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Discovering the Other – John G. Hartness

The guest posts so far have talked about representation in SF/F from the perspective of people seeing themselves–or not seeing themselves–in fiction. But of course, there’s more to it. John Hartness talks about growing up “whitebread,” and how fiction helped him start to consider other perspectives, and to develop a greater degree of empathy.

There are parts of this essay that were difficult to read. There are parts that made me angry. But I also think back to my own childhood, growing up in a time and place where kids played “smear the queer” at recess (designating one random kid as “the queer,” with the rest of the kids trying to tackle him) or thought nothing of chants like, “Fight, fight! The n****r and the white!”

It was messed up. And it’s hard to look back and talk about. Which is why I appreciate John’s honesty, his willingness to look back at that ugliness, and to recognize how stories helped him to humanize those others and change his own behavior.


What in the world is a straight, white, American male from the Southeastern United States doing writing an essay about “the other?” That’s very similar to a question I asked at a convention a year or so ago when I found myself on a panel titled “Writing the Other.” I sat there in front of a roomful of writers and asked why the straight white guy who wrote books about straight white guys was talking about the Other.

I’m about as un-other as you can get in my part of the world. I was raised Presbyterian, by two parents who still lived together. I am white, straight, and I went to college. If you throw out the part about growing up poor, it was pretty much a Beaver Cleaver upbringing, complete with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden novels. Even my reading material was whitebread!

Then I met Chris Claremont, and a little later, Mercedes Lackey. Not in person, but through their work. In 1986 Claremont was writing The Uncanny X-Men, and he, along with Louise and Walter Simonson, crafted the Mutant Massacre storyline, one of my favorite X-Men storylines to this day. It was a far-reaching crossover with massive character shifts that sent waves through the X-Universe that have been felt for the past 30 years. But that wasn’t the important part.

No, for me the important part was one five-panel scene in Uncanny X-Men #210, where Nightcrawler (the blue dude with the tail from the movies) is trapped in a warehouse by a mob that wants to beat him to death for being blue and scary-looking. Kitty Pryde, the young, pretty white girl X-Man, steps out of the shadows and calls the mob leader out on his BS while Colossus (in his non-metallic form) tries to reason with them. The dialogue in this scene opened my eyes to things I’d never considered.

Kitty: “Hey mister, who defines what’s human?”

Mob guy: “It’s obvious, girl. Just open your eyes.”

Kitty: “That simple, huh? Well, a whole chunk of my family was murdered in gas chambers because the Nazis said it was just as ‘obvious’ that Jews weren’t human. And not so long ago, in this country, people felt the same about blacks. Some still do. Is that right?!”

Kitty Pryde

Almost thirty years later, that’s the part that stuck with me. Growing up in rural South Carolina in the 70s and 80s, the Holocaust was something you learned about in History class. There was never a personal connection, because there were no Jewish families in my town. But here was a character that I had been reading for several years, telling me that her family was killed just for being Jewish.

That connected. It connected because I had never paid attention to Kitty Pryde’s Jewish heritage. I assumed she was like me, because she looked like me (only female and pretty). Suddenly I had a realization that these people I read about in history books were real people, and I got that understanding from a fictional character. Dear Alanis – that’s ironic.

But Claremont wasn’t my only teacher, and I certainly had more to learn. Late in high school, I was more immersed in fantasy literature than I had ever been before, on account of having a girlfriend who read the same stuff I did, and having a job to buy my own books. I think it was that same girlfriend who handed me a copy of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, and said “You have to read this.”

I trusted her taste. After all, I started going out with her because I saw her reading David Eddings’ Demon Lord of Karanda. So I read Magic’s Pawn, and I fell in love with Valdemar, a love affair that has lasted since that first day I sat down to read about Vanyel and Savil and poor doomed ‘Lendel.

Mercedes Lackey writes the doomed outsider teen as well as anyone I’ve ever read, and I was immediately wrapped up in the story of Vanyel. I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that he and Tylendel are both male, and in love. I cried like a baby at Tylendel’s death, and only later noticed that I had just wept for the death of an imaginary person that I would have likely made miserable had he ridden my school bus or been in my gym class.

Tylendel could have been anyone. He could have been the kid we called “fairy” on the bus and punched as he walked by, because he was slightly built and his voice hadn’t changed yet. He could have been Wayne, the pudgy kid down the road that we picked on for being a “band fag.” He could have been any number of real people in my life, and they could have been him. And what I said to them was just as cutting and hurtful as the words in those books. Those books didn’t transform me overnight, but they gradually opened my eyes to the consequences of my behavior, to the power words have. I started, ever so slowly, to change.

I couldn’t call someone “faggot” in the lunchroom anymore without thinking of how hurt Vanyel was by his father’s disapproval, and what kind of pain that kid might be going through at home. I couldn’t make cheap Jew jokes without thinking about how that casual cruelty and dehumanization led to things like the Holocaust and lynchings in my own county. Lackey and Claremont taught me that no matter how different I am from someone, there is a common thread, a connection to be made, if I’m brave enough to let it.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn from a bully into a saint; it was more like turning from a nerd into a slightly more understanding nerd. But I’d like to think that my friends who live somewhere else on the rainbow know that I’ve got their back. And I have a gay wizard and a Jewish mutant to thank for it. As always, I thank Chris Claremont and Mercedes Lackey for their characters that changed my life.


