Friday, 29 May 2009

The Poison Throne and gay men from abroad

I stayed awake most of last night reading Celine Kiernan's The Poison Throne, which was much more gripping than I'd bargained for. It's the first of a fantasy trilogy, set in an unnamed kingdom (I think?) in fictional Europe. Some of the most important relationships in this book are between friends - Razi and Wyn (who have been raised almost as siblings), Razi and Christopher, and Wyn and Christopher, who first bond over their shared love for Razi.
There's a lot about the dynamics of the connections between these three characters that is interesting, and I think Kiernan does this brilliantly. But the relationship that interested me most was the one between Razi and Christopher.

I don't want to give away plot details, but the threat of Christopher being harmed is frequently held over Razi's head to manipulate him. When Christopher is injured, Razi nurses him. They live in the same rooms. It's clearly a very intense friendship, and they're open about how much they care about each other.

And for a good chunk of the book, it was unclear (to me) whether this relationship was also a physical one. It could be; and while I didn't particularly want descriptive sex scenes (or any, really, what with all the plot-stuff going on) I loved that the possibility was left open. I thought Kiernan might be doing something really interesting and unusual by not attempting to define this relationship, not slot it neatly into some easily definte place.

Then page 313 happened.

Razi moves out of their shared quarters because 'people' have been saying that Christopher is his catamite. And suddenly this all becomes very familiar to the reader me. Razi is horrified, Wyn is horrified, Chris is amused and informs them that among the Merron (his own people, who do not live in this country) homosexuality is acceptable. Kiernan turns it into a teaching moment - Razi's disgust is seen as irrational and rather stupid, and Wyn is made to realise that she too is prejudiced. And certainly the reader isn't left in any doubt that Kiernan thinks homophobia is wrong. Yet it's still deeply disappointing to me.

This is mostly (I think) a literary thing - she re-establishes conventional definitions of relationships, and the Razi-Christopher bond remains unusually strong but stays within those limits. But ideologically, too, it's not entirely satisfying. The whole thing reminds me far too much of this exchange from Tamora Pierce's Page.

She stopped and turned back. "What you said about Garvey and Joren – it's not an insult in Yaman. Some men prefer other men. Some women prefer other women." Kel shrugged.
"In the Eastern Lands, people life that pursue their loves privately," replied Neal. "Manly fellows like Joren think it's a deadly insult to be accused of wanting other men."
"That doesn't make sense," Kel said.
"It's still an insult on this side of the Emerald Ocean, my dear.


Disclaimer first: I love Pierce. I reread her frequently, and many of my friends claim that she was crucial to them when they were growing up. I generally feel that I can trust her politics implicitly.

But it is rather convenient to have all these openly gay people (who of course aren't doing anything wrong, and you shouldn't discriminate against them) in countries other than the one where all the action is based. The author's praiseworthy politics are established, the young reader learns its valuable lesson, and all this without anyone who isn't heterosexual even entering the text; much easier than, for example, writing a queer hero.

Pierce and Keenan are both writing about feudal societies feeling the impact of comparitively progressive governments. This gives them plenty of opportunity to play around with race/class/gender and how prejudice works. I don't think it's as easy to play around with sexual preference though. Perhaps if they'd both chosen to set their books in ancient Greece.

I live in hope of Pierce coming out with a Tortall book that addresses this, and I know that Kiernan's next, The Crowded Shadows, contains an important gay relationship. But it's obvious that we're all not quite there yet.


Edit: It occurs to me that the sort of relationship I was hoping for for Razi and Christopher (including the purposefully unaddressed question of physical intimacy) has been done. It's original series Kirk and Spock!

12 comments:

Falstaff said...

But it is rather convenient to have all these openly gay people (who of course aren't doing anything wrong, and you shouldn't discriminate against them) in countries other than the one where all the action is based. The author's praiseworthy politics are established, the young reader learns its valuable lesson, and all this without anyone who isn't heterosexual even entering the text; much easier than, for example, writing a queer hero.Ummm...it's fantasy. It's all about the convenience of 'other' worlds. You want to see this done the hard way? Read Brideshead Revisited.

Aishwarya said...

Yes, this is fantasy, and YA fantasy specifically. There's therefore a huge amount of potential for reimagining real-world social relationships. There are writers who choose not to do this (though if you think this is how the genre as a whole functions I'd suggest you actually read some). When writers like Pierce and Kiernan, who actually show an interest in engaging with issues, take the easy way out/do so in a half-arsed manner, it's completely acceptable to point that out.

Falstaff said...

There's therefore a huge amount of potential for reimagining real-world social relationshipsYes, there is. But you're not asking for that. You're asking for them to populate their imagined worlds with real-world social relationships (I'm assuming you're not suggesting that homosexuality is not a "real-world social relationship"). Which makes little sense, because to explore real-world social relationships in a non-half assed way you need to do it in the real world.

don't get me wrong - I'm not dissing the genre. I think there's considerable potential to explore alternate gender relations through it - think Ursula Le Guin. I'm just saying that your standard for what is and is not 'easy' is illogical and arbitrary. Why is depicting real world social relationships at one remove from reality (which is what you're asking for) exciting and interesting, but doing it at two removes disappointing and easy? Imagine someone wrote a book with an openly homosexual hero. I could just as easily say: "It is rather convenient to have all these openly gay people (who of course aren't doing anything wrong, and you shouldn't discriminate against them) in worlds other than the one we actually live in." To take fantasy as seriously as you clearly do and then to complain about authors creating 'other' worlds is not just contradictory, its outright ludicrous.

bitch queen emily, PhD said...

