From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Fantasy Roundtable: People of Color in Fantasy Literature (part 2)

In Part 2 of our roundtable on Fantasy and People of Color the panel goes deeper into the problems of PoC in literature and how some authors subvert the very elements we find problematic into amazing fiction. We also discuss how the nature of fantasy might hinder authors from including characters of color and why that’s not a good excuse.

Don’t miss out on part 1 of the conversation, posted last week.

Again, the participants:

  • Joining us for this section is K. Joyce Tsai, a Chinese-American SF/F reader who blogs about books, gender, and race.
  • Moondancer Drake, a Cherokee writer of GLBT environmental feminist spirituality multicultural paranormal fiction.
  • Keilexandra, a Chinese-Canadian writer of fantasy; mainly fantasy-of-manners-esque.
  • Wendy Bradley, publisher and editor of British genre magazine Farthing.
  • Christine Yao, a female Chinese-Canadian graduate student in English literature. Her academic interests are in epics, graphic novels, and issues of race and gender.
  • N. K. (Nora) Jemisin, an African-American writer who’s had a number of fantasy short stories published in Strange Horizons, Helix, and elsewhere.
  • Micole Sudberg, a white SF and fantasy writer who blogs on SF, fandom, and race.
  • Debbie Notkin, former Tor editor and now proud dilettante. She chaired the first Carl Brandon Kindred Award jury. (She is also white.)
  • Chesya Burke, an African-American writer. She’s written and researched many articles for the The African American National Biography, published by Harvard University and Oxford University Press. Her fiction has appeared Dark Dreams, Would That It Were, Voices From the Other Side, and more.

Micole: Debbie, are you seeing white writers including more characters of color and/or non-European/American settings in contemporary fantasy?

Debbie: Yes I am.

Micole: Can you provide examples? Because I feel like I’ve been seeing this in YA fantasy, but not so much in adult fantasy.

Debbie: I’m thinking (for example) of the Chinese characters in Emma Bull’s Territory, and of one of my personal faves, Elizabeth Lynn, and how her two newest novels (Dragon’s Winter and Dragon’s Treasure) have an array of skin colors and tribes in a completely non-historical fantasy setting.

Micole: Ah, I see. I was thinking of the subgenre “contemporary fantasy” rather than “fantasy written by contemporary writers”. But let’s talk about Territory because in fact I think it’s extremely problematic. It was one of the books I had on my list for discussion.

Territory is a historical fantasy about the shoot-out at the OK Corral. I see it as fitting very loosely into a recent wave of attempts to rewrite and recover (re-vision per Adrienne Rich) the settlement of the American West. (By “recent” I mean the last two or three decades, not the last two or three years.) This would include Louise Erdrich’s novels, which write women and American Indian tribes (Ojibwe, specifically) back into the history; James Welch’s historical novels about American Indians (I’ve forgotten the tribe, I’m sorry); Carol Emshwiller’s and Molly Gloss’s novels about white female settlers/colonizers; and, of course, a lot of Karen Joy Fowler’s work, esp. Sarah Canary and Sister Noon, and, oh, maybe Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, which is about Chinese men working on the US railroad. Now, Bull includes some fairly substantial subplots about Chinese settlements in Tombstone, AZ, and some brief mentions of black workers, but all of the POV characters are white. (One of them is Jewish, which I liked, although I didn’t buy that religion was so easy for her.)

The major Chinese character — whom Bull said she added because she was sad she’d never written a role that could be played by Chow Yun Fat — is the hero’s best friend. And — this is a spoiler, but I need to say it — he dies. The white hero takes on his magic.

Tempest: UGH

Micole: So, it’s a well-meaning attempt to depict a more realistic and racially diverse West; but it’s still all about the white people.

Debbie: Indeed, and all true.