John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his ridiculous podcast Literate Liquors, where he pairs book reviews and alcoholic drinks in new and ludicrous ways. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.

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John Hartness

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
deborahblakehps
Feb. 26th, 2015 01:52 pm (UTC)
I came from one of only two Jewish families that lived in a middle-class suburban area, and I guess that helped me to always be aware of what it meant to be Other. (This was back in the days before schools made everyone celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanza along with Christmas, believe me.) And I was the unpopular weird kid to boot.

I had gay friends early on, and was lucky enough to be raised by parents who were really only prejudiced against one group--religious extremists (but from any faith).

It wasn't until I got into my 20's that I realized that I was, in fact, prejudiced. I tended to be a social and intellectual snob. I sneered at poor people who had missing teeth (until things started going wrong with my teeth and I found out how much it cost to get them fixed!). I looked down on those without educations. I probably didn't even realize I was doing it.

And then I got to be poor for a while, and that was pretty eye-opening. Later, when I became a Pagan, I got to practice with a group of people who I would otherwise probably not have spent time with. Some of them were chronic poor and uneducated folks. But I discovered that in fact, they were still lovely people and that we had more in common than I would have guessed.

Prejudice lurks in even the most open-minded of us, and I think it can be tough to see it clearly in ourselves. Kudos to you.

starcat_jewel
Feb. 26th, 2015 04:39 pm (UTC)
Oh ghod, teeth. I have only in the last few years begun to realize how much of a snob I am about teeth -- especially missing teeth. I grew up in a community where there were no really poor people; everyone had good teeth, and braces were common among my classmates. Then I moved into the Deep South, where I saw people with bad teeth, but not among my social or work colleagues. The assumption that "bad/missing teeth = hillbilly" sunk in very deep, and has only begun to be uprooted (pun not intentional, but I'm keeping it) in the past decade.
deborahblakehps
Feb. 26th, 2015 07:34 pm (UTC)
There weren't people with bad teeth where I grew up either (although probably a lot of rich dentists and orthodontists!). It wasn't until I move to a small town in rural upstate NY to go to college that I saw lots of folks without teeth.
serialbabbler
Feb. 26th, 2015 09:47 pm (UTC)
I can't actually imagine living someplace where nobody has bad teeth. (Of course, I'm originally from the Flint, Michigan area where poverty is pretty common even if you don't live in the city itself.)
deborahblakehps
Feb. 27th, 2015 02:33 am (UTC)
I'm sure there were people who had bad teeth--I probably just didn't see them as a kid. Of course, I mostly sat in the corner and read a lot, so I didn't get out much :-)
serialbabbler
Feb. 27th, 2015 03:46 am (UTC)
Ah, I tend to stare at people's mouths when they talk so if they have visibly bad teeth, I notice. :D
starcat_jewel
Feb. 27th, 2015 03:41 am (UTC)
Well, it's sort of like the "refrigerators disprove the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics" argument; you have to draw the boundaries pretty narrowly. We lived in an upper-middle-class suburb of a large city. There were plenty of poor people in the inner city, and in some of the more rural outlying areas -- but as a kid, dependent on my parents for transportation to anywhere not in my immediate neighborhood, I never saw them. By the time I was old enough to drive, we'd moved to Tennessee. And even there, most of the people I was likely to encounter were in a similar social class to ours and had enough money to take care of their teeth.
serialbabbler
Feb. 27th, 2015 03:54 am (UTC)
I've never lived in an upper-middle class suburb. The ones I've passed through quickly on my way someplace else kind of creeped me out. ;)
funwithrage
Feb. 26th, 2015 03:03 pm (UTC)
As someone who came to Lackey in the mid-nineties or so (and who grew up in California and then went to a very liberal boarding school), I spent a lot of time in later adolescence thinking that the earlier Arrows/Magic books were, you know, a little treacly and a little obvious, even though I liked them. Yeah, yeah, Being Gay Is Fine, Girls Can Do Stuff, Rape Is Bad. We geeet it.

And then I read/watched some actual media from the seventies and eighties, and was like...holy shit, no, this *wasn't* that obvious back then. These messages were new and needed saying. Damn.
reedrover
Feb. 26th, 2015 03:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you for including this essay. It's important to look at all sides. I call this experience "growing up in sidewalk-suburbia," the land of pretty houses, parks, sidewalks, and school buses. It is the land of two-parent, two car households where every kid plays a sport and an instrument, rides a bike, and has a membership at the swim club. And to the people who grow up there with me, everyone (except the cool Jewish kids) was Other until we found the books that taught us otherwise.

I laughed so hard at Ursula Vernon's commentary on the subject.

Edited at 2015-02-26 03:08 pm (UTC)
starcat_jewel
Feb. 26th, 2015 04:48 pm (UTC)
I am still embarrassed that I completely missed the implications in Dragonrider customs until McCaffrey hit everyone over the head with them in The White Dragon.
jimhines
Feb. 26th, 2015 09:22 pm (UTC)
I hadn't seen that. Heh...Ursula is awesome.
serialbabbler
Feb. 26th, 2015 06:33 pm (UTC)
I was a fan of the television shows Alien Nation and Quantum Leap in that general era. Their take on the Other was very clunky and earnest, but I thought it was a nice change. :D
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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