Karen Lord’s debut novel Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, July 2010) was this year’s winner of The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature at Mythcon 42 in July. The novel also won the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award and Frank Collymore Literary Competition. The awards are a testimony to the book’s creative storytelling.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, reviewer Jayna Brown, said that “Lord’s strengths as a writer are her witty, often satirical understatement and her ability to juxtapose folk- and fairy-tale devices with modern idioms and cultural references.” Brown noted Redemption in Indigo’s Senegalese, Caribbean, and European influences.
Publishers Weekly said that Lord’s “retelling of a Senegalese folktale, packs a great deal of subtly alluring storytelling into this small package.”
Karen Lord’s debut novel is an intricately woven tale of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit. Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.
A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.
Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition…
…Once upon a time—but whether a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come, I may not tell—there was a man, a tracker by occupation, called Kwame. He had been born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes, and deeds of honour are told only to children. He regretted this oversight on the part of Fate, but he managed to curb his restless imagination and do the daily work that brought in the daily bread.
How do you see the world? Looking at the major issues we face—global warming, AIDS, terrorism, overpopulation, unemployment, renewable energy, the environment—do you view the world as “too broke to fix” or still within our capabilities to drastically improve and correct?
The books writers write are often impacted by their world views. Some agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement that “Man is a futile passion.” In fact, looking at most of the fiction published during the last hundred years or so, I suggest that most authors either agree with Sartre or think the public agrees with Sartre and wants to read stories that corroborate this world view.
In my latest post on Sarabande’s Journey, World of Wonder finding ‘Life in Truth,’ I wrote that “a lot of mainstream fiction has fled from wonder, pulled by science, technologies and difficult-to-solve world issues into realism, powerlessness, despair and alienation.” Some of this fiction gives us happy endings, but they’re usually small endings in a sea of troubles. That is to say, the lovers who will live happily ever after will do so as long as the screwed-up world allows it.
The alternative proposition to readers and writers who agree with Sartre is neither naiveté nor the false believe that life will save warring factions from themselves if only the parties involved will sit down and sing “Kumbayah” together. While naiveté and “Kumbayah” bring their adherents many positive moments and, perhaps the illusion of positive action, they are—I believe—taking a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to the problems of the world and, worse yet, to their own personal development.
In my novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my protagonist—who is trying to create a magical cloud inside his apartment—is advised to close his eyes. Why? Because as long as he sees that the cloud isn’t there yet, he’ll become more and more convinced he can’t create it. When he stops looking, he’s successful.
Now, I would never suggest that we stop being aware of the world’s problems and thereby give up on all the logical, science-and-techology-based approaches to solving them. Instead, I prefer the approach advocated by mythologist Joseph Campbell: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” As long as we, as individuals, focus on the huge problems of the world for which we see no viable solutions, we not only feel more alone, but more powerless as well.
Whether or not you were around or not during the 1960s, you’re probably aware that Washington, D. C. and/or the Kennedy administration was often referred to as “Camelot.” Rightly or wrongly—and regardless of political viewpoint—the Camelot we hoped for was on a par with the heroic dreams of the legendary King Arthur and his noble knights. Perhaps our hope was based on all the wrong reasons and perhaps it had too much “Kumbayah” and “Make Love Not War” in it, but it was hope. Hope has, it seems to me, become a rare commodity in both our lives and our fiction.
Looking at the rhetoric, few people believe that America as either a dream or a hope or a goal will ever become the Camelot of our imagination. Variously, it’s too late, too broke to fix, or too besieged by problems no man or woman or group can solve. In the minds of many, America is rather like the tragic world of King Arthur in Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King. Epic fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson summed up Camelot, as viewed by Tennyson like this:
Tennyson’s technique is to take a genuine, honest-to-God “epic” character (Arthur) and surround him with normal, believable, real human beings who lie and cheat and love and hate and can’t make decisions. So what happens? The normal, believable, real people destroy Arthur’s epic dream.
