There’s nothing like social media for making you question your life’s choices. That is certainly the case for writers: Thanks to Twitter, we can read opinions on how various things Should Be Written on a regular basis. And while I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, there’s a positive aspect to this.
Writers make about a hundred unconscious decisions per page, but the way we improve is by doubling back to examine them. Through examination, we may come to realize we have made an obvious, cliché choice and discard it; or alternatively, come to a deeper understanding of our choice, which allows for utilizing its potential to the fullest. Win/win.
A recurring theme that has cropped up in recent years is the choice to create a fantasy world that deliberately excludes sexism. The arguments in support of this choice are solid, ranging from the importance of showing a world of better possibilities, to the self-evident fact that a world including dragons, magic, and wizards is already significantly different from our own—so why not go all the way? Authors I respect have adopted this stance, online and (I presume) in their work, and I applaud them for it. My adoration of the fantasy TV show The Dragon Prince is well-documented, and its choice to eschew sexism (among other forms of oppression) is a beautiful thing.
So why did I, Ilana Myer, not do the beautiful thing too? Why does sexism permeate the world I created on a fundamental level, beginning in Last Song Before Night with a female poet protagonist who struggles to find her voice in a world where poets, traditionally, are men? Why do the women, in one way or another, endure gendered forms of oppression?
The answer is complex and contingent on a larger question: Why do we write? Which is a question most writers hate because it’s like asking us to break down, in coherent sentences, why we breathe.
Sometimes we may be trying to envision a better world. And sometimes we are searching for a way to bear the realities of this one.
When I was an undergraduate at Queens College I was fortunate to have Margaret Atwood visit the school for an onstage interview. She had just published one of her best novels, The Blind Assassin. Speaking of her writing process, she compared it to exploring a cave with a flashlight, saying, “It’s dark in there.”
There’s another way of saying that, I think: It’s personal.
There’s a reason I’ve read Lord of the Rings many times but bounced hard from The Silmarillion, lovely passages about Beren and Luthien notwithstanding. While Lord of the Rings is often discussed as if it’s little more than a worldbuilding template for the fantasies that followed, to my mind it’s a story of character first. It has a ton of worldbuilding, yes, but ultimately what matters to me, as a reader, are the moral, spiritual, and psychological conflicts introduced by the temptation of the One Ring. All the battles and sieges in the world wouldn’t matter one jot to me if they didn’t coalesce around individual characters, their struggles, and their often painful transformations.
When I set out to write fantasy it was always going to be personal. The concept for the series began as a quest to understand—for myself—why the drive to create art, against all odds, was so strong. Through the medium of a tale in which poetry held enchantments—powerful enough, in one instance, to raise the dead—I saw the world through a number of artists’ eyes. I knew the men, my poets, immediately, as if I had met them in real life; I knew at once how they would be tested.
And from the start, I knew it was going to be different for the women. That their challenges would cut deeper. Though I had created a fantasy realm, it was not intended as a departure from this world, but a lens by which to examine it.
Sometimes it is the thing that sears us that demands our examination.
The idea is merciless, relentless scrutiny. It is to describe what Virginia Woolf called “that spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head,” that spot we cannot see for ourselves. As Woolf points out, women have had this inaccessible spot described to them by men since the written word. There is still value, it seems to me, in women taking our turn to describe what we see. Even now, in 2020. I don’t think we’ve progressed so much that grappling with our lived experience of sexism has ceased to be relevant. I think there is actually more to explore, more to understand, and more to say.
There’s another quote I like, this from the late, great Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” Sometimes what you write will strip bare realities that are depressing, painful, and unfair.
The Poet King hits bookshelves on March 24th. It is now available for pre-order.
Ilana C. Myer has written for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Previously she was a freelance journalist in Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Post, The Forward, Time Out Israel and other publications. She lives in New York City. You can find out more about her here.