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Personal Canons: The Blue Sword

A Guest Feature by AnaMaria Curtis

In addition to my own reflections and guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community, the Personal Canons series will also feature essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I received in response to my open call. Last time, Alasdair Stuart wrote about grappling with Warren Ellis. Today, I’m thrilled to feature AnaMaria Curtis.

AnaMaria Curtis is from the part of Illinois that is very much not Chicago. She's the winner of the 2019 Dell Magazines Award and enjoys starting fights about 19th century British literature and getting distracted by dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @AnaMCurtis.

There’s a line in the second half of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword that says, “it is not an enviable position, being a bridge.” It’s not the best sentence in this winding, gorgeous, semicolon-stuffed book, but it is the line that’s most directly anchored in my heart.

I, like many others, have felt pulled between people, places, and cultures my entire life, and have come to believe that the being-pulled is a part of my identity, rather than a contradiction. The Blue Sword helped me name myself as a bridge—a white Latina, an indecisive bisexual, someone still (always) swinging wildly between life paths—and it helped me keep constantly interrogating myself as I grew to recognize the flaws in its approach to colonialism and race.

In The Blue Sword, Harry (short for Angharad) is an unknowing and often unwilling bridge between two countries, a young woman who goes from feeling an affinity to a desert country to learning its language, taking up its magic and traditions, saving it, and finding acceptance in it.  It was, I believe, one of the first books about a girl with a sword; it’s a book that knows what young women can do. But what made it special to me was its understanding of loneliness.

I read The Blue Sword when I was twelve, starting to recognize the ways I was meant to stretch between cultures, expectations, and places — or lose them.  I’m multiracial/white Latinx/part Colombian. My mother named me AnaMaria and was told, immediately and accurately, that nobody would pronounce that correctly in the small Midwestern town where I was raised. Even just Ana turned into Anna, and I grew up correcting people over and over and over; it was the first way I learned to speak up for myself.

My paperback copy of The Blue Sword is worn and breaking apart, and it opens easily to all my favorite pages because I still take it everywhere, even if I’m just traveling for a night.  It’s the book I reach for when I’m anxious — in New York City the night before a job interview, alone at the airport waiting for my flight to Colombia, thinking about asking a girl out for the first time. And it’s not the triumphant ending that I gravitate to when I pull out this book, but the uncertain middle.

The thing is, Harry spends a lot of time in the beginning of the book hanging around tents and warhorses uncertainly, terrified of what’s happening, homesick, and wanting to belong.  For all of her triumphs in the latter half of the book, she is deeply and perilously uncertain for a good chunk of it, with no one to confide in but a gigantic cat. And eventually, when she’s homesick, she’s not sure which home it is she’s missing.

What makes The Blue Sword so wonderful is that it doesn’t shy away from this part of the bridge experience: the deep and absolute suckiness of feeling like you’re an outsider everywhere you turn, the guilt you feel when you choose one thing for the moment and fear you’re abandoning the other. Within its soft pages and winding sentences, The Blue Sword tells me, every time I read it, that it’s okay to be confused and sad and alone, that it doesn’t mean I don’t — or won’t — belong.

But there’s another side to all this. I probably wouldn’t give The Blue Sword to a preteen or teen today. If I did, I would discuss the problematic tropes and themes, many of which have to do with the book’s treatment of race and colonialism.

This is the second way The Blue Sword has helped me. I’m not twelve anymore, and my worldview has expanded with time and information. I can recognize and name a white savior story these days. And in applying this understanding to a book that I know is a part of my soul, the base of who I am as a person and as a writer, I have to apply that same level of reflection to myself and my own actions.

I love The Blue Sword. I still point to it as the book that has most influenced me — and my overuse of semicolons and em dashes. But I also have to recognize that it’s flawed.  It’s not great that Harry marries the guy who kidnapped her. It’s not great that she, a character otherwise clearly marked as white, sweeps into Damar — a nonwhite country facing colonization from her home country — and is accepted and included because her great-grandmother was Damarian.

The late-in-the-book reveal of Harry’s Damarian ancestry comes as a revelation to her, something that slots everything into place and makes it clear that she belongs there (you know, as their queen). It gets rid of so much of the work.  I can say from experience that that knowledge of your heritage usually makes things more complicated, not less. It means you have to approach the world with more nuance.

My experience of being a bridge, or at least of being multiracial, is that it can be really hard and complicated and confusing. I studied Spanish when I could; I visited relatives in Colombia; I send my cousins ungrammatical messages on WhatsApp. Most of the time I doubt myself anyway. The ending of The Blue Sword chooses to smooth away much of Harry’s confusion — and much of the work she did. It does this in a larger context of making Damar an “exotic” setting for readers, who can see themselves in a white character with a sprinkle of “foreignness” to make her exciting.

But me, I saw myself in her in the beginning. In the confusion, the longing, the wanting — and the working — to belong. The Blue Sword taught me that a bridge is a stable structure all on its own. As I continue to reflect on its flaws and my own, it continues to strengthen my beams and girders and keep me improving.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.