Micole: In contrast, take Shawna Yang Ryan’s Locke 1928, which was published by a small literary press this year, and which is about Chinese settlers obviously a little later, on the California coast, and which makes use of fantasy elements from Chinese folklore, like water ghosts. And which has three main characters, a Chinese man, a white girl prostitute whose customers are mostly Chinese settlers, and the Chinese madam of the brothel — no, you know, there are more POV characters, I forgot! One mixed-race girl, a lot of Chinese characters, some white characters. So you can kill off a Chinese character and it’s not the only one!

Tempest: I often feel like there are many stages to understanding race issues. And that, at the stage Emma Bull seems to be at, there is some understanding of the problems with race in fiction, but not a deep understanding. Well-meaning, but still getting it wrong. And that is the key to understanding why the Emma Bull description is so troubling. In her book, you have that one Chinese character, and then he’s killed for the benefit of the white main character. Whereas if you have a book full of PoC main characters, even if there are white main characters, too, it’s okay if one of them dies, because they aren’t the only ones, nor are they simply furthering the plot/character development of the while character.

Moondancer: Yeah, that’s too common. Here’s the token non-white who dies for the hero.

Chesya: Wow, I would think that today’s people would be more sympathetic than to just kill off a PoC character for a white one.

Wendy: But how unusual is that in fiction — any fiction, not just fantasy. How often does the hero need a sidekick — a PoC, a woman, a working class (servant) character — to die so he can “lose something” in exchange for his plot token/happy ending? Is it actually a race issue or a bad plotting issue? Race, gender, class… all get their turn at being the signifier of difference?

Tempest: I tend to avoid fantasy literature that even has a whiff of that. Though I see it very, very often in TV and movies.

Nora: Wendy, I think you’ve pegged it. Much of the problem with depictions of PoC by white authors is that they fall back on clichéd tropes or ham-handed one-dimensional characterization. Whereas with white characters, they try harder. It’s not just bad writing, it’s bad writing aided and abetted by screwed-up notions of race, gender, etc.

Wendy: grumbles in an English way Class! Class differences, too! Look at Sam and Frodo…. no, let’s not go there.

Tempest: Class comes into it, too.

Debbie: Class always comes into it.

Christine: I did not even realize that Asian characters were Asian in some of the fantasy novels from my youth until much later. And then I sadly understood what David Eddings meant by the evil Angaraks having slanted eyes, black hair, and olive complexions.

Micole: Oh, no, Christine! I read the Eddings books as a teenager and I never realized that before you said it just now. (Which goes back to the white default.)

Christine: Glad I could enlighten you. That was a sad moment indeed. Although Eddings seems to basically stereotype every race, down to personality characteristics.

Nora: Eddings is a really crappy author, though. Come on, everything he writes is either Tolkien clone or classic “stable boy becomes king” yawners.

Christine: Indeed. But Eddings was a good writer for introducing pretty much all the stock stereotypes in fantasy to me as a child that I could later overturn.

Tempest: That’s a good point. It’s kind of like the way you learn all the rules of grammar in order to know when/how to break them.

Wendy: Can you expand on that, please?

Tempest: If you’ve read the books and stories with all the stock fantasy elements so that you know and recognize them it’s easier to subvert them.

Chesya: Agreed, Tempest.

Moondancer: It’s like watching my kids watch the cartoons I grew up with. It’s a chance for me to recognize the conditioning I had then and to talk with my kids about it.

Chesya: You’re learning even when you’re reading bad stuff.

Nora: I love reading bad fiction. I learn so much from it. But there does have to be a corresponding exposure to the good stuff, or all you learn is bad.

Debbie: Yes. If you’re not either exposed to analysis as well or in a target group, you can be learning reinforcement rather than awareness or subversion.

Nora: I think Tempest’s point about overturning stock elements is very true. We’re segueing a bit, but I’m thinking of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Zahrah the Windseeker — it’s a stock quest novel, when you think about it, but because it overturns so many other tropes, it feels fresh.

