This handout is for students in the fall 2018 free class.
In an earlier post I described how Ursula K. Le Guin confronts her readers with a moral dilemma: is it justifiable for a society to benefit from the suffering of a single “innocent”?
Le Guin prefaces her story by quoting from William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
Although Le Guin does not tell us how we should respond to her nameless, faceless child locked in a basement, the inclusion of this passage signals to the reader the response we should feel – it would be a “hideous” thing to enjoy “the happiness so offered” at the expense of “a certain lost soul”.
I have taught this story numerous times, and have tried to make my students understand that Le Guin is not telling some abstract parable. As Le Guin writes, this is “[the] dilemma of the American conscience”. I tell my students that we live in a nation that has embraced the premise that in order for there to be winners, there must be losers. In my early years teaching “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” I would remind my students that some opponents of same sex marriage argued that legalizing same sex marriages would be the end of straight marriages. In essence, straight people like me were being told that for our families to be valid, the families of gays and lesbians had to be invalid. In subsequent classes we undertook the task of putting a name and a face to Le Guin’s child. The child stood for the LGBTQ community, for people of color, for immigrants, for workers in sweat-shops in far-flung countries making our Nikes, our iPhones, our clothes.
I don’t know to what extent this experiment in making Omelas “ours” and claiming the child has impacted those students. I like to think they left my class with the other passage that Le Guin quoted from William James running through their minds:
All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.
Most of my students, I’m sure, walked away from the story without it changing them. They still couldn’t see the child.
But here’s the thing, in the past few months the child in the basement has become real, over and over again. The children of immigrants are torn from their parents and locked away. The official justification for this is that their parents have committed “the crime” of coming to the United States without documentation, and, as “criminals” they do not have a right to be with their children.
The cruel injustice of this policy cannot be overstated. The “crime” these parents committed was that of wanting a better life for themselves and their children. The impulse that drove these families across the hostile desert was the same impulse that led my forbearers to set sail across the stormy Atlantic in a small ship called the Mayflower. Who among us, faced with the reality that the lives of our family were endangered living in the country of our birth, would not make the same choice as these families?
As for the punishment – while the parents suffer in ways I cannot imagine, the harm done to the children must be even more immense. We have known for some time that removing children from their biologic parents has deep and enduring consequences. The trauma we inflict on these children will plant seeds of despair, resentment, anxiety, and fear, and we, as a nation, will reap the harvest we have sown.
At the end of my last post, I wrote:
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown. But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her. We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides. We can make other choices. In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child. We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent soul for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy. We can end “the Festival of Summer.” And what will we replace it with? How will we rebuild Omelas? In any way we want. Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.
We cannot walk away; we cannot abandon our country to the forces of fear and intolerance. But we also cannot simply accept this crime against humanity. We must fight for those families as if they were ours. As William James tells us, “All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.” The time has come for us to be idealistic and revolutionary.
Le Guin closes her preface by focusing on what William James is saying, “Ideals as ‘the probable causes of future Experience’—that is a subtle and an exhilarating remark!” Indeed.
For more on what you can do, click here.
Over the past few years I’ve been given the freedom to offer a British literature survey course, which I’ve subtitled, “Fantasy, Faith and Philosophy”. Although the course includes traditional canonical British texts, its primary focus has been the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Observant students skimming over the syllabus will immediately pick up on what is missing from all of the readings – texts by women and people of color. In the past I’ve argued, with some justification, that the pioneers of fantasy fiction in the 19th and 20th century were Christian white men, and that white men continued to dominate the field well into the 20th century, even as female authors, like Naomi Mitchison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Madeline L’Engle, were breaking through the barriers with innovative and, frequently, subversive, fantasy fiction. Still, the roles of males as creators, consumers and protagonists of fantasy fiction were so entrenched that Ursula K. Le Guin struggled to bring female characters alive in her Earthsea series, and J. K. Rowling was advised by her publisher to use her initials on her books so as to not reveal that the Harry Potter series was penned by a woman. Additionally, the privileged status of white male fantasists in the genre was (and, frequently, is) perpetuated by teachers like me, who have not made room in their classrooms for female voices.
As I began to contemplate the absence of female writers in my fantasy class, an absence made more conspicuous because I include female authors in ALL of my other classes, I realized that the absence of writers of color was equally problematic. More disturbingly, while I could name many white female fantasists, I could not name ANY writers of color in the genre.
This past year has remedied that problem, both because I discovered Octavia E. Butler, who identified her novel, Kindred, as fantasy (although many critics feel more comfortable labeling it speculative fiction), and because the twenty-first century has seen a small but growing number of authors of color, particularly women, enter the arena of fantasy fiction. As Rachel Martin observed to me the other day, we are now in the fortunate position where we could teach a class that consists entirely of fantasy fiction by female authors of color.
