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Sofia Samatar Confronts the Elephant in the Room

Sunday, November 16th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Sofia Samatar with the World Fantasy Award. Photo by Nathan Ballingrud.

Sofia Samatar with the World Fantasy Award. Photo by Nathan Ballingrud

As I was pleased to report last week, Sofia Samatar won the 2014 World Fantasy Award for her acclaimed first novel A Stranger in Olondria. And as I also mentioned, Sofia addressed “the elephant in the room” in her remarks to the audience, saying a few words about the fact that she was being honored with a bust of Lovecraft, a man who expressed profoundly racist views in his fiction and poetry. Nonetheless, she was articulate and extremely gracious, and accepted the award with humility and gratitude.

In the days since, she has expanded slightly on her remarks, saying on her blog:

I said it was awkward to accept the award as a writer of color. (See this post by Nnedi Okorafor, the 2011 winner, if you are confused about why.) I also thanked the board for taking the issue seriously…

I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. I teach Lovecraft! I actually insist that people read him and write about him! For grades! This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award honoring the work of the imagination.

While the issue of replacing Lovecraft’s image on the award continues to be hotly debated, I was pleased to see that Sofia’s remarks in large part have not been. She is a class act, and if there’s anyone who can gently nudge the calcified old guard of fantasy into accepting that the field’s highest honor remains (at best) a dubious honor for people of color as long as it bears Lovecraft’s image, it’s Sofia Samatar. In the meantime, she reminds us that, if she can maintain a sense of humor in all this, so can the rest of us. On her Facebook page she posted the image at right, captured moments after accepting the award (snapped at her table by fellow Small Beer author Nathan Ballingrud), along with this comment:

And also, to be real, we’re practically identical. Race is a construct! TWINSIES!

This is how you win arguments. By being simultaneously more articulate and dignified — and funnier — than everyone else in the room. I know who gets my vote to replace Lovecraft’s visage on the statue. Perhaps they won’t even have to modify it all that much. But trust me, when they’re done, it’ll be a lot more beautiful.

14 Comments »

  1. John, I’m curious why Lovecraft was chosen to begin with, simply on the basis of this being a fantasy award. I think of him as more of a horror author than fantasy, but perhaps I’m categorizing him incorrectly. When I first heard the award was called a “Howard” I thought it was an award attributed to Robert E. Howard.

    Comment by Matthew Wuertz - November 17, 2014 1:24 pm

  2. Thanks for the post John, articulate as well as always :)

    I second Matthew’s question, if someone would care to elaborate on the history of the award. Honestly, if it is redesigned I would be heavily in favor of NOT using any individual’s figure, rather going in the direction of something like a Maltese Falcon, a symbolic expression of the fantastical.

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - November 17, 2014 3:02 pm

  3. Matt, Jason,

    I’m probably not the right person to give you a definitive answer, but I can hazard an educated guess.

    First, remember that the World Fantasy Convention (which gives out the awards) was founded in 1975, and it included horror as a significant part of fantasy. There was no World Horror Convention back then. Fantasy and Horror were both overshadowed by SF at the World Science Fiction convention, so one of the purposes of the new convention was to give horror & fantasy writers a place of their own. Horror has always been a major part of the con.

    Second, the theme of the very first WFC, held in Lovecraft’s home town of Providence, was “The Lovecraft Circle.” Lovecraft and the writers who followed him cast a very large shadow over 20th Century fantasy, but in 1975 he was much less well know than he is today, and this was really ground zero of the movement to change that. Lovecraft was in the air, and the folks behind the con clearly thought Lovecraft deserved more recognition.

    Here’s a blog post with some pics from the very first con:

    http://2warpstoneptune.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/photos-from-the-inaugural-world-fantasy-convention-1975/

    And here’s a few more (just pics, no commentary):

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/hunding/sets/922262/

    Anyway, I don’t know much about the history of the award itself, but my guess is that with all that Lovecraft focus at the first con, Gahan Wilson (who crafted the bust used for the award) thought a bust of Lovecraft made a suitable award. The award is very distinctive, and artistically I think it’s a great success. Far as I can tell, Gahan’s design was greeted with open arms.

