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Bookworm Festival Pulse : Addressing Sexism in Fantasy, with Samantha Shannon

Why is so hard for us to imagine, even within the blurred boundaries of fantasy, a world that is equal? This is a question Samantha Shannon, one of the youngest fantasy writers of our time, poses to her audience at the Bookworm.

Why do we keep recreating the same mistakes of the real world, even in fantasy? Why is it so hard to imagine worlds that are equal?

For Shannon, a 27-year old whose career has already outstripped many author’s wildest expectations—she had a book deal while she was still at University, and her 7-part dystopian series will soon appear on television—sexual liberation is a central tenant of her world-creation.

Wearing a black and white polka dotted shirt, and speaking with articulate acuity, she tells us that “when I can name more fantasy books published that are sexist than are not sexist, then that’s a problem.” She connects this to her own literary choices by explaining that “every time I opened a fantasy book there were women being held down by the fact that they’re women, and I wanted to write something different to that. I wanted to write a story where you could have queer characters and queer romance that isn’t a problem.”

Perhaps it is not surprising to hear that in Shannon’s worlds there is a Queendom instead of a Kingdom, or that she goes out of her way to retell legends such as that of St. George slaying a dragon to rescue a princess; in Shannon’s version, there is a woman doing the slaying.

This commitment to equality goes beyond world building for Shannon, who connects her feminist perspective to our popular conception of strong female leads who are considered “strong” because they exhibit stereotypically “male” characteristics.

She gives an analogy most of us can relate to: the sisters Arya and Sansa, from the book series-turned-HBO sensation Game of Thrones. Arya deals with the injustices she’s endured by becoming a fierce warrior, and she is adored by fans for it. By comparison, Arya’s sister, Sansa, who exhibits stereotypically “female” traits such as “cunning and quiet endurance” is not given the same attention.

Shannon laments that these sorts of “female” traits seem to be misunderstood, and sometimes even demonized in popular culture. She argues that people are underestimating their value and that in truth it is these “female” characteristics have been the bedrock of survival for women throughout the ages. Even in Game of Thrones we see that Sansa survives longer than many other characters.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, she tells us, is another example: she’s emotionally stoic, she’s physically strong, she’s good with a bow and arrow, and she’s loved for these masculine qualities because this conception of a “strong woman” is idealized by the media.

Shannon isn’t saying there’s something wrong with strong female characters who exhibit these kinds of traits, but hopes, through her own work, to promote a femininity that breaks the mold while still overcoming extremely difficult circumstances.

It is interesting to learn that Shannon got some of the inspiration for the main character of her first New-York-Times best-selling book, The Bone Season, through the experience of being “beaten up on a very public street in London.” While there were people around who clearly saw what was happening, no one stepped in to help her. It is no surprise that this affront to common human decency stuck with the young writer, or that it played a large role in the creation of Paige, the female lead who Shannon describes as someone who would have intervened no matter what; her strong moral compass would not have allowed her to imagine another option.

Shannon describes the 7-part series that The Bone Season represents as her attempt to integrate epic fantasy with a dystopian genre. She says it’s the story of how that dystopia affects one woman, and the huge pressure she’s under to try to fight injustice. But dystopia is far from the only type of fantasy Shannon is interested in; her next series, the first book of which has been recently published (The Priory of the Orange Tree), will take place in a magical version of the past rather than a dystopian future. She is currently enmeshed in research that led the book’s magic system, drawing on the lore of dragon mythology from a variety of ancient civilizations.

Although Shannon goes out of her way to draw our attention to the enduring inequalities of modern-day fantasy, perhaps it is a testament to the changing times that her own books, committed to worlds run by women and dominated by sexual freedom, have been so wildly successful. Perhaps the equality of the worlds she creates will one day mirror real-life change, but until then the least we can do, as Shannon’s own work proves, is dare to imagine.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

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