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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Maya Deane! Her Greek mythology–inspired debut novel, Wrath Goddess Sing, was released last year and is coming out in trade paperback on June 13, 2023. Focused on Achilles, her book is described as “drawing on ancient texts and modern archeology to reveal the trans woman’s story hidden underneath the well-known myths of The Iliad.” I’m excited she’s here today to discuss literary realism and fantasy!

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In “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” the late great Ursula Le Guin argued that fantasy threatens “all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial” in our lives.

I agree, and I can explain how. Fundamentally, fantasy refuses to be realistic.

If your first reaction is to tell me why I’m wrong, first let me explain what I mean.

What does it mean for a story to be realistic? Realism is a literary mode, a sort of meta-story that shapes the stories that can be told. It was pioneered in the 19th century by the likes of William Dean Howells, who argued in Criticism and Fiction that fanciful, romantic, or fantastical stories occupied a lesser place in the Darwinian evolution of literature, and that realistic fiction should “portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know,” with “fidelity to experience and probability of motive.”

But whose experiences and motives are realistic and probable, and whose measure do we all know? Historically, the answer has been the class of people who publish books: middle-class, bourgeois, white, cisgender men and women, usually culturally Christian, usually heterosexual or willing to pass as heterosexual. But I am a Jewish trans woman who has used the pinnacle of modern medical technology to literally shapeshift from the cellular level up; once I was imprisoned in my body, understood by no one; now I am manifest in the world, known and loved and happy. And even now, many will insist that my story is unrealistic, though I have lived it.

Thus realism is not simply a question of plausibility; it is a question of legibility through the consensus of a dominant class which chose to see the world in a very specific and convenient way. In realism, there are no dragons or gods to upend the social hierarchy and bring transformative change; there is only “probable” cause and effect. There are no prophetic dreams, only psychological manifestations; nothing is ineffable or unknowable; paradox does not exist; even if we do not know all the rules, we can learn them, manipulate them, and make the world predictable and controllable. And unrealistic things — like me — can be banished back to the world of make-believe.

Realism has changed the way we view history and mythology. To a realist’s eyes, Roman trans women are less realistic than cis women, though we have ancient statues of their naked bodies. If I said there were trans women in ancient Alexandria, realists would reflexively doubt, demanding proof they never expected to see; yet in the first century, Philo of Alexandria was already complaining (like a modern Fox News host) that trans women of his day were so rich and beautiful (and had surgery so young) that their very lives were an affront to “natural order.”

Is Aphrodite the manifestation of Ouranos or the daughter of Zeus? Did Agamemnon promise his daughter to Achilles at Troy, or kill her at Aulis? Is Circe the daughter of Hecate or Helios? Was Medusa from a Greek island or from Libya? Is Achilles a man or a woman? Did the Trojan War happen in the late 13th century BCE, or in the timeless realms of mythology? If you think you have a definitive answer, that’s the legacy of realism, which sculpted mythology on a Procrustean bed into a tamed, consistent canon instead of a dazzling prismatic spectrum of contradictory stories.

Realism has influenced fantasy too. “Hard magic” — magic systems with clear, revealed, knowable laws subject to the scientific method, more the province of engineers than poets — is realism. Realism calculates the wingspans of dragons to make sure they have enough buoyancy and lift to carry them aloft in some analog of our skies. These are not bad things! I enjoy logistics in my fantasy! But realism in fantasy has a darker side; brown hobbits and Black stormtroopers and lesbian necromancers and transgender demigoddesses are deemed “unrealistic,” but fantastic versions of middle-class, bourgeois, white, cisgender, heterosexual, culturally Christian men and women are somehow less remarkable.

But at its heart, even the most realistic fantasy is fantastic, refusing part or all of the world we are told is real, and that is what makes it glorious, and that is why I write fantasy. In fantasy, I can contradict the false realist narrative with deeper truths, ignoring lawyerly questions of consistency and logistics, refusing to justify that which contradicts the dominant view. I can call up Achilles as a trans woman, fiercely alive, full of dreadful joy and beauty; I can summon forth gods not tamed into an Edith Hamilton-style rogue’s gallery of petty bickerers; I can rip down the wall between “history” and “myth” to expand the imagination, conjuring women like me where generations of teachers have falsely insisted none could exist; I can reveal inner worlds both wonderful and terrible, and let them melt the universe.

Le Guin wrote that those who oppose fantasy are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom. But freedom is the least realistic thing in the world. We can only be free by embracing the fantastic first.

Photo of Maya Deane Maya Deane is the author of Wrath Goddess Sing (Morrow), which inspired some very popular Achilles genderswap fanfiction by an obscure Ionian poet named Homer. Follow her @mayadeanewriter, and be sure to buy Wrath Goddess Sing before it’s cool, like Homer did.