Donaldson suggests that many of us think we’re not capable of doing anything else because we believe that since “man is a futile passion” that we are powerless and incapable of creating a living, breathing real Camelot. He writes fantasy, in part, to demonstrate that man is capable of being an effective passion.
An Alternative to Sartre
I quoted storyteller Jane Yolen in my latest Sarabande’s Journey post, so those of you who read that will, I hope, forgive the repetition. In her book Touch Magic, she says that Life in Truth (as opposed to the world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.”
My philosophy of life does not include the viewpoint that men and women are powerless or that they don’t matter or that “evil” and “blame” are independent forces out there in the real world. As an individual, I believe in Life in Truth; that is, among other things, both a Joseph Campbell approach and a Jane Yolen approach. In my contemporary fantasies, The Sun Singer and Sarabande as well as in my magical realism adventure Garden of Heaven: Odyssey, I focus on stories with intense—and sometimes horrible—personal trials. And yet, my characters also find answers, answers that focus on themselves rather than on those who would destroy them or the world they believe in.
While I write contemporary fantasy rather than epic fantasy, I agree with Donaldson’s point of view about the value of fantasy fiction. His characters look within for answers, and this allows them to see the “real world” just the way it is while simultaneously seeing their dreams; that is to say, the world as it should be.
Paradox or not, I can reconcile Life Actual (the so-called real world) and Life in Truth, and understand clearly that while I don’t have what it takes to solve the large issues of the day, I am learning all that I need to know to solve the problems of myself. One day, as long as I don’t stare too intently at the problems themselves, the worlds of reality and of imagination will become one.
In Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my protagonist David Ward is convinced that some of the people we meet on rainy city sidewalks and between the dry-as-dust shelves in ancient libraries began their lives as fictional characters. Whether they first strayed through a writer’s thoughts as a random notion, stalked him along the boundaries of his waking world in twilight dreams, or arrived at the very moment the pen first kissed the paper with their name, such individuals are called into life because an empty space must be filled.
David claims he wrote a novel about a woman who meets his protagonist at an old transfer house where the city’s streetcar lines come together, allowing people to transfer from one city car to another or from a south side local to a north side interurban. It’s impossible to know whether Ward dreamt up a character whose depth and outlook were the very same as the depth and outlook of the soul mate he was seeking or whether his muse was moonlighting as a matchmaker.
At a time when David was lost, the fictional character appeared in his life as a living, breathing woman, and while she was in the process of saving his life, he asked how she happened to meet him by happenstance on a warm, Indian summer afternoon. She said he called her when he wrote what he wrote about the transfer house. Clearly, he needed her too much for her to live out her existence on a printed page. She is, in David’s mind, a very real woman who is filling a very real empty space.
He’s fair certain the gods tampered with the workings of the temporal world on the day when she had her first independent thought. He’s convinced of her reality, and I believe him.
As an author of fantasy novels, I can’t claim what my characters claim. I will not try to convince you that David Ward stepped out of Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, and became real, much less that a character in one of my character’s stories became real. Speculation along such lines leads to lunacy or into the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics that suggests that things that can happen, do happen.
Sarabande has entered dark territory
My protagonist in Sarabande was, for the many months I was actively at work on the novel, a very strong presence in my thoughts. She had a story to tell. Like a living and breathing person, it took her awhile to trust me enough to share the most personal events and feelings that had, for so many years, lurked powerfully in her thoughts. Figuratively speaking, I followed her on her journey from Montana to Illinois and back as a silent scribe. I could not intervene because my powers as an author do not allow me to tamper with the workings of my stories.
Now, the novel has been written and published and I feel rather lost because, fictional though she is, Sarabande’s voice—as interpreted by my muse—has been a voice constantly speaking. She needed me to hear her and disseminate her story to those who love fantasy worlds that hover close enough to our world that they rattle the windows as well as our thoughts while we’re reading a story.
