Friday, October 21, 2011

Race and Speculative Fiction: Teaching The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Next semester, I get to teach a seminar on race and difference in speculative fiction.  I'm very excited about the class, and N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one of the books that I am most looking forward to teaching.

Although I have already ordered the books for the class, what I do with them is still up in the air.  I have a few ideas for how to go about teaching this text, but I'd love to hear your suggestions as well--please post your ideas in the comments! [plot spoilers]

Right now, the class is split into three main units, one of which looks at representations of slavery.  In this unit, the class will be reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, Octavia Butler's Kindred, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  I'm hoping that the very different appearances of the supernatural in each of these texts will provide a helpful lens for thinking about how these novels address slavery.  I plan to use the complicated dynamic between god and slave in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a way to think through some of the power dynamics represented in both Morrison and Butler's texts.

I also plan on using W.E.B. DuBois discussion of double-consciousness from The Souls of Black Folk as a way to talk about the narrative structure of Jemisin's novel.  The dual narration by both Yeine and Enefah (without it being made explicit that that is what is going on) was one of the aspects of the novel that I found most effective, and I'm interested to see how my students can use DuBois to think about how this narrative structure might have something to say about race.

I teach a lot of contemporary texts, and one of the benefits of this is that I can bring in what the author is writing about her work right now.  Jemisin has a number of fascinating posts on her blog--including this post about why her book should not be in the African American section--and I plan on using posts such as this to start a discussion about the assumptions we make about race in the books that we read.

Finally, since many of my students will be familiar with Tolkien, I want to use Jemisin's novel to examine the claim made by blogger Thomas Belknap: "that fantasy writing is inherently racist."  He argues that in book after book, we see orcs being orcs, elves being elves, and identity is determined by race.  I want to challenge my students to see how Jemisin uses and alters familiar fantasy tropes--the association of light with good and dark with evil, for example--to rethink these static categories of race and depict a process of identity formation that is much more fluid.

What would you do?  I'd love to hear how you'd approach teaching this novel!