Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Postcolonial Fantastic as New Ground of Invention: Reading Carole McDonnell's "Lingua Franca"

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Postcolonial Fantastic as New Ground of Invention: Reading Carole McDonnell's "Lingua Franca"

Article excerpt

IN RESPONSE TO SPECULATIVE FICTIONS THAT PERPETUATE RACISM AND CULTURAL appropriation, writers engaged with postcolonial questions about representation employ science fiction and fantasy for the purposes of social and cultural critique. Their reterritorializations of genres categorized as speculative constitute significant interventions in contemporary debates about "writing the other." The controversy surrounding RaceFail '09, an internet discussion about the topic that took place in January of 2009, suggests a need to re-think the relationship between the real and its often exoticist circumvention in speculative fiction. (1) How does one reconcile pretensions to the speculative with the imaginative plundering of real peoples and cultures? To what extent can unreal or secondary worlds provide alibis for capitalizing on white privilege? Drawing on Native-American theory and theories of diaspora, multiculturalism, and postcolonialism, I show how one work of speculative fiction wrestles with such questions. Carole McDonnell's "Lingua Franca" interrogates the process whereby a dominant culture views a colonized other through narrow speculative lenses hostile to alternative life ways and local knowledges. in foregrounding the real and material effects perpetuated by oppressive modes of seeing, the story demonstrates how the postcolonial fantastic might productively engage colonialist imperialism and its transformations within a global order.

The need to consider alternative elaborations of the fantastic is underscored not only by tendencies in mainstream speculative fictions to bypass actual experiences of colonialism and racism to depict what Jamil Khader calls "difference in the abstract" (110) but also by the ways in which certain modes of fantasy have exoticized and continue to exoticize peoples consigned to the periphery. This is not to conflate the literary fantastic with a psychoanalytic notion of fantasy but to remark the ways in which they overlap. Structures of fantasy that contributed to racist caricatures of the colonized other--an example is the Pagan Princess motif employed by John Smith in his rewriting of his encounter with Pocahontas--underpinned Europe's civilizing mission between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they support contemporary commodifications of cultural difference today. To paraphrase Scott Schaffer, realities perceived as culturally different are overwritten in efforts to appropriate certain aspects of culture out of context and sell them to consumers as signifiers of American (or so-called "Western") political, cultural, and imperial attitudes (par. 1). "This co-optation and perversion of local histories," Schaffer elaborates, "not only removes and rewrites these histories from their specific contexts, but also reduces the corresponding social geographies to terrains that can be colonized" (par. 1). While Schaffer refers to the Walt Disney Company's tendency to appropriate culture, his statement also applies to "imagineerings" that reduce postcolonial geographies to exoticized terrains. Despite their depiction of worlds radically different from our own, fictions marketed under the rather spurious categories of sf and fantasy often reproduce the same phantasmatic structures that make such exoticist maneuvers possible in the first place. At best, these genres challenge the unconscious fears and desires forming the basis of colonial discourses; at worst, they restage colonial encounters with little to no critical subtext, aesthetically decontextualizing and fetishizing thinly disguised versions of real Indigenous peoples and cultures. (2) Hence the pressing need for writers to adopt a double strategy, at once deploying reality as a relatively transparent signifier (i.e., as a given) and launching a critique of certain constructions of reality.

A paradox exists here: namely, even as writers are compelled to emphasize the constructedness of reality in response to imagineerings of the real, they also invest in some version of "truth. …

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