Disappearing Natives: Notes for Future SF&F Stories

here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate 
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me and has failed 
The Natives should have died off by now. To still be alive is a miracle. Can you taste two billion year old air on your breath or the remnants of primordial seas in your sweat? Do you feel e-coli breaking bread in your bowels? Does your heart synch up with these words, these poetic echoes of ancient ancestors? Self and other, simultaneously…
The great acting teachers of my youth, Viola Spolin and Joe Chaikin, urged us to feel self with self. Chaikin[ref]And others: Victor Turner, Anna D. Smith, Augusto Boal to name a few.[/ref]believed we become the places we’ve been, the people we’ve known, the characters we play. A Zulu saying agrees: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: “a person is a person through (other) persons.” Leopold Senghor also famously declared, “I feel the other, I dance the other, therefore I am.”[ref]“Je pense donc je suis; écrivait Descartes …. Le Negro-africain pourrait dire: ‘Je sens l’Autre, je danse l’Autre, donc je suis’.” Senghor, Liberté 1: Négritude et humanisme (Paris 1964), 259.[/ref]Acting is a bridge from self to other. Knowledge is embodied. Meaning is a performance, a moment of exchange. We do this from public stages and in the theatre of mind/body. Feeling self with self in a world of pain and triumph requires more than I can manage some days. You too, perhaps?
Something is trying to kill me every day, but the Natives have not vanished.
As I sit down to write about selfhood and distant techno-information replacing local wisdom, about the mono-cultural imperatives of colonialism and global capitalism, I am bored with despair. Even an academic rant doesn’t appeal. I am haunted by the blasted body of a once handsome white male soldier encased in/attached to an iron-lung-like black box. This image comes from the fiction film, Source Code, but works as “real” to me. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is someone I know intimately for 93 minutes. Stevens’ pain, joy, exploitation, triumph fill the theatre of my mind/body. Actually Stevens’ body is a legless torso with stubs for arms and an injured skull… the barely living remains of a helicopter pilot shot down in the Afghanistan war. A tangle of wires feed in and out of his body, providing breath and sustenance, but also offering access to other bodies in parallel universes, where other (alternate?) realities play out. Forcing access, I should say. Steven’s shattered being is not under his control. Again and again, the protagonist-body, the person, the decorated, severely wounded white male soldier must ride a train about to blow up. He must live the explosion-death of another body — a body similar to his own, straight white middle class male. Imagine Gyllenhaal dropping into the body of an old Chinese lesbian. Would that be a blockbuster?
In between (simultaneous to?) riding the ghost train and coming to know the people who get blown up, Stevens is trapped in a crashed cockpit/escape pod, unaware of the black box life support. Three disjointed selves. It’s torture. Stevens can’t make sense of what is happening. His tormenters are military/scientist/spies: cool, dispassionate, Techno-wizards, citizens of empire, wielding their mighty post-industrial military genius to hunt down a terrorist who could bring their precarious empire to a stuttering halt with a dirty nuclear bomb.
Watching Source Code and recent SF films like Moon and The Adjustment Bureau, I am struck by the angst of the straight white male characters who should benefit from the current set-up, who should, with intelligence, physical beauty, heterosexuality, and economic access, be basking in deep privilege as the premier subjects of 21st century societies. Instead, these characters are ruthlessly exploited, by cold, distant, military industrialists. Techno-wizards (or, in the case of Adjustment Bureau, grey-suited “Angel” figures acting like corporate operatives) colonize the heroes for profit, technical/strategic advantage, or the so-called greater good. The heroes of these films are supposed to submit obediently to their colonization. Knowledge of the “big picture” is kept from them. The science/magic that affords the Techno-wizards and Angels immense power is not freely shared. The heroes rebel. They would be subjects of their own lives. A white woman, a robot servant, and a black male Angel aid them in defying empire. Using intuition, passion, and experience, the heroes glean knowledge from glitches in the system and eventually escape through said glitches.
Dismantling or reconfiguring the system is not an option.
