When we last left Fiona, she had just discovered an intruder in her Weyr and seized her by the wrist letting her anger at how far out of touch the Weyrleaders are with reality boil over at a target she can yell at and otherwise be upset with. There are still sick dragons, there are still time-twisted riders, and nobody is doing much of anything to try and solve any of these problems.
Dragonheart: Chapter Six: Content Notes: White Savior Narratives, Racism, Classism, Almost Omelas-Style Abuse
So, Fiona finds out the name of the person in her Weyr is Xhinna. And I want to know how to pronounce that, because I feel like it would give me a lot of insight into what Xhinna looks like. All we get, narratively, is that she has dark hair. If I’m supposed to pronounce Xhinna like I’m supposed to pronounce Xhosa, with the attendant assumptions, what we have set ourselves up for is a situation where the presumably white Irish-looking girl is about to physically drag around a black African girl, and there’s really no way that is going to be good optics for your novel. So the narrative carefully omits any talk about any other physical characteristics of Xhinna.
It turns out, though, that Fiona and Xhinna have something to bond over. Xhinna murmurs that Talenth should be hers when Fiona figures out Xhinna is there to look at Talenth.
Recognition suddenly dawned. “You were the candidate that chased after her.”
Xhinna’s face darkened in shame. “I was afraid she was going to get away,” she confessed miserably. “And it would be been my fault.”
“Your fault?” Fiona thought that was going too far.
“I shouldn’t be been there,” Xhinna said, grimacing. “I wasn’t Searched.”
“Nor was I,” Fiona remarked, not seeing any harm in that.
Xhinna swallowed hard and raised her eyes to meet Fiona’s as she admitted, “I stole the robe from the laundry and snuck in with the others.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Melanwy said I shouldn’t have been there, that I might have ruined everything.”
Xhinna continues to explain that she was found all alone as a baby and taken in at the Weyr, but that means nobody thinks of her as weyrfolk. She’s bullied by the boys, shunned by the girls, and apparently Melanwy, when she had all her faculties, wanted to send Xhinna away. She wasn’t like all the other girls, Melanwy said, and Xhinna believes it.
Also, Xhinna has “a swarthy face and dark, intelligent eyes,” along with a “pretty and lightly freckled” nose.
So, dark-complexioned girl gets told off by white girl, but then it turns into something much more approaching the white savior narrative instead. You see, Xhinna proclaims she’s constantly in trouble after Fiona makes her a provisional deal that she can come see Talenth any time she likes, so long as she keeps herself out of trouble, I mean, more trouble.
“In fact, perhaps we can arrange for you to help me.”
For a moment, Xhinna looked absolutely stunned, then her face clouded once more. “Like a drudge?”
“No,” Fiona corrected her, her tone turning a bit sharp, “like a friend.” She paused and raised her eyebrows at the girl. “They do have those at the Weyr, don’t they?”
“Some do,” Xhinna allowed.
Fiona guessed that Xhinna added in her thoughts, “just not me.”
And this is quite the underbelly being exposed here, where the orphan dark girl is treated very differently than all her peers. I’m fairly certain that neither author would necessarily admit that Pern is pretty flagrantly racist in all its doings, but the killing off of the Tinkers and Travellers in the first fall, and then Xhinna’s treatment here, (as well as the descriptions of how the head cook, Zirana, speaks) continues to state that Pern is a very racist place.
Xhinna says Fiona well have to talk to Melanwy to get permission to have Xhinna around, since Melanwy made Xhinna her personal assistant after the stunt she pulled at the Hatching. Xhinna should be there right now, actually, except Melanwy sent Xhinna away so she could sit with Tannaz and there would be fewer eyes watching while Kelsanth dies.
Fiona, for her part, after she’s done tending to Talenth, pops immediately over to Tannaz’s Weyr. And while she tries to get Tannaz to eat or do anything, Melanwy tells her it’s no use. Fiona eventually storms out to go get food for Tannaz and force her to eat it, if she has to. When she asks Zirana where Xhinna is, Zirana directs her to listen for the sound of children, before declaring Xhinna is “no relative of mine, that girl!” Which further cements for me that both Zirana and Xhinna are black (or very dark-skinned) enough that people might mistake them as related and ask Zirana to reel in her wayward relative. Because all black people have to be related to each other, right?
