Terry Pratchett, a kind man and wonderful writer, died this morning. He had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007.
His work was brilliant. When I was writing my dissertation, which became my first book, about feminist revisions of fairy tales and classical myth, I loaned Witches Abroad, a novel about fairy tales, but really about stories and how important it is not to let them control us, to my advisor. She gave it back to me the following day and said she’d had to put it down after ten pages, because reading it was too much like being inside my head. My head. I first read Terry Pratchett when I was…10, first read Witches Abroad when I was 15. That’s how much his writing and philosophy have shaped me–reading my favorite of his books was too much, for my advisor, like being inside my head. And I don’t think I could ever receive a greater compliment.
Why is his death, the death of a white, male satirist and fantasy writer, worthy of note on a feminist blog? More than one reason, but let me begin with his books about witches.
When I assigned Witches Abroad, a novel about a coven of three witches, two elderly and one young(ish), a student once said to me “I kept waiting for Magrat [the young witch] to do something, to take action–it took me forever to realize that she wasn’t the protagonist! The book isn’t about her!” No, it’s not. How many books do you know that are about, that center, old women, particularly powerful old women? How many books that feature as the driving relationships, relationships between old women, conflict between two
“That’s the thing about witchcraft,” she said. “It doesn’t exactly keep you young, but you do stay old for longer. Whereas you, of course, do not age,” she added….”And, my lady, old I may be, and hag I may be, but stupid I ain’t….You know I never entered your circle. I could see where it led. So I had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way. I learned….[Y]ou know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you. You’re right. I’m older. You’ve lived longer than me but I’m older than you. And better’n you. And, madam, that ain’t hard.”
In We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch argues that power, put simply, is the ability to force other people to live and die in your story of them, that Hutu Power created a narrative in which Tutsis had to be killed, and forced Rwandans to live and die in that narrative. Those kinds of stories surround us–about black people, about Jews, about women, about all of us–and we all live within them and fight them as best we can. Witches Abroad is about not falling for stories, even powerful ones, even seductive ones, not letting stories control you, not letting yourself become just a cardboard character. And that is a political message. You can change stories, if you know them well enough. You don’t have to follow the path that a reigning ideology has laid out for you. Not that it’s easy to buck that system–stories fight back, well, we all know that. But you can, and you must, because otherwise you are made less than human. And importantly, Pratchett tells us, you can’t do it just by wishing.
And Pratchett wrote Hogfather, about the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, the lies, the non-physical truths, about the existence of justice, about belief in those stories and how important that is. But even in Hogfather, there are some stories you don’t put up with–The Little Match Girl, for instance. In Pratchett’s version, the entity currently playing the part of Father Christmas shows up and saves her from freezing to death, because that story is harmful bullshit. And we get to make that call–in fact, we have to make that call. It’s our responsibility as thinking human beings. It’s what makes us thinking human beings.
So yes, I think Pratchett deserves a memorial on a feminist website. Because we fight those stories every day, and we try to make new ones out of the old ones we have lying around, and Pratchett shows us that not only do we have to, but that age does not have to stop us, that we can get more powerful and more important as we become old women, not less.
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