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Imposters and Exile

Those of you who are familiar with me and my background know that I alternate between Science Fiction/Fantasy studies and Native American studies quite routinely. Last week at Duke University one of the students asked me how the two subjects fit together, if they did at all.

The broad answer to this, from my perspective, is that both science fiction and history ask the same question about what it means to be human; the difference is that one looks forward and the other looks backward to find the answer. But there are some finer points beneath this broad one. So let's see if I can outline what they are without writing a book's worth of rambles...

~Many Native American cosmologies interpret time as cyclical rather than linear. The example is clear when comparing, say, the Mayan and Aztec calendars, which are round and reused each year, to the square Western calendars, which follow dates in a line from beginning to end and then are useless for the following year. The patterns many Amerindian traditions identify in human history and even the natural life of the universe remind me of some of the best examples of science fiction (Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example, and Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book), which likewise look for repeating patterns, cycles, and repetitions in the human experience and the life of the galaxy.

~Much of Native American history, and even art and culture and policy today, is preoccupied with and traceable to the initial question -- and problem -- of first contact. Two events that I personally am still trying to wrap my mind around, the Columbian Encounter of 1492 and the U.S. "Indian Removal" of the mid-19th century (think "Trail of Tears" thanks to my Cherokee-centrism), are bound up in the idea of what happens when a group meets the Other. It's not surprising, I think, that science fiction as a genre repeatedly tackles this theme and draws extended metaphors, both explicit and implicit, of the collision of European and American cultures. In fact, I often turn to science fiction (Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, for instance, among others) for added insight into 1492 and its aftermath. The genre also allows us to image what lessons, if any, we have gleaned from past first contacts to apply to future ones.

~Like so much in my life, the heart of this issue comes back for me to J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories." Tolkien's argument -- that it is through fairy-tales and sub-creation that we can tell stories that are True with a big-T kind of Truth -- resonates with me, and I see examples of this over and over again in Amerindian myth, traditions, and contemporary self-expression, in languages rich in symbolism and metaphor, in dream and vision-based stories, in the content of much indigenous art and music and poetry. Telling the facts does not necessarily guarantee that you are telling the truth. Sometimes the most complex, meaningful, and difficult truths can best be communicated through beautiful, well-crafted, conscious fictions. Like Cazaril in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, to use a genre example, we may have to search beyond our normal narrative vocabulary for a new medium to express ideas that are too big, too overwhelming for traditional "what, when, why, where, and how" reporting. Certainly I have found that the case in my own work. Some aspects of what I study simply cannot be contained, at least by me, in a straight recounting of dates, names, and statistics.

It may be the case that the post-Scientific Revolution West, the same culture that mistakenly linked the fantasy genre with childhood in a sad "accident of history," is not as well equipped on the whole for thinking in the imaginative terms Tolkien described. At the same time, parts of Native America were and are not similarly handicapped. Science fiction and fantasy authors today, like J.R.R. Tolkien, would be accused by the early C.S. Lewises of the world of "breathing lies through silver" because they write of non-factual elves and dwarves and starships and wormholes, when in fact these authors are sometimes seeking and communicating what is True. That distinction between knowing facts and understanding Truth -- and the warning inherent in it -- is humbling for any student of history!

It seems like I've rambled despite my attempts not to do so, and made some truly alarming overgeneralizations in the process. Ah, well. My point was that I do see areas where the two studies intersect in a powerful way.

And did you notice I never once mentioned Chakotay? You see, I do have some self-restraint left.

I will close with my quotes for the day, two somewhat linked excerpts:

"... our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile.'"
from J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Christopher Tolkien

"Down New Mexico way
Something about the open road
I knew that he was
Looking for some Indian blood and
Find a little in you, find a little in me
We may be on this road but
We're just impostors in this country, you know..."
from "A Sorta Fairytale," Tori Amos


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 17th, 2004 12:49 pm (UTC)
Eldritchobbit! Thank you both for responding to my post and for the lovely discourse in yours! I have certainly found capital "T" truth to reside in fiction. I have always thought it was more palatable that way; much like it is easier to see the order and meaning in another person's challenges than in your own! A great deal of my personal development can be attributed to the revelations of Truth I found in literature.

Duke University?! I live in Raleigh. We are neighbors!

Namarie & Namaste, Elfriend

PS: I adore Chakotay, but have apparently been misspelling the man's name! I guess that is because I have only enjoyed him on television and not in books thus far.
Nov. 17th, 2004 01:16 pm (UTC)
Hi there! :) Thank *you* for your reply! I'm actually at Belmont University in Tennessee, but I had the very good fortune of being invited out to be a speaker at Duke last week. The Raleigh-Durham area is beautiful! And the people are so friendly. I'm excited to say that it looks like I'll come back out in February for two or three days to talk again. I'm already looking forward to it! Maybe this time I'll have more time to look around and enjoy what a lovely place you have there.

