Forks and contemporary fantasy

A few weeks ago we took an impromptu trip to the Olympic National Park, and in the process we stopped by Port Angeles and Forks.

I really wanted to make this trip specifically because Twilight has been such a popular book series and I knew it was set in a small town in Washington State. The smallness of the town in emphasized many times in the text, and I was very curious about how the author, Stephanie Meyer, had captured that town in the text, and what parts of it she made up. I was specifically interested also in the impacts the book series might have had on the town. Before you read further, disclosure that I didn’t do any interviewing or anything to that effect — this post just contains my impressions on my trip as a reader of the series.

Way back when I did the World Fantasy Panel on Cities as Fantasy Settings in San Antonio, one of my co-panelists said something that stuck with me. Paraphrasing, my panelist asserted that there were “as many versions of London as there were stories about London.” This struck me as particularly interesting in light of the urban/contemporary fantasy subgenre. Each story captures a version of a place that is not the place in itself, but a memory or idea of it. In big cities like London, New York, and New Orleans, some popular settings for urban fantasy stories, these versions of the city can live more or less alongside one another. Some of them are more accurate, some of them less, but they don’t fundamentally change the nature of the city in question. New York already has an identity. N.K. Jemisin in her book The City We Became attempts to capture this identity, and captures a version of New York City that lives and breathes for her and for many. Sex and the City also captures a popular view of New York City. The many people living in the city with many differing identities mean that residents might find something to identify with in both narratives, elements of each that contain traces of the real New York. But New York itself will, to some extent, trundle along regardless of these narrative depictions of it.

Forks is not New York City, and therefore the rules become a little different. A narrative about a small town like Forks can transform it, for good or ill.

A former timber town of a little over 3,000 people located in coastal Washington State, Forks is probably as far as you can get geographically and metaphysically from New York City and still be in the United States. The nearby Hoh Rainforest gets an average of 140 inches of rain a year, making it one of the cloudiest and rainiest places on earth. This factor was likely the main consideration in choosing to locate Twilight in Forks and the surrounding area, since vampires need a lot less sunlight to live somewhat “normal” lives in the Twilight universe.

Stephanie Meyer talks about her first trip to Forks on her blog, where she mentions that she took her first trip after she had written the book in 2005. Some of her observation of what was lacking in her story — specifically the class consciousness of the timber industry and its importance to the region — parallel my own observations. The difficult history of the timber industry and of the way that such an industry leaves a community financially vulnerable, and the overwhelming sense of poverty in the City of Forks, were some of my key observations from my admittedly brief visit. Forks reminded me a great deal of similar timber towns in West Virginia, which I was far more familiar with. This and other missing details made me feel that the Forks presented in the text of Twilight was a pale imitation of the Forks presented in reality. The importance of the Olympic National Park to the local economy and the beautiful, accessible trails and beaches nearby don’t feature prominently in the books either, except as a refuge for the Cullens to hunt.

It’s inarguable that Twilight has had some positive impacts on Forks and the nearby La Push, home of the Quileute Indian tribe and reservation which also feature prominently in the series. However, there are negative impacts as well, brought about specifically by portraying a rural area without visiting in person and speaking to the people there. And there are ethical questions about profiting off of marginalized communities, including Native traditions, that are worth considering for any author writing contemporary fantasy.

This trip gave me a lot to think about in this regard, and it’s something worth thinking about carefully for every author writing contemporary stories, whether fantastical or otherwise. This is not to say don’t do it, and none of us can predict every outcome from our work. Stephanie Meyer certainly didn’t expect to become one of the biggest names in young adult fiction. But we all have an obligation to try to get things right, and we should keep that in mind when choosing our settings for our stories, especially when the smaller the community, the greater the unintentional impact can be.

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