When Sarabande was published, Sarabande stopped talking. There was nothing else for her to say. My muse became quiet as well. At the end of the novel, Sarabande understood many things. I understood them, too. Then she stepped into a well-lighted mountain cabin with two friends and closed the door. They have much to discuss, but I am no longer hearing Sarabande’s voice. I have no idea what is being said and done on the other side of that door. In the railroad business, “dark territory” refers to sections of the line where there’s no communication between a train and the outside world. That’s an apt description for Sarabande’s current whereabouts.
Many authors feel a bit lost when the finish writing a short story or a novel. The intense focus on the story for many months or many years is rather hard to replace with the chores of a normal day. The missing story-in-progress leaves an empty space. I can understand why a reader or a writer might speculate about his characters finding the wherewithal to transition from the world of fantasy into the world of reality as we currently understand it.
Yet, Sarabande ended at a natural place. Tempting as it may be to write past that ending, I think my words would not ring true.
A friend of mine asked, “What next?” I really don’t know. Perhaps I’ll write about stone masons in 16th century France or mountain climbers on the summit of Mt. Everest. Perhaps Sarabande will ask my muse to ask me to write another story about her life in the universe next door. She’s independent of me now and, in that regard, just as real in my memory as the people I’ve met on rainy city sidewalks and between the dry-as-dust shelves in ancient libraries. I can no longer tell you what she’s thinking.
I don’t know what’s next. No doubt, there are a lot of probable fictional characters out there with stories to tell. Hopefully, there are dreamers amongst them who need a scribe who loves mixing fantasy and reality in the same glass. When one of them is ready to talk, my muse knows my phone number and we can talk about what’s supposed to follow the words “once upon a time.”
Melissa Studdard’s joyfully written “Six Weeks to Yehidah” takes us into ten-year-old Annalise’s magical dreamscape where thoughts become things and light manifests in sparkling colors that live and breathe and speak.
An inquisitive child by nature, Annalise prefers the woods and fields to staying indoors. So when she finds herself on a grand adventure with sheep that learn how to talk, she is more than ready to explore each new wonder than to worry overly much about the strange and happy world that rises up around her as she skips from cloud to cloud.
While the book is categorized as “young adult,” it might be more suitably labeled as “children’s literature” based on its dialogue and plot. Even so, the book is filled with deeply spiritual symbolism and tongue-in-cheek hero’s journey references that adults will enjoy while reading this well-crafted story to their children.
Like the classics that have come before it, “Six Weeks to Yehidah” will delight readers of all ages, each finding something new in it every time they rediscover Annalise’s story.
As the August 31st release date approaches for my concemporary fantasy novel Sarabande, I am celebrating with a book give-away on GoodReads. Three free copies are available. All you have to do is surf over to GoodReads, click on the ENTER TO WIN button and fill out the form. (If you’re not a member of GoodReads, registration is free.)
Sarabande is the 80,000-word story about Sarabande’s journey from her alternate-universe home deep in the Montana mountains to central Illinois in search of the once-powerful Sun Singer. She needs his help to rid her of the haunting ghost of her sister Dryad whom she killed in self-defense three years ago. She knows she has a 1,650 trip ahead of her. She does not know that the journey itself will be just as perilous as confronting the evil temptress Dryad.
Released by Vanilla Heart Publishing, Sarabande can be read as a stand-alone novel or as a sequel to The Sun Singer. The e-book edition of Sarabande was released August 13 and is already available on Kindle.
Best of luck in the give-away. The entry deadline is October 1.
After her sister, Dryad haunts her from beyond the grave for three long and torturous years, Sarabande undertakes a dangerous journey into the past to either raise her cruel sister from the dead, ending the torment…or to take her place in the safe darkness of the earth.
Sarabande leaves the mountains of Montana for the cornfields of Illinois on a black horse to seek help from Robert Adams, the once powerful Sun Singer, in spite of Gem’s prophecy of shame. One man tries to kill her alongside a deserted prairie road…one tries to save her with ancient wisdom… and Robert tries to send her away.
Even if she persuades Robert to bring the remnants of his magic to Dryad’s shallow grave, the desperate man who follows them desires the Rowan staff for ill intent… and the malicious sister who awaits their arrival desires much more than a mere return to life.