I’d like to offer the Return to Nevèrÿon series by Samuel R. Delany for this week’s CORA Diversity Roll Call about people of color in science fiction and fantasy. But first, a geek confession:
In 8th grade, when my English teacher introduced the class to Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 classic Le Morte D’Arthur – a too thick, moldy novel with a strange French title – I developed a deep and joyful obsession with Arthurian literature. My teacher opened up the legend’s secrets in thrilling ways and taught my class to have confidence in our capacity to unravel the power of allegory. And so my best girl friend and I became Anglophiles. Shut out from the D&D role playing games and comic books that the white boys shared, we developed a sisterhood that delighted in the charm, magic, and tragedy of King Arthur’s Court.
Over time, we sought out more romantic variations of the story by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart to read during Biology lab. We watched Excalibur and British comedies at sleepovers and for months after she moved away, we wrote letters to one another from our British alter egos. My friend, a young Vietnamese-American girl, called herself Agatha. I was Cornelius! We were an odd, happy pair.
What is especially valuable to me about this particular memory is the way my interest grew out of the imaginative play that is at the heart of speculative fiction and not the adolescent anxieties that understandably come with being the only black girl in junior high. (And believe me, I had plenty of those.) My best friend and I may not have seen our faces reflected in the knights and ladies of Camelot; nevertheless, we gave ourselves permission to make the legend our own.
The best stories, in my view, can draw from a precise place, time, or culture, and still make room for any reader.
Which brings me back to Delany.
When I began reading the work of the black writer Samuel R. Delany two years ago, I was frustrated by how inaccessible his stories seemed in spite of the critical praise and awards he has received, particularly for science fiction novels such as Babel-17 and Dhalgren. But then I stumbled across the short stories of Tales of Nevèrÿon, the first volume in Delany’s sword-and-sorcery fantasy series (1979-1987) that skillfully remixes the conventions of the genre. The reigning culture of this prehistoric civilization is dark-skinned, while their slaves and servants are made up mostly of pale, blue-eyed “barbarians” (although some intermixing has occurred over time). At its core, however, is a universal quest for liberation that is familiar to anyone who knows the history of the Underground Railroad or has seen Schindler’s List.
There are walled kingdoms under attack, the most amazing women warriors, and dragons on the verge of extinction. One of the main characters of the series, a brown-skinned fugitive slave named Gorgik, is more akin to Conan than King Arthur, but his experiences dissect the broader moral certainties of heroic fantasy all the same. Delany’s postmodern satire runs deep and, in all honesty, the stories are earnest and somewhat dense. His allegories tackle assumptions about race, gender, sexuality (Gorgik, for instance, is bisexual), and economic exchange in ways that indirectly comment upon our own society.
In Delany’s pre-literate setting, we learn that stories have special currency and their value changes with the teller, the listener, and the context. The author applies this notion to the series itself as Tales of Nevèrÿon contains both a preface and an appendix that are written by two scholars who are, in fact, invented characters that are aware of their own fictive nature. If these ideas sound a bit overwhelming, one of Delany’s alter egos, K. Leslie Steiner, assures us that,
We do not have to be alert to every nuance of the fantasy’s sometimes dauntingly allusive play to enjoy this epic of the rise to political power of an ex-mine slave in a world of dragons, barbarians, Amazons, prehistoric splendor, perverse passions, and primitive precocity.
Indeed, there is much detail in these stories that I don’t “get.” But I’m glad to be at a place where I can fully give myself over to a landscape as creative as Delany’s in which people of all colors play central roles. And strangely enough, I know that, for me, there would probably be no Delany if it wasn’t for King Arthur.
So, true story: When I arrived at my dad’s house the summer after my 8th grade year, there was a letter waiting for me in my room. It was neatly addressed to Cornelius (ha ha!) but someone had already opened it. My dad looked a little embarrassed when I asked him what happened. “One of my sisters – your aunt – was named Cornelius,” he said. “She died many years ago, but I thought the letter was for her.” I was shocked. And a little pleased to discover this kinship with an aunt I had never known about. Who would have thought that my geeky fascination with a medieval British king would lead me back to my own flesh and blood? (Is this what Dana in Octavia Butler’s Kindred felt like?)
I remember the puzzled expression on my dad’s face as I tried to explain the mix-up.
“What now? Who’s Agatha?”
Make sure to check out the other posts in CORA Diversity Roll Call and if you’ve read this far (!) and you’re still curious about Samuel Delany, all the stories in Tales of Nevèrÿon are available online.