Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Something Else About Heroes

I wrote last week about my increasing distaste for superhero stories, and then I came upon this interview with the late Octavia Butler, whose Patternist series I just reread. Discussing her 1979 novel Kindred, about a contemporary African-American woman who's mysteriously thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland and must try to survive as a slave, Butler explained why she wrote the book.
What I was trying to do is make the time real, I wanted to take them back into it. The idea was always to make that time emotionally real to people. And that's still what it's about. The nice thing is that it is read in schools. Every now and then I hear about younger kids reading it and I wonder how they relate to it. All too often, especially young men, will feel, "Oh, if it was me, I would just..." and they have some simple solution that wouldn't work at all and would probably get them killed. Because they don't really understand how serious it is when the whole society is literally arrayed against you and arrayed to really keep you in your place. If you get seriously out of line, they will kill you because they fear you.

Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it. I now have a talk that begins with the question, "How long does it take to write a novel?" and the answer is, as long as you've lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some. I got the idea for it in college. But a lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her.

I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, "I'll never do what you do, what you do is terrible." And she just got this sad look on her face and didn't say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further. She knew what it was to be hungry, she was a young woman during the Depression; she was taken out of school when she was ten. There were times when there was no food, there were times when they were scrambling to put a roof over their heads. I never had to worry about any of that. We never went hungry, we never went homeless. I got to go to college and she didn't even get to finish elementary school. All that because she was willing to put up with this nonsense and try to help me. I wanted to convey some of that and not have it look as though these people were deficient because they weren't fighting. They were fighting, they just weren't fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that's most admired until you have to live with the results.
Superhero fantasies (and action-movie fantasies, which are very similar) take place in a universe where "the quick and dirty solution" works: you shoot down a Nazi blimp with a blaster and Evil is defeated. You punch the bad guy in the nose and he disappears from the story; you've won. Evil wears a black hat and twirls its mustache, cackling and gloating, so you can easily tell it from Good. But in the real world, things don't work that way. There's nothing wrong with fantasies in themselves; perhaps they allow you to let off steam. What's wrong is mistaking them for the real world. This form of the mistake is generally coded Boy; the Girl equivalent is the quick and dirty solution of a wedding: the two good people have been joined together, and in the fantasy you don't have to live with the results.

I like the way Butler expressed this. It doesn't mean that resistance is never worthwhile: the real heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, were people like her mother. Superimposing superhero fantasies on that period would be like what happens when Secret Identities connects superheroes to the internment of Japanese Americans, or to Hiroshima. (I don't want to oversimplify too much. The Hiroshima story I read shows a superhero emerging from the radioactive waste of the atomic bombings, an unplanned consequence of American hubris. But another story has the Asian American superhero joining forces with Barack Obama to smite the Nazis and the KKK, as if Obama weren't running dungeons and blowing up brown people himself.) It's taken me a long time to catch up with Octavia Butler's insights, no doubt because of my own privilege. But she had it right.