Identity, Golems, and the Legend of Korra

I feel so homesick
Where is my home;
Where I belong
Or where I was born?

~Alabama Shakes

Somewhere in the recesses of my brain there’s a few brambly dendrites knotted to the idea that people identify themselves with their jobs. I think I heard it a decade ago, in a political science and media class during my undergraduate studies. The premise is straight-forward and generally holds up: the first bit of information people often give you about themselves is what they do for a living, and the first bit of information you provide to new acquaintances is the same. This info, when added to what we look like, how we speak, where we are, and where we’re from, constitutes a basic and often unshakeable first impression; a packaged identity.

For example, if someone asked me about myself I would tell them:

I am a writer. I got my MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and worked in cancer research publishing for a few years, and now I work in operations for a hospital, handling a clinic’s purchasing and major projects and obscure IT issues. I’ve been working on a couple of books for a few years now, won a grant, had some things published in some journals, and I’m hoping to publish a novel next. I am from Texas, but have lived in New York now for almost ten years.

But…

…is that me?

Because there are other things about me that summary skips over: I’m a gamer nerd, with a particular love of Magic: the Gathering. I carry dice around everywhere in case someone wants to play Cee-lo. I read a lot of YA. I despise doing laundry with an irrationality that to some might suggest childhood trauma. I despise opening mail with an irrationality that definitely has something to do with bills and student loans. I like photos of animals with captions and some attempt at anthropomorphism, particularly panicked cats in high places. I despise Garamond because use a real font dammit.

But, again…

…is that me?

I love cartoons. I recently found out Nickelodeon added another few seasons to their stellar sequel to “Avatar: the Last Air Bender.” “The Legend of Korra” details the adventures of a young woman burdened with bringing balance to an aggressively entropic world filled with magic and spirits and fate. A fantasy junkie, I watched the two additional seasons in a week.

As the “Avatar,” Korra inherited powers of elemental “bending,” a sort of elemental control similar to Elsa’s cryokineticism in “Frozen,” except in the world of Avatar this control is obtained through Tai-Chi like fighting styles and not the more emotionally satisfying wailing and arm flailing. Each style focuses either on fire, earth, water, or air, and as a rule benders can only manipulate/control a single element… except the Avatar. Korra is the only one in the world capable of mastering all of the elements.

Nations are divided by the elements; there is the Water Tribe, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the nearly-extinct Air Nomads. Much of the main conflict in “Korra” centers on these nations: a civil war between the northern and southern Water Tribes, anarchy in the Earth Kingdom, the rebuilding and repopulating of the Air Nomads. But these stories are archetypal in nature, particularly for the Young Adult audiences: we know Korra, every season, will go on a Campbell-esque Hero’s Journey. She will struggle, fall low, and then find, conveniently last-minute-ish, the power to defeat whatever the evils she’s facing.

This is the least interesting part of “Korra.”

Don’t get me wrong—I love the show. The fight scenes push what animation is capable of to the extremes, the voice acting is generally very good, and the mythology is rich, inspired by Eastern lore and spiritualism. The majority of the characters are complex and likable, with motivations and desires and dimensionality you don’t see in most cartoons, not to mention they’re minorities and unabashedly given the center stage. They’re believable. I like them. I want to hang out with them.

But what interests me the most about “Korra” is her internal conflict. At its center “Korra” is a show preoccupied with identity, in no small part because Korra is following the established series “Avatar: the Last Air Bender.” But identity in “Korra” is handled in an incredibly interesting way. On the one hand, we see in Korra the struggle we all experienced growing up: the confusion and complexity of near-adulthood; how to find a place in the world where we fit in and anxiety over if that place even exists; how being a teenager means being savaged by unanswerable questions of why.

But much of the internal conflict is focused on how this powerful young woman must deal with being powerful and young—how she struggles with balancing the two, and her devastation when either is taken away. We see her without her powers—lost, weak, confused; terrified of becoming an anonymous member of the Water Tribe and ending the Avatar lineage. And we see her shake off her youth as she’s forced to decide between her family and her nation, followed by panic and sorrow as she suffers from doing what she thought was the right thing. And we see the redemption when she finally achieves balance—the life of a diplomat, a worldly power; the life of a young woman, in love and scared of being alone, unsure of herself but unwilling to do anything but keep moving forward.

In Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni we see similar identity struggles in the book’s protagonists—a masterless golem named Chava and a masterless jinni named Ahmad, respectively. Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, they end up appropriating the lifestyles of immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York City; Chava as a baker in the Jewish section of Manhattan, Ahmad as a tinsmith in Little Syria.

The book’s conflict centers on how the two balance their Natures (yes, capital N there) versus their desires—Chava, being a creature built to serve, is assaulted with the wants and fears of all around her. In her first encounter in the city she steals a knish for a young boy because his hunger is so loud, resulting in the sudden rousing of an angry mob demanding she either be arrested or pay. (To camouflage yourself as human, you cannot be selfless, Wecker seems to be saying.) The jinni, trapped in a human body and in servitude to a master he cannot remember and who in all likelihood is not longer alive, is frustrated with the drudgery of human life—he prowls the rooftops of the Lower East Side each night, sleepless, the claustrophobia of doldrums keeping him stirred in a near-palpable panic.

Wecker does a superb job of avoiding the pitfalls of identity crises, the whining and reactiveness a weaker writer might use to invoke pity and evince a longing to belong. Instead, Wecker adopts a tone of homesickness, with the golem’s “home” being her Nature, being bound to a master, and the jinni’s a desert palace that existed over a thousand years ago. New York is almost an antagonist in this regard; it is where Chava and Ahmad live, but it is not where they belong, and how they try and fail to carve out a space for themselves in this city is reminiscent of the identity struggles Korra has in “The Legend of Korra.” All three are powerful characters with origins they can no longer return to, who teeter between what was and how they can affect what will be. For Chava and Ahmad, it is in the divide between the passion to survive and the tenderness two lonely souls share that Wecker gives us the novel’s true magic: a love story, a fable, a slice of New York this century may otherwise have never seen. The Golem and the Jinni shows us how fragile identity can be, and therefor how precious identity is.

For Korra… well, the final season began last Friday. Who she is and who she becomes is something that will keep me riveted for the rest of this year’s Fridays.

Identity is the most important aspect of character. (Besides their shoes: see my previous posts.) The identity we distribute among our acquaintances and friends differs from the identities of the characters in our stories. We, as readers, writers, humans, live lives where our wants are opaque, locked away, and often avenues and gestures to explore and express them are (self-) inhibited and denied.

But the identity of characters exist in the tensions between their juxtaposing desires. In Korra we see she wants to be a “normal” girl, to love and be loved by her boy/friend, to find happiness. But she is also responsible for world peace, and for a power she will never completely understand. Is she a young woman? Yes. Must she save the world? She must. Ahmad and Chava are beholden to Natures they can no longer claim, lost in a city that cannot understand them. But they are also immigrants, a baker and a tinsmith, deserving to be and deserving to love, to have a place to call home.

It took a circuitous route, but my point is thus: Think on your characters wants; not just the wants that entrench characters in your plot, but the wants that oppose each other. It is in the dissonance of opposing wants character identity exists.

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