China Miéville on Folklore

China Miéville on Folklore March 23, 2012

At this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (one of my all-time favorite conferences), the theme is the Monstrous. And, appropriately, one of the guest of honor writers is China Miéville. I’ve only read three of his books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City and the City), but he is now one of my favorite authors. Needless to say, I was quite excited to meet him and hear him speak.

I’ve been live-tweeting some of his talks (highlights include remarks on geekery and RPGs, revolution, and irony), but since he gave a really long answer to my question about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, I thought I would make a blog post in order to explain some of the magnificent points he made.

(Yes, I am fan-girling a bit; I was grinning like an idiot after meeting him, because he is so incredibly engaging and warm and kind.)

Part of the reason I was so stunned by his reply is that it wasn’t what I expected. See, there is a large chunk of folklore studies devoted to folklore in literature, which can range from Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographically inflected fiction to rewritten fairy tales. There are dozens of papers at every folklore conference devoted to this topic, and I, too, have engaged with it. The main methodology, as elaborated by folklore greats Richard Dorson and Alan Dundes, is to 1) identify the folklore materials used in the literature, and b) interpret them. You look for where tradition (replicating the folklore) and variation (changing the folklore to suit fiction’s needs) occur, and discuss their impact on the representation of folk groups and genres, or on the literary aesthetic that is achieved, or how the folklore functions within the plot, and so on. It’s fun stuff.

So when I asked Miéville about his use of folklore, I gave an example to indicate what I was thinking of. I mentioned that I’d had a field day reading Perdido Street Station because of all the mythological beings populating the city, such as the garuda – and I hadn’t even known where they were from until I saw a colleague give a paper on Tibetan Buddhist mountain lore. I was thinking he would respond with a reflection, perhaps, on his sources: which cultures he likes to draw from, or which folklore collections he’s found particularly stimulating. That is, after all, what folklore-in-literature endeavors tend to look like from our end: we classify and locate the folklore utilized in literature, and then we talk about what it’s doing there.

Instead, Miéville addressed the politics of cultural appropriation. He said that he used to blithely borrow from other cultures because that is what cultures do all along; there is no monoculture, no monolithic one way to represent a culture’s beliefs. The men and women of a culture may experience its mythology and belief system differently, as will people in various stages of life. His choice to, for instance, write the khepri as a race of beetle-headed women, drawing upon the ancient Egyptian deity and switching the gender, is thus a recreation that acknowledges that every folkloric figure in a culture will be recreated and reformed multiple times within that culture, so why would it be wrong to do it from outside the culture?

Further, he believes that his willingness to engage with the folkloric material and take it seriously, by way of literalizing myth and metaphor, is a way of respecting the material. Perhaps he ends up with something radically different than the source material, but he thought about it and treated it like a valid partner in dialogue before going his own direction with it. His choices were deliberate, and so his engagement with folklore is a way of creatively opening a discussion with cultural materials rather than superficially skimming off the top simply because it looked interesting or sounded cool.

Clearly he’s done a bunch of research into folklore, and I totally respect that. That is, more or less, the sort of thing I was expecting to hear from an author asked about the use of folklore in writing.

However, he also said that he’s moved beyond this first perspective, to rethinking the relationship between the culture of the writer and the culture being appropriated. As an example, he said he wouldn’t even really consider writing about voodoo, because of the power relations (racism, classism, and so on) that contribute to the disempowerment and Othering of the culture (Haiti among others) that can claim that as folklore. So we’re not going to see any Baron Samedi characters appearing in his writing anytime soon.

Yet he also doesn’t want to subscribe to an essentializing and totalizing view that says, you can only write about your own culture; only your own stuff is available creatively. He gave the example of the vodyanoi, his Bas-Lag water creatures that are based on Russian folklore. Apparently, his subject positioning as a British man does not make him feel discomfort at borrowing the folklore coming from Russia, since his people aren’t currently oppressing their people. His writing about their folklore will not contribute to stereotypes about them, or enforce negative attitudes about them, and so on.

One thing I would’ve liked to hear more of (and I wish we’d had more time for this conversation during the interview panel) was whether the fantastic-ness of the folklore being borrowed matters for this argument about cultural appropriation. Because if you’re writing about stuff that people may or may not believe in (or maybe they won’t tell you if they believe in it, since belief and insider/outsider dynamics are tricky like that), does it really matter for the social reality of that group? Are we going to think poorly of real Russians if somebody writes about folkloric figures that real Russians may not believe in anymore? Anyway, it’s something to think about.

I wish I could’ve recreated his answer better, but as he answered my query, we maintained eye contact that I did not wish to break in order to scramble for my notepad. I think I’ve managed to convey the gist of what he said, and of course any errors in transmission are my own.

Also, when I met him at the author signing and told him I’d just defended my dissertation, he fist-bumped me. That was possibly one of the best moments of my life.

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