Funny how "it's just fantasy" always gets thrown up whenever someone mentions the patently obvious fact that the ideal world for most fantasy writers doesn't feature a single fucking fully flesh GLBT person. Let alone one who actually gets to have sex and fall in love like people who are really really really real - you know, straight people.

It's sorta like how the future just almost always happens to be white in SF, except for a stray PoC in the background answering the phone.

But this is all just coincidence, mind. And it simply has nothing to do with the prejudices and/or unconscious biases of the actual people writing the books in this homophobic, transphobic and racist society. Nooo. It's one of those coincidences that just happens EVERY SINGLE TIME.

*pig flies past, carrying Falstaff's argument*

Teleute said...

@ Falstaff: Read Angela Carter's Passion of New Eve.

Aishwarya said...

You:"Yes, there is. But you're not asking for that. You're asking for them to populate their imagined worlds with real-world social relationships"

Me: "I thought Kiernan might be doing something really interesting and unusual by not attempting to define this relationship, not slot it neatly into some easily definite place."


My standard for what is and is not easy (and it's hardly "illogical" or "arbitrary", especially since these are writers who actually seem to want to show progressive politics) is in part influenced by the discussions of race-depiction that have been occurring in the SFF fandom since January - they're worth a read.

Since you do seem to think LeGuin is a writer worthy of your time, maybe you should read some of her commentaries on her own Earthsea books. You might find them enlightening.

fyn scarlet reed said...

"'The author's praiseworthy politics are established, the young reader learns its valuable lesson, and all this without anyone who isn't heterosexual even entering the text; much easier than, for example, writing a queer hero.' Ummm...it's fantasy. It's all about the convenience of 'other' worlds. You want to see this done the hard way? Read Brideshead Revisited."

I find it hilarious to imagine that the characteristics Aishwarya mentioned are somehow exemplified in Brideshead, of all things.

:laughs at bitch queen emily phD's comment: WELL SAID.

Aishwarya, I am a shallow and ill-read person, I am posting this comment just to say that my heart started beating a little faster when you wrote 'original series Kirk and Spock'.

celine said...

Hello Aishwarya,

I'm so glad you enjoyed The Poison Throne and that the relationships in the book appealed to you. The only thing I think you got a little askew in your review is when you said Razi's reaction to the rumours of his homosexuality seem ' irrational and rather stupid' I did not intend that at all. It is made clear that in Razi's world homosexual men are punished very severely for their natures, and that they are often hung or burned at the stake. I think Razi's reaction is a perfectly natural one in those circumstances, and I had no desire to make it a lesson on stupidity or lack of tolerance. My characters are what they are, regardless of whether I agree with their opinions or not and rather then a 'teaching' moment, this is supposed to be a moment that reflects Razi’s character and circumstance – and that of Christopher.

You are correct in stating that there is an important gay relationship in book two - but again, the men involved are 'real' to me. Their actions and reactions are not based on their sexual orientation, but on their history, their place in their society, and their beliefs. Their homosexuality is secondary in terms of the story to their love for each other, their strength of belief in their religion, and their devotion to their people. In short, they are human beings, who happen to be gay :0) As Razi and Chris are devoted friends, who happen to be straight. All of them flawed and human and just themselves in the end – as all my characters are intended to be.

I hope you enjoy the second book as much as you appear to have enjoyed the first, and I hope that you are not disappointed by the fact that I simply wrote gay characters - characters that I love- whose love for each other is simply part of them and not part of some lesson on tolerance.

all my best
Celine

Aishwarya said...

Celine - It's lovely to see you here!

You're right, it's unfair to describe Razi's disgust as "stupid" considering the sort of background he comes from. What I should have said is that it is clear that the book and the author believe persecuting people for being gay is wrong (and indeed, that should go without saying and I'd be very worried if you didn't believe this).

While I haven't (obviously) read the final version of The Crowded Shadows, I have read most of the sections where you deal with that particular homosexual relationship - and I think it's well done and touching. And yes, these are real characters, and I'm certainly not asking that they be token gay characters! If the relationship in question is less thrilling to me than the Razi-Christopher thing might have been, it's only,as I've explained, because the particular dynamics of the Razi-Christopher relationship fascinate me so much.

Erm. In short, great book!

Aishwarya said...

FSR - Yeah, I was puzzled by that too.
Also, there is no better reason to comment than Kirk and Spock. Fact.

celine said...

I love it when readers honestly express thier opinions, and I’m so glad you didn’t take offence at my giving my side of things.

I'm very flattered that Razi and Chris captured you! They will always be my darlings :0) But I gotto say, Sól and Ash are very close to my heart :0)

I'll sign off now as I figure it might make folk uncomfortable to talk about the book while I'm around and I’d rather you had the chance for honest conversation. But before I go, I must tell you how much I like your blog! It's very interesting and erudite.

all the best
Celine

LIz said...

I have another example for you of the same sort of thing! Robin Hobb in the Assassin and Fool trilogies, when the assassin guy has a huge moment of processing his homophobia!