    Comment by John ONeill - November 17, 2014 4:21 pm

  4. I think Jason’s suggestion is the way to go. It would avoid the whole “who is offensive to who and in what degree” question. Otherwise, it would be really difficult to find someone who could pass everyone’s test, especially among older figures. Matthew is right that a fantasy award would be more sensibly modeled after Robert E. Howard, but was just as much a racist as HPL.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - November 17, 2014 4:23 pm

  5. John, I believe you’re correct in terms of the origins of the award. I have a copy of the 1977 World Fantasy Awards anthology Wilson edited, and it leans very much in the direction of horror (Robert Aickman, Robert Bloch, T.E.D. Klein, David Riley, and Karl Edward Wagner). “Horror” is a relatively new literary genre designation, and I don’t think that before Stephen King exploded on the scene it was commercially recognized. Horror and fantasy co-existed in the kind of hybrid “Weird Tales” community from which Lovecraft emerged. At the time of the award’s founding, HPL was still a bit of a cult figure, and I think the decision was intended to honor an overlooked and important forbearer. It makes sense for the time. Time do change, however…

    Comment by G. Winston Hyatt - November 17, 2014 5:03 pm

  6. While I’d like to see the award changed to a dragon head or a raven or even a sword-hilt, it must be pointed out that Lovecraft’s views were not out of line with the “settled science” of that generation.

    Woodrow Wilson banned non-whites from Harvard. The War Department, while it had a few strictly segregated black formations, thought blacks were only fit for being stewards and such while mixing with white soldiers. Wogs began at Calais. Henry Ford and “the Jewish menace.” You can root through old grammar-school textbooks and still find hymns to vigorous northern white people, constantly challenged by their cold environment, evolving to a higher state than those indolent, lazy, darker southern races. In my experience, Lovecraft took more of a “Dirty Harry” approach to non-WASPs. They were all equally lowly. Italians, I recall, were degrading his country with their squalling Catholic-sized broods as well.

    While there were certainly more enlightened individuals, Lovecraft’s Wilsonian vituperation of blacks was a part of the times. His views just happen to be better-preserved than most.

    Comment by eeknight - November 17, 2014 6:38 pm

  7. Eric,

    It’s true that Lovecraft’s views are certainly better preserved than most, and there’s no doubt he was a product of his time. Here’s his poem “On the Creation of Niggers” from 1912, for example.

    When, long ago, the gods created Earth
    In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
    The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
    Yet were they too remote from humankind.
    To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
    Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
    A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
    Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

    As Nnedi Okorafor said after she won her World Fantasy Award, that’s a nasty piece of poetry. Her response is worth quoting:

    “Who _does_ that? Even in the early 1900s? That excuse of “that was just how most whites were back then” has never flown with me. The fact that a lot of people back then were racists does not change the fact that Lovecraft was a racist.

    “Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.”

    Read the whole thing here:

    http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2011/12/lovecrafts-racism-world-fantasy-award.html

    Comment by John ONeill - November 17, 2014 6:50 pm

  8. Thomas, I don’t think REH’s racism is comparable to Lovecraft’s. REH sometimes featured men of other races as protagonists in his stories. He could be as casually racist as a lot of pulp writers, describing a kind of behavior as a race-centered thing, but then he could turn right around and in another story, or in his poetry, have brave and wise black characters.

    Now he did use language of his time, which is pretty unpleasant today, but the deeper I’ve read into REH the more I’ve thought he was actually kind of ahead of his time, especially given that he was from Texas in the 30s.

    I actually wrote about his attitude towards women in a post on my own web site last year:http://www.howardandrewjones.com/writing/vance-robert-e-howard-and-the-role-of-women

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - November 17, 2014 7:19 pm

  9. I agree that HPL’s racism was disgusting. I also agree that a non-personage award (my vote is for a dragon) would be ideal for the World Fantasy Award.

    But here’s the thing: Has ANYBODY refused or given back this award to protest it being in HPL’s image? Not that I’m aware of. Until somebody–ANYBODY–refuses to accept this award, or gives back with a polite refusal–this issue is going to be moot.

    If the WINNERS of the award can’t be bothered to return it, then how serious is this issue? The best way to protest this would be to refuse/return the award–and only those who have won it can do this.

    Who is going to step up and put their “money where their mouth is”? (as the old saying goes)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - November 17, 2014 8:34 pm

  10. The “man of his times” argument for Lovecraft’s racism is apologist nonsense on stilts. No, not everyone was writing material like the verse above, or universally portraying non-whites as monstrous, or actively writing letters and newsletters of a white-nationalist, xenophobic bent. The verse above was written in 1912. So, I am to believe that all of his contemporaries (Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, Carl Sandberg, Sinclair Lewis, etc.) were all active white supremacists writing similar material? It’s just how folks were back then? Sorry, not buying it. The man was more than a bit of a special case, come on. No, I’m not saying we should all revile Lovecraft’s work, or saying he wasn’t without brilliance and significance, but it’s irresponsible and inaccurate to dismiss his attitudes as those of mainstream literary figures of the time. I know this horse has been beaten well past death, but this sort of whitewashing (harhar) drives me nuts.

