JFA 32.3 (2021)
Introduction: But Why Does It Have to Be Political?
I recently taught a course in young adult literature in which I deliberately challenged myself to represent the current state of the field. That meant no Little Women or Kim or The Secret Garden: old favorites that I still think students should read. Instead, I picked a set of books that were no more than a decade old, with some dating from the past year. Here’s the list:
- Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here
- Stephen Graham Jones, Mongrels
- Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
- Libba Bray, Beauty Queens
- Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X
- Aiden Thomas, Cemetery Boys
- Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
- Eric Gansworth, Apple (Skin to the Core)
Of these, I had only read three and previously taught two. They represent a number of genres—or subgenres, if we count Young Adult as a genre. Three are overt fantasy (Ness, Thomas, Adeyemi), or maybe four or five if we classify horror (Graham Jones) and surreal satire (Bray) as fantasy. Most have won awards or strong commendations; indeed, I was dreading reading some because they seemed a little too worthy, too timely and sincere. But by the time my students and I immersed ourselves in each, we were rewarded with charm, wit, fresh approaches to narrative, unique points of view.
I confess that I rarely pay much attention to student evaluations any more. I know that my brain will dismiss the positive ones and focus on the negative, which will say that there was too much reading and that the instructor only wanted to hear his side of things (i.e., interpretations grounded in the texts). But this time I wanted to know what they thought. Were they as engaged as I was? The answer was, yes. It was the most positive set of evaluations I have seen for many years. They liked the selections, and they generally singled out whichever book they had been assigned for a group presentation, meaning that they took some ownership. However, as always there was one clunker: a student who wanted to know why they had to read books that were so political.
Political? They didn’t seem particularly political to me, although certainly Adeyemi’s fantasy version of Africa incorporates some of that continent’s historical struggles and, as attested by the author, serves as an allegory for recent racial injustices. Bray’s novel satirizes a certain political segment that we could term the military-industrial-pageant complex. However, I think this anonymous student was reacting to having to inhabit identities that were foreign and uncomfortable. The most political thing about the reading list is that the protagonists—and the authors—are all other than straight, white, and male. For my rural Western students, that meant empathizing with the other: urban folks, people of color, individuals who are Latinx, Indigenous, gay, transgender, and so on. I should point out that I was also thanked, not anonymously, by many of the students for making them feel included. One student voluntarily shared her family’s Day of the Dead traditions. Another came out as transgender (not obvious in a Zoom-based class) and a third mentioned passing Cemetery Boys along to their transgender partner.
But back to “political.” Not to be viewed as political is a perquisite only granted to dominant groups. It isn’t “political” to assert one’s right to speak as straight, white, cisgender, or, in this country, Christian. Or rather, one needn’t even assert such a right; one can assume it. Anything else is pushing against inertia or overt hostility and is thus a political act. Making people uncomfortable is a political act. Inviting them to identify with, and thus perhaps be motivated to act in favor of, any other kind of identity is a political act. This isn’t, perhaps, the most urgent or effective kind of political action we can undertake, but it is the kind particularly suited to us who study and teach stories and storytelling. It is our obligation and our privilege.
All of the articles in this issue of JFA are about politics, in one form or another, which is to say that all concern identity, expression, and justice in situations where those things are skewed or suppressed. First up is Alejandro Soifer’s article on Argentine science fiction’s resurgence in the wake of that nation’s turn-of-the-millennium crisis. Soifer quotes critic Kulrat Ares’s judgment that such fiction is a way to deal with “the real after the death of realism,” a judgment that resonates with Ursula K. Le Guin’s call, in her speech to the National Book Foundation, for “realists of a larger reality.” Le Guin saw such a larger vision as a way to reassert hope. The apocalyptic and dystopian fictions in Soifer’s study seem to offer little in the way of optimism. However, if the problems are based in structures that have seemed inescapable—capitalism, colonialism, caste—then there is hope to be found in destruction. Soifer points to a “new beginning” for the genre, and perhaps that beginning extends outward to the world of experience.
Where Soifer focuses on dismantling inherited patterns, Jalondra A. Davis explores ways to bring older traditions into the future: specifically the African diasporic tradition of the mermaid, which offers alternative ways of being in the world. As Davis says, the mermaid figure, and particularly the narratives that link it with captivity and the trans-Atlantic crossing, can “disrupt the hierarchical and ecologically disastrous category of the human.” Redirecting the term “genre” from texts to identities, Davis demonstrates that “other genres of the human” than Eurocentric, masculinist norms can lead to new ways of knowing and being, which she finds enacted in mermaid stories by Rivers Solomon and Nalo Hopkinson. Though fantasy often seems like a retrospective form, Davis makes a strong case for its inclusion in the category of Afrofuturism: these fictions, and the mythic heritage upon which they are built, offer views both back and ahead.