Tempest: A lot of the fantasy by PoC I’ve read seems to be about that — subverting some fantasy tropes, specifically as they relate to non-European cultures. Acacia by David Anthony Durham comes to mind. Though a lot of the book is very standard epic fantasy, the way he incorporates race is not.

Christine: So how can readers get exposed to the books that overturn tropes? Book lists? Better organization of the fantasy section in bookstores?

Tempest: Book lists, I think. Recommendations.

Debbie: Roundtables like this one?

Tempest: That, too!

Nora: Christine, I’m not sure bookstores should be trusted on this. They’re behind the whole “marketing by race” problem we’re all facing now.

Debbie: In my role as controversy-maker: bookstores are only “behind” that problem insofar as they reflect the culture they operate in.

Tempest: Agreed, Debbie. They don’t operate in a vacuum.

Nora: So you think the bookstores are just catering to a racist, category-obsessed public? Or have the bookstores created the expectation that shelves marked “Asian Interest”, etc., are off-limits to whites? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Debbie: I think it’s very complicated. But I do think there’s a (lamentable) cultural consensus that race is only important to people of color. Bookstores reinforce that with “Asian Interest” sections, but they don’t create it.

Nora: Good point. Depressing, but good point.

One of the problems is that there’s just so little fantasy out there written by PoC, period. And a lot of what I’ve read that’s impressive has been more science fiction than fantasy — like Tobias Buckell.

Moondancer: Yeah I see a lot more in SF too.

Tempest: I find that interesting. Is the fact that we can think of more SF than fantasy indicative of what’s out there or just what pings most people?

Debbie: I think it’s indicative of what’s out there.

Nora: I agree with Debbie.

Chesya: I think it’s both.

Debbie: Though we should mention Mosley’s 47, even though I have issues with it.

Nora: SF is simply less wedded to been there/done that tropes. Fantasy is more stock, comfort foody.

Joyce: I wonder if some of it is the trope that SF is more forward, fantasy is more backward-looking? And I hate to buy into that trope. But I wonder if people write less PoC fantasy because of lack of knowledge about PoC history? Or lack of knowledge of mythology of different cultures and such?

Debbie: Joyce, I don’t buy into that trope. But I do think that it’s easier to pop PoCs into science fiction scenarios than it is to pop them into traditional fantasy scenarios. And it’s always more work to invent new scenarios.

Joyce: Yes, I think not so much forward vs. backward looking, but more a need (or a perceived need) for knowledge?

Tempest: I could see that being true of the novels being published, but not so much stories.

Nora: It’s hard to pinpoint the fantasy in short stories, though. A lot of fantasy these days falls into the slipstream bracket — unclassifiable. Is it sci-fi? Is it mainstream? Is it paranormal? I think that’s what a lot of fantasy has had to do in order to break the tropes — go so far from fantasy that it’s no longer recognizable as such.

Tempest:Maybe this is because I don’t read the Big Three magazines or Realms of Fantasy, but I see a lot less stock fantasy in short stories, so I feel it’s less prone to tropes. But I read the zines – Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Sybil’s Garage, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, etc.

Nora:The zines you cite are a perfect example — 90% of the stuff in LCRW doesn’t feel like fantasy to me. It feels like mainstream/literary fic with a smidge of fantastic in it.

Tempest: I don’t necessarily agree, but maybe that’s because I take a really broad view of what fantasy is and, when I first started reading widely in the genre, I was reading a lot of that slipstream stuff, and took it completely as fantasy.

Nora: I take the same broad view, but I don’t think most fantasy readers do. I think most fantasy readers think of what’s in RoF as “fantasy”, and what’s in LCRW as… something else.

Tempest: Probably, yes. Is it harder, then, to incorporate PoC into that type of fantasy?

Debbie: Yes, I think it is. Because so much of it (though not all) is based in particular historical cultures, often monocultures (or perceived monocultures).

Nora: No, I think it’s much easier, because this more literary stuff is less wedded to the stock tropes seen in so much fantasy (e.g. all! England! all! the time!). But again, people don’t buy that the