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Friday, September 01, 2006

 

Myths over Miami again

Okay, I'm about to be controversial. Following on from a recent post, some people have posted the interesting information that various fantasy writers - Clive Barker and Mercedes Lackey to be precise - have been writing stories based on the myths created by homeless children in Miami, described in the 'Myths Over Miami' article I linked to. (http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/1997-06-05/feature.html) First off, thanks for the information, much appreciated. Be interesting to hear what you reckon, because here's my instinctive reaction to the news:

Maybe they're writing good stories. I just wish they wouldn't.

It could just be my own opinion, but I've got some reservations about nicking those myths. I mean, I know I worked in some witch trial history to my own book, so I'm not immune to accusations of myth-borrowing myself, but at least everyone involved in the witch trials is long dead. The kids who came up with this stuff are still alive. They'll be in their twenties now, and I seriously doubt any of them are rich and powerful. Apart from their parents, those stories were pretty much all they had. Seems a bit disrespectful to treat them as raw material.

Here's the thing: those stories didn't need elaborating into a fictional tale. They were complete in themselves. The fact that these kids weren't professional writers in no way means they weren't able to compose beautifully elegant and coherent tales. To be fair, I doubt that Barker and Lackey thought that: I suspect the stories were so good that it was just too tempting to resist playing around with them. But to me, the marvellous thing about, say, Bloody Mary is not just that she's a really scary monster (which she undoubtedly is); it's that she's an expression of the fear and injustice and danger of those kids' lives, real lives. The more you fictionalise, the further you remove them from the ground from which they sprung, and the more the point of the stories disappears. What makes these myths so remarkable is that they're intimately linked with real human events and situations. Putting them in a novel, even if it's a novel about Miami street kids, breaks that link.

The problem is that a fantasy writer is going to feel motivated to make Bloody Mary real. That, to me, is not going to add anything. I find Bloody Mary scary, but I find it more scary that thousands of children are living homeless and terrified on the streets of a city in the richest nation in the world. The saddest and most disturbing passage to my mind is the answer to the question, why is it only the kids who are aware of the Devil's presence in Miami?

Why didn't the rich people notice? Eight-year-old Victoria scrunches up her face, pondering. "Well, I think maybe sometimes they're real stupid so they get tricked," she replies. Plus, she adds, the Devil was "wearing all that Tommy Hilfiger and smoking Newports and drinking wine that cost maybe three dollars for a big glass." He found a large Hell door under the Colony Hotel, and just as he was offering the owner ten Mercedes-Benzes for use of the portal, he was captured by angels. "The rich people said: 'Why are you taking our friend who buys us drinks?'" Phatt continues.

A child's eye for detail going on there, and a child's understanding of social interaction, perhaps. But those are the observations of the most vulnerable members of society, who society should have been doing far more to protect. Based on how society has treated them, that's what they think about rich people. Compared with that, the idea of a weeping demon-woman is easy to deal with. Look at it this way: the children of Miami came up with Bloody Mary and the demons because they made the world make sense. The alternative would have been to believe that the world was chaotic and unjust and there was no explanation that could possibly justify why they had nowhere to live and nothing to eat and their friends were getting killed every year. The world was actually more bearable with Bloody Mary in it. Those kids were scared of Bloody Mary, but compared with the story of a mad world that offered them no safety, she was actually comforting, because at least she could be understood. Make it a story about a real demon-woman stalking homeless children, and you're focusing on the night-light and calling it the darkness.

Candyman was very good, so maybe Barker can do something worthwhile and I’m doing him an injustice. Maybe he's portrayed a vivid and accurate view of a Miami street-level child's-eye view of these myths. That might work. I dunno. I just think those myths are complete in themselves. The more people read them the better, both for their literary quality and their social import, but I don't see how they could be improved on, and making the monsters in them literally real can't be an improvement at all.

Comments:
Late comment, but thank you for articulating this. I remember a friend of mine talked about whether it would be ethical to incorporate the myths of street children into fiction back when we first read this article, and when I saw the Mercedes Lackey/Rosemary Edghill book at the store today, my instinctual reaction was horror (partly because Lackey was involved, but mostly because it feels like cultural appropriation of the worst kind).

If it were those kids growing up and writing the books, that would be something else.
 
I think it is possible to write this myth into a story. There only way to do it is by keeping to the main story, not adding in too much that isn't part of the myth.

I, myself, is planning to turn it into a book, but I`m trying to keep it to the original myth (that is the one in "Myth Over Miami"). I am going to have to make up the main characters of course, but I`m going use the description that the homeless children has given us. I'm also going to focus also on the idea of the living condition that they are living in. On thing I am not going to do is have a big battle scene at the end. It kinda beats the point.

Another thing that I will do is donate some of the money that I make from this book to the homeless shelters in Miami. It would fell like i`m steeling their ideas if I don't give back.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
Hi there. Please excuse my intrusion into your journal.

I'm an animation student working in the UK and the myths over miami article has inspired one of my projects. Though I have understandable doubts as to it's entire factual reliability, it IS a good "story". Then I read your blog post here and... realised a few things. Perhaps it's not right for me to use these ideas?

Overall, my story is not literally connected to the original article. My animation ( a short, six minute or so piece) is set in a fantasy world - inspired by Miami only insofar as the myth of neon light was relevant. I'm sticking to the idea of the light in a neon city being used to repel demons, but that's really a mythology unto itself... There's a junkyard full of demons, and one of the portals to the human world I use is, like the Miami kids suggested, an abandoned refrigerator. A small child eventually defeats a demon (based on bloody mary, but bearing more of a resemblance to Kuchisake Onna, of Japanese origins, and even then only vaguely) by sucking it into an abandoned bottle, a la genie.

The story ISN'T "set" in Miami... and the location I'm animating doesn't particularly look like it (it's more like a japanese prefecture, what with all the lights I've been drawing...) The characters are fictional homeless children living in the junkyards, and the demons are mostly namely and undefined. But nonetheless, the inspiration is still there.

I was curious as to what you would think of this...
 
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