Sunday, April 29, 2018

#GIFcon18 - Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism

This is part three of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Here is a question for the assembly. How many of you know your Meyers-Briggs personality type? ENFJ, INTP, all that? What about your Enneagram? Okay, what about your Hogwarts house? (Where my Hufflepuffs at?!)

So let’s think for a second about the last one – about fictional identities that we cleave to here in the real world. One of the first things that a human being does in unfamiliar surroundings is to look for their own type. When we travel, we hurry to find the ‘right’ part of town, where the people who are most like us are most likely to be. And in fantasy, whether we are traveling back in time or through the wardrobe or into a mirror universe where vampires are real, we do the same thing. Fantasy is *fantastic* at deliberately disorienting the reader, knocking us out of our existing prejudices and worldviews and leading us to fall in with strange bedfellows.

In a decent story, we find the good guys pretty quick. But in a great story, there is more than one kind of good guy. And, y’all, fantasy is SO GOOD at ensemble casts and sentai groups and adventuring parties and superhero teams – to me, this is half the genius of the genre. Fantasy says, “all right, here’s your map and your compass and your three magic coins. Now, do you want to be a wizard, or a fighter, or a cleric? Are you a Hufflepuff, or a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? No, don’t just roll the die – let’s think about what you’re like and what you’re good at and decide what your heroic major should be.”

And I want to be clear. Anybody can do the A-Team. Anybody can tell a story about an unlikely band of lovable misfits, each with their own special talent. But what I see my favorite kind of fantasy doing is creating entire discrete categories of heroes, and explicitly inviting the reader to choose one for themselves. No kid reading Harry Potter has ever wondered whether they are a wizard. They wonder what kind of wizard they are.

And this is so important, y’all. This is SO VITAL. The magic of these categories, these self-chosen identities, is that they bypass the question of power and heroism entirely. You spend no time wondering whether you are good enough to be a hero in that world. Your power is *assumed*. Your potential is *a given* - and the only remaining question is what KIND of power you would have, what KIND of hero you would like to be.

More than that, these fantasy identities are safe and welcoming – because they are voluntary. I will never see a news story about how some other gnomish cleric went on a shooting spree and killed twelve people. I will never be passed up for a job or treated unkindly because of what some other Hufflepuff has done. I can’t say that about my fellow white people, my fellow fat people, my fellow Americans, my fellow women. I didn’t get to choose the identities that I was born with, and neither did any of you.

And this is where I would like the Western to help push fantasy one step farther.
So let’s think about what causes protagonism. Is it congenital? Is it genetic? Is it idiopathic? Is it contagious?

In fantasy, even in modern fantasy, it’s genetic. After all, in the Harry Potter books, the only way to get to be a Hufflepuff is to be born a wizard in the first place – and that is strictly a matter of birth. That’s where we see the roots of old-school fantasy, that says you’re either special or you’re not. And that really bothers me. Even in series I love, like the X-Men and the Incredibles, like Nickelodeon’s Avatar, like Steven Universe, the special people are orders of magnitude more powerful than the ordinary ones – and if you aren’t born into that club, there is no other way in. Not even if one of the special people bites you under a full moon. (Can we call the vampires-and-werewolves method ‘contagious’ protagonism? You can be a hero, but you have to wait for the plot to find you first.)

Conversely, Western protagonism tends to be an equal-opportunity gig. It says that who you are and where you come from doesn’t matter – it’s what you do that counts. (Even and especially if nobody else notices it.) I like that so much better. And I like the idea that even small, anonymous acts of heroism are hugely important and worthy.

Still, I don’t need to tell you that who you are DOES matter. I don’t need to tell you what it means to see girls and women in tears watching Wonder Woman. I don’t need to tell you what it means when black audiences are lining up around the block to see Black Panther for the sixth time. And I don’t want to belabor this point, because I suspect that you are already passionately, personally dedicated to the push for more diverse characters and stories. Can I get an amen? AMEN!!!

But I don’t want to leave it there in the fantasy world, y’all. I kind of want to take this big idea back through the wardrobe here into Mugglespace – and this is where you come in.

Today, there is a real momentum, a real push for everyone to own their identities – especially marginalized identities. Right? Back in the AOL days, the question was A/S/L – age, sex, location. Now our Twitter bios tend to include our gender and preferred pronouns, our sexuality, our race, faith, and so on. The discourse is very much about owning our identities, and pressing for better representation and improved opportunities for marginalized ones.

Now wade with me for a second into the real deep end of that pool. Have you ever heard of Otherkin? The folks who feel that they literally do have the spirit of a dragon, or an angel, or Sephiroth, or Goku. It’s pretty far out there, even by today’s standards – they are pretty far down on the hierarchy of nerds.

But I saw a post from a fellow once, which I thought was really profound. He said, “All right, so you have the soul of a dragon. Now, what I want to know is, what is it doing for you? Are you kinder, braver, more courageous, because you are a dragon? Because if so – batter on, buddy. I’m up for that.”

