Photo by Kyle Cassidy
Neil Gaiman and scenes from The Sandman
Shortly before his latest book, Norse Mythology, was released, a fan told Neil Gaiman on Facebook that he would not be reading the new collection because, as he understood it, Gaiman was making fun of Donald Trump. Gaiman wrote back, confused, and the fan then replied he had read in the New York Times that the collection included a story about a wall being built to keep out giants.
Even now, Gaiman is amused by the exchange.
“I told him, a) I wrote the story three years ago and b) it is a retelling of a story told by Snorri 900 years ago, and c) the story itself is probably 1,500 years old,” Gaiman says. “People are finding comparisons. People are looking at this and going a-ha, this is about what’s going on.”
For those unfamiliar, Gaiman is a bit of a giant himself, albeit one in the literary world of speculative fiction with a career spanning more than three decades. Born in Hampshire, England, he has lived in the United States for over 25 years. His body of work is vast and diverse, from his Chu the Panda series of children’s books, to his widely celebrated Sandman comics about a character who rules over the mythological world of Dream. His book Coraline was made into an animated film, and a television series based on his 2001 book, American Gods, is set to premiere next month on STARZ.
More recently, Norse Mythology shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it released in February. And while some readers might find contemporary parallels when reading stories of walls to keep giants out, Gaiman has had a tendency to avoid the political. When he was first writing The Sandman comic in the ‘90s, friends would criticize him for not being political.
“They would say, look, we have done this thing in which we say Margaret Thatcher eats babies and you are just doing Sandman, this airy fairy stuff,” says Gaiman, who will speak at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Wednesday, March 29.
However, 30 years later, another look at The Sandman comics reveals a writer who was unafraid of introducing various LGBTQ characters and taking on topics that other comic writers wouldn’t have touched. Gaiman says he's become accustomed to people seeing the political relevance of his work after the fact.
“Now people say Ah yes, Sandman was a very political comic, and I say OK,” Gaiman says. “I suppose it was, but it was just me telling a story.”
In recent days, however, Gaiman is using his reach to bring awareness to the plight of refugees.
“I didn’t wake up one morning and go A-ha, I’m going to out and start talking about refugees. But I take the refugees crisis relatively personally because members of my family have been refugees and some were not just because of luck.”
He began making social media posts about the refugee crisis. Soon after, the UN contacted him in 2014 with an invitation to visit refugee camps in Jordan.
“The days I spent in the refugee camp in Jordan kind of rewired my head,” Gaiman recalls. “I think if you’d asked me to tell you about refugees beforehand, I would have assumed refugee camps were a bunch of tents in a field somewhere and they’d probably bring around lunch. [That] refugees were probably people who had got up one day and said it’s a bit dodgy here, let’s go and go somewhere else and were driven off.”
The camp he visited was more of a city, with people trying to reclaim the lives they left behind in Syria. The reality was jarring.
“I asked then what made them leave, what made them come in,” Gaiman says. “These were people living their lives. They were locals, and then people started shooting and then the tanks would rumble through the town and the water tanks beneath the town were destroyed. Things were blowing up, and farmers weren’t going into the fields because it’s too dangerous. Now they’re getting permission from their Imam to eat the cats and dogs because there’s no food, and they are looking at their children who have not been to school in years and they have no food for them and they have to get out. They have no alternative.”
The frustration comes through in Gaiman’s voice when he talks about the way the refugees are discussed.
“Hearing this new narrative, oh refugees are all terrorists. No, they are running away from the terrorists. They want their life back. They want to raise their children and create art. For me, it became something passionate. I came back from Jordan with a thousand yard stare and thought OK, I’ve got to do something. I’m one person and I’m going to keep doing things.”
He was bemused but honored to discover, in February, that he had been named a goodwill ambassador for the UN.
“It is very cool, but it doesn’t give you free parking or anything,” Gaiman jokes.
His work in activism is seeping consciously into his writing. One of his next projects is a long-awaited sequel to his 1996 novel Neverwhere, which took place in an alternative London and focused on the homeless and others who fall through the cracks in our societies. Gaiman says the sequel will center on a group of refugees called The Seven Sisters.
And while Gaiman may still have little interest in becoming an activist and considers himself, above all else, a storyteller, what are storytellers if not the emotional historians of our time? In a place in history when the global politics are inharmonious at best, the keepers and creators of story and art are who we turn to in order to remind ourselves of the eternal truths.
“We definitely are living in interesting times,” says Gaiman. “I think the role of the artist is always twofold. One is reacting to your time and the other is chronicling your time. And sometimes you’re doing it an unaware sort of way.”