Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Exoticism without Depth

"Firooz and His Brother" by Alex Jeffers is a well-written tale set in the Middle East and Africa in the time of caravans. When Firooz is on his first caravan journey, he goes off hunting a deer, but instead is accosted by a fierce dog. When he and his dog have dispatched their attacker, they realize it was guarding an infant. Firooz brings the baby back to the caravan, and they decide the raise the baby, now named Haider, as Firooz's brother.

As they both grow, they journey together on caravans, leaving their wives and families behind them. Haider has several children with his wife, but Firooz remains childless. They've been engaging in some away-from-wives step-brother sex on the road, but when they return to the place where Haider was originally found, something very different happens. [**Here there be spoilers**]

Haider turns into a woman, and offers to carry Firooz's child. He agrees (with some trepidation). To all appearances Haider remains a man, but inside he's carrying a baby. Eventually he gives birth, and Firooz claims they "found" another baby. Once they get home, Haider admits that he's something very different, and disappears.

I very much enjoy stories that deal with different cultures, and Middle Eastern cultures especially. There is a deep story-telling tradition there, and given the politics of the world today, it's especially important to seek understanding. A story that did that exceptionally well last year was Ted Chiang's Hugo-nominated, Nebula-winning novelette "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" which adopted the nested Arabian Night's-style story structure perfectly to a science fiction time-traveling story. However, "Firooz" didn't necessarily add to or expand my understanding of either Middle Eastern culture or gender.

From a cultural point of view, the only high points are the existence of caravans, the importance of family and the importance of having children. Maybe also an acceptance of magical happenings that we would find odd today, but that's no different from reading anything by the ancient Greeks. From a gender point of view, what do we get? These two men love each other as brothers and as lovers. In an "ultimate" expression of love, however, one of the men becomes a woman to give Firooz the one thing his wife can't: a child. On the one hand, it's a touching gift involving much pain and sacrifice and showing true devotion. On the other, it's an implication that gay lovers cannot give each other what straight lovers can.

I hate to be one of those critics who read into stories things that shouldn't be there. However, if you flip through the archives of this blog, you'll I've been getting a rapid education in gender and queer theory lately. Any story that involves fluidity between genders invites the reader to analyze what it's saying about gender. This story doesn't seem to be saying much of anything, except possibly something mildly offensive. Other than that, it's just a pretty love story in an exotic setting with an Alien Other. When I went looking for something deeper in it, I didn't find anything.


Cheryl said...

I'd much rather read a critic who reacts honestly to what they see in a story than one of those readers who complains, "you are reading something into the story that isn't there" every time someone's view of a piece of fiction differs from their own.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. You're right, of course, but even now that I *am* a critic, sometime I read other people and think "Did you read the same thing I did? Where did *that* come from?"

Infinite variety, that's us.