Exploring race in surreal fiction

When I was a child, I loved reading stories that involved magic and fantasy. The works of Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Anne Lindbergh offered an escape from my mundane world and access into a vibrant imaginary one with infinite possibilities. All these years later, I still enjoy reading fantasy, yet now I am drawn to exploring how authors can use a surreal setting to comment on real elements in our society.  Lately, I have been interested in specifically looking at how issues of race and ethnicity play out in literature with surreal elements.

I mentioned the authors Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Anne Lindbergh  because I loved the sense of adventure, imagination, and strong female characters in these books when I was young,  qualities also found in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games Trilogy. In this series’ post-apocalyptic universe, heroine Katniss Everdeen, who participates in the “Hunger Games,” an annual competition where children compete in dangerous and deadly obstacles to win grains for their community, a vital prize in a famine stricken world.  Katniss is described somewhat racially ambiguously with “straight black hair, olive skin,” and she describes her features as characteristic of the people from the coal mining town “District 12” where she lives, and notes that her blond and blue eyed mother and sister Primrose “always look out of place.”

These cues as well as indications of how Katniss is perceived by and interacts with those around her, led many people to read her as a woman of color. Yet for the movie adaptation, white actress Jennifer Lawrence was cast to play her. The website Racebending.com–a grassroots organization that advocates for the representation of people of color in entertainment media–has written a nuanced examination of this casting decision, and also quotes from a powerful essay written by a Guyanese law student titled “Why Katniss Everdeen is a woman of color.” Less ambiguously described is the character Rue, the twelve-year-old Hunger Games Tribute from District 11, who has “dark brown skin and eyes” and reminds Katniss of her little sister Primrose. However, a virulent outcry arose among many readers, who despite the aforementioned description, had visualized Rue as white.

These casting decisions and people’s reactions act as something of a litmus test by which fantasy reveals people’s attitudes regarding race. Surreal fiction can also be a forum where writers can delve into what such attitudes might signify, and I wish to share examples of how  renowned science fiction author Octavia Butler and contemporary author Danzy Senna use the literary trope of the “Gothic Double” to comment on race and ethnicity in American culture.The gothic double refers to a split in a character into two polar opposites, the classic example being the good/evil pair Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These authors use this trope to convey different messages about race.

African American author Octavia Butler is groundbreaking for her prolific science and speculative fiction, featuring heroes and heroines of color. In fact, as I publish this post, the city of Seattle is debating dedicating a park in her honor. Butler lived out her final years in Seattle, and had a profound affect on young readers of color worldwide who had searched for someone who looked liked them. In 2006, I attended a Memorial Service for Octavia Butler led by my college’s Africana Studies department, and I remember the tribute from an  African American professor who described himself as a lonely kid in the library seeking refuge in science fiction, and finding empowerment in the worlds Butler created.

Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred uses the trope of the gothic double to evoke the effects of slavery and its brutal long arcing impact. 26-year-old African American aspiring author Dana is magically transported from her home in 1970s L.A. to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. After a few episodes time traveling between her home and the plantation, she deduces that she is summoned to the past each time to save the life of Rufus, the son of the plantation owner so that he will grow up to  father her ancestor Hagar.

One pair of gothic doubles is Dana and Alice Greenwood, the enslaved woman who is will be Hagar’s mother. Dana and Alice physically resemble each other although they have very different personalities as well as daily realities. At times they repeat the same words, and are further doubled by Rufus has a growing attachment to Dana as his savior and Alice as an object of his sexual desire.  A second pair of gothic doubles are Dana’s white husband Kevin and Rufus himself. This double unnerves me because Kevin is a loving husband, and when transported to the past with Dana he spends many years helping enslaved men and women escape to freedom. Yet Butler presents an uncanny pairing to Rufus, the eventual plantation owner.

There is so much more I could write about this chilling novel that fulfills  Butler aim of letting readers “really feel slavery” that it is hard to move on after a mere two paragraphs. But having already turned this post into a sprawling essay, I am going to move on…In “What’s the Matter with Helga and Dave” a short story in Danzy Sena’s collection You Are Free, Senna uses the gothic double to tweak  the microagression that occurs when people confuse one person of color for another under the ethos of “you all look the same.” The narrator, Rachel, is a biracial woman who appears white, is married and the new mother of a son with her husband Hewitt, a biracial man who appears black. Over the course of the story, Rachel and Hewitt’s interactions their neighbors–interracial couple Helga and Dave–begin as amusingly banal but then take a disturbing turn as Rachel and Helga become doubles of each other.

Learn more about the racial commentary of “The Hunger Games” 

1. Lee, Marissa. “Jennifer Lawrence cast as Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games.'” Racebending.com. March 19, 2011.  http://www.racebending.com/v4/featured/jennifer-lawrence-cast-as-katniss-in-the-hunger-games/

2. Hari Kondanbolu is a hilarious comedian whose work responds to issues of race in our culture. His sketch “Cocoa Butter” spells out the thought process of “white is the assumed default,” the chain of thinking that would lead readers to assume Katniss and Rue are white. Hari Kordanbolu “Cocoa Butter.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5_feKLhczE&list=PL60ABB8508554A11C

Learn more about “Kindred” and “You Are Free.”

1. Octavia, Butler.  Kindred. 1979. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0807083690/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

2. Senna, Danzy.  You Are Free: Stories. 2011. http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Free-Danzy-Senna/dp/B006TQVHVK/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372811529&sr=1-3&keywords=danzy+senna

3. NPR Staff. “A Mixed Race Take On What It Means To Be ‘Free’.” Tell Me More. June 16, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/06/24/137395343/biracial-author-offers-lighthearted-disturbing-stories I first discovered You Are Free when I listened to this interview as part of Tell Me More’s “Summer Blend Book Series,” which featured fiction involving characters from multi-racial backgrounds.

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