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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Editorial: The Creepy Xenophobia of Rick Riordan Novels.

Editorial: The Creepy Xenophobia of
Rick Riordan Novels.

Hello! Let's talk about an author. 

Specifically, let's talk about Texan fantasy author Rick Riordan, whose portfolio of work includes the blisteringly popular Percy Jackson series, about the American children of the Greek gods in a time when the Greek gods now live in the US; its spin-off The Kane Chronicles, about the American descendants of Egyptian pharaohs in a time when battles of Egyptian mythology are fought in America; and Magnus Chase, about the American children of Norse gods.

There's a running theme here that you may have picked up on, and if you're anything like me, it may well have made your skin crawl.

Riordan seems utterly preoccupied with taking the mythology (and in the case of The Kane Chronicles, semi-folkloric history as well) and not only transplanting it into the USA, but often making that mythology the exclusive province of Americans - hello Percy Jackson and Riordan's slightly fevered passages of how the Greek gods have abandoned Greece and moved to the US because they 'follow the spirit of the West', an idea not only insulting to Greek people for whom this mythology is part of their heritage and history, but also tied heavily to notions of American exceptionalism. 

Also, Poseidon? Really? You're having Percy's father be Poseidon?
Am I supposed to believe that that union was consensual? Because 'Poseidon'
and 'consensual' don't usually have reason to occur in the same sentence.

It was that last which really drew attention to my subject, because even if an author had decided that he absolutely had to have his main character be a white American, accept no substitute (as both Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase are - Riordan hedges around the subject of the ethnicity of The Kane Chronicles' protagonist's ethnicity, describing him as 'dark' in the vaguest terms possible while mentioning frequently how his sister is a pale-skinned blonde girl with blue eyes. Make of that whatever you will), it would not explain the insistence that the Greek gods are now New Yorkers, nor would it explain the insistence that they are such because America is, in Riordan's estimations, the apex of Western civilisation - that, for a country which has a large and painstakingly built cultural narrative of being a mixing pot (whether it's an apt narrative is an editorial for a different day and possibly a different blog), and for a city which has a massive immigrant population, is an unnecessary addition, one that's difficult to explain with anything other than 'Riordan has some slightly eerie jingoism problems'.

Not that I can see much reason why all of these characters must be American anyway. Why can't Percy Jackson be Greek? Why can't Magnus Chase be Scandinavian? Why can't Carter Kane be Egyptian, from Egypt, instead of from bloody Los Angeles? Once might be excused, three times can't be.

After all, Greece, Egypt, and a positive gaggle of Scandinavian nations all still exist, and all still have strong connections to the mythology of their forebears - while nobody still practices these religions anymore, obviously, the ruins of the civilisations that did are all around these countries, and those mythologies are part of their respective histories in a way that they simply aren't for Riordan and his parade of nasal-voiced American boys. Riordan himself tries to skirt around this fact in interviews, referring to said mythologies as 'our heritage' - but it isn't your heritage, Rick, is it. It's somebody else's. 

In theory, I, a person with a learning disability, might not be keen on the idea of
learning disabilities as proof of secret divine heritage. In theory, that might be an
editorial for another time.

So why not set these stories - or hell, even one of these stories, a single one of these series outside of America - in Greece, or Egypt, or Scandinavia? Well, I asked some of Riordan's fans, and they had some interesting answers, and by interesting I mean horrifying.

The first answer given to me was that the Percy Jackson stories had started out as bedtime stories to his son, and that thus Percy had to be a white American, because that's what Riordan son is, and he wouldn't be able to relate to characters who weren't American.

Which is a frankly awful thing to say about the lad. It's also unbelievable to me: Am I honestly meant to buy that this child is so emotionally stunted that he cannot empathise with people who aren't from the US? I don't believe that. Am I honestly meant to buy that Riordan had to publish his bedtime stories for a mass market, and that no changes were permissible at any point in the process? I also don't believe that. Perhaps, then, I'm meant to believe that Riordan can't be criticised, because his books originate from a warm and snoogly place? But I don't believe that either - putting your work out on a mass market must necessarily mean opening them to criticism.

But even if I did believe all of that, it still wouldn't explain why Riordan so vehemently pushes the idea of 'the Greek gods moved to the US because they moved with the spirit of the West' - as I mentioned before, that could have been left out and not change the character at all.

Not to mention that it doesn't explain The Kane Chronicles. What, did Riordan Junior ask for some Egyptian mythology stories, and as Riordan cleared his throat and started 'In Cairo ...' the boy cut him off, a vicious light in his eyes, and snarled 'No, father dearest. In Los Angeles,' ? Did the Magnus Chase books come about because one day, Riordan Junior - now in his teens - threw open the door and boomed 'Norse mythology, father! Give me the Norse mythology!' and Riordan, hunched at his desk, just knew, just knew, that if he set it anywhere East of the Hudson Bay the knives would come out again?

I don't believe either of those things.

Kudos to the cover artist for their use of colour, though.

The second answer given to me was 'Well, Rick Riordan can't write anything set outside of America. He wouldn't understand it,' which might actually be more insulting to the man than this entire editorial. Do Riordan's fans really think so little of him that they think he's incapable of doing research, as hundreds of authors have done before him? With the unparalleled communicative power of the internet at his fingertips, is Riordan incapable of researching the culture of other countries and finding people from those countries to run his drafts past?

Because I've been pretty harsh on him in this editorial, but that's a step too close to an attack on his character for me to really accept. I also, again, don't believe it - I don't think that the man is totally unable to do research, and nor do I truly believe that anyone would care all that much if his renditions of these countries weren't pitch perfect. There's a lot to be said for making the attempt, after all.

And if he genuinely is so inept that he couldn't do research, that he opens Google intending to find pages on Greek culture and instead ends up looking up recipes for Chinese desserts or something, then he shouldn't have written these books in the first place. Nobody held a gun to his head and made him write these novels.

No, I think we have to accept that Rick Riordan's son is incidental to this problem; and I think we have to accept that Rick Riordan, as a presumably intelligent man with the ability to read and use a computer, is capable of research. I think we have to accept that Riordan chose to set all three of these works in the US for reasons that are at best to do with half-baked notions of marketing and more likely to do with the current of disdain, xenophobia, and jingoism that often runs through the entertainment industry.

Which isn't good, and isn't acceptable - it is, for lack of a better word, creepy, because ultimately (and this is regardless of motivation) Riordan is taking the culture of other countries, detaching it from the people that culture is tied to, and grafting it haphazardly onto Americans like a fashion accessory. It's a kind of cultural appropriation that happens a lot when it comes to the US, and it's not remotely benign. It's reductivist. It renders, in the imaginations of Americans at least, real other places into Magical Fantasy Lands where nobody really lives, that exist only to accessorise and enrich American culture. 

We've seen the results of that already, in our lifetimes: One result of that culture of appropriation was American citizens funding paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, nigh-on single handedly prolonging the Troubles by decades and resulting in the deaths of dozens, including children.

(As a side note, during that aforementioned asking-of-Riordan's-fans, one person actually found it nigh-on impossible to believe that a European was talking to them on the internet, instead insisting that I must be American. So that - happened.)

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