Reading: Ellen Klages — Portable Childhoods

One of the last of my current pile of reading, once again arriving because of Saladin Ahmed leading me to Fearsome Journeys and then me doing my anthology reading trick of lurking around authors of stories I liked then deciding to read the ones who seemed to have something interesting for me beyond the one story I’d read. The others were Elizabeth Bear, K.J. Parker, and Scott Lynch. Four authors. Pretty good for one anthology.

By the end of Elizabeth Bear’s collection I was thinking I’d remembered why I was not so interested in her, that perhaps I’d read some short story of hers online, or maybe her blog, anyway, something that had not convinced me. There were some very nice stories (and I especially love her theory of 4-dimensional surgery), but I found it a little tiresome for two reasons in particular, which are intertwined and so more like one convoluted, ill-considered by me reason.

The first was a heavy white US American-centric perspective. Possibly I find British/Scottish fiction less afflicted by this – it may be that I’m less conscious of its obviousness, or it may be simply that there is a somewhat hegemonic style in American fiction that is much more pronounced. It’s kinda like the cool gang at school that isn’t aware of how overbearing it is, and how claustrophobic it feels for everyone else. The other seemed to manifest in a few different ways but to me seem to come from the same source. Part of this was what felt like a habit of many of the stories having a character who had some kind of disability, or was not hetero- or cisnormative, sometimes a combination of them all. This came up against a protagonist who largely was both hetero- and cisnormative, as well as able-bodied.

So obviously I’m wondering as I’m writing this if I have not paid attention to some unease around reading stories with disabled characters, and thinking through what I can remember having read is I tend to have an unease with the author because more often than not these characters are a stand-in for representing The Other, or used as a pathetic symbolic plot device for the narrative process tension and drama. And it would be well-awkward for me to actually be writing that I don’t like those books because weird people make me feel weird – especially when I’m hobbling on crutches and having a first-hand experience of how people with visible disabilities get regarded in public.

So I do a bit of searching to see what others think and came across the RaceFail ’09 incident, which I think helped me consolidate my thoughts about what I find problematic in some of the structural tropes of eurocentric fantasy, both the more historical ones rooted in monarchy and racism, and the newer ones of ‘inclusivity’. I see some of Bear’s writing falling into both these problem-holes – particularly having just read Afrofuturism and having a bit of a perspective on non-white North American sci-fi and fantasy – as do I have with some of Ellen Klages stories in Portable Childhoods.

Both Bear and Klages had stories about a young girl growing up in far from ideal circumstances who discovers something magical (a Harpy in the former, a Parrotfish in the latter), and escapes her grim life by transforming themselves into this creature. A different reading of both is a young girl who suffering from severe environmental stress and possibly undiagnosed mental disorder commits suicide while in a hallucinatory state, which the author then romanticises.

I had planned to write about Portable Childhoods much more briefly, but it seems I’d been thinking about these problems with the authors’ position from which they write. I enjoyed Klages much more than Bear, who as well as the above suffers from a lack of rigour in her writing, her stories often feel belted out and left as-is, really needing some disciplined editing and attention – this evinced also in the utterly shoddy proofreading. Klages on the other hand is uniformly meticulous and careful; she loves books and words and is a reader, perhaps even before she is a writer.

I loved that some of her stories barely filled a page, yet this was clearly the length they needed to be. I also found her story of the child with Down Syndrome poignant and sensitive, clearly personal and not just another disability to be used for a plot device. I also loved her last story, In the House of the Seven Librarians, which I read sitting waiting to get my ankle seen to at 2am Thursday morning.

hmm … Curiously, when I read Afrofuturism, I found the lack of attention to feminist and queer issues within the genre by the author troubling, as though the default protagonist or hero of the afrofuturist milieu was a hetero black cisgender man. It seemed to me that there was a missed chance for addressing structural inequality in itself, beyond just reversing the polarity of one of the most obvious manifestations of inequality (kind of what radical lesbian separatist feminism did in the ’70s and ’80s). Subsequently, my decision to focus on women writers seems to have banged up against a similar problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t care. I think it’s an acceptable option sometimes – which is why I can sometimes enjoy hollywood action movies. There is a big ‘however’ after that which I am not competent to monologue on at the moment, but which does have the practical outcome that I will be more diligent in researching new authors before throwing euros at them.

Which sounds quite harsh on Klages. If I hadn’t read Bear first, I suspect I wouldn’t be throwing such an analysis on Klages; it was the similarity to me in certain stories that caused me to think about these issues of mental disorders, physical disabilities, racism, the use of The Other in works written by people who in some way (even if only as female writers) are themselves cast as Other. There are some great stories here, it’s just that some of them read odd when regarded from a certain perspective.