Fiona does follow the sound of children and finds Xhinna telling stories to the children. Once they notice Fiona, Xhinna’s audience disappears as they mob Fiona, and one small boy, Dennon, asks if Fiona’s dragon is about to die. Fiona assures him that Talenth is fine, but Dennon has made the logical connection that if queen dragons can die, that means any dragon can die, and he’s worried about his father’s blue dying. Xhinna and Fiona are doing their best to engage in damage control (and there is an interlude with an unknown rider telling Fiona to remember her own pronouncements, who Talenth says she can’t identify because they haven’t met her yet, reminding us that we’re still in the thick of the time-travel plot form the last book) when Ellor, one of the cooks, pops in and makes the situation worse by immediately focusing the blame for the disturbed children on Xhinna. Fiona cuts Ellor off before she can get wound up by demanding Xhinna for herself, and then turns around and gives Xhinna the business, tempered some by their shared outsider status.
“Thanks!” Xhinna said as they entered the corridor. “Now you see what I mean about how everyone blames me, even when I don’t do anything.”
Fiona was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, it was with an honest, deliberate voice. “Those children didn’t hear about dragons dying from anyone but you,” she said. “You didn’t set them off just then, but you certainly set them up for it.”
Xhinna stopped dead in her tracks. Fiona turned back to her. Xhinna’s expression was dead, haunted.
“I thought you were different,” Xhinna whispered in shock. “I thought you might really like me.”
“Oh, you’re worse than a pricklebug, you!” Fiona roared back at her. She reached out and grabbed Xhinna’s hand, tugging her along. “You take offense at the slightest bit of honesty.” She sighed loudly. “It’s like you expect everyone to be mean to you.”
“That wasn’t mean?” Xhinna asked with a sniff.
“It was true!” Fiona snapped. “You told those kids a story and you scared them. You’re responsible for that. You made a mistake–it doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“It doesn’t?” Xhinna repeated, as thought he concept was new to her.
“No, everyone makes mistakes,” Fiona said, increasing her stride as Xhinna started walking beside her faster. “It’s what you do about them afterward that matters.”
That concept might very well be new to Xhinna, if everyone treats her the way Ellor was ready to, and disavows her as fast as Zirana does. Someone who is willing to separate “you did mistaken things” and “you are a mistake” would be a very new thing, and would run counter to the pattern of abuse that Xhinna has likely internalized as being her nature.
I’m still looking remarkably askance at the authorial decision to put these two together by giving Xhinna a backstory of being an abused dark-skinned drudge (slave) girl and Fiona a wealthy upper-class light-skinned girl that becomes her only friend and exalts her above her otherwise pitiful station. Presumably, Xhinna will be grateful for Fiona’s blessing on her, but also acutely aware that it can be withdrawn at any time, so Fiona is the only one I expect to walk around with the illusion that they can be friends as peers in this situation, since she’s the one with the privilege to be able to ignore the stonking power imbalance.
Also, have I mentioned enough times what a bad idea it is to make the girl that’s being abused, expected to behave like someone older than she is, and nearly-shunned by everyone else dark-skinned? Because it’s a terrible idea to single out a dark-skinned girl and heap all of this abuse on her alone, given the history of dark-skinned people being abused by lighter-skinned people on Terra. It gives off the impression that the narrative either enjoys it or thinks she deserves it, no matter what the characters might say.
“You mean, you don’t hate me?”
“Because you wanted to be a dragonrider?” Fiona demanded. “Or because you like telling stories?”
“Because–” Xhinna took a deep breath before confessing in a rush, “Because I hoped your dragon would die.”
Fiona gaped at her, dumbstruck.
“I–I thought if–if I couldn’t have her,” Xhinna stammered, “then why should you?” She looked down and began to cry. “I’m sorry. It was mean of me, and I didn’t mean…not really, b-but I thought if I had a dragon then maybe I’d…”
“Maybe you’d fit in,” Fiona finished for her.
[…Fiona remembers having to send away Fire, and how much she misses losing the fire-lizard…]
“But you’ve got a queen!” Xhinna sobbed. “And I’ve got nothing.”
“I’m not going to be sorry for you,” Fiona told her brusquely. Xhinna stiffened in surprise. “You can still Impress–you’re not too old.”
“They won’t let me on the Hatching Grounds,” Xhinna protested miserably.
“They didn’t let me on the Hatching Grounds,” Fiona pointed out to her. “And I still Impressed.”
And that’s a perfect example of what I meant about Fiona being able to ignore the power imbalance. Theh only reason Fiona was there in the first place was because she was the daughter of a Lord. If she had been a smaller Holder girl, she would never have been brought to the Hatching Grounds as a guest. Xhinna had one shot at it, because once they noticed her on the Grounds with a robe, they would make damn sure she didn’t get the opportunity again to disrupt their process. Xhinna had one chance, and Fiona ruined it just by being there. There’s no reason to believe that Xhinna would have Impressed if Fiona hadn’t been there, either, but because Fiona was in the stands, it makes her an attractive target for “if only that meddlesome Hold girl hadn’t been there, the dragon would have been mine” grudges.
