"Survival of the Fiction" -- the third-place winner from our "Pyr and Dragons Adventure" contest
Posted by Jill Maxick
L. Lambert Lawson of Escondido, California wrote the third-place essay in our "Pyr and Dragons Adventure" fifth anniversary contest. Lawson—the founder and editor-in-chief of Kazka Press, an online magazine devoted to fantasy fiction—will receive five complimentary books of his choice from the Pyr catalog as well as a commemorative Pyr fifth-anniversary keepsake.
We are pleased to post his contribution:
Survival of the Fiction
L. Lambert Lawson
From 2005-2007, I, along with 115 other Americans, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. We fanned out across that former Soviet republic, peopling formerly irradiated villages and sleepy, vodka-distilling and -swilling towns to do a job: teach English. However, we all realized the more important job: survival. On my end, survival hinged, in both profound and peculiar ways, on access to fantasy literature, a truth at the heart of this essay.
Under a cerulean sky, a man with whom I shared a no common language, aside from the ability to waggle limbs to communicate some great need, grasped me by the shoulder and marched me into a copse of birch. He thrust a spade into my hands and motioned to the shaded earth. Dig. A large man, clutching a sharpened trowel of his own, and a colleague of my host mother, he commanded me with his stature. I saw myself drop my knees and commence digging—my perspective omniscient third-person. Was I being hazed? Could a full-grown man dig his own grave, in partial view of loved ones, with a tool meant for divesting a victory garden of its weeds? I thought of Roland Deschain, of Tyrion Lannister and Mike Havel; channeled their courage in the face of fear; and broke apart the loose dirt. Four minutes in, this man waved his hands at me.
He then transformed his fists into claws and squirreled at the air as if rescuing a harvest of acorns from an invisible tree. Dig with your hands.
My mind passed from story to story, from Dragonlance to Mid-World to Middle Earth, and remembered the heroes of those landscapes. Life faced none of them as a series of normal events. Life was raw and churning; moving forward did not come cheap: one had to cross the Rubicon into territory heretofore uncharted. The best readers follow no maps; the best writers include them as frontispieces at the insistence of publishers who “know what the market wants.” Thus, I plunged forth, when my unfortified self might have buckled from uncertainty and isolation, and dug my fingers into the dark earth. A few inches down, I found my treasure: a bottle of samahon, Ukraine’s most potent homemade vodka, and a story that would splash from that center and onto all the new shores I encounter. Fantasy literature provided me mettle when I might otherwise have mewed. Thus, it remains core to me.
Rolling across that hallowed Ukrainian ground, from Kyiv to Kharkiv to L’viv, the wandering cultural capital of Carpathians, one’s constant travel companion is a novel. Train cars are crowded, and passengers never tire of ogling the foreigner. A book is defense. The denser, the better. I was never without a sprawling epic or two on any trip I made; I often reread a tattered volume from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire juggernaut. Fantasy literature, like no other genre, publishes books like bricks, tomes like tools. In my two years, the volume A Game of Thrones became a truncheon to ward off a drunk, a block to force windows open in sweltering coupe cabins, and a perfect-bound roll of toilet paper. Using the words of Ned Stark to wipe my ass is neither embarrassing nor an affront to Martin and his Westeros, a work like The Bible to me. Instead, I view it as a sacred link in my tale – I who live more for story than for etiquette. Who else would I clutch in my fist, hovering anus down over a Turkish toilet in a bathroom bereft of paper products but Martin? Who else could cleanse me; save me from developing a rash on my impending 17-hour, cross-country train ride; and still provide enough leaves for reading on my journey home? Without fantasy literature, I would’ve been accosted by drunks, boiled alive in coupes, and squirming in shit for ¾ of a day; thus, it remains savior to me.
During Ukrainian winters, evening begins at 3:00 PM. The dark descends, and one has two choices: frolic in the night and become a statistic or become intimate with every livable space in one’s apartment. Of those Peace Corps Volunteers who terminated their services early, the crux of that decision often stemmed from an incident in the nighttime. Muggings. Brawls. A rape. Night, in large doses, was not for survivors. Therefore, Peace Corps had a large, unofficial, and always mobile library of fantasy (and other) fiction. There’s only so much Scrabble to play or tea to host or Lost to watch. Eventually, into everyone’s hands a book must fall.
From October 2005 to November 2007, I read 107 books – not the most in my group but still a veritable survey of modern fantasy fiction. Soaking up as much of the history, environment, and people of L’viv as I could in daylight hours, I slid into Gilead and Chiba City after dusk. The hundreds of thousands of words I read, and the worlds they imagined, kept me safe during nights when neo-Nazis paraded below my balcony and broke windows on my boulevard. Tome after tome secured me when other Volunteers were robbed, abused, and harassed in dark corners and dimly-lit squares. Enticed by the possibility of experience and story, Aragon’s strength or Raistlin’s confidence did not cloud my instinct for survival. In a small way, fantasy literature helped me survive Ukraine.
My students, trudging to school through two foot snowdrifts, wanted nothing more than the principal to announce karantin. Under quarantine, the dilapidated school building would be shuttered for two weeks at a minimum. Two weeks for my students to play; two weeks for me to figure out what the hell to do with myself. Vacation in Ukraine is not like vacation in the U.S. – especially during a blizzard of biblical proportions. Public transportation is the rule, and, despite facing winter in some form every year, the Ukrainian bus and train system barely survives each snowy season it faces. Infrastructure is not one of Ukraine’s strengths. Thus, for nearly two weeks, I was housebound. Unfortunately, I had few books at that juncture, no hope of going out to get any (in English), and only a fledgling ability to read at length in Ukrainian. I did, however, have a laptop. So, in February of 2006, The Aria of Davin Ford was born, my as-yet-published contribution to the canon of fantasy literature. Yet, the power of the work was not in its publishing potential; it was in its power to hold me in thrall as my fingers treated my keyboard like an amped up Whack-a-Mole. Characters were born; a world was crafted. Two weeks turned into three years, and I cashed in on a long-ago dream – write a novel – and got sent off on a new path: publish it.
Last, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is a lonely proposition. Not everyone was lucky enough to serve with their life partners as I was, but couples were not as self-sustaining as everyone surmised. Couples needed friends too. And friends came together, intellectually and physically, around shared interests. People bonded over the nuances radiating out between various brands of Ukrainian vodka or flavors of dried bread chips, but one thread that tied numerous volunteers together was a bibliophilic streak, especially a love of –wait for it –fantasy literature. Friends drew together over The Drawing of the Three; swooned over rare copies of Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows; and competed to find the most banal, inadvertently hilarious books (sorry James Herbert, but Once sucked very, very badly.)
Lonely stretches of time grew less isolating with text messages flying across the country faster than a golden snitch, commiserating over the latest plot twist in a shared novel (A Clash of Kings anyone?) delving into a familiar story wrought new (The Historian), and chewing through the haunch and marrow of a dense treasure (Blood Meridian). And we were made better because of those connections. Fantasy literature bridged the chasm of solitude between good women and men serving their country. Thus, fantasy literature holds my gratitude.
Fantasy fiction served me as I served the United States of America. It kept me whole, kept me sane, and kept me safe. There are other, more prominent actors on that stage (my wife chief among them), but words linked into sentences that rolled into pages of paragraphs got us through and, often, held us up. Consider this a thank you, fantasy literature, and a wholesale toast, with Ukrainian samahon, to your, as well as our, continued survival.