By Marita Arvaniti
It is now Carnival season in Greece, and I celebrate as I have for the past two years that I’ve spent away from the festivities: by rereading Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015) and thinking about the elements of the carnival found in the novella.
The carnival is, of course, a Christian festival, celebrating the last day before the beginning of the Lenten fast, the word itself meaning ‘farewell to meat,’ or, more metaphorically, ‘farewell to the flesh.’ In literary theory, carnival is of course the starting point for Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalesque literature, summarized in the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (2013) as a literature that is “subversive; it disrupts authority and introduces alternative”’; for Bakhtin the carnival is a “liberating influence” contained by the church calendar but always in the process of breaking free (104).
But how does this connect with Wilson’s work? At first look, the connection between the Christian festival of disguise and subversion and Wilson’s Epic Fantasy novella can seem a bit tenuous. After all, Sorcerer is not set during a carnival-like celebration in their secondary otherworld. It is instead the story of a caravan’s process through a dangerous road, following the life of Demane an Earthbound demigod, with magical powers and nicknamed “The Sorcerer.” Demane has joined the caravan’s company to follow its Captain, Isa, another demigod with a voice “capable only of song” and hair that absorb the sun’s rays, keeping him young, healthy, and powerful (31). When the caravan enters the Wildeeps they are attacked by a necromantic creature and it falls to Demane and the Captain to either save them all or die trying. Wilson’s subversion starts by a rejection of the lengthy, plot-centric formula that Epic Fantasy tends to follow. Instead, he focuses on characterisation by placing Demane and the Captain at the heart of the novella. And when one considers the characters, their connection to the carnival becomes clear. Demane and the Captain are constantly taking part in a dangerous masquerade, hiding themselves under a number of costumes and disguises as they pretend to be warriors, human, heterosexual, and to even speak the same language as the rest.
In Isa’s case this masquerade is more pronounced. He wears costume (a headscarf to hide his hair, the physical manifestation of his divinity) and avoids speaking to conceal the fact that his voice “[is] capable only of song” (31). Isa isn’t just hiding who he is from the rest of the caravan; he’s also hiding from Demane. Throughout the novella every piece of information Demane manages to recover is done so in chance, or error. In many ways, Isa has rejected his identity completely in favour of maintaining the pretence, of passing. It is important to note that the character’s name is used significantly less than his role and he demands that even Demane, his lover and equal, refer to him as “Captain” (188), and thus further denying his true self in favour of the costume he has chosen to wear.
Demane’s deception is not one of disguise but of omission, necessary only because of his desire to remain with Isa. The nickname “Sorcerer” follows but does not define him. Unlike the “Captain,” he is Demane through and through, and his effort to communicate with the caravan leaders and the brothers is an exercise in patchy translation as they both try –and fail– to understand each other. Linguistic content and form are used in harmony to paradoxically show how disjointed and fragmented his attempts to communicate are. Demane occasionally speaks in god-speak which is presented to the reader in brackets. God-speak is diegetic, superimposed on the dialogue by Wilson, replacing Demane’s actual words which remain incomprehensible to his audience: “[Saprogenic possession], [antibiotic exorcism], the perils of [sepsis and necrotizing tissues]… […] To superstitious ears, nothing distinguished those untranslated words from the veriest babble of demon worship” (15 emphasis added, annotation original). As well as highlighting the many ways in which Demane is set apart from the other characters, his god-speak offers another chance for Wilson to explore the carnivalesque. God-speak is an oxymoron, a scientific liturgy. When Cumalo asks him why the gods abandoned their children Demane refers to the “exigencies of FTL” and – speaking in a dialect that he himself describes as “liturgical” – elaborates:“Superluminal travel is noncorporeal: a body must become light” (66).Scientific ideas like FTL – Faster Than Light travel – and the use of medical terms like “saprogenic” and “antibiotic” are characterized as magical. Interestingly, this is not a case of science being misinterpreted as magical due to people’s ignorance and lack of education, but an actual language of magic and divinity, similar to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea’s Old Speech.
However, elements of the carnivalesque are present in the story even before Wilson introduces this world’s impossibilities. Instead of the fantastic, the carnivalesque is showcased through Wilson’s use of language, which Tor reviewer Liz Bourke (2015) calls “disruptive” for the genre. She is referring to Demane and the brothers, who all speak using a version of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), with its colloquialisms like “yo,” “naw,” and “y’all” found side by side with French and Spanish phrases (24-25, 17, 111).
