Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conflict in Our Fiction, Conflict in Our World

When I first learned two of my Montlake books would release on September 11, all kinds of emotions zinged through me. A very strange time for the excitement of releasing books. But I didn't ask to have my release date changed. Why? Wouldn't a less somber day be better? Maybe. But I think perhaps I have something to say. And fiction often gives us a safe way to explore painful things.

It's a day that will always bring me to my knees on its anniversary. It was a pivotal day that changed our world forever. Nearly three thousand people died as a result of those attacks.We've had eleven years of war, of vengeance, of sorrow, of pain. And we're not done yet. We will never be done.

An ancient Celtic depiction of warriors
I was still doing social work when I wrote these two books, and social workers deal with a lot of painful, ugly stuff. We might start doing the job thinking we have a lot of answers, but it isn't long before we realize we don't know much at all. But when I started writing fiction, I discovered that in making myself go inside the heads, becoming the characters I wrote,  I was gaining insight into people. I was learning in a different way why people do the things they do.
While LOKI'S DAUGHTERS began in the idle, silly musings of a stormy Sunday afternoon with two of my grown kids, I realized the world of a thousand years ago was a harsh one, full of violence, superstition, anger, death-not a funny place. Yet one thing I'd learned about people is that they don't just quit because life isn't fun. And somehow, even if only in the little moments, they find joy. They can turn the oddest things into humor. Gallows humor, it's often called.

I also realized I had two opposing groups of people, both groups (I was thinking originally of races) didn't know much about the other, and didn't think of their opponents as worthy of being called humans.  In a college course on Culture Clash, I had been told that when cultures meet, they clash. Both cultures have their belief systems, their world views, and it's not just a simple matter of talking things over and agreeing to disagree. A group that has different beliefs and actions is a threat to the other's way of life- to their life as a culture. And things can be pretty calm initially but later on as the cultures come closer together, the conflict usually increases. These days, one of the most obvious conflict is with the increasing numbers of Hispanics in the USA. As more contact occurs, more points of conflict occur. However we choose to look at it, there's an aspect and a feeling of threat on both sides. Maybe it gets easier in some ways, but in others it seems to get harder.

An artist's vision of the Battle of Hastings,
Norman against Anglo-Saxons
LOKI'S DAUGHTERS was once criticized because the reader thought the Celtic heroine should just get over it. Talk things out with the hero. She had a point. But in the real world, people have a very hard time letting that happen. There's often something just too deep, something we can't or don't want to let go of, that's getting in the way. That's because culture conflict goes so much deeper than what we admit on the surface. Arienh has this problem because she feels that accepting the invaders is a betrayal to all the relatives and friends who have been murdered. She has no idea that she hasn't finished grieving, and in fact has almost not begun, because she fears it so much. Prejudice is deeply rooted in us, and usually we don't see its real roots. We often choose to blame the surface conflict, which is often plenty adequate to cover our grievances. But that's barely scratching the surface. Underneath is the fear that our world, everything we know and love, how we do things, is all threatened with extinction. And on at least some level, that's usually true.

When I first published FIRE DANCE, I sent a copy to a friend in England, who read it. It deals with one of the most impacting events in English history, the Norman Conquest and settlement. She had a lot of comments, but the one that stuck with me was that she had a hard time sympathizing with the Norman hero because she was a direct descendant of Hereward the Wake, a famous leader of resistance against the Normans. (Read about him-he's fascinating.) Nine hundred years after the Conquest, people in England are still taking sides. But in their time, what the Normans did wasn't all that unusual. They saw, they conquered.

An artist's concept of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. 
Culture clash was as real a thousand years ago as it is today. Muslims and Christians don't do things the same way. As groups, each feels threats from the beliefs and actions of the other. The term Infidel  means far more than "unbeliever", and it's been around since the Crusades. Yet despite this seemingly impossible to surmount conflict, somehow people did begin to blend, meet, marry, get along. Not all of them, not all the time. But that's just as true today in most rather ordinary families.

How could the Celts, Angles and Saxons of the Dark Ages possibly have looked on the invaders from Norway, Sweden, Denmark as human when they saw their kin hacked to pieces or carried off to slavery? But if they'd had a good grasp on their own history, they might have known that their ancestors invaded the British Isles in pretty much the same way. They hadn't just pushed the original inhabitants into boats and said, "Go find someplace else to live". In fact, DNA testing shows that not many of those earliest people survive in today's gene pool.
The Duke of Wellington directs a vital assault
at the Battle of Waterloo 
Even not knowing that, probably the ordinary people of 9th century Britain were just farmers, gatherers and herders, and they weren't well-equipped to fight or resist attack. They just wanted to survive. And the invaders? Why did they think taking from the inhabitants was acceptable? One thing we're sure of is that the Northern people who came to the British Isle wouldn't have had much influence if they'd just raided and left. Their dramatic influence on everything from language and customs to genetics of the British people says they came to stay, not just raid. And in the end, they were really more like the Celts, Angles, Saxons and others than they were different.

So who's human and who's not? Why do our cultures enforce our beliefs that "we" are the good people and "they" are not worthy? In thousands of years, we have not solved this problem. Will we ever?

I don't know. Do you? What do you think? When will we all be human? I do believe, though, that through all their turmoil and pain, people as a group keep on being people. They do fall in love. They do learn to love. They do care about and help each other. Whatever happens around them, they don't stop living.

1 comment:

  1. The Medieval era was full of culture clash. That's what makes reading about the period so fascinating and a virtual treasure trove for romance writers. Congratulations on your double release! What a nice achievement!!!


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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.