Two of these authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi have already received much deserved recognition for their novels. Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has been picked up for a television series by HBO, and plans for a movie based on Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are already underway. These two novels are refreshingly subversive because of both authors have created worlds that are thoroughly infused with West African culture and have created strong, black, female protagonists who experience and triumph over intense hardship and suffering. Furthermore, both books are perhaps more deserving of serious discussion than more traditional fantasy novels because Okorafor and Adeyemi have used their world-building as an opportunity to explore real societal problems. Because of their commitment to creating a discussion around social justice, these novels belong to the tradition of black social protest novels, like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Okorafor’s Who Fears Death opens a dialogue at the intersection of misogyny, tribalism, and environmental degradation. Borrowing from the Sudanese civil war, Okorafor builds a world where rape is a weapon of war, where women are dehumanized, where the dark-skinned Oke have come to accept suffering at the hands of the lighter-skinned Nuru as an inevitable consequence of what the Great Book says, and where resources are scarce. At root, though, while a number of reviewers have labelled this novel a dystopia, it is in fact, if not utopian, at least optimistic, in part because it gives voice to the marginalized and dispossessed. Indeed, storytelling is central to the resolution of the novel. In the first pages of the novel, the protagonist, Onyesonwu, tells an unidentified listener, “Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am. You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies” (Okorafor 5-6). Through her life, and by telling her truth, Onyesonwu sparks a rewriting of the Great Book in the magic script of her people, Nsibidi. This theme of speaking for one’s self, of controlling one’s identity, physically, intellectually and spiritually, is central to the novel.
Like Who Fears Death, Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone takes on ethnic and racial conflicts. Where Okorafor draws from the Sudan, Adeymi seems to derive her inspiration from the Rwandan genocide. Prior to the events depicted in Children of Blood and Bone, King Saran orders a great Raid in which the dark-skinned, white-haired adult maji are killed. King Saran has also found a way to prevent the remaining maji from contacting the gods, who provide their magic. Subsequently the maji are forced into ghettos or labor camps, or are forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the lighter skinned Orishans. The term maggot, which is frequently applied to the dis-empowered maji, echoes the use of the word cockroaches to describe the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.
Although Adeyemi clearly models her story on the Rwandan conflict, the impetus for the novel comes, as she makes clear in her “Author’s Note”, in part from “seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police” (526). As Adyemi goes on to explain, the book is meant to bring recognition to the injustices committed against America’s black communities and to inspire readers to work for change.
Just as Tolkien rooted Middle-earth in the languages and mythologies of northern Europe, so too, these authors have rooted their stories in the fertile soil of West Africa. The name of Okorafor’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Igbu for “Who Fears Death”, and magical texts are written in Nsibidi script, a very real script from southeastern Nigeria. Onyesonwu’s mother is an Oke – the name of the people being derived from a male name in Igbu that Chinua Achebe makes use of in Things Fall Apart. Onyesonwu’s biologic father, a sorcerer who raped her mother, belongs to the light-skinned Nuru people – an Egyptian name. Because Onyesonwu is a mix of these two ethnic groups, she belongs to an outcast group called the Ewu – a name derived from a Nigerian city.
In Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Yoruba is the language used to invoke the gods who gift magic to the Diviners. The gods are based on the orisha, or divine spirits of the Yoruba faith. The magical power that runs through the protagonist, Zelie, and other magi, is called ashe – a term from the Yoruba faith that means life force. The connection between Africa and Adeyemi’s Orisha is confirmed by place names like Lagos, Warri, Gombe and Benin City.
Although both Who Fears Death and Children of Blood and Bone are very well written and, as I’ve demonstrated, unique in their creation of African fantasy world on par with Narnia and Middle-earth, there are weaknesses with both novels. Structurally both novels follow very traditional, one might say clichéd, quest narratives. As Caitlyn Paxson noted in her NPR review of Children of the Bone:
If I had to find something to criticize, it would be this: I read an awful lot of fantasy, and I love stories and characters that subvert my expectations. Children of Blood and Bone is a fairly straightforward quest narrative most of the way through, and I didn’t encounter a lot of surprises.
While Nnendi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is also a quest story, she is more adept at subverting expectations. Of course, the difference between the two authors might have less to do with their abilities and more to do with their intended audiences. Okorafor is writing for adults, and does not shy away from graphic rape scenes, or depictions of female genital mutilation. It’s entirely appropriate that George R. R. Martin has been signed on as producer for the television show based on her novel. By contrast, Adyemi is writing for a Young Adult audience, what Rachel refers to as the Harry Potter crowd.
In spite of minor weaknesses, both novels are significant additions to the fantasy genre. Okorafor and Adeyemi are, like Tolkien and Lewis, pioneers in the fantasy genre. It is to be hoped that more authors of color will join them in tearing down the borders of fairyland.
Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company, 2018.
Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death. DAW books, 2010.