Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Fantasy Matters: A Personal Apologia updated

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)I

I wore my new Ghanaian dress to the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It wasn’t a costume, I admit; but it was a beautiful, show-offy, peacock sort of dress. You might call it my Sunday best, except that it was midnight on a Friday.

Afterwards, I drove home at 3am with a headache from crying, trying to blink my salted contacts back into place. The themes of death, absence, and longing had been so beautifully handled in the movie, and I was trying to articulate to myself why it had hit me so hard. The usual apologia for fantasy is this: that it reflects the real world. I understand that argument. But it doesn't sit well with me. “Seeing my own world in a new way” didn't account for what I was feeling. I realized that the reason I personally read, see, and write fantasy is not because it helps me understand the real world; rather, it’s because fantasy confirms my intuition that this world is not the real one.

If you have a brain, sirens should be going off. They might, for me, if I’d read the previous sentence and not known the author. (Hi, self.) But I seem sane in other areas. I pay taxes. I have lots of friends, who also pay taxes. I earned degrees in science from excellent schools.

The Chronicles of NarniaAnd, being a good scientist, there are two biases I need to lay out up front: first, I was raised Catholic. And ours was a kind of Catholicism seen so rarely these days—a progressive, creative, passionate Catholicism that celebrated love over all. Fantasy was not out of place; The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were practically required reading. They became my Scripture, far more precious to me than biblical Scripture. No one saw this as a problem. Because of this, religion and fantasy are, for me, closely related; and I say that not to diminish either one, but to elevate both.

Second, I lost my Mom young. I was eight when she developed a brain tumor. Even though the operation to remove it was successful, she went blind, then began losing motor abilities and cognitive faculties. She grew more incapacitated as I grew up, and died when I was twenty. The relevance is this: it’s a common trait of motherless children to invest in, or invent, fantasy worlds. I name these influences so that you know where I’m coming from. I also name them to admit that my sense that this world isn’t the real one might be just the vector sum of my brain chemistry and life history. That may very well be; I admit it. But please read on anyway.


Ursula Le Guin has written much on the purpose of fantasy. For example, in her 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?,” she wrote that the truest use of imaginative fiction is “to give you pleasure and delight.” But her blustering straw man does not accept this. So she names the second truest answer, which is “to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.” This is the classic purpose of fantasy I referred to above. Again, I understand it, but I don’t like it.

I’ll tell you a story to explain why. When I was nine years old, I had a set of beautiful holographic pencils that I carried around with me everywhere. They were too sacred to sharpen. I vaguely regarded them as wands. When a friend asked if she could borrow one, I gave her the silver, thrilled that she would partake in the mystery of these pretty pencils. But when she returned it, it was sharpened. She’d actually written with it. I was horrified.

This is why Le Guin’s explanation fails for me: it’s as if she’s telling me the beautiful pencil is really just for finishing a subtraction worksheet, after all. What did I think it was for? I didn’t know. But I knew it had a special purpose, and I was preserving it for the day when I knew what that purpose would be. Until then, it gave me pleasure and delight.

And that’s the life I’ve chosen: one of pleasure and delight. (To Puritan ears, this sounds horribly selfish. But I reject the notion that pleasure and service to humankind are somehow mutually exclusive. That’s a whole other essay.) I’m happiest when I’m writing my morning pages, or singing onstage, or sharing art with people I love, or rehearsing a scene with my actors, or traveling in a new city alone, or reading a good novel, or talking with brilliant people, or painting a thank-you card, or listening to new music, or immersing myself in another world like the one J. K. Rowling created…or creating one of my own.

Which brings me back to my truest answer to the purpose of fantasy, even truer than pleasure and delight: that it reminds me this world isn’t the real one. Or, to be more precise, it isn’t the only one. (Ours may be real for a good many people, and in some ways, I envy them.)

But I’ve been worried about this my whole life. Mustn’t there be something wrong with me, if I prefer other worlds to this one? I’ve never been able to answer that, though I’m sure there are well-documented psychological classifications in the DSM-IV that describe this exact thing. And what does “prefer” actually mean? If I were offered the chance to leave—to really go to Narnia, to live there, as a friend of Cair Paravel, with quarters of my own and a horse to ride to Lantern Waste—I’d have to pause. I’m not sure. In Narnia, my life would be part delight, boredom, happiness and frustration; just as it is here. But would I still feel pulled elsewhere, as I do here; or would I feel that my soul and body were finally in the same place?