In her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2015), Helen Young argues that Fantasy has “acquired the shape of the White bodies that have habitually occupied [it] for decades” and that it often seems to prioritize white voices and experiences (11). Tolkien’s archaic and inescapably white-British English is still the default language for Epic Fantasy, despite the plurality that a genre of pure imagination could inspire. Wilson’s choice to have his main character speak in AAVE is far from accidental; it is, in fact, another way in which the novella refuses to prioritise the “white voices” that Young identifies in her work (11). In “The POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” (2016) Wilson himself comments on the importance of writing dialect as a native speaker, as well as creating believable characters for an audience of colour. His ideal reader does not seem to be the white audience; he doesn’t seek to educate. Instead, he uses dialect to introduce an alternative to the reader’s casual bias towards reading race or class in Fantasy fiction. Instead of relying on his content to get the carnivalesque theme across, Wilson makes an effort to use the form of his writing itself to undermine the reader’s expectations about the hierarchy of dialects. In his own words: “Beauty, genius, and heroism—all the trappings of full humanity—should appear at least as broadly and profoundly among speakers of low-prestige dialects as among those speaking high”.
The caravan’s crossing into the Wildeeps presents us with a physical space in which the carnivalesque can fully flourish; an in-between, liminal place that seems to operate under different rules than normal society. Demane’s description of stepping away from the road and into the pure wilderness evokes the sense of liberation that Bakhtin associates with the carnivalesque, the Wildeeps are a “wellspring” “limitless and untapped” and within their borders Demane felt that “nothing was beyond achieving” (Wilson 96). For Isa this change is twofold; physical and psychological. It is the first time that he is shown abandoning his headscarf, and he is rejuvenated by the sun, finally reaching his full power (179-180). He is also decidedly more open, allowing Demane to see him “neither grim nor sad but wonderstruck” and “all soft-side-up for a change” (187). That “most perilous wilderness” in which their full power can “unleash itself” allows Demane and Isa to shed their disguises, finally free from the pretence that living with the caravan had forced upon them (181).
As soon as the caravan enters the Wildeeps the flow of the narrative becomes increasingly disrupted. That disruption begins with Demane’s flashbacks, showing scenes of his relationship with Isa and his tutelage under his Aunty, the stormbird. Whereas at first Wilson seems to follow a predictable pattern of now-flashback-now, his structure becomes increasingly chaotic between chapters. The final section of the novella is completely unmoored in time; in the Wildeeps, which serve as the spatial realization of the nature of the carnivalesque, no authority can stand, not even that of linear time.
The final significant link between the carnival and Wilson’s work is to be found once more in language and the previously mentioned literal meaning of the word carnival as that which bids ‘farewell to the flesh.’ Demane and Isa’s flesh often becomes a focal point in Wilson’s narrative. They are black men in Epic Fantasy – typically a white man’s literary sandbox; they are men who desire each other’s flesh, a fact that they must keep hidden; and finally, they are demigods both a part of and apart from the world and caught between their two natures: the human and the divine, “homo sapiens” or “homo celestialis” (Wilson66). Their ability to exist in this in-between, concealed state is temporary, like the carnival itself, and after the feasting comes the fast. “Not piece by piece, all at once: metamorphosis is like death”(195, original emphasis); this is the advice that Aunty gives Demane, and the simile that haunts his and Isa’s fates. At the end of Sorcerer the two men are forced to choose their fate. Demane chooses metamorphosis by rejecting his mortal body, becoming the guardian of the Wildeeps and residing forever in the freedom of the wild. Isa, however, is eaten by the jukiere, bidding his own farewell to the flesh in the only way a mortal can: through death.
Wilson’s body of work enters the fantastic canon like the carnival breaks through the monotony of the church year, with a wildness and unbridled, exaggerated feelings, whether those are anger, sorrow, or happiness. The carnival and Wilson do nothing at half measures.
Bourke, Liz. “Literary Sword-and-Sorcery: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson.” 1 September 2015. < https://www.tor.com/2015/09/01/book-reviews-the-sorcerer-of-the-wildeeps-kai-ashante-wilson/ >.
Cuddon J.A. and M. A. R. Habib. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Reference Library, 2013.
Wilson, Kai Ashante. “The POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction.” 2 November 2016. <https://www.tor.com/2016/11/02/the-poc-guide-to-writing-dialect-in-fiction/ >
—. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tor, 2015.
Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Routledge, 2015.