I have certainly found capital "T" truth to reside in fiction. I have always thought it was more palatable that way; much like it is easier to see the order and meaning in another person's challenges than in your own!

Great analogy! Very true.

Yep, I spent some fangirly years dwelling on Chakotay, or "The Chak," as I called him... *laughter* Have a wonderful day, and thanks again!
Nov. 17th, 2004 03:22 pm (UTC)
That was very interesting. I also have Cherokee in me. But sorry to said that I do not know much about the Cherokee people. I shall make it a point to fine out thro. I like Fiction and I love J.R.R. Tolkien and his wonderful work.
Nov. 17th, 2004 03:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Hello
Hi there! :) Isn't Tolkien the best? I remain amazed at how his writing is relevant to so many people in so many different situations across time. By the way, quite regularly The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma offers free online Cherokee language courses, and they even provide the font to download. Great stuff! It's wonderful to meet a fellow fiction reader and Tolkienian. Thanks so much for you reply!
Nov. 17th, 2004 03:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Hello
Thank you for the site I have it saved and shall check it out.
Nov. 18th, 2004 04:16 am (UTC)
Re: Hello
You bet! If you sign up for their email newsletter, they'll contact you when registration for the next online language class will begin. Just FYI. :)
Nov. 17th, 2004 04:44 pm (UTC)
You know, Tolkien really gave us all a gift, imho...
Maybe you could create a Tolkien-like mythology and "history" of the Western Hemisphere, drawing on the various mythic elements of Indiginous Culture of North and South America.... :) ( Not as if you have a lot on your palette already...)
You seem like the type who could pull it off... :)

I had a disagreement with one of my sisters a few years ago over "Totem Poles"....she basically said the Indians worshipped them, and I said they "worshipped" them the same way we "worshipped" our own "painted trees"...she went ballistic...
I then explained that their histories were on those "painted trees", just as our own histories are also on "painted trees"....books come from paper, which come from trees, and the ink we use is our "paint"...
We're not all too different afterall, right? Just different ways we look at the same things...
Thanks for your posting, it's quite reassuring to see one articulate that Truth can be shown through other avenues than mere "facts", which can have a technical accuracy, but still miss the "big picture".... ;)
Nov. 18th, 2004 04:25 am (UTC)
You know, Tolkien really gave us all a gift, imho...

I couldn't agree more! :)

As for creating a Tolkien-like "history" of the Western Hemisphere... wow. That would be amazing. It's a tall order, to be sure, but all the possibilities... I think that would be a bit beyond me, but I can't say that your idea hasn't started me thinking. :) Then again, it sounds like you have a great sense of all that kind of mythology would entail. Got any plans for, oh, the next twenty years? *g*

I loved your description of totem poles, by the way. What a comparison! Great stuff!

We're not all too different afterall, right? Just different ways we look at the same things...

Well said indeed! It's very easy to see the differences, but if you look just a little closer, the similarities are right there.

Thank you so much for your kind and insightful reply. It's so great to know that others see what I'm seeing. Your point contrasting technical accuracy with the big picture says it all. I appreciate your thoughts!
Nov. 17th, 2004 07:05 pm (UTC)
Wow. Excellent discourse indeed! I am a history and fantasy buff, myself, and loved Willis' Doomsday Book. I am sure your courses are wonderful!
Nov. 18th, 2004 04:29 am (UTC)
Yea - another Doomsday Book lover! :) Isn't it amazing? I understand Willis is now working on another book involving Professor Dunworthy. I can't wait, though I don't see how she could top the impact of DB.

Thank you so much for your supportive and encouraging words. I really appreciate your kindness!

Nov. 21st, 2004 04:58 am (UTC)
If I can get my life in order, I'll hope to take that course. Not sure that there won't be some major changes between now and the New Year, though. Sorry that I've been so out of touch; with the AA thing and work and beginning to panic about Thanksgiving, it's been a challenge.

Your classes truly are wonderful, and I remain awed by you, the way your mind works, and your productivity.

Nov. 21st, 2004 01:24 pm (UTC)
Hey there! :) Thanks so much for your kind words - they mean a great deal to me. Take care of yourself. I hope there are some major changes between now and the New Year, in as much as things are better with you in every possible way. I know you're working hard to make that happen, and I admire you so much for it. Remember I'm cheering you on!
Nov. 30th, 2004 01:28 am (UTC)
So ...
... why didn't you mention Chakotay?


Nov. 30th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: So ...

Ah, because he deserves a post all to himself... :) And because I couldn't even get started on discussing him without doubling the length of this post. But he was lurking between the lines everywhere, you know. *wink*
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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