Your family, your friends, YOUR OWN REFLECTION!? Is anyone worthy of it and are you yourself? WHO CAN I RUN TO!? A person, a group of people, a series of concepts embodied all lead to one place. Who or dare I say what can you!?
In this installment of Women On The Edge, you’ll see work from Bryanna Parker (July 17th) and Blaine Morris (July 31st) that focuses on the feelings behind past betrayals and future confidences.
Blaine Morris, Untitled, 2020
Bryanna Parker, Our Dark and Beautiful Narrative Homelands, 2020
I truly don’t remember what catapulted my love of fantasy as a genre. I know what stands out to me from my youth, particularly as many series have now entered into mainstream consciousness. I remember going to a now-closed book shop in my hometown and listening to the owner give me suggestions, most of which I faithfully and delightedly devoured. Somewhere in the midst of this deluge, the shop owner of my small South Carolinian book store suggested an R.A. Salvatore book, books that centered a race of black elves called Drow. I started with the three titles in the Dark Elf Trilogy. I bought them. I read them. I was, at the time, completely in love.
As a child aging into a teenager, I was very aware of what I perceived as an unspoken rule: fantasy series centered white people — magical white people, but white people nonetheless. This was a frustration but something I could and did accept. For any breaks with reality, fantastical non-human races, or magic slinging protagonists, the same tired, racial hierarchies kept rearing their heads: lightness, paleness is good; darkness, blackness is evil. So when I stumbled on these books with beautiful dark-skinned black elves, my heart was ready to burst. We weren’t antagonists in this lone fantastical world I encountered. We were heroes. We were worthy. We were the beautiful, capable elves everyone else strove to imitate. Except, we weren’t.
R.A. Salvatore did not make up the Drow as a race or their lore; they’ve both existed within the Forgotten Realms universe (think Dungeons & Dragons) for ages, but it was Salvatore’s depiction and his very famous main character, a dark elf named Drizzt Do’Urden, that I first encountered. So let me regale you with the Drow’s backstory: They are beautiful, dark-skinned and white haired elves. They live underground in the Underdark. They are a matriarchal race where women are often larger and more powerful than men, with men often relegated to lower stations and breeding. They are, almost unfailingly, incredibly evil. Their society is marred with violence and hedonism, with families often slaughtering each other to rise to better stations. It’s from this society that Drizzt, one of the lone “good” Drow, escapes, spending countless novels proving to–almost exclusively white and white-coded–characters that he is not like his evil race, that he is good, that he is worthy. You know, unlike the rest of them.
When I initially explained the premise and lore of these books I loved so much to my mother she immediately told me they sounded racist as hell. I could not, would not accept this. We were the protagonists here, and I had already spent too much time passively accepting black people didn’t get to be heroes within fantasy realms. It was too special to fall under the tyranny of racism in my head, and I insisted she was mistaken. In hindsight, my mom was trying to protect me, to warn me about what is laughably clear to me now: your beloved media that you’ve made a place for in your heart is going to betray you one day, and you just haven’t seen it yet.
Our relationships with narratives can often run so deep, tapping into pieces of ourselves that we rarely see reflected back at us or pieces of ourselves we’re still articulating and defining. There’s something intimate about connecting so fully with characters, with stories, with words. People often aren’t exaggerating when they say, “This saved my life.” To admit something so beautifully special is Fucked Up is unbearable. It was to me at the time. I had given too much of my heart to these books, and I was too young and too sensitive to relinquish any of that love. These were mine, and I had no interest in betraying my devotion to them, even as they were already doing so to me, rehashing the same racist and oppressive tropes and paradigms that so many fantasy worlds refuse to reject. Black is not good; black is evil; and blackness can only transcend that evil in the shape of dogged individualism and exceptionalism.
It doesn’t escape me that labeling this realization a betrayal may seem dramatic. I was, after all, promised nothing, and it was I who projected my hopes and my light onto these books, put my faith in a narrative that didn’t actually belong to me. It’s known and accepted that those putting their work into the world for criticism and consumption are exposing potential vulnerabilities, but I believe this goes in both directions. Opening yourself up to others’ stories and energies is often a vulnerable practice as well. It’s an internal one, but a vulnerability nonetheless. Realizing what you perceived as your liberation in narrative form–from your own head, from the net of reality–is just the same oppressive hierarchy in another mask absolutely feels like a betrayal, and a devastating one.
I’m hardly the first person to come to the sinking, awful realization that something I adored was, in fact, an echo of the same oppression I fight in real life. Countless people have written about J.K. Rowling’s bigoted, hateful, and transphobic TERF tirades. Beloved authors have spouted racist rhetoric, homophobia, anti-semitism, anti-blackness, you name it for countless years. This isn’t new, nor is reassessing beloved media as an adult and realizing the cracks were always there. But I do think that first narrative betrayal always feels the most cataclysmic. We’re often young, often still navigating our own spaces and the narrative spaces we love, often still learning to articulate the oppressive forces that surround us even as we live them each day, and coming to grips with the fact that our presumed narrative safe spaces are not and never were for us is painful.
I don’t regret rejecting childhood favorites at later points in life. If anything, it’s helped me navigate my engagement with other narratives, to stray towards cautious affection instead of complete subsumption. There’s a part of me that misses the way I used to completely give myself over to others’ works and narratives, but there’s also a freedom in keeping works at more of an arm’s length, assessing them more abstractly without weaving them into my own identity and worth. This earlier childhood conception of narrative betrayal feels like a product of youth, and vulnerability, and naivete, but it also feels necessary.
In truth, I haven’t abandoned my love for the Drow as a race or wholly cast aside my past affection for Drizzt. When I build characters in video games I still pick my beloved dark elves. Now though, I know to shape their narratives in my own image, with my own truth. I avoid ceding their stories to others, giving control to other authors. There isn’t any betrayal to be had when the reigns are firmly in my own hands.