[personal profile] snarp
Golems seem to be the magical-thing-of-choice for Jewish wizards to come out with in fantasy novels; I assume that this is because fantasy writers with any knowledge of Judaism will have heard of the Golem of Prague. Fun* Fact: in the original story, the golem's task was to find and get rid of the corpses of Christian children, which Christians would plant in the ghetto as evidence of their accusations that Jews crucified Christian children and drank their blood.

I simply cannot see why this element of the narrative is not brought up more often! It seems perfectly appropriate to paranormal romances, given their fondness for mutilated children as plot devices.

This was not an irrational fear - there's a strong argument that it's exactly what happened in the Simon of Trent incident. One of my history professors complained that the incident wouldn't have made a good mystery novel, because it would've been immediately obvious that The Swissman had planted the body. (R. Po-chia Hsia seems to be betting the same way.) Planted evidence supporting spurious accusations of host desecration strikes me as being the more realistic fear for European Jews of the middle ages, given the much lower bar in coming up with the evidence; all you've got to do is burn some toast. But the lesser possibility of the dead child's body is much crueler, and so more arresting. It doesn't surprise me that this is what the golem story was about. I don't recall reading where the Christians were supposed to be getting these dead children; probably they came by them in the natural way, given the era's high rates of childhood mortality, but the story tends to leave it ominously unstated.

I bring this up because I'm arguing with myself about whether I want to include some of this stuff in my Project #3, which may involve some Jewish wizards who have made a golem; I apologize for my lack of originality. My other bit of writing-about-other-people's**-cultures anxiety for the day concerns a black kid who's a wizard's apprentice in the same story. It is of note that Project #3 does not take place on earth - all the cultures that show up therein, including the Jews with the golem, are fantasyland-ized. (Most of the Jews are elves. Shut up, it's fine.)

So this kid is a wizard's apprentice. He is self-confident, unimpressed by authority, good at keeping a straight face, and quietly resentful for a number of good reasons. He's from a working-class background, but is presently attending a school with a pretty wealthy student body, because the wizard got a job teaching there. The wizard himself is a stodgy Chinese-American guy (well, Chinese-American to the extent that China and the US exist in fantasyland) with what's basically an Ivy League education. The wizard usually speaks in the equivalent of a New England accent, and the kid talks like an urban African-American kid.

So, the question of the day: Is the kid going to call the wizard "Master"? Possibly "Massa" when he's annoyed? If this were set in the real world, I think it would be in-character for him to do this. The former would make the other teachers and students uncomfortable in ways they wouldn't really want or be able to to articulate, which would delight him, and the latter would bug the wizard. (It would not infuriate the wizard, or break his heart - the kid wouldn't particularly intend it to, as he is actually very attached to the wizard, and the wizard is not very vulnerable to emotional appeals of any kind.)

But it's not set in the real world. The Atlantic ocean doesn't exist and the Atlantic slave trade didn't exist, and if I put that in there it's a reference without a referent. There will be a segfault. And arguably, the same is true of the kid's dialect as a whole! Because the dialect is one that developed under circumstances directly influenced by slavery. Racism exists in this world, and some of the cultural pressures are the same, but not all of them - the English(-equivalent)-speaking educational establishment, including the school, is very upper-class-white-people-dominated, but the city that the school's in is presently governed mostly by (equivalent-of-)African-Americans, and the upper-class kids at the school are mostly black themselves (though the teachers aren't).

So, should the kid be talking that way at all? Should I make up an entirely new dialect for him? I don't think I should, because if I do that, then I'm erasing the main marker of his ethnicity within the narrative. How we talk, dress, and carry ourselves is how we convey our cultural identity. In prose, it's the talk that's important. So if I make him talk some other way - even if I make it clear what he looks like physically - in a way I'm still cutting his identity out of the narrative. Thusly I find myself writing one of those stories in which Western readers, seeing a character not clearly marked as non-white, assume him to be white. The joys of institutionalized racism!

On the other hand, there's something skeevy about writing a YA fantasy story where all the worst shit that kids have to deal with in real life is still sitting right there. The black kids may be able to use magic and save the world, but slavery's still stamped into the way they talk. The Jewish wizards may be able to create life from mud, but that's something they had to learn to keep Christians from throwing dead children on their doorsteps.

In a lot of ways, kids' and YA fantasy is about getting agency and power that's denied them in real life. Look at Harry Potter, Pokemon, and Naruto - these are stories where it's 100% normal for kids to possess power and make their own decisions. Even in Twilight, it was simply accepted that Bella would own a car and decide where she wanted to live. Part of the appeal of these stories is the calm assumption that the heroes and heroines are entitled to power.

But if your cultural identity is tied to rebellion against oppression, then how do you do that and still be who you are? How do you pry the oppression part out? Because you've got to - that's what these sorts of stories are for. I don't think it's fair that, when I was a kid, there were plenty of stories like this that I could clearly recognize as being about me, but almost none about the non-white kids or the ones who actually identified as Jewish. I don't think they should be stuck with the pall of history over them all the time.

...this is the part where I come up with a solution! I don't have one. I decided that the kid was going to call the wizard "Boss," and that the rest I'd leave the same.


* Does anyone ever say "Fun Fact" unironically?

** I'm only Jewish in the sense that my last name aroused some comment when I was a kid.

Date: 2010-06-13 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] etrangere.livejournal.com
*is amused because she spent last night GMing a role playing game set in Prague which involved a lot of the Golem*

I'm generally not a big fan of dialects/accents written in text, so I like the idea

I don't think the dynamic between oppression-marked history and empowerment in fantasy novels is a straight binary/opposition. Look at Harry Potter indeed, where the set is almost artificially and exaggeratedly putting him in a bad, lacking power situation at first in order for the narrative liberates him from it - sure that's a kid that's male and white etc. but i think that sort of logic can remain when dealing when using narratives from people who were more significantly oppressed in order to portray them in a YA novels (though it's good if that's not all the novels that are out there about them).

Date: 2010-06-13 11:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
I read through those links and mildly regretted it. Depressing stuff.

I know it's serious and not at all funny, but still, it seems pretty ridiculous to me. "Hey, everybody! I heard this rumor that somebody poked a cracker with a stick! LET'S GO KILL A HUNDRED PEOPLE!"

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