    Comment by G. Winston Hyatt - November 17, 2014 9:08 pm

  11. I’m not an apologist for Lovecraft. I like his stories, and his generosity displayed correspondence with other authors, but I deplore his attitudes.

    As to that list of names above, Willa Cather had Blind d’Arnault, a Sambo character happiest when serving whites, and the more interestingly characterized Yellow something or other (Yellow Mammy? Mama? Can’t remember at the moment) who was affectionate and parental to whites and stayed in place, but was a terror to her own family. There was also a good deal of genteel reminiscing for the quiet happy days of the antebellum South when the races lived in harmony. I’m sure that was true in some families, but that doesn’t alter any of the well-documented horrors of slavery.

    Edith Wharton shared Lovecraft’s longing for the brighter, whiter America of her youth and believed our culture was being overthrown. And while not a frothing eugenicist, she was in that camp.

    According to Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Frost was a racist. I’m not sure the evidence supports anything but a mild distaste for mixing with non-whites and possibly thinking segregation as the best option. He certainly never committed much to paper to support Oates, or composed stanzas such as Lovecraft or Sandburg.

    Oh, yeah, you mentioned Carl Sandburg
    NIGGER – from the collection “Chicago Poems”

    I AM the nigger.
    Singer of songs,
    Dancer. . .
    Softer than fluff of cotton. . .
    Harder than dark earth
    Roads beaten in the sun
    By the bare feet of slaves. . .
    Foam of teeth. . . breaking crash of laughter. . .
    Red love of the blood of woman,
    White love of the tumbling pickaninnies. . .
    Lazy love of the banjo thrum. . .
    Sweated and driven for the harvest-wage,
    Loud laughter with hands like hams,
    Fists toughened on the handles,
    Smiling the slumber dreams of old jungles,
    Crazy as the sun and dew and dripping, heaving life
    of the jungle,
    Brooding and muttering with memories of shackles:
    I am the nigger.
    Look at me.
    I am the nigger.

    Sinclair Lewis was the rare exception, good and broadminded man that he was.

    Speaking of those pre-war years, the sinking of the Titanic occurred about this time. The New York Sun ran a story under the headline “Desirable Immigrants Lost,” lamenting the loss of Finns and Norwegians and Swedes, and the papers glady characterized any act of cowardice during the sinking to “Italians.” When the story of a stoker who exchanged blows with Operator Phillips when he tried to steal life-vests belonging to the gallant officers of the wireless room was told, the papers changed his race to Negro to heighten the effect.

    And I still can’t get over the fact that a loathsome specimen like Wilson was not only elected president, but praised almost universally for his intellect. He is still considered one of the founding fathers of the American Progressive movement. Institute an income tax and you can get away with anything.

    Comment by eeknight - November 18, 2014 12:01 pm

  12. eeknight–Yikes. However, if you look at this, Sandburg’s piece feels more like misguided championing of “otherness” than hate. Frost I think would be a stretch. Wharton walks the line of misplaced nostalgia and reactionary nastiness, which I think is common of the era, same with Cather. (Not that this makes anuy of this OK.) All of this is not even comparable to Lovecraft, who wrote things like, “Tracing the career of the Teuton through medieval and modern history, we can find no possible excuse for denying his actual biological supremacy. In widely separated localities and under widely diverse conditions, his innate racial qualities have raised him to preeminence. There is no branch of modern civilisation that is not his making,” or more to the point, “they can’t let Niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where Blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, and I wish they’d apply it in New York both to Niggers and to the more Asiatic types of puffy, rat-faced Jews.” Saying Lovecraft was merely a man of his time is like saying everyone in the South after the Civil War was in the Klan. There are pervasive attitudes, and there are extremists. Lovecraft was unquestionably an extremist.

    Comment by G. Winston Hyatt - November 19, 2014 6:21 pm

  13. […] N (The Black Gate) Sofia Samatar Confronts the Elephant in the Room — “This is how you win arguments. By being simultaneously more articulate and […]

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  14. […] Read about the impact of her words and what Sofia did write in reflecting on this issue.  […]

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