The next paragraph is Fiona explaining what she came to get Xhinna for. After that, Xhinna says that she only meant her hope that Talenth died until she met Fiona, and now she doesn’t want Talenth to die at all.
“I only thought that before I met you,” Xhinna said softly. “About your dragon, I mean.”
Fiona turned back to her with a small smile. “That’s what I thought.”
Cocowhat by depizan
I thought Fiona was supposed to be the antithesis of the spoiled rich brat Holder trope, but she’s playing it to the hilt here with Xhinna. Of course the girl whose best shot you usurped couldn’t possibly be mad at Fiona once she met her. Fiona’s just so darn nice and helpful and otherwise a virtuous role model, and Fiona having an expectation that Xhinna would drop her grudge once she got to know Fiona isn’t peak white savior behavior. [/sarcasm]
This entire scene seems to exist for the reason of establishing the power differentials and then making Fiona seem gracious for forgiving Xhinna her justified feelings about some white girl who wasn’t even there getting the prize that Xhinna could only get a shot at by making her own way, rather than waiting for someone to notice her and include her. Like, it might be a character flaw for Xhinna to be salty at Fiona for getting the thing she was hoping to steal, but it makes logical sense to me.
Not that the other swing of the pendulum would be any better. A Xhinna trying to take advantage of Fiona and get in tight with her to bolster her own power in the Lower Caverns plays into a different stereotype about black people spread in certain places on Terra that believe the government is doing everything it can to take away the power of white people and give it to undeserving minorities, who are biding their time until they have enough power to enslave whites and brutalize them.
This is what happens when you tokenize minorities. They have to do too much narrative lifting, and any character traits they might have start being shorthand for what all people who look like them act like, because we don’t see enough people who look like them acting in different ways, so that nobody becomes shorthand.
Also, despite the fact that Fiona explicitly said “like a friend,” not “like a drudge”…
When Fiona and Xhinna arrived at Tannaz’s weyr a half an hour later, Xhinna kept her eyes downcast and followed every one of Fiona’s orders silently, just as they’d agreed.
“Pretend it’s a game,” Fiona had suggested with a grin. “You get a point for every order I give you that you can do without making any noise. This time I’ll make it easy, but the next time–be warned!–I’ll do my best to make you laugh.”
Treating it as a game made it easier for Xhinna to survive Melanwy’s sour humor and bitter jibes.
“Seems you’ve found a leash for her, Weyrwoman,” Melanwy admitted grudgingly as Xhinna dipped her head politely to the old headwoman. “She hasn’t said a word once.” Melanwy paused for a second, then added maliciously, “Usually no one can shut her up.”
Xhinna’s eyes flashed, but she caught Fiona’s look and let the insult pass.
I can’t even. (I will, all the same.) I guess we’re still significantly out from sensitivity readers being part of the regular parlance, but I would like to believe an editor went “you know this is in flagrant contradiction to what Fiona said earlier, right?” even if they couldn’t get or didn’t want to say “you just had the dark-skinned girl willingly take on the stupid servant role to the white girl, and she explicitly has been told she has to take whatever abuse the old (probably also white) woman is going to heap on her if she wants to keep her position as friend, and that old white woman is referring to the dark-skinned girl as if she were an an animal who needed a leash. This is the sort of thing that was said about actual black people in the not-all-that recent history of the United States, where many of your readers are. Are you sure this is the kind of thing you want to be putting on the page for your readers?”
At this point, it’s either deliberate, and the author wants us to be thinking about race and class and how terrible Fiona is as a protagonist, or the author has no idea he’s doing it, and in being clueless about it, is turning in a masterwork about how race and class work on Pern and showing us just how awful a protagonist Fiona is, regardless of whether Fiona’s consciously reinforcing those race and class divisions or not. Given that the rule of Pern seems to be the protagonists are supposed to be seen positively, regardless of whether their actions are actually positive, my money’s on ignorance being beautiful, beautiful bliss.
Playing it off as a game is a thing that might help Xhinna get through it without incident, and gives the reader an out if they want to avoid thinking about it too hard by saying Fiona came up with it as a game to help Xhinna, so there couldn’t have been any ill intent. Which is true, but intent is not fucking magic. And neither of them are old enough to think of this as a consenting kinky relationship, which about the only way I could envision this scene happening and it not being terrible, but I would definitely need to see a negotiation scene beforehand, and both Fiona and Xhinna need to be way older.
