Posted by Niall Harrison
2 March 2013
I meant to link these at the time they were posted, but you know how it goes. There's been some fascinating discussion of Rachel Hartman's Seraphina recently which highlights the complexities of writing fantasy metaphors. First up, a critique by Aliette de Bodard:
It’s a bit like… imagine an SFF book with a made-up universe which has a species with two genders, one of which is deemed inferior to the other, prone to hysterics, and only suited for bearing and raising babies at home. Would you really be praising the forward-thinking and awesome depiction of gender issues of such a book? That’s a bit how I feel about Seraphina: the setup is kind of cool, but I can’t get over the fact that it has nothing to do with my experience as a mixed-race person; and in fact promotes a false idea of what this experience is like today.
More discussion at Aliette's livejournal.
In response, Laura Vivanco sees a different reading:
Aliette de Bodard points out that "Some of us (white/SE Asians mixed-race people, for instance) simply never have this option, and we live our entire lives with what we are writ clearly on our faces and bodies. This is, of course, true. But many Jews have had this "option" and, in the past, were set apart by methods akin to the bells worn by Hartman's dragons when they are in human form. What de Bodard's comments demonstrate, I think, is that there is no one experience of being "mixed race" but, by the same token, de Bodard's experience does not invalidate the experiences of those who, like Seraphina, are able to conceal their "otherness." In addition, the historical sources on which Hartman is drawing suggest to me that, if "Seraphina is [...] oddly obsessed with 'passing'" this is not, as de Bodard suspects, simply because "it’s a US book and this has always been a huge issue in the US."
And Cheryl Morgan reports on her take:
It is entirely understandable that Aliette should be sensitive to the portrayal of mixed-race people in books. I’m the same way myself with the portrayal of trans people. In fact, one of the reasons I missed the whole mixed-race issue was that I was too busy thinking of Seraphina as a book about trans people.
Pardon? What is she on about?
As Cheryl goes on to say in her review, this is perhaps not a question of right or wrong; all three of these readings seem to me valid, Seraphina is all of these things at once. (And probably more.)