UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cultural conversations : the politics of myth and history in Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven and Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death Ingram, Natalie


Although Western fantasy is a genre of literature that depends upon the creation of new cultures and new worlds, it remains very Euro-centric, and the cultural influences upon which the genre draws are typically Western in origin. This Euro-centric focus is one of the paradoxes of fantasy literature: while fantasy takes place in altered or entirely invented worlds, there is no expectation that these invented culture(s) will be significantly different than the cultures with which Western readers are already familiar. The characters of fantasy texts tend to be equally familiar, as they are disproportionately white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, and middle-class. Fantasy thus encodes a set of values that is not only Euro-centric, but patriarchal and traditional as well. This trend has begun to shift in recent years, however, as more texts begin to portray non-Western settings and otherwise challenge the traditional values that the genre has typically upheld. Recent examples of this shift include texts such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, both of which draw upon the myths and histories of non-Western cultures in order to establish their settings. Kay’s Under Heaven draws upon Tang Chinese and Uighur myths in order to create a fictional analogue of Tang Dynasty China during the events leading up to the An Lushan Rebellion, while Okorafor’s Who Fears Death draws on myths from various African ethnic groups, including the Igbo and Yoruba peoples, and African countries in order to create a fictionalized, futuristic version of Sudan. I argue that both novels use myth to provide a sophisticated critique of the colonial and patriarchal values encoded in many fantasy texts. Ultimately, however, both texts also reinscribe those ideologies in a number of ways, naturalizing the social constructions of gender that disempower women and exoticizing or homogenizing the cultures that the novels depict.

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