Q: We’ve all encountered characters in stories and novels that we’ve felt a real connection to, and would love to chat with more. Maybe buy them a drink. What characters have you encountered in Fantasy and SF that you’d like to buy a pint for?
In 2014 Paul Weimer, editing the Mind Meld column for SF Signal, posed that question to a number of SFF writers, me included. I loved the question, and was reminded of my answer recently when renowned writer/editor Terri Windling tweeted one of the real-life artworks that inspired the fictional art of one of the characters in her novel, The Wood Wife.
So, some six years after the fact, I reread what I had written and realized that I would still welcome this imagined conviviality (maybe even more so after all these months of pandemic-induced social bubble and Zoom-limited interactions), a tribute, undoubtedly, to the character-building genius of the the writers involved.
So here is my response — in 2014, and in 2020 — to the question that tops this post.
What an interesting question. I’m fond of a lot of characters in speculative fiction actually, and I really had to think long and hard to narrow this down to two. Which two made the final cut completely surprised me for a number of reasons — including the fact that they are ancillary characters, and one of them never gets to speak.
Anna Naverra from Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife. Okay, she dies before the book opens. Also, she doesn’t speak — she’s described (and ascribed motive) in dreams, in the investigation of the mystery of who she was and became, in the poetry of her more recently deceased Anglo poet husband. But Anna is a Mexican surrealist painter — conjuring associations that are part Remedios Varo, part Frida Kahlo, part Ana Mendieta — who grew up in the same Mexico as my mother (also an artist), and crossed similar boundaries. I don’t think Windling deals entirely fairly with her (she resolves the paradox about Anna in much too pat a manner) but she gives her fantastic, compelling art which stands in for whatever else might be missing in her characterization.
Anna is unusual in SFF in a number of ways: she’s Latina and she’s not young. While I applaud those who include kickass Latinas in the mold of Zoe Saldana (in Colombiana) or Michelle Rodriguez (in just about every movie she’s ever made) in their SFF works, I get tired of those being the only representations I see. Anna is engagingly complex; physical in a most ordinary way; her painting are dark and rich, and her relationship with the Mexico of her younger and latter years is significant.
I’d buy her a tequila with a sangrita chaser and talk with her about the Mexico of Elena Poniatowska and José Luis Cuevas; of Diego Rivera and Octavio Paz; of Zapatistas and palos voladores and a creative tradition so innate that it has taken corn smut and turned it into an astonishing culinary delicacy (huitlacoche). I’d ask her, in other words, to tell me what made her who she was and what made my mother what she was — formidable artists forged in that particular crucible.
The other character is from a book almost 20 years older than Windling’s and, I believe, commonly thought as a very minor work in its author’s impressive body of work. But I’m actually quite fond of Peter Beagle’s Folk of the Air, and of its secondary character Athanasia Sioris, or Sia, as she is known throughout.
She, too, is older than the norm in SFF. In fact, Beagle describes her like this: “the broad, blunt-featured face was no older than sixty, the dark-honey skin almost without lines and the gray eyes quick and clear and imperiously sad. But her body was lumpy as a charwoman’s — waistless, short-legged, wide-hipped, bellied like the moon — though she carried it with all the vivid rigor of a circus wire walker.”
Throughout the book, Sia is both more powerful and weaker than anticipated, a goddess and a woman, and a character of such complex history that Beagle can only give us glimpses of it. Like Anna, she is formidable, though an entirely different expression of it.
I guess, from her name, that with her I’d have to sit down to a Plomari-style ouzo cut with water to make it moonstone cloudy. I hope it would be at a taverna on the waterfront in Mytilene, with fresh octopus pulled from the waters in front of us and the wind scouring all the layers of disguise and prohibition right off us. We would talk about the elements and what is elemental, and the ways of women aging in a world that cannot see us for what we really are.
We’d also talk about belief. How in every mythos, in every work of transformative art, in every character that resonates years after the reading, belief is the heart. I want to imagine, at the end, that Anna would join us, and after good food, good drink and good conversation, the three of us would pull out our ancient frame drums (materializing from thin air, of course) and dance a circle that, though mortal, never ends.
What about you? Which fictional character would you most want to sit down with and share a drink and a chat? Let me know in the comments below!
(Photo at the top of the post: Konstantinos Papadopoulos for Unsplash.com)