Is This Just Fantasy? : How To Get Away With Fantasy

Next week is Teen Read Week and around the nation, libraries will be creating programs, book displays, and lists of reading recommendations surrounding the 2015 theme: “Getting Away @ Your Library.”  When I realized that I was scheduled to post this month’s edition of ‘Is This Just Fantasy?’ just before Teen Read Week’s kick off, I found myself wishing to reflect on the many connections between this year’s theme and fantasy fiction.

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Let’s start with the basic terminology.  The word ‘fantasy’ can be defined as the ability, activity, or product of imagining things, especially ideas or concepts that are impossible, improbable, or otherwise removed from our reality.  When applied to fiction, the term usually references a genre of literature that takes places within alternative worlds or includes events and characters which operate outside of the rules that govern our universe–usually through the existence of some kind of magic.  At its most basic level, the fantasy genre is all about getting away by leaving behind certain rules or limitations of our present reality.  

However, for this very reason, fantasy readers are likely to be told at least once that they’re reading escapist fiction–and that’s somehow a shameful, silly, or otherwise lesser reading experience.  Now, as I’ve hopefully established, reading fantasy fiction might be viewed as an escape from our world.  After all, when I read a novel about half dragons musicians or artists with the ability to call on and control spirits, I am especially aware that I am entering a separate and alternative reality through the portal of a good, inventive story.  However, what I fail to see is how that reading choice and experience is any less valuable than any other.

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Sometimes we need to escape our own reality–especially during our teenage years.  I had a comparatively gentle and positive adolescence but my love for fantasy fiction was absolutely connected to the escape from my mundane and sometime painful life it provided.  Some of my strongest memories about my teenage years are tied to the fantasy books I read–and the comfort & strength they gave me.  I finished reading Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce sitting up alone on a scratchy couch, the last person awake at a sleepover party I had far from enjoyed. I will never forget the exuberant excitement of that experience.   If Alanna could face her magical destiny, then I could brave the social minefield of middle school.  As Neil Gaiman noted in his 2013 Reading Agency lecture, escapist fiction (especially fantasy) “opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with . . . can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour.”

However, while fantasy fiction can and should offer readers an opportunity to get away from reality, it cannot ignore or avoid key human realities.  Even in fantasy, when the action might take place among werewolves or in a world populated by magically gifted individuals, the most successful stories remain grounded in core human emotions and experiences.  And if a piece of fantasy fiction is to be rooted in its human elements, it cannot ignore the diversity of human identities and experiences.  In a recent post titled “Truth and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction” over at Diversity in YA, author Corinne Duyvis discussed some of the all too common excuses for the lack of diverse characters in speculative fiction and clearly explained why their inclusion in all kinds of fiction is critical:

“Writing stories with speculative elements doesn’t magically turn the world homogeneous, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that writing the story in any other way would be ‘too much’ or a ‘distraction.’ Marginalized people are not an optional add-on—we’re just as much part of the world as anyone else.”

Fantasy should provide every reader with the opportunity to see someone like themselves as a hero.  It should not be yet another media representation that ignores or erases the presence and experiences of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.  In her post, Duyvis goes on to note, “Fact is, even when my books aren’t set on this world, they will be read here.  I want them to resonate here, too.”

At its best, imagining the impossible through fiction allows both the creator and the reader to see our reality from a new perspective.  With the distance offered by an imagined world, we can often more clearly explore larger social questions, such as how social structures and governments function or how the definition of ‘normal’ connects to a society’s systems of privilege and power. By getting away from the familiarity of our daily lives, we often return with new ideas about the ways humans live, work, love, hate, and interact.  In a recent Diversity in YA post, “Normalizing Marginalized Identities in Fantasy and Science Fiction,” author Malinda Lo notes: “fantasy and science fiction can be so liberating and wonderful: We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. ” Through fantasy, we can experience new versions of reality and so we can imagine ways that our world could be different–and, perhaps, better.

For some, fantasy fiction can be a critical reminder that they too can be heroes.  For others, fantasy fiction provides an opportunity to rethink assumptions.  For anyone and everyone, getting away with fantasy can be much more than a vacation–it can be the safe haven, the fueling fire, or the comforting vision that spurs us to re-imagine reality.

If you’re interested in further information about the ongoing conversation about the need for diverse representation in fantasy fiction, check out my previous posts exploring the representation of LGBTQIA+ characters and characters of color in fantasy.

-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Punch Like A Girl by Karen Krossing

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Kelly Dickinson

I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.