Rebelling against evil corporate techno-wizardry or against humanity becoming machine-like is a favored SF film narrative.[ref]From Metropolis to Avatar, from 2001 to Terminator.[/ref]Critiquing/questioning technology often garners the critic an anti-technology, anti-progress label. The Luddites, for example, were not against technology but for decent wages and a good worker/technology interface.[ref]See Writings of the Luddites ed. by Kevin Binfield (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.)[/ref]Humans are tool-makers. To be anti-technology is to be anti-human. Our tools transform our environment, make the future, and create new human selves. Language/culture is perhaps our most profound tool, sustaining and creating our humanity. Humans co-evolve with our tools. Story is ubiquitous non-linear technology. The stories we tell (in every format) tell us how to be, shaping the stories we then tell. We are the selves possible in our story world…like the tragic tale of the regrettable, but inevitable demise of local or indigenous wisdom. In this long-running story, “progress” means replacing a local, experiential, concrete epistemology with a distant, virtual, and abstract way of knowing the world. Absentee cultural landlords colonize our minds, monetize our experiences, and collect our spirits for rent.[ref]The Luddite Fallacy insists that “progress” is always good for us all, even as “progress” concentrates more and more wealth and power in the hands of the elite promoting said “progress.” The colonized are still waiting for the trickle down promised by the robber barons and captains of industry. Wealth and power has yet to be democratically distributed.[/ref]
In the Disappearing Native Narrative (DNN), so-called body knowledge (intuition, passion, compassion, experience, non-linear metaphor) is pitted against reasoning (linear, literal deduction, dispassionate objectivity, logical reflection). Reasoning processes are not conceived as body knowledge. Calculating truth is superior to dancing truth. In postmodern empire, the metaphorical mind is neglected, disparaged but still operating. The literal mind garners full cultural support. The metaphorical mind is childish, playful, primitive, and feminine. The metaphorical mind is to be colonized and dominated by the superior, rational, literal mind. Thus the “Native” in all of us can be indulged, but never allowed free reign, never allowed to define reality, our society. We mourn this loss, but liberating “Native” impulses threatens empire.
According to the DNN, long ago, we were all spirit-beings. Our specific stories were rich with hard-earned communal wisdom that emerged from particular lived experiences. Supposedly, the noble (savage/wild) cultures of say Africans, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines are the last to disappear. Google for truth now. Beyond the gates of postmodernity we are all consumers and commodities, an exploitable resource of empire.
Mythology is powerful technology. Empire uses its dominant mythology to ignore, repress, defuse, denature, destroy alternate stories/realities.
In Source Code, Stevens uses the technology that enslaves him to liberate himself and save the people on the ghost train. Knowing them only eight minutes, again and again, Stevens comes to love them. They become part of him. The Techno-wizards prophesized their inevitable demise — in every possible reality — but Stevens creates an alternate reality, writes a story he would like to live.
Too few popular film narratives feature old Chinese lesbians, young Caribbean men, or Igbo women shapeshifters as “Native” protagonists using their embodied knowledge and techno-wizardry to defeat the empire that would colonize them. Realism is what folks are willing to believe on screen (stage or page) and off. Being absent from the blockbuster films, from the stories of our lives, we — Cherokee gay men, fat white women with zits, poor child laborers, could disappear, become unreal. But at WisCon — the feminist science fiction convention held every May in Madison, Wisonsin — I ran into novelists such as Timmi Duchamp, Nnedi Okorafor, and Geoff Ryman who stand on the “bridge between starshine and clay.” They (and writers like Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemison, Ursula K. LeGuin) keep company with me as we create a bridge to alternate realities with “Native” protagonists. The inevitable demise does not happen. The Natives do not disappear. Readers are dropped into bodies similar to or unlike their own. Dancing the other, feeling the other, they become themselves and celebrate that we have not been killed.
Andrea Hairston is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. She is Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. Her plays have been produced at Yale Rep, Rites and Reason, the Kennedy Center, StageWest, and on Public Radio and Television. She has published SF & F essays, a short story, and two novels: Mindscape which won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick and the Tiptree Awards; and Redwood and Wildfire which was published in 2011.
Top image courtesy of Flickr user The Rusty Projector

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