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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On the Borders and In-Between by Alyc Helms (author of The Dragons of Heaven)

On the Borders and In-Between: 
A fox-girl's guide to storytelling
by Alyc Helms

My author bio has changed over the years as I slipped from thing to thing to thing. My interests orbit around a few fixed loci—writing, gaming, theater—but the execution is always shifting. It's the center that remains constant: my fascination with liminality, gender, and foxes.

That's a center hard to unpack. I first became aware of the concept of liminality in my anthropology undergrad days through the work of Victor Turner (and, later, to the source in Arnold van Gennep). Originally used by van Gennep to describe the process of breakdown and reconstitution of social identity in rituals conducted by small-scale communities, the concept of liminality was expanded upon by Victor Turner to describe how any society, large or small, can use these rituals to symbolically expel and then reintroduce members in new roles, thus allowing moments of malleable identity even in rigid social structures, all aimed at building a sense of communitas.

Okay, more unpacking. Marriage is the go-to example of a ritual centered around the breakdown and reconstitution of identities. You start out a single person, which has certain symbolic and material meanings and connotations depending on the society. Through a series of rituals--hen nights, wedding showers, specialized language that marks you as neither single nor married (bride/groom), specialized clothing that marks your status—your identity is broken down. You become something strange. Unfixed. Monstrous. Dangerous. There's a reason we put brides in veils to protect guests, to protect the bride (traditionally, the bride is the most monstrous because she is the one undergoing the biggest breakdown and social transition).

Stories play with this. There's a reason movies and television shows build on the tension leading up to on-screen weddings. We know there's power in that unfixed identity. We know things can go wrong. In that moment of destabilized social order, we're called to examine consciously the social truths we take for granted: what does it mean to be single? To be married? Is she just doing this for the security (if she is, why is that a bad thing?) Is he going to be faithful (if he isn't, why is that a bad thing?) How do our personal beliefs and expectations align with and differ from the norm?

Stories lead us to expect breakdown. The bride runs away. The groom gets cold feet. When the officiant asks if there's anyone present who knows why these two should not be wed, the room hangs on a breath of hope—but are we hoping the answer is 'yes' or 'no'? Hell, the whole, FANTASTIC move to same-sex marriage is a huge, liminal middle finger to people who like their social order to be a particular flavor of heteronormative.

Stories lead us to expect breakdown because breakdown is conflict. Breakdown leads to breakthrough. Stories thrive on that shit. But eventually, whether it be through the expected steps of 'I now pronounce you...' and the reception and the cake and throwing the bouquet/garter, or through more thorny individual trials, the social order is restored. We have man and wife (or wife and wife, or husband and husband), or we have single people once again. Stories have resolution to a new status quo. The powerfully monstrous undefined has been defeated through being defined, shaped into easy understanding, and brought back into the fold.

So. Yeah. That's liminality, and it's some cool shit.

It gets even cooler when you start to think of it in terms of gender, and especially around the idea of genderplay and genderqueer individuals. We've seen recently an example of powerful liminality in the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the ritual steps of breaking down her old identity and reconstituting it into a new identity that we find familiar and comforting (I use the term 'we' loosely, recognizing that for transphobic people, she will always be dangerous and monstrous). Social order restored because Vanity Fair has shown us she's acceptably 'passing' in a cis-normative fashion.

But there's another interesting conversation that has been amplified by Caitlyn Jenner's high-profile transition, which is the conversation around queerness and genderplay—the idea that trans people shouldn't have to 'pass' to have their gender identity acknowledged and accepted. Further, the idea that gender doesn't have to be something we are, but rather can be a set of activities and behaviors we engage in. Genderplay is the attempt by some people to remain liminal. To not be reconstituted into the social order. To remain dangerous, powerful, monstrous, and constantly challenging the assumptions we make about gender, sex, sexuality, etc.

Which brings me to foxes. Foxes are worldwalkers. They are twilight creatures. Border creatures. They are ubiquitous, yet also inescapably liminal. My favorite passage about foxes comes from Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter:

Presently he saw rising up all white over the flowers a fox that was facing him with his white chest and chin, and watching the troll as it went. The troll went near to him and took a look. And the fox went on watching him, for the fox watches all things.

He had come back lately to those dewy fields from slinking by night along the boundary of twilight that lies between here and Elfland. He even prowls inside the very boundary, walking amongst the twilight; and it is in the mystery of that heavy twilight that lies between here and there that there clings to him some of that glamour that he brings with him to our fields.

"Well, Noman's Dog," said the troll. For they know the fox in Elfland, from seeing him often go dimly along their borders; and this is the name they give him.

"Well, Thing-over-the-Border," said the fox when he answered at all. For he knew troll-talk.

"Are the haunts of men near here?" said the troll.

The fox moved his whiskers by slightly wrinkling his lip. Like all liars he reflected before he spoke, and sometimes even let wise silences do better than speech.

"Men live here and men live there," said the fox.

"I want their haunts," said the troll.

"What for?" said the fox.

"I have a message from the King of Elfland."

The fox showed no respect or fear at the mention of that dread name, but slightly moved his head and eyes to conceal the awe that he felt.

"If it is a message," he said, "their haunts are over there." And he pointed with his long thin nose towards Erl.

"How shall I know when I get there?" said the troll.

"By the smell," said the fox. "It is a big haunt of men, and the smell is dreadful."

"Thanks, Noman's Dog," said the troll. And he seldom thanked anyone.

"I should never go near them," said the fox, "but for ..." And he paused and reflected silently.

"But for what?" said the troll.

"But for their poultry." And he fell into a grave silence.

Mmm. Chickens...

Ahem. Foxes are awesome! Foxes are anthropologists and folklorists. They're liminal, they're genderqueer. They're monstrous and powerful. I have a fox in my book (I think I was supposed to talk about the book at some point). I have a wedding that remains unresolved and a hero who plays with gender expectations like they're tinker toys. Because, really, almost everything I write comes back to these three themes: Liminality, Gender, Foxes.

Lucky for me, it's a fertile playground, and there's still lots to say.

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About the Book

The Dragons of Heaven
by Alyc Helms

Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.

Lung Huang isn't quite as ancient as Missy expected, and a romantic interlude embroils her in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di-Lung Huang's brother and mortal enemy-raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier.

As Missy prepares to confront Lung Di, she faces a tough decision: remain loyal to Lung Huang and see China destroyed, or side with the bad guy and save the world.

Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 2nd 2015 by Angry Robot

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About the Author

Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes.

She’s a freelance game writer and a graduate of Clarion West, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, to name a few. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, will be published by Angry Robot Books in June 2015.

You can find Alyc online at http://www.alychelms.com and follow her @alychelms on Twitter.

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