As it is, Fiona manages to persuade Melanwy to take a break and let them watch Tannaz and Kalsenth, Fiona rewards Xhinna not with whatever thing she thinks is her reward for a job well done (Xhinna groans audibly when Fiona uses that phrasing) but with watching Kalsenth while Fiona takes care of Talenth. Xhinna provides further insight on why Melanwy is hanging around Kalsenth so much – she wants to hitch a ride to hyperspace on her, since Melanwy didn’t get to do it with the last Weyrwoman-dragon combination that went and left her behind.
Fiona then brings Xhinna with her to the head table for the next dinner, and K’lior pegs her immediately, much to Xhinna’s complete embarassment.
“She wasn’t the first, I assure you,” Kentai added with a wry grin. “It’s a long-established tradition in all the Weyrs.”
“It didn’t work, though, did it?” Cisca asked, not looking at Xhinna but at Fiona. Her look was odd: Fiona couldn’t understand what she meant by it.
“The dragons always know,” H’nez said from his place beside Kentai. “They know blue riders from bronze riders, too.”
What was that supposed to mean? Fiona wondered.
“I thought all the Weyrfolk were allowed to stand on the Hatching Ground when they’re of age,” she said, glancing at Kentai for confirmation.
“We usually limit the number at each Hatching to not more than twice the eggs,” Cisca said as she took a forkful of her cake. Noting Fiona’s curious look, she explained, “So as not to crowd the hatchlings or have too many pointless injuries.”
Well, that’s new. And also, a rather convenient way of making sure not just everyone can stand and catch a dragon. Also, thank you, H’nez, for illustrating that even inside the highest echelons of Pernese society, there is still stratification and hierarchy and prejudice. To a toxically masculine bronze rider, being a blue rider (and, according to the prejudices set forth by Anne in extratextual material, thus the likely receptive partner in any given rider pairing) must seem like the complete opposite of the desired projection. The greens are sluts, and that can be useful to a bronze rider, but the blues are the penetrated, gasp, and so can’t possibly be sufficiently manly ever.
Plot-wise, Fiona asks if she can keep Xhinna close by, to run late-night errands and otherwise be her support personnel. H’nez scoffs at the idea, because his conception of a dragonrider is someone who is entirely self-sufficient. K’lior completes the quote H’nez begins, but points out dragonriders don’t cook their own food or raise their own children, so they’re not quite as super self-sufficient (All Hail Rand!) as H’nez would like to believe.
“I think,” Cisca declared, “that even if Kelsanth were not sick, it would make sense to have someone available to help a queen rider.”
“Like a drudge?” H’nez said with a sneer as he regarded Xhinna. “Certainly she fits the role.”
“H’nez!” T’mar growled warningly.
Fiona glared angrily at H’nez, then turned away from him to Cisca in a move that was an obvious dismissal and slight. The man might be a bronze rider and many Turns older than she, but he had a lot to learn about manners.
“Fioonna,” Xhinna murmured fearfully beside her.
“Weyrleader, Weyrwoman, thank you,” Fiona said with a polite nod for each. She pushed back her chair and rose, nudging Xhinna to do the same. “I think we’d best get back to my weyr so that we can assist Tannaz as she needs.
“Harper,” she said, nodding to Kentai. Her gaze skipped over H’nez and rested on T’mar, as she said, “Wingleader.” With that, she turned sharply and, still clutching Xhinna’s arm, marched out of the cavern.
“Discipline is much lacking in this Weyr,” she heard H’nez declare loudly after her.
“As are manners,” Kentai agreed just as loudly. And, while she wasn’t sure if H’nez recognized the Harper’s tone, Fiona was certain as she walked away that the Weyr’s harper was not referring to her.
Way to stand up for your people, Fiona. I mean that seriously. That’s using your privilege for good ends. And still makes me wonder why H’nez hasn’t been bounced out on his ear long before he had the opportunity to insult Fiona and Xhinna. There always has to be an antagonist of some sort, if you believe that conflict drives plot, but this qualifies as questioning a Weyrwoman’s judgment in her domain, and that’s not smart if you want to stay in any sort of position of leadership and power. Bust his ass back down to private, K’lior, until he can learn manners and respect for the chain of command.
This chapter seems to be moving at molasses pace, honestly, but I think it’s because we’re getting a lot more worldbuilding and society cues and explanations than we were before. The new author is going to some pains to describe the world and its inhabitants more fully than the old author, and that requires some closer reading.
This is a good stopping point for this week’s post, as within a few pages, there’s going to be something that deserves more of that close reading, and if I put the two of them in the same post, I’m going to end up with a seven or eight-thousand word monstrosity with the quotes involved, instead of the “compact” three thousand or so for this chunk of it. It does look like the pace will pick up a little once we get past these segments, though, so we may be able to make up some ground.
At the very least, we should be able to finish Chapter 6 next week.