You’d think this obsession with fantasy was always harmonious with my daily life. But quite the opposite, in fact. When I was growing up, and my mother was becoming more disabled, I’d actually have fights with her about reality. In her world, her friend Cathy was living in the cupboard (in a vaguely reproachful capacity). She heard marbles on the stairs, and always warned me to watch out for them. Every day, she’d ask us whether we’d been with her on the “other side.” Despite being bedridden, she left and came back every day; sometimes multiple times a day.

The Wheel of TimeI had a very hard time with this. Of course, I was also an angry teenager. Despite being absorbed in The Amber Chronicles and The Wheel of Time and The Hand of Thrawn, when it came to my mother, I was very concerned with laying down what was Real and what was Not. I would enter her room and ask, “Is it AM or PM, Mom? AM or PM?” And she would look very confused and hesitant; hesitant, probably, because she knew how much it mattered to me that her answer be correct
Now I understand I was trying to control a situation I felt utterly helpless and sad about. But it led only to more sadness. Over the years, I realized that I could stop trying to force her to align with my reality, and instead admit that her world was as real as mine. Then the wall parting us could vanish, and I could just climb into her bed and curl up next to her and hold her hand.

So I did.

So if my mother’s world was also real, how many other worlds are there? How could we get to them? Are they accessible at all, through mind or body or spirit?

I’m thirty years old. This isn’t metaphor or make-believe. This is my reality.


I was afraid to write this essay. That’s very unusual for me. I’ve rarely been afraid to write anything, including essays of a personal nature—disclosure is not the currency of intimacy, to me.

I realized I was afraid to write it because I’m afraid I’m wrong. Folded into my intuition about other worlds is, undeniably, the hope that my mother exists in one. And that I will be reunited with her. And that we’ll get to talk about everything we never got to talk about, in a single morning that itself lasts years, where sunlight pours over the kitchen table.

If I’m never to see her again, what’s the use of anything?

That is the question that scares me the most.

But I’m here now, and I do love this world for its own sake. And there are people who love me. So if I’m to sit with this question that scares me most, I have a choice about how I want to live: to know for sure, or to let go of needing to.

Let me explain in another way.

When I was in graduate school, I analyzed a lot of rocks. To be more precise, I crushed them and ran solvents through them and collected the drippings, which I then inserted into a machine that blew apart the drippings, so as to tell me what was in the drippings. This was routine. Nine times out of ten, I saw what I expected to see. (Carbon chains, mostly, and some rings.) But one time out of ten, I didn’t. I would get an array of weird peaks. Or the chromatograph would turn up blank. No problem, then; I’d just run the sample again, and usually get what I expected to see.

But…what happened that one time? The classic answers are machine error and human error (yea, Scylla and Charybdis). But while I constructed a neat narrative based on the data that satisfied statistical significance, I was actually drawn to the anomaly. The uncertainty.

Now I understand why. Determinism had already failed me on a personal level. If Mom’s cancer was removed, and the doctors did everything they could to help her, why did she only get sicker? Determinism had also failed me in the religious dimension. If I prayed for twelve years for her to get better, why did she die right in front of me? Nothing happened the way it should have.

So I could become incredibly bitter, and clamp down, and devote my life to curing cancer and eradicating religion.

Or I could give up control, and admit that I don’t know anything for sure. Including whether other worlds exist. Including whether my mother’s did. Including whether I’ll ever see her again.

So mystery has become my dwelling place. This is what fantasy means to me: an expression of infinite possibility, including that I am right about other worlds, and that I am wrong.

What does it mean to you?

I imagine that’s a personal question. I’m happy to be here, and I don’t intend on going anywhere anytime soon. But I’ve always felt that I belong elsewhere. I see visions of other worlds all the time, in sparks and dreams, as if I were peeking over the garden wall. I like to describe what I see. In fact, I’ve made it my life’s work.

Maybe those who feel the same way I do will feel comforted. What do I think fantasy is for? I don’t know. But I know it has a purpose, and I will write for the day when I know what that purpose is.

Until then, it gives me pleasure and delight.