And so, once we have selected the labels that represent who we ARE, I want to develop vocabulary for labelling ourselves according to what we DO – and I’m not talking about what we get paid for. I'm talking about having words to communicate the flavor of the greatness inside us (whether we think of it as a dragon or a Ravenclaw or just the "Eye of the Tiger" montage from Rocky) - and to remind us to continually put that greatness out into the world.

This is really important to me, y’all. This is one reason I’ve left off writing for a bit and turned my attention toward mentoring other writers. *Everything* in our culture – well, my culture – encourages us to identify ourselves by how we vote, where we shop, which shows we watch, what brands we wear and eat and use. We’ve been asked to orient ourselves almost exclusively around the axis of consumption… but the axis of creation is beckoning.

I feel like we desperately need to go beyond identifying ourselves by what we consume, and also to go beyond identifying ourselves by the boxes we check on the census form – because I tell you what: whenever I see on the news how some hapless jack-ass has shot up a school, or driven a truck into a crowd, or blown up a bus or whatever, I KNOW that that person was profoundly disconnected. So often, they took one of their identities to a toxic extreme. And before you think “oh yes, men’s rights” or “oh yes, religious extremism”, or “oh yes, white supremacy” – don’t forget, you guys, that marginalized folks are not exempt from the ugly consequences of isolation and disconnection. The difference is that they tend to do violence to themselves, and it tends not to make the evening news. But I promise you that that violence is every bit as devastating to the people left in its wake.

So this is why I think we so badly need a new set of identities, ones that describe the kinds of goodness we have in us, the ways we like to contribute to the world. It’s good to be proud of who we are. It's great to find other people who enjoy some of the same games and books and TV shows we do. But as far as I can tell, the people who are excited about what they DO – about their writing, their art, their gardens, their kids, their church choir, their profession, their activism – those folks are much, much less likely to hurt themselves or other people.

And that’s where I want to see fantasy and Westerns team up to help us become our better selves. The Western is egalitarian – it says that anyone can be a hero, and that small acts matter tremendously – that you don’t need to wait for a wizard to come knocking on your door in order to find a problem and solve it. Fantasy adds to that by saying that there are different kinds of heroes, and gives us language to describe them. Fantasy says that you can be a Hufflepuff straight off the bat, before you’ve learned one single spell – but it’s not a passive attribute. Your Hufflepuffery hinges on your values, on your actions, the way you think and behave and solve problems – and at Hogwarts at least, the other students of your house are affected by what you do.

I like that idea a lot. And I want to take it farther. I want us to push the envelope even farther beyond Hogwarts houses, and Westeros houses, and My Little Pony cutie marks, and tell more stories that invite real people to find power and magic in the way they live their everyday lives. I want people to go out into the world thinking, “I’m a naturesmith, and that means I help animals and pick up trash wherever I see it.” “I’m a hospitologist, and that means I bring goodies and anticipate people’s needs and make sure everyone at the party is having a good time.” “I’m an enthusomancer, and that means I rally the troops whenever a person or a cause needs extra help.” (Big shout out to our chief enthusomancer here, Dr. Maslen.)

Those are good ways to see value in ourselves. But just as importantly, I want to help cultivate a language that invites us to see value in people who aren’t like us. If it turns out that I’m a liberal and you’re a conservative, then we might sort of bristle and get ready to argue. But if it turns out that you’re a hippie peacenik ecologist druid and I’m a survivalist doomsday-prepper druid, then we still have a means to relate to each other, because we have identity-words that emphasize our common ground (and invite us to bond over our shared contempt of idiotic wasteful city-slickers, of course.)

We do have that common ground. I believe that we do. What we don’t have are a lot of words to understand it with. We have a few, like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. But we need so many more. We need words that describe who you are during a night out with your friends. Are you the ruckus-raiser who rounds up the crew and drags the introverts out of the house? Are you the logistician who chooses a place and arranges rides? Are you said introvert who REALLY doesn’t want to go but dutifully shows up and pours your drunk idiot mates carefully into a taxi at the end of the night?

There is a term in linguistics called ‘hypocognition’. Has anyone heard it? It basically proposes that when your language doesn’t have words to express a certain idea or feeling, it is much more difficult, or even impossible, to mentally process those ideas or feelings. And that is what I think our discourse is missing, y’all. We need a vocabulary of contribution, a set of identity-words that speak to our gifts and passions and the ways we like to help the people around us.

I believe that the more of those words we have, the better we will get at seeing ourselves as heroes in our own everyday lives – and the more readily we will be able to recognize value and heroism in people who are profoundly unlike us. This is what I want to see here in the real world, guys. I want protagonism to be CHRONIC. I want it to be contagious. I want it to be endemic!

So that is my proposition. That is the quest I would like to put to you – because I believe that you-all are the best possible people to undertake the task.

You-all here today are at the center of the Venn diagram of power and possibility. You are creative enough to envision a better world, and articulate enough to put that vision to the rest of us. You are old enough to know what’s important to you, and young enough to make it happen. You are smart enough to do this job, and dumb enough to take it. And guys, after hearing you this weekend, after seeing how brilliantly you analyze and draw from these fictional worlds, I cannot WAIT to see how you will transform this one.

<--Part 2: The Fantasy of the West

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