I just read a new favorite book: Uprooted, an award-winning fantasy novel by Naomi Novik. I could write pages about how much I loved this book. (Everyone who likes fantasy should read it!)
The book is set in a made-up fairytale-like land that has hints of eastern Europe. (It also contains really amazing magic, numerous awesome female characters, intelligent solutions to conflict where more killing isn’t the answer, and a subtle love story that has you holding your breath until the final page.) The author writes in the notes that she drew bits from the tales her family shared when she was growing up.
While I loved and admired the book, I felt a little sad thinking about my own lack of connection with a culture somewhere in the world.
I’m working on my first fantasy novel, and it came out as some sort of fairytale. This made sense: I’ve always loved fairy tales. I used to check out the giant books of fairytales from the grade school library, books so big they barely fit in my book bag and were a challenge for little me to carry home. But reading Uprooted made me look for any hints of my family’s background in my novel, and I didn’t find any.
This reminded me of something I learned a few years ago, when I participated in a workshop put on by the Racial Equity Institute, located in Greensboro, NC: The workshop leaders had the participants write down a few things that each of us liked about being a member of our racial group. The white people wrote things like, “The police don’t assume I’m guilty” or “I’m given a fair chance when I interview for jobs.” The people of color wrote things like, “Our food” or “Our music.” The workshop leaders explained that becoming part of the majority group often involves giving up one’s own culture.*
This idea rang true to me. I tried to think of instances of a family culture in my own life. I remember some large Italian meals on a big birthday, wedding day, or funeral day. I remember homemade pierogi made by the women at my gramma’s church, and a Slavic lullaby that I can hum, if not sing. Once my aunt and I hunted down information on the German side of our family in the local history room at the public library in Wilmington, NC, where they had once run a fishery. But all I seem to have are bits and pieces.
I wanted my story to have more depth, and I didn’t seem to have folk tales or a culture from my ancestors that I could use. This made me think, what do I have? What do I believe in one hundred percent, that I could use? Here’s what I came up with.
Religion. When I was about 30, I spent a few years thinking a lot about religion. I read a book about the world’s major religions that illustrated (at least to me) that the common thread is a higher power that we leave to come to earth and then return to. Different religions have different paths for this to occur: In many forms of Christianity, you get one chance to live a good life, and either you succeed and go back to the higher power, or you fail and don’t. In Hinduism (as far as I understand it), you are reincarnated over and over, slowly working your way up until you are ready to go back. In Buddhism, you can “skip ahead” of the cycles of reincarnation by altering your behavior to reach enlightenment ASAP.** Different religions also include or exclude the souls of animals as part of this higher power.
I decided this common thread would be the religion in my fantasy world, called the “old ways.” The fairies are still in touch with the old ways, the villagers are starting to forget, and the evil king has corrupted them with his own ideas.
Nonviolence. I eventually began attending Quaker meetings, where I learned about things like nonviolence and the power of sitting quietly and of listening. I had planned a revolt in my story, but hadn’t wanted to write a bunch of characters killing each other. I ended up with (spoiler) a successful nonviolent revolt. (I immediately connected with the unusual treatment of battles in Uprooted, although it is different than my own.)
The role of women. From the beginning I intended to write empowered female characters. It was harder than I thought; I kept catching myself making all the leaders men! But coming up with a religious philosophy for my world made me consider the role of women, and how it would get to be what it is; what would cause women to be respected or seen as equals, that is lacking in our world? It seemed like religion has played a big part in determining the roles women have in the real world.
But also, back when the main tasks people did were finding food and shelter, women’s role as mothers probably affected their roles in the community. I don’t know enough about the history of women’s roles in societies, and details about matriarchal cultures of the past are not easy to come by. So in this case, I’m glad not to be drawing from the recorded history of the real world, but instead inventing a history.
Miscellaneous stuff. I’ve noticed that my characters (at least the good ones) seem to eat kind of healthily. They do things like garden or make useful crafts. These activities come from communities I’m part of. I’ve worked for years at a natural food co-op, and I know a lot of farmers and value homegrown and homemade foods. I teach at the Campbell Folk School, which has taught me about traditional crafts like basketry and pottery. I’m also involved in a community of musicians and dancers who play old-time Appalachian music.
So while I might have lost the culture my ancestors knew, I’m able to find new communities to learn from and participate in. Maybe I am growing new roots.
*This idea is part of a much longer discussion, covering the history of race in America. A balance is maintained of having enough of a working class for the people in power to use them to make money, without having the numbers of the working class swell such that they might be able to revolt. The result is that subsets of people in the working class are periodically subsumed into the majority, or given some privileges to dissuade them from banding together with the rest of the working class to rebel. Not being very knowledgeable in this area, I hope I’m presenting the idea properly.
**These were my takeaways from reading this book, and are extremely simplified. I’m sure there is plenty of room for people to argue that I have it all wrong.