Vincent Albarano’s article “Demon Dolls and Quadead Zones,” which focuses on “Badfilm,” might seem to be less political than the rest of the issue. Bad films are just that—bad, right? It’s an aesthetic assessment of a marginal group of movies, except that qualitative judgments are always about more than technique and scope. When inexpensive video equipment and unconventional distribution opened up filmmaking to outsiders such as Chester N. Turner and Todd Cook, it also enabled their depiction of an unfiltered reality that had never been shown on movie screens. Their films both expand and subvert notions of realism and thus allow for representation of racial and class issues that were new to cinema. Albarano suggests that much can be gained by setting aside, at least temporarily, questions of aesthetic value and looking instead at what the camera has recorded and the viewpoint from which it is looking. There may be larger implications here about genre and audience. Genres such as horror, fantasy, and children’s literature and works by women and non-elite writers have likewise been deemed aesthetically inferior without examination of the judges’ own limited perceptions.
M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh seem to be writing about the contrary question: could a novel called Frankenstein in Baghdad be anything other than political? Set in a time and place fraught with tension—an Iraq plagued by violence and occupied by a foreign power—Ahmed Saadawi’s novel does not dodge the tensions of ideology and the traumas of war. And yet, as Booker and Daraiseh demonstrate, it is nevertheless “an often playful postmodern work” that extends the notion of invasion from literal armies of occupation to the kind of intellectual colonization that accompanies the spread of popular culture. The novel invokes Frankenstein’s fragmented and reassembled creature as a metaphor for a fragmented, postmodern existence that is a global, rather than a local, condition. I am sure that an American reader will not get everything there is to perceive in the book, but with Daraiseh and Booker’s guidance, we may find insight into our own media-colonized, fragmented lives. We might call this reading “Frankenstein in Baghdad in America.”
Finally, Christopher Robinson looks at a pair of horror films: 1992’s Candyman contextualized by its 2021 remake. The earlier film, says Robinson, touched on “the political unconscious of the nation,” especially with regard to racial anxieties and taboos. Its setting in an infamous ghettoized housing complex and its hints at interracial desire make the title character, who is Black, into a sort of touchstone for viewers. Depending on one’s own race and social position, he might be seen as a victim or a monster, guilt-charged nightmare or supernatural avenger. In the remake written by director Nia DaCosta with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, the implied or unconscious content becomes overt. The new Candyman invites us to look more carefully at the old, which Robinson analyzes as a complex response to, and critique of, the Reagan-era politicization of race. This was the era when politicians capitalized on fears of Black male rapists and welfare queens—when race could be used to mobilize the anxieties of an electorate and divert attention from real social problems. Alas, we still live in that era, though we may need Candyman remakes from time to time to remind us of that fact. Horror can never be confined to the screen. Its impact is always political if not always unconscious. Why do stories have to be political? Because we live within and upon injustice. We need stories that tell us so and to remind us that there might be other possibilities.
Introduction: But Why Does It Have To Be Political?
Under the Shadow of Catastrophe: New Millennium Argentinian Science Fiction
Crossing Merfolk, the Human, and the Anthropocene in Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms and Rivers Solomon’s The Deep
Jalondra A. Davis
Demon Dolls and Quadead Zones: Amateur Cinephilia and the Alternative Function of Realism
Frankenstein in Baghdad, or the Postmodern Prometheus
M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh
Bernard Rose’s Candyman and the Rhetoric of Racial Fear in the Reagan and Bush Years
Christopher L. Robinson
Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space
Rev. by Hannah Helm
Brandon Grafius’s The Witch
Rev. by Courtney J. Dreyer
Thomas Connolly’s After Human: A Critical History of the Human in Science Fiction from Shelley to Le Guin
Rev. by Jason W. Ellis
Sean Guynes and Martin Lund’s Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics
Rev. by Vincent M. Gaine
Alessandra Violi, Barbara Grespi, Andrea Pinotti, and Pietro Conte’s Bodies of Stone in the Media, Visual Culture, and the Arts
Rev. by Elliott Mason
Caterina Nirta and Andrea Pavoni’s Monstrous Ontologies: Politics Ethics Materiality
Rev. by Daniel Otto Jack Petersen
Bridget M. Marshall’s Industrial Gothic: Workers, Exploitation, and Urbanization in Transatlantic Nineteenth-Century Literature
Rev. by Carol Senf
Suparno Banerjee’s Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity
Rev. by Samarth Singhal
Marc Olivier’s Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects
Rev. by Tom Sparrow
Kim Wilkins’s Young Adult Fantasy Fiction: Conventions, Originality, Reproducibility
Rev. by Megan Suttie
Brandon R. Grafius and John W. Morehead’s Theology and Horror: Explorations of the Dark Religious Imagination
Rev. by Jude Wright
Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds
Rev. by Natalie Zacek