Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Gabrielle Bellot. Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to Guernica, Autostraddle, Prairie Schooner’s blog, The Missouri Review’s blog, the JFR, and other journals, and she was featured on The Butter’s ‘This Writer’s On Fire’ column. Her work is forthcoming in the Caribbean Review of Books. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. She has worked in the past as a committee member for Dominica’s annual Nature Island Literary Festival. You can find her on Twitter. Part One of this essay was published last week.
In Orientalism, Edward Said defined the many ways that European writers—many of whom had never left Europe—wrote about the so-called Orient. ‘The Orient,’ Said writes, ‘was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.’ Later, Said refers to how the Orient was conceived of as a place of ‘unimaginable antiquity, inhuman beauty, boundless distance,’ all of which was to be understood in contrast to that which was Occidental, or Western; the West was a place of science, civilisation, rationality, restraint, and order. A significant number of Western scholars who studied Eastern languages and cultures—Orientalists, as they were known up into the late twentieth century—wrote about the Middle- and Far East without ever having set foot in the places they described with such authority, instead relying on the tropes, language, and ideas in previous European ‘authorities’ on the subject. Because of this, there quickly arose a kind of standard language for describing the ‘Orient. It became irredeemably Other from the Western world: a place filled with passionate romances; sensuous, deceptive harlots and concubines; cunning, treacherous, and untrustworthy men; it was exotic, barbaric, uncivilised; filled with diseases on the one hand or with mysticism on the other; it was a place not located in history so much as in some timeless past—and so on, and so on.
The fantastical nature of the Other is perhaps best—and worst—summed up in an incredulous question posed by European characters to our Persian protagonist in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters upon learning where he came from. ‘Oh! Monsieur is Persian? That’s most extraordinary! How can one be a Persian?’ the Europeans ask, astonished at the gulf that stands between them and the ‘Eastern’ man. Beneath the demeaning jest of the query is what they cannot conceive, what, in almost Lovecraftian fashion, perhaps even terrifies they: that one can live in so different a world and yet be human, like him, and them, and me.
What is striking about this to me is how rampant these tropes of the Orient are in fantasy or weird tales, even those with no specific connection to the East. Certain tropes in particular, like the idea of ancient, timeless, exotic, mystical lands, reappear so often that one may almost come to expect them. While the appearance of this kind of landscape or language or characterisation is not itself proof that a text is Orientalist, much of this language can be traced back to the standards of Orientalism. For a writer who wishes to generate a sense of the exotic, the language of Orientalism is an all-too-easy shortcut.
The writer Clark Ashton Smith, for instance, composed a number of lyrical, sometimes haunting, short stories that revel in this trope. S. T. Joshi, a scholar of Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, and weird literature in general, singles out ‘The City of the Singing Flame’ as one of Smith’s greatest works, and it is certainly a great example of a story that uses Orientalist tropes without ever mentioning the Orient. In the tale, Smith’s protagonist finds a door to a parallel reality invisibly hidden near a large rock, and, when he steps through it, he finds himself in a world where beings from multiple realities drift towards a temple containing a central flame, which emits a beautiful sound; eventually, some of the beings leap to their death into the flame. It’s a story I quite like, but it’s hard not to read Orientalist language into Smith’s narrative, as Smith, like Lord Dunsany, is widely known as a fantasy-writing Orientalist. Here, these tropes take shape through the presence of a mystical temple, the idea of self-immolation that many Western artists associated with China and India, and the idea that this world is ancient beyond all understanding. Were this story set in the Orient, it would be undeniably Orientalist, yet it has simply transplanted its tropes onto a different setting.
