Friday, March 28, 2008

Envelope Pushing

Who came up with this metaphor of "envelopes"?...and of "pushing envelopes"? It's an interesting metaphor. Up there with, "thinking outside the box" and "broadening the mind" and all those other catch-phrases which imply, for us writers, the fooling around with cross-genre stories.

Well, I'm working away on my current Work-in-progress, Inheritance.

When I start a novel, my aim is always to make it fully totally myself. Not because I'm so unique but because there are so many African-American Christian folks with First World issues....and I want to do my part in contributing to the emerging genre fantasy stories made for and by us. I can think of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi, Tobias Buckell's Science Fiction novels Ragamuffin and Crystal Rain, Robert Fleming's Havoc After Dark...among a few but honestly, considering there are so many Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and South east-Asian folks in the US, there really ought to be more contemporary fiction (of whatever genre) on bookshelves that speaks to these cultures. Add to the mix that some of these folks are very religious --Christian, Buddhist, African tribal, Taoist, Shintoist-- and the main religion in fantasy seems to be Wiccan or Druidic... well, there is a major envelope that needs pushing, I think.

So that's my main purpose in my stories: to be as real and as fully me as possible. To be brave and put as much of myself into a story, in spite of the fact that the reader might not be prepared for such a world. In Wind Follower I wanted to be as Christian, as folklorish, as First Peoples, as High fantasy as possible....to see what such a book would look like. Just enough of the Euro-fantasy world to make it fit into the envelope. But enough to push the envelope a bit.

So there I was working on Inheritance. Inheritance is a book I want to be as Christian, as demonic, and as erotic as possible. The same envelope pushing. I wanted a succubus but I wanted a succubus that was really connected to Christianity, a female demon whom you hated, a demon who so intoxicated the sense of my main (good and noble) character that he would be tempted to rape any woman to repeat that pleasure. In short, I wanted to take my succubus seriously and do a modern-day version of The Exorcist with Christians fighting demonic possession. IN ADDITION, --because I wanted to put all myself in this story-- I wanted to deal with sexual-woundedness and make the story erotically-charged. And of course, all this had to happen to a black female Christian character.

Wind Follower got certain Christians annoyed with me because of six small sex scenes. Would I be willing to include the sexuality and alienate those folks again? And then there were the core fantasy fans. Many fantasy readers really liked Wind Follower but others were upset at its Christian content. Was I willing again to challenge the separation of genres? Did I want to push another envelope when Wind Follower had yet to prove that folks actually would read a book with a pushed envelope?

And what if I wasn't skillful enough to bring that book to fruition? If one speaks to pentecostal Christians, Native American non-Christians, Native American Christians, or Christians from Latin America, Asia, etc....talk of demons, spirits, and possession is fairly common. The problem is that although the demonic is ever present in the fantasy genre, most fantasy writers don't really really believe in demons. Heck! Some American Christians don't even believe in demons. Not to the extent that other folks do.

I've gotten some interesting correspondence re Wind Follower. Folks telling me that it connected them to their life in the old country, or that it reminded them of stories their grandparents told, or that it was a book that "didn't seem like a made-up book" because stuff like that happened to them in their old villages or in some weird town in Louisiana. I like that phrase: "didn't seem like a made-up book." So, for some folks, Wind Follower felt intensely real.

So, back to Inheritance: Can I write it? Can I ride on that edge again and cause the story not to fall flat? And if I do have the skill to write a story that is totally paranormal and totally sexual and totally ethnic, do I have the fearlessness to actually write it? The effect of bad reviews of Wind Follower (there have been about five, I think, that I know of. Five out of 23 isn't so bad but hey)can really make an author pull back from pushing that envelope.

When I read the Bible, I don't see it telling me to abandon my sin-stained culture to take on the European sin-stained culture. It wants me to be myself, a Christian of African-American descent. But when I read American fantasy, I feel as if I am called to abandon that culture and take on Elvish and Wicca. By the year 2057, the majority of citizens in the United States will be non-white. (The growth will be fueled by Latin American immigrants and their children. Most of these immigrants are Roman Catholic, Evangelical and even mormon.) Will fantasy books continue to call us to worlds of vampires, elves, wiccans? Worlds that have little to do with us? (I can deal with shapeshifters because shapeshifters such as werewolves occur in many ethnic cultures. I'd like to see less European shapeshifters, though.)

I'm hoping that writers of color and that my little book Wind Follower will help to push the envelope a bit...to create space on those fantasy bookshelves for books that reflect the ethnic and religious differences of the America that we are becoming.
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