Yesterday, I finished everything except the final grading for the semester: there are no more conferences, no more committee meetings, no more emails in the middle of the night to students who are having difficulty with their final portfolios. Today, I met with some of the wonderful people who will be involved in distributing and publicizing The Thorn and the Blossom. And I finally got some sleep.
Tonight, I wanted to write about a blog post that Nnedi Okorafor posted yesterday. In case you don’t know, Nnedi is a wonderful writer, the author of books such as Zahrah the Windseeker, Who Fears Death, and Akata Witch. (I was fortunate enough to have her in my Clarion class.) The post was called “Lovecraft’s Racism & the World Fantasy Award Statuette, with Comments from China Miéville.” This year, Who Fears Death won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Nnedi is the first black writer to have won the award. All of the World Fantasy Awards look like the head of H.P. Lovecraft. Like this (on the right, next to the poet Elah Gal and some other wonderful works of art that I need to frame, hang, or both):
The post is about her realization that Lovecraft was a racist, and her thoughts about having a statue of his head on her shelf. It’s smart and thoughtful, and it includes some additional thoughts from China Miéville, last year’s Best Novel winner for The City and the City, who has written on Lovecraft.
“Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.”
Toward the end of the blog post, she asks,
“Do I want ‘The Howard’ (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette. Lovecraft’s full name is ‘Howard Phillips Lovecraft’) replaced with the head of some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that . . . as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.”
I think this is a wonderful conversation to have, and a wonderful time to have it, and I’ll tell you where I stand: I think the award should be changed, although not because of Lovecraft’s racism.
That racism is real, and not excusable: the sort of instinctive and virulent racism you see in some of his writing was more accepted during the time period (I’ve seen plenty of examples in my research), but there were plenty of people then, as now, fighting those attitudes. I’ve seen evidence that Lovecraft may have changed his views later in life, but I think Miéville is right to point out that fear and hatred of a racial other was at the heart of many of Lovecraft’s stories. So we need to talk about how we read Lovecraft.
But the award itself should be changed because it purports to be a “world” “fantasy” award, and Lovecraft does not represent either of those terms adequately. He is an important American writer who represents one particular strain in the long, rich history of fantasy. That history originates in myth and folklore, and its recent development includes other figures such as George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, Hope Mirrlees, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien, who also influenced the development of the genre in important ways. The award should not be a bust of any one person. Tolkien talked about the soup of story, about the ways in which writers put something into the soup and take something out. We are all drawing out of the soup, and there have been many cooks involved.
I’ve heard some suggestions about what the award should be, so I’ll add my own. I think the award should be different each year, and it should be designed by a contemporary fantasy artist. Imagine winning an award designed by Shaun Tan or Charles Vess or Omar Rayyan! That would also recognize the wonderful work being done in fantasy art, which is such an important part of book publication in this “genre” (a word I use for convenience, since I don’t think fantasy is a genre).
Now, back to Lovecraft. How do you read a writer when some of his views are reprehensible? This is how I think about the issue. For me, literature has a life of its own. It is never reducible to its creators. I know that when I write a story, when it’s good and it’s vital and it lives, it contains more than I consciously put into it. And if that story truly is alive, it contains internal contradictions – just like a living person. (Noticing those internal contradictions is part of a critical stance that, in graduate school, I learned to identify as deconstruction. A classic example is the way in which Milton, attempting to justify the ways of God to man, inadvertently turned Satan into a tragic hero.)
So for example, the Narnia books contain an obvious Christian message, but as I have argued before, they also contain a less obvious longing for the glories of classical paganism. Even as a child, I could see and feel that. To the extent they inspired faith in me, it was a deep and abiding faith in the spirits of trees and waters, in the potential magic of the world. And of course, they inspired the great love that a girl can have only for a talking lion. (If they converted me to anything, it was to Aslan.)
So, how to think about Lovecraft? The reason he remains important is that his best stories do exactly this: they deconstruct themselves. That is, in fact, part of their vitality. My example here is a story called “The Rats in the Walls,” in which Lovecraft gives us a protagonist who has a black cat with a racist name. If you want to read the story, go do it now before reading the next paragraph, because I’m about to describe the plot. But if you’ve decided, after what I’ve already written, that you never want to read Lovecraft again, that is of course your right.
The story focuses on an American who restores his family’s ancestral house in England, only to discover a horrible secret: that for aeons, its members have maintained vast underground chambers filled with human beings that they have used for food. They are cannibals. That secret had been lost for generations, while the family lived respectably in Virginia – as slave owners. When I teach the story, I highlight both its racist component (the cat’s name) and the way in which the final gruesome discovery of cannibalism parallels the earlier account of life in Virginia. The story implies that the dénouement, which drives the protagonist mad, is the literalized, fantastical version of what the family was doing, respectably and openly, on its plantation. Slavery is cannibalism – a way of consuming other human beings. It is the real, historical version of the supernatural horror that concludes the story. Did Lovecraft intend that message? I seriously doubt it, and yet it’s there. The story is not the writer. The story is always, if it’s a living story, smarter than the writer. (So for example, did Lovecraft consciously intend to name the family’s Virginia plantation Carfax, the same name that Bram Stoker uses for Dracula’s house in England? I doubt it, and yet it implies that the family is metaphorically vampiric, which reinforces that message.)
That’s how I, personally, read writers like Lovecraft. But you are, of course, free to disagree with me. This is and should be, as Nnedi suggests, a conversation.