by Mimi Khúc
Like any awkward, nerdy teenager, I took to epic fantasy like I needed air, all those years ago. Didn’t matter that almost all of the writers and main characters were white, that gender and sexuality tend to be pretty fucked up, that I had to morph myself into some whiter straighter more-normatively-feminine version of myself to fit into these worlds. Because magic could make anything possible. There was agency, power, in these alternate universes, and an awkward, bullied, chunky Asian American girl could be something else.
These worlds made sense. Histories, cultures, complete, fully-formed. Rules. And the protagonist’s discovery of his/her (usually his) powers was a process of mastery over the rules, over the world.
I can’t tell you how unbelievably psyched I was when I heard HBO was making a fantasy series. If any network could do justice to fantasy, it would be HBO. But I had never heard of George R.R. Martin before; I hadn’t really engaged the fantasy world for a few years. (Grad school saps the life out of you, makes you think you don’t have time, shouldn’t make time, for for-fun reading, makes almost all reading less fun somehow, makes you die a little, sometimes a lot. Another post.) So, in preparation for the show, I decided to read the books. I always read books before movies. I hate getting introduced the other way around. Book > movie. Always.
I HATED THE BOOKS. But I read EVERY SINGLE ONE. Hating it the entire way but not able to put them down. And now with the show, I cannot stop watching. Those who read and/or watch Games of Thrones know there is little sense of rules or mastery or fairness. Instead, there is violence, abuse, systems of power that favor the powerful, good people dying, why are they ALWAYS dying?! Good people die. All the fucking time. And no magic to save them. Well, very little, and it is dark and scary and uncontrollable.
George R.R. Martin is such a different kind of fantasy writer. Where is the hero(ine)? Where is the arc of self-discovery and mastery? Where is the MAGIC?! I hated the books not because they weren’t well-written — Martin’s world and characters are some of the most (morally) complex I’ve seen; there is a terrible beauty to it all — but because of how they made me feel. Constant anxiety and disappointment and rage. And distrust! I did not, could not, trust the writer anymore. Horrible things could happen at any moment, betrayal and loss and trauma at every turn. (Umm, the Red Wedding. What.The.Fuck.) I found myself trying to disengage emotionally, trying not to care about characters as it became increasingly clear that Martin had an almost perverse interest in the exact opposite of character preservation. But I couldn’t. I kept reading. I’m still watching. And I’ll await the next book, the next season, with both excitement and dread.
Why has GoT garnered such a fanatical following? People who have never been interested in reading fantasy have become huge fans of the show. Friends of mine cite the political intrigue, the rich characters, the plot twists. But it is also this never-know-what-will-happen-or-who-will-die feeling of suspense, a strange vulnerability that we can allow ourselves to access just for a little while. There is something exciting about danger, the unknown, being unsettled, feeling unsafe — in the safety of your living room. A kind of vulnerability that privilege perhaps spares us from in our real lives in differential ways but can be accessed through violence and vulnerability on screen, that belongs to Others. A kind of emotional appropriation and catharsis?
I’m not sure I can really explain why readers and viewers revel in investing in Martin’s characters and then losing them in profound ways, how they find some kind of emotional life, or catharsis, in loving and rooting for and mourning and even reviling these characters intensely. (An example of Martin’s literary magic: how we forget that we used to hate Jaime for Bran, for his shockingly casual attempt at child-murder that started this whole series, because somewhere along the way we began loving him, for Brienne, for the loss of his hand, for what we hope he can be. Seriously, how the fuck did Martin get me to care about Jaime so much?! Great, ANOTHER character I have to worry about dying. Or fucking up.) As thrilling as that emotional journey is, it’s also difficult. GoT, unlike much of the fantasy genre, is a world that does not make sense. And cannot be mastered. People you love die. People you trust betray you. You betray yourself. Chaos and power and ugliness rule.
This is a world that, despite being fantastical, looks very much like our own.
Perhaps therein lies the attraction. Even as I want sense-making and agency and empowerment from fantasy, I’m hooked on this series — I want to live and die with these characters, to abhor their struggles and glory in their victories. And most of all, I want to hope. I still hope. Even in this dark world, I still hope for some kind of happy ending, some kind of justice. I want to believe.
And so it goes with the real world.
You might be wondering what this has to do with a radical qtpoc politics. Or even qtpoc lives more generally.
Much of the GoT fandom probably cannot feel with and for people in the real world who face structural violence on a daily basis, the most vulnerable to everyday systems of exploitation. The violence and traumas of this world don’t register as such. We can fear for the Stark children, root for Tyrion, exult for Danaerys — but many of us cannot see or mourn black children dying in the streets of our cities (and sometimes gated communities); the appalling, insidious obstacles the disabled face; the shape-shifting monster that is misogyny that creates not only glass ceilings but also soul-crushing degradation and compromised life chances for women, for the feminine, for those embodying non-normative gender. Most people don’t have — or more accurately, have not developed, have not worked to develop — the political, ethical, and emotional capacity for radical compassion and a life practice that reflectively and consistently engages the ways power and violence operate along social categories in everyday life.
My questions: For those who watch and read and revel, living an emotional life of love, hope, pain, rage, with these characters — how to map this onto the real world, how to make visible to yourselves and to others the kinds of horrific violence and loss that rules people’s daily lives? And for those of us who live in the darkest parts of a world like GoT (and I’m not saying these two groups are mutually exclusive — no, we are all live-ers, die-ers, watchers, in differential ways), how do we survive, and, ultimately, how do we dream our way out of this nightmare? I don’t know if Martin will provide answers, paths to hope and justice, in his final books. But I do know he is kindling a form of emotional fuel that, if harnessed and directed, could drive that kind of dreaming, and building, across communities.
Nerds out there, what fantasy (or sci-fi, which deserves its own reflection) has captured your imagination and why? What do you think are the possibilities and limits of speculative fiction for radical change? For queer communities of color in particular? And, most importantly, who are the badass qtpoc writers out there doing amazing spec fic work? I need reading recs!
All work published on BGD is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Mimi Khúc is a qwoc Viet Am writer, scholar, mother, doula, and foodie, based in the DC area. Guilty pleasures: reading epic fantasy, eating her daugher’s leftovers, calling out well-meaning white girls. Find some of her writings on Asian American (post)academic life and cultural politics at not that kind of asian doctor.
This writer received an honorarium for this work.SUPPORT BGD’s writers and help amplify the voices of queer and trans* people of color!
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel,The Summer We Got Free. It just won the Lambda Literary Award.
Follow us on Twitter: @blackgirldanger
LIKE us on Facebook