One of the most fascinating examples appears in C. S. Lewis’ NARNIA series, in which Lewis eventually introduces the world of Calormen. This place represents the evil Other—specifically, a negative Christian view of Islam and of polytheistic Arabs and the East. It echoes the West-versus-East, us-versus-them, good-civilisation-versus-evil-barbarian rhetoric of the Crusades or fantastical narratives based on them, like Ludovico Ariosto’s mock-epic Orlando Furioso. Calormen is presented quite clearly as an avatar
for ‘the Orient.’ Its inhabitants have names that are obviously meant to evoke Arabic names, whether or not they are even plausible names in Arabic, and Lewis informs us that ‘The Calormenes have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people.’ The Calormenes use the ‘Crescent’ as currency and are known to purchase many slaves. Here, we have many Orientalist stereotypes on display: the swarthy Other who is ‘cruel,’ rich, ‘ancient’ and warlike, despite also being ‘wise’ and ‘courteous,’ descriptions that echo the way that anti-Islamic sentiments so often intersect with, or are covers for, racist sentiments, even as Islam is obviously not itself a racial marker. The Crescent, intentionally or not, cannot help but bring the Islamic crescent to mind. The Calormenes are polytheistic, putting them more in line with the pre-Islamic societies Islam would later spread through, but this hardly erases the many comparisons to Islam and to those in the ‘East’ broadly. NARNIA does not use a simple white-versus-black colour scheme to signify good versus evil, as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, has ‘the White Witch’ as its antagonist—but a lot of the tapestry of Narnia does paint its Christian aspects as superior. It is hard not to those ‘dark faces’ as an embodiment of racial Othering in the book being mixed together, implicitly, with religious Othering.
This is the kind of thing that led Philip Pullman, author of the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, to call Lewis ‘blatantly racist’ in 2002. The theologian and Lewis scholar Paul Ford describes Lewis as ‘a man of his time and socioeconomic class,’ who ‘was unconsciously but regrettably unsympathetic to things and people Middle-Eastern,’ which Ford links to ‘contrasting things Narnian and Calormenian.’ He understandably sees this as a particular danger in a post-9/11 world. While Lewis’ series contains diversity and ties racist tendencies to a number of its villains, and while we shouldn’t assume Lewis himself necessarily held these views just from the texts, there is undeniably casual racism and Othering in the texts overall that we should make an effort to point out.
Then, there is Othering by omission. This happens by not mentioning a group or set of persons in a situation where their absence is unexpected or palpable. Look at the way some of the most celebrated tales of science fiction’s Golden Age, like Isaac Asimov’s short-story version of ‘Nightfall’ and Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Microcosmic God,’ are virtually bereft of women (the latter aside from the fact that the Neoterics, a laboratory-created race of miniature sentient beings, are split into male and female). These worlds are presented as spaces where men do certain kinds of work, where men are pre-eminent. This is not to say that these stories are bad—I love them both, as tales. But we can love something and point out its flaws, the way it is clearly of a certain era, mindset, and cultural space—and, more pointedly, how we may still chillingly live in a world not that dissimilar. I’ve sometimes felt awkward teaching Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ in my Introduction to the Short Story classes for just this reason. I worry that teaching texts like this without bringing up gender at all can serve to reinforce the stereotype that science—broadly—is a male domain. But we can mention these real problems without writing off the texts or their authors (and it is dangerous to always assume the author’s politics are those of their texts).
I think, too, of a novella I’m teaching this week in another class, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. It also contains brief moments of racist Orientalism and, less briefly, an extended linkage between being queer and being monstrous, as Carmilla, who is clearly attracted to women, is a deceptive vampiric murderer. I feel overjoyed when a student tells me their eyes were opened by discussing these things in class—and by looking at how this trope of the lesbian vampire appears in many later adaptations of Carmilla, so that students can recognise it more clearly the next time they may come across it. And more queer-positive adaptations of Carmilla, like the Carmilla web series from Vervegirl, show how this trope can be transformed in a good way.
And that is why I think it is dangerous to avoid teaching texts because of the problematic sentiments or language they contain. We can show students how these sentiments look and feel, how casually they can appear, even as we must also be understanding of the many students who may themselves have been victims of such sentiments. And in classes where such sentiments are not the subject of discussion, we should bring them up all the same, even if for only a few moments, so that we do not erase them by omission. To me, this is the highest mark of pedagogy—being able to tackle difficult subjects in a sensitive way, not shying away from things that need to be said.