colonialism

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 3 (Colonialism, Romantics, and into the 20th century)

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Wrapping up our brief overview of the history of speculative poetry, this post will take us into the 20th century. Beginning in the mid 1400s, the Age of Colonialism (also called the Age of Discovery, generally by the people doing the discovering and not by the people who were perfectly happy not having been “discovered” yet) is an important moment in the history of poetry because it marks the collection of “native” works along with the creation of pro-European propaganda about those works. It also coincides with the development of the printing press, and the broader circulation of literature and literacy in general.

Portuguese, Spanish, and eventually British invaders, settlers, and missionaries* traveled the world, planting their flags. The idea of courtly love – where a virtuous, charming, and heroic man completes quests in order to win the heart of the beautiful but disdainful woman – spreads throughout Europe, screwing up relationships for centuries to come. Troubadours write and sometimes sing these poems for wealthy patrons, so popular that poets couldn’t keep up with demand, making poetry profitable for a large number of people for the first time in recorded history. The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, invented in the 13th century, grows more popular and is brought over to England by the 16th, just in time for Sir Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare to fall in love with it and make it their own. In the midst of all this… the perfect example of colonialist speculative verse is collected and popularized: the Arthurian legends.

Sir Thomas Malory started Morte d’Arthur while in prison in 1450 and finished it somewhere around 1470. The book contains some 13th century French stories, at least one Middle English tale, plus original writing by Malory. William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475, and in 1485 printed  Morte d’Arthur, which saw several reprintings – and changed every single time. The basics stayed the same: Arthur is the lost son of a great king, conceived and hidden through magic, rises up, unites and conquers, has mythic adventures, fucks his sister, tries to have his son killed but instead creates a nemesis, loses his wife to his best friend, and retires to Avalon when he’s near unto death. It’s recently become popular with American white supremacists**, who see a glorious, Jesus-like white man who ruled over all and brought prosperity to the land, but even in contemporary times it was used in Britain for the same purpose. The Welsh Annales Cambriae claims that in 516 Arthur was victorious in battle because he carried the True Cross for three days and three nights on his shoulders (though later works argue that it was a chip of the cross he wore in an amulet), making the British people the new Chosen of God. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 The History of the Kings of Britain paints Arthur as a man filled with so much goodness everyone just knew he was the right and true leader, but who also took over Ireland and Iceland so brutally*** that other kingdoms offered to surrender if he would only promise not to treat them the same way. This makes Arthur certain he should rule the world, so he conquers all of Europe and was about to conquer the Romans before Mordred tried to seize his throne.

The British spent several hundred years trying to get back this Arthurian empire, even though it never existed in the first place.  (more…)

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 2 (after the Roman Empire and into European Colonialism)

Read “Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)” here.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, poetry didn’t die. In the almost-thousand years between when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus and the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, poetry flourished all over the world. Much of the extant Latin-language work is ecclesiastical, with occasional references to “pagan” gods and goddesses. The 5th century poet Coluthus, who lived in Lycopolis/Asyut in the Egyptian Thebaid, left behind a Greek-language poem in 394 hexameters called The Rape of Helen, which tells the story of Helen and Paris prior to their arrival in Troy. It’s got nymphs and goddesses and spite, and because the author was a most likely a Christian and believed this story to be a “myth” his poem falls squarely into the realm of speculative fiction. Dracontius of Carthage, another Christian poet, also wrote poetry about “the rape of Helen” (a popular subject), Medea, Hylas, and other Greek mythic staples.

Around the same time we get the Silappatikaram, one of the Great Epics of Tamil literature. This poem begins with a precis telling the reader what is about to happen, and then unfolds the tale in three chapters. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works, and is also credited with introducing folk songs into literature. It’s the story of a wronged woman who’s husband – a guy with maybe not the best judgement or luck – gets beheaded when he’s accused of stealing the Queen’s bracelet (in order to restart his life in a new town after his “inappropriate relationship with a dancer”). The wife proves her husband’s innocence and then IGNITES THE CITY with, essentially, the glorious power of her rightness.

You can read it and more here.

In the 6th century, pre-Islamic poetry hits the big time, but was largely concerned with biographies, inter-tribal disputes, and the occasional zoological description.* In that sense, it is very similar to Greek and Roman classical poetry in subject, though with a dearth of “mythic” fiction which may be attributed to destruction by later religions or governments. Example: during this century, Musaeus Grammaticus wrote 340 hexameter line  on the story of Hero and Leander (the one where the boy from the wrong side of the straights convinces the girl to have sex with him because “the Goddess Venus would want it that way”), later considered “the most beautiful of the age”. He’s also said to have written a cute little version of “Alpheus and Arethusa”, a classic of the Greek “chase+rape=love poem” oeuvre, so there’s that. Oh, and Procopius of Caesarea, principal Western historian of the 6th century, wrote Secret History, which says – in part – that Emperor Justinian was actually a headless monster who phased in and out of reality late at night.

We also get the rise of the Welsh bardic tradition, collected in later centuries as the Book of Taliesin (named for the earliest identified Welsh poet, whose work is included). Mixed in with elegies and Christian hymns are prophecies about the future and several poems about magic. Battling trees, evil witches, princes under a curse, hounds of hell – all the good stuff. We even get the introduction of Cerridwen, the Middle Welsh aspect of Homer’s Circe. (more…)

Looking for the Colonized/Decolonized in Speculative Fiction

The other night I was talking with an author (who happens to be a person of color and a first-generation American) about colonialism and whether views about previous invaders/colonizers change over time. While I am lucky enough to have grown up in an area that was ethnically diverse, as a white person born in the US to parents who were not immigrants, I won’t ever have the same view of the world that he does. I’ve always been able to find common ground with people who are not white, as individuals, since we all have parents and siblings and first loves and bad breakups and so on in common. You know, regular people stuff. But I realize that I don’t quite understand the experience of hailing from an oppressed people, as a general concept. Not deep in my bones and blood, not understand it because I lived with it or know it like I know the color of my hair or the shape of my fingers.

This matters partly because I know and care about people of color and I don’t ever want to behave or think in a way that’s dismissive to them. It also matters because I am a writer of SF/spec fiction that assumes a future with more representation for people of color. I have to be aware that I’m creating stories which portray a variety of characters, including people that I have no direct personal experience of being. For the same reason that I sometimes have male readers check stories which feature a male main character – because I want to be sure that it’s coming across the way that I meant it – I want to learn as much as I can about the colonial experience in order to accurately render those characters in my work. I may never have perfect understanding, but that’s no reason not to try to learn.

My fiction reading is actually diverse and getting more so over time, so what I’m looking for at the moment is essays, blog posts, discussions, etc, on colonialism, decolonialism, and post-colonial viewpoints in speculative fiction. (more…)