Then He asked him, “What is your name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” — Mark 5:9
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. — Walt Whitman
I was about seven years old when my mother remarried and I gained a stepbrother and a stepsister. Their father (now my stepfather) was of Slavic descent and their mother was of African decent, making them biracial, or as some called them in the early 1980’s in Ohio, “mixed.” As an only child, I had always wanted siblings, so I was thrilled. At first, the fact that they were biracial was something I barely even noticed. I was far more interested in the fact that I now had a brother with whom I could talk Star Wars and professional wrestling, and an older sister whom I could torment. But people kept bringing up the fact that they were biracial. Generally, it was well-meaning adults (including my mother and stepfather), who knew that I was a rather sensitive boy, easily upset by harsh words from others. The adults warned me that some people thought it was “wrong” and might say “mean things” and I was not to pay those racists any mind.
I don’t recall anyone ever actually saying anything mean or racist, at least not to me. But it made me suddenly very aware of that aspect of my siblings. I begin to think about it a lot and could not for the life of me understand how anyone could possibly think it was wrong. If it was okay to be white, and it was okay to be black, why wasn’t it okay to be both?
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through senior year in high school. Many people thought it was strange, then, that I attended a Jewish camp every summer and knew nearly as much Hebrew as I did Latin. I saw no conflict there and was actually very fond of both religions. Someone once asked me if I wanted to become Jewish. The question surprised me because until that moment, I hadn’t realized I wasn’t. Why couldn’t I be both?
The university I attended had two primary specialties: Fine Arts and Computer Science. I was in the Fine Arts program, studying theater. But I also loved computers, and could often be seen down in the subbasement computer clusters teaching myself HTML or gaming with the CS majors. Other fine arts students were shocked. They wanted to know how I could possibly have anything in common with “those people” and if I was losing interest in theater. But why couldn’t I be passionate about two completely different fields of study?
I still don’t know the answer to these questions. Why do so many people take issue with the fact that we contradict ourselves? Why can’t we accept that, as Whitman says, we contain multitudes? And yet, I have spoken to many people who feel split between two races, or two religions, or two cultures, and who feel this pressure to “pick a side.”
The anthropological definition of “demonization” is the process by which one group portrays themselves as correct and/or good and an opposing group as wrong and/or evil. Black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, conservative vs. liberal, etc. We all know this is oversimplification. Lazy thinking that fosters an unrealistic, polarized perspective on people. So why do people do it? What is so scary about embracing our inherent complexity?
That’s one of the main questions I explore in my new novel, Misfit. I take the concept of demonization and make it quite literal. Syncretism was a process used by the Catholic Church when attempting to convert practitioners of polytheistic religions to monotheism. In polytheistic religions, most gods were neither fully good nor fully bad, usually falling somewhere in between. Obviously, that didn’t really work in the Church’s Heaven vs. Hell binary, so what they did was to sanctify some gods, explaining to the practitioners that these were actually saints, not gods. Other gods, they demonized, explaining that those were not gods but demons.
Most of the images we associate today with demons or “the devil” were inherited from some rank polytheistic fertility or trickster god half a millennia ago. This is how Dagon, depicted in the Old Testament and Torah as god of the Philistines, lands several hundred years later in some demonology roll call as “baker of Hell.” Quite a demotion, really.
So what I asked myself in Misfit was: What if these “gods” had existed in some way, feeding off the worship of countless little polytheistic religions? And what if, through the sheer force of a shift in collective belief (hello Jung!), these creatures were transformed into demons?
But a story isn’t about concepts or themes. It’s about people. And so I took this idea and brought it down on the shoulders of poor little teenage Jael Thompson and I asked her the question. Can she fit in with the Catholic church of her ex-priest mortal father and the Hell of her demon mother? Her mother urges her to believe that she has a right to both heritages, and that’s a lovely sentiment, but is it realistic? Or must she choose one and reject the other? There are many who say that being a “halfbreed” like her is forbidden by both Heaven and Hell. And that the punishment is death.
I wanted to take this whole thing full circle back to race, my initial inspiration for complexity, and make it a little more concrete. So I worked through the logic of what physical characteristics Jael might have inherited from her mother, the demoness/goddess Astarte. Astarte’s origins go way back, fading into the fuzzy realm of prehistory, but it’s pretty clear that she can at least be traced back to the regions of present day Syria and Lebanon, which gives her daughter Jael a vaguely Middle Eastern appearance. This is a stark contrast to the predominantly Northern European look of Seattle. It’s also a detail that Jael’s blond best friend, Brittany, brings up twice in the first few chapters of the book.
And just because that’s how I roll, I also made Jael’s antagonist, Belial, the Grand Duke of the Northern Duchy of Hell, obsessed with maintaining the purity of demons and upholding the ban on “halfbreeds.”
Whether or not the story answers the questions I put forth, and what those answers might be, is for the reader to decide. My primary goal was to show that a world where there are no easy answers can still be satisfying, rather than merely frustrating. That contradiction can be a virtue, and complexity can be a joy.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/080811jonskovron150.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Jon Skovron has never really fit in, and has no plans to start now. After twelve years of Catholic school, he went on to study acting at a conservatory program for four years before returning to his first love, writing. Best-selling author Holly Black called his new novel, Misfit, “A diabolically delightful paranormal” and Kirkus (Starred Review) called it, “Thoughtful, scary and captivating.” His first novel, Struts & Frets, was published in 2009. Washington Post Book World said, “Skovron perfectly captures that passion–sometimes fierce, sometimes shy–that drives so many young artists to take the raw stuff of life and transform it into something beautiful.” Bestselling author Cory Doctorow said, “Struts & Frets will feel instantly authentic to anyone who’s ever felt the pride and shame of being an outsider.” Jon lives with his two sons outside Washington, DC. Visit him at jonskovron.com.[/author_info] [/author]