I was saving this blog post for December, but I think in light of the events in Ferguson, MO last night, now is a good time to post this. This is probably going to be the most emotionally difficult piece that I’ve ever written for the public, so bear with me!
I was born in Florida and raised in a small town in South Carolina. I went to a primarily white private school. My parents are hard-working blue collar individuals who felt that making sure their child had a good education was the key to their child’s future success. I received a scholarship to Winthrop University, a small public college that was vibrant with diversity and a strong liberal arts program, and I majored in English. But this is getting off track from the point I hope to make here. The point is, as a young child, I was a poor white kid going to school with rich white kids. I didn’t know many people of color, and I didn’t know anyone who was gay, or otherwise different from the homogeneous group of people I went to school with. Those who were different, like me, were bullied because they made good grades, or read “weird” books, or doodled dragons on all of her class notes.
When I was 14, I was extremely excited to get the book club catalog and order books through my school. That particular year, I saw a book cover that caught my eye. I had no idea what I was in for when I ordered the whole trilogy at once. What I saw was a nice looking guy and a pretty white horse. What I bought was Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price, The Last Herald-Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. What I read in those pages forever changed my life. Those books were the first fantasy novels that really stuck with me. It was the first time I could read about someone who was so different from me but had problems I could relate to on some level. Vanyel, the protagonist of the series, is very young and has realized that he’s different from other men. He is bullied for loving music and not wanting to practice fighting. His father never really bonds with him because they don’t understand each other, so Vanyel is sent away to school where he discovers he’s shay’a’chern, or a homosexual.
I did not know any gay people at that point in my life. I think I barely knew what “gay” meant other than mean kids calling each other “gay” if they were different in any way. I think we had briefly discussed it in a health class, but there was no real way for me to know what it meant to be gay. This book opened my eyes to a whole new world, and not just in a fantasy sense. Using other terminology I think helps the reader get past emotionally charged words like “gay” and “lesbian” and “homosexual” and get straight to the heart of the matter, which is that this person is different from most people in his world and his emotional struggles are incredibly real and valid. I was bullied for being different. I was called a “lesbian” by my classmates even though I’m not one. Very few people reached out to me to find out who I really was as a person. Vanyel struggles with life or death situations with people he loves as well as that internal struggle we all go through when we’re trying to figure ourselves out. I could put myself in his shoes and see what it was like to be gay. And I could see that love and compassion for other human beings regardless of who they love is how we survive in this world. I could also see that being bullied is a survivable situation, and that I can be strong and loved and successful regardless of what people said about me.
When I moved to New York, I met an avid reader of Tor’s books at New York Comic Con. We became fast friends, and shortly after, he came out to me and another friend. We were among the first few people he had come out to in the city, and he had only just prior to that come out to his family. He was in his early 30s at the time and had never told anyone he was gay before that. He spent his entire life hiding his true self because he was afraid of judgement, afraid of what his church would say, and afraid of how his family would react. He spent too many years praying that God would change him and make him not gay. I gave him the Last Herald-Mage trilogy partly because I knew he could identify so strongly with Vanyel and partly because I wanted him to understand that I could be empathetic to his situation too. That I wasn’t going to judge him, and that I fully accepted him for who he is no matter what. That he deserved happiness the same as all of the other human beings on this planet do. He is one of the brightest lights in my life, and one of the happiest people I know today. I have never met someone who has struggled so much and ended up being one of the most optimistic people I know. You cannot know him and not love him.
I may be getting a little long-winded here, but I also wanted to talk about my recent experience of seeing Interstellar in the theater. As you can probably tell, I grew up strongly on the fantasy side of things. I wasn’t terribly interested in science fiction despite the fact that I loved actual science (only museums, not classes!). Ender’s Game was as important to me in high school as Magic’s Pawn was, and for largely the same reasons. Compassion for others, especially when they are different, is a key lesson in that book, and I’ll never forget it, but I wasn’t really into much else about science fiction. Over the weekend, I saw Interstellar, and I, personally, was blown away. This piece of science fiction includes the human story of survival condensed down into a father’s struggle to make sure his children survive on a dying Earth. The message at the end of this movie is full of hope.
Science fiction allows us to imagine possible futures for the human race and give us hope that we might have a future despite the fact that sometimes our species can be so full of darkness. Fantasy can allow us to understand the world through the eyes of people who are very different, including race, sex, orientation, and even species. And all of this, to me at least, is why fantasy and science fiction matter. So, for Thanksgiving, I want everyone to think about the science fiction or fantasy novel that helped open your mind you when you were growing up, and I want you to donate it to a library in a struggling community. I think we can all make a difference in the world one book at a time. And I think it’s time we stopped being outraged and started doing something to make the world we live in a better place.