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the Values of the Humanities, and SFF
kateelliott
I seem to be contributing little but asking for advice lots these days.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll be attending a program called Celebrate Reading this coming Saturday at UHawaii-Manoa. The program is intended for readers in general, but with a particular focus on middle and high school (and college) readers.

In addition to the two short program items I'm leading (one for students who have read JARAN and one on Reading and Writing Fantasy), I've been asked to write up a short handout that can be put under the Hawaii Council for the Humanities logo and handed out to teachers for, I guess, later use in classroom discussion.

This is a nebulous request, without much specificity (herewith an excerpt):

Matters of culture, language, values, ethics, and of course history strike me as very relevant to your novel and your many series, so here's hoping that in preparing for the festival you may like to [write] a handout that people could take home.
. . . speak to your audience on how your work . . . promotes whatever you think the humanities values--ethical and cultural awareness and tolerance, values-formation, value of language and identity, understanding of history, of cultural anthropology, philosophy, literature. Really, any time you put pen to paper and talk seriously and reflectively to the teens we are serving about why you write and why they read, you're going to be raising humanities issues.


I *think* this handout would be something in the nature of a question or statement posed, and short answer given; question/statement posed, short answer given; etc. I pose the questions or make a statement AND provide the answers! Obviously, there is a fair bit of leeway. Also, I do not want to spend hours on this.

I would love to hear what you lot have to say. I'm not thinking even so much specifically about my own works but these questions/statements dealing with fantasy/sf in general, and what teachers who are trying to engage students in reading and in thinking about writers, novels, and how writers engage with the world might be interested in seeing or find useful in terms of questions/statements answered.

not exactly what you're talking about... but...

violin_writer

2009-04-13 03:58 pm (UTC)

I think its kind-of unusual how you can come up with so many civilizations. Some things I've read, the civilizations aren't very clear at all... I know why they have especific rules and regulations, and some of them are so far-fetched that they don't even really sound reasonable (like that civilization could have existed in any point in time).

The thing that I that is unique about your writing - it's very evident in Spirit Gate - is that the Civs are so real. In someways if you could eliminate the fantastical Eagles and Guardians... the book could almost be mistaken for a fictional version of a historical account. Your Sirniakens and such remind me or Middle-eastern people, Hundreds remind me of us (only more primitive), and the Tribesmen/women remind me of the Celts.

There something very Earth-like about your story.

Re: not exactly what you're talking about... but...

kateelliott

2009-04-13 08:35 pm (UTC)

Thank you. In fact, I sometimes describe the Crossroads books as "a historical novel set in an imaginary country". Hmm. Maybe I can do something with that.

Re: not exactly what you're talking about... but...

violin_writer

2009-04-14 05:58 pm (UTC)

Glad to have helped :)

Yeah, just finished Shadow Gate today. It's just too bad I have to wait until August to read Traitor's Gate... by then I'd probably forgotten half of what it was about lol! I was glad you brought Marit back -- I like her :)

Re: not exactly what you're talking about... but...

kateelliott

2009-04-15 07:27 am (UTC)

It was interesting for me to read reviews of Spirit Gate knowing, as I did, what exactly HAD happened to Marit, which no reader would know until book two.

Re: not exactly what you're talking about... but...

desperance

2009-04-14 09:21 pm (UTC)

I sometimes describe the Crossroads books as "a historical novel set in an imaginary country".

Heh. I have been heard to describe Bridge of Dreams and River of the World as alternate-history stories, as told in Outremer (which is itself, of course, a fantasy kingdom). And then adduce philological and dating evidence to prove it...

Re: not exactly what you're talking about... but...

kateelliott

2009-04-14 10:03 pm (UTC)

Do you find it AT ALL disturbing how much we sometimes seem to think alike?

I think they want you to do their homework for them.

Which is okay, because I'm sure they have plenty of other homework to do, but they are presuming that you have an awful lot of time and energy to give them. (Are they paying you at all?)

To actually answer the question, I think one of the really cool things about sf readers is the way they approach reading as puzzle-solving. If they don't understand something in the first five pages, they give the writer some rope. They trust that it will be explained. Or that they will be given enough clues to put it together themselves. And they enjoy that.

(When I was teaching Creative Writing, lo these many moons ago, I once gave my students (none of them sf readers) a story of mine to practice critiquing on, and what struck me was how baffled they were by the very simple sfnal trappings. They didn't do what sf readers do: they didn't deduce anything from the clues they were given. They simply said, I don't understand this, and gave up.)

So I think sf teaches the buzzword of my own education in the humanities: critical thinking. And I think it teaches critical thinking by making critical thinking fun.

I don't know if that helps at all, but I hope it does.

That's totally helpful, actually.

There is a small honorarium for participating, which I usually turn around and donate to something educational anyway.

My take with the (late in the game) request for the handout has more to do with disorganization and being overwhelmed on the part of the requester. If you see what I mean. Others were asked ahead of time.

Glad to help!

And, yeah, I hear you about the disorganization and overwhelmedness. That's easy to have happen.

I think I ended up as the, um, afterthought last-minute panic.

Way to make a girl feel loved, huh?

Wah.

But of course, dahling, I am accustomed to it.

*g*

One of the things I've found interesting in your writing is how you handle rape -- what it is, and how rapists should be dealt with, particularly when the women involved are slaves.

Thanks. however, I don't think i want to tackle that with a secondary school audience.

I'm familiar with this program (in as much as I've seen the fliers for years, though never participated), but if they're asking for a handout which teachers can use in the future, I'd think you could just pose questions. Maybe questions that you examine when you're creating cultures for your books, things you try to keep in mind when writing.

Some of us (fantasy geeks) in the MA program have been looking at cultural studies in relation to our own work and sci fi fantasy books already published. I found a few articles on the use of Maori actors for the orcs in the film version of LOTR. Or the white-washing of the life-action Avatar film in production (originally a great cartoon with four nations based on Asian cultures). You could ask them to think about those issues when they read or write. I'll stop now before I get a little too off-topic. I hope you find this (even a little) helpful.

That's very useful, actually. Given the program and the students, this might be a very interesting way to look at sff -- something that will seem relevant to this population.

You can mention the SciFi Channel's whitewashing of Earthsea, too.

Yes, I think I'll do one question/answer set just on this issue of whitewashing; that should make an impression on my 75% AsAm crowd.

To echo the first comment, I've always really enjoyed and admired the realness of your cultures. What I particularly love is the fact that they're both recognisable and unique, because although you borrow from Earth, you never try and make a photostat. Reading about the Hundred, Adica's people, the Wendish, the elves and the Quman, I love the fact that some elements are very familiar, such as the colour of a mythology or the logic behind a social injunction, but that they are never combined quite like their Earth equivalents/originals, and always with enough newness thrown in that I have to actually *learn* this new world, rather than just assuming it. So much medievil fantasy props itself up by not bothering to change anything, or to gloss over the details, which - for me - defeats one of the main points of fantasy: to discuss new worlds in such a way as to make us think about our own. Which you always achieve.

So, anyway: discussing how fantasy writers try to describe, invent and reinvent cultures for what purposes could be really interesting. Also, being an atheist, I've always been intrigued by the fantasy staple plot of Not Only Are There Gods, But This Ancient Religion Is Actually Correct And Fulfilment Of An Awful Prophecy Loometh. Sitting down to write straight fantasy when I was younger, I really struggled to write gods/faith into my stories, because although all societies have religion, the onus was on me, as part of my worldbuilding, to decide which culture - if any - was "correct". Which meant I felt burdened to build a benevolent god, one whose laws made sense; but that didn't work, because then men would have to misinterpret them. And there'd still have to be some bigger force at work, some magic or general misunderstanding or polydeism to explain why the enemy seers had visions, too. It made me think a lot of interesting things, but anyway: discussing how writers create gods, and how you view (say) the gods of the Hundred or the Lord and Lady, whether they're real to you or purely invented or just human faces on something bigger, is really fascinating. Or so I think.

I wrote elsewhere, elsewhen, that I struggled in the early days of writing the opening of Crown of Stars (King's Dragon) because I didn't "believe" in the magic and the cosmology that had to exist to make the world work. Then I had a revelation, if you will: I didn't have to believe. My CHARACTERS had to believe.

Hi there. Inexplicably pleased to have found another Famous Person, LIVE, apparently engaging in real life (what I've found so far, at least!), and accessible. Crown of Stars reader, Gates reader, recently LJ reader. First time poster.

I'm more of a blogspot kind of chick, although I spend wayyyy too much time reading my feeds and not enough time posting anything that will let anyone get to know me. But, daily-della.blogspot.com.

So now you know me, right? (ha)

Having introduced myself, I can continue with my comment.

The piece that stood out in that quote you gave was "the value of [language and] identity." I would pay money for a copy of a full page handout talking about how you develop people's perceptions of their own identities and how they perceive the others in the story, and communicate THE CHARACTERS' VIEWS of those identities to the reader. And by "how you develop" I mean, what aspects of the identity you focus on when you (yourself, the author) first meet a character you're writing, and how you choose to communicate those internal perceptions from each person about those around them, and if/how you feel you are able to shape that to make points that are important to you (which, having read crown of stars especially, I believe you probably do)

Do you consciously think about how your characters are portraying themselves to others, or is it just "well he wouldn't SAY that so I won't write it/I don't have to think about it, he just DOES it"?

If it's the last, well, this comment isn't going to be too helpful for your handout, but if the former, perhaps therein lies some information about how the humanities "values identity" and how your work promotes it.

Whoa. I just stumbled across this (it kind of got lost in my inbox), and I am going to put this on my list of questions to answer on lj, because this is an exceptionally excellent question.

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