that the vast majority of these characters are not default-white but default-Persian. I even italicized the Persian.
ABW: What other cultures did you draw from and depict in the duology?
Catherynne: Well, Tommy is Japanese–in fact her whole story takes place in an analogue of Japan, so all the characters there are Asian. Sigrid is black–which has resulted in the most bizarre conversations, where I mention that, and a reader will blink and say “No she’s not.” At which point I blink, and assure them that she is. And then I have to quote my own book in regards to the brownness of her skin, which is mentioned repeatedly.
ABW: Well, Sigrid is a hero and a saint and the protagonist of her own story. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the space where you find black women in genre fiction.
Catherynne: In Ajanabh it is casually mentioned that anyone with light hair or skin is obviously a foreigner. The steppe culture of Knife in the first book is based on Russian/Tatar cultures. Yashna is also meant to be black, though for some reason no one ever seems to notice the black, female pope.
ABW: Why do you think that is? Is it just the default white assumptions, or something more?
Catherynne: I have no idea. I think many readers genuinely do not notice. Physical characteristics beyond hair color do not often figure in this world of transparent prose. But I find it fascinating that when Sigrid is confronted with the Arimaspians and notes that they are really, truly black, not black like she is, that the mental picture does not gel.
ABW: It’s hard for me to wade though the positive and negative aspects of this. You have readers, many of whom are white, immersing themselves in this amazing multicultural world and loving it deeply. But then they don’t really notice how multicultural it is, for whatever reason. It’s a mixed bag.
Catherynne: I think, I hope, that at least the Arabic culture is evident. The girl in the garden is not white, she was never intended to be; any paleness is malnutrition. It was important to me in a meta-sense that many races be represented, since I was drawing on many different cultures. But also, frankly, I find dark skin and dark hair beautiful and too often used to represent evil in fantasy.
ABW: We talked before about the conscious choices you made to make a positive feminist text, it sounds like you were just as aware of the racial and cultural aspects as well. Did that view come just as naturally to you?
Catherynne: I felt that if I had white characters moving in a non-western milieu it would have been, well, obscene. The worst kind of appropriation. So I used whatever race developed the tale I was riffing on. I certainly thought about it on a conscious level–how often are the “dark races” in fantasy the bad, wicked, evil ones? How often is it enough just to have dark hair to be wicked?
ABW: Too often.
Catherynne: I hate that.
ABW: And it’s done so casually, almost without thought. But not always without thought, which is even worse.
Catherynne: Yes. But it’s also difficult to make the opposite choice, to write and speak for a culture not your own. That’s often quite dangerous territory, and many just play it safe.
ABW: It’s not easy, admittedly, but easy fiction is boring.
Catherynne: I agree–but you and I look for these things actively. We want this sort of fiction.
ABW: I worry about those that don’t. I enjoy brain candy as much as the next person. Still, fiction that “merely entertains” (which is a concept I don’t really subscribe to) can still have these aspects.
What other cultural traditions and folklore did you draw from for the second book?
Catherynne: The second book is massively Arabic in nature, but sub-continental Indian features largely as well. Central African, Serbian, Italian… I’m probably forgetting some.
ABW: I’m consistently impressed by the breadth of sources you draw from. Is that a byproduct of your degree or does it come from personal interest and research?
Catherynne: Both. My degree is in classics–and though I grind my teeth when people call Greek culture white, it is certainly western. I’m interested in story, and story is hardly to property of the militarily victorious
ABW: Ah yes, the Greeks as Whites. The first Whites!
Catherynne: rolls eyes Yeah, right.
ABW: The idea that Story doesn’t belong to the victorious is a little radical. One of the great revelations in my meager study of mythology is how the conquerors try to change stories, but those changes reveal more about them than they probably realized. That echoes through The Orphan’s Tales as these people tell their various stories and even some familiar elements are shown to have ugly or different backsides.
Catherynne: Well, that’s true to life. One of the fascinating things about Greek myth is the political reality it often describes–Hercules, the great hero of the Dorian invasion, is so often shown destroying Amazons and barbarians–women and non-Greeks. It isn’t an accident. It’s the Dorians showing who the new boss on the block is.
ABW: Exactly. One of my professors pointed out how all the myths of Apollo or Zeus running down nymphs and dryads are about invasion as well. That the women in question had been goddesses. (This is also why I now have a deep love for Medusa, who was a goddess until Poseidon and Athena come along to make her a monster. Jerks.)
Catherynne: Oh, let’s not even get into the Oracle at Delphi.
ABW: That trend goes right down in history to the, pardon me, modern myths of fiction and, as you said, all these dark and/or dark-haired peoples who are supposedly evil. The natives of jungles and islands who are supposedly backwards, as they are so often depicted in fantasy.
Catherynne: One of the themes of The Orphan’s Tales is how stories get changed and retold–there is no one folkloric truth. If there is a message behind the unusual structure of the book, it is that the teller matters.
ABW: And it only serves to highlight why having a diversity of tellers, as you do, is important. Not every book can have so many voices, but so many books all have the same voice. I love that you’re adding 1000% more in just two novels.
Catherynne: *laughs* Voices are so much of what is important to me. Secretly, by myself, I think of my work as ventriloquism, which comes from the Latin: “speaking from the belly”.
ABW: Of all the voices in these two books, do you have any particular favorites?
Catherynne: Well, the girl in the garden, of course. Taglio, Grotteschi, Immacolata, the Moth, the Griffins, the Monopod… oh, most of them, who am I kidding?
ABW: What voices are currently occupying your mind? I know you’ve recently finished a couple of novels.
Catherynne: I just finished a book that is something like a fantastical version of the history of Lake Erie. So anthropomorphic lake-voices are still battering around in there.
I’m working on Palimpsest right now, which is the urban fantasy I mentioned in our Fantasy magazine interview.
ABW: Obviously not every book can be as massively diverse as The Orphan’s Tales, but I assume anything you write isn’t just going to be white/European people exclusively.
Catherynne: No. One of the main characters of Palimpsest is Japanese, another is Russian. The city itself is a tropical, multi-cultural place.
ABW: And the readers, hopefully, will see that. I’m beginning to feel like, until there are more fantasy books out there–written by both white/European folks and People of Color–that take the fact that the world an even certain regions of it are not homogonous, readers are going to miss these things.
Catherynne: I fear that, too. And god, people, it just makes better books!
ABW: It does!
ABW: Until then, we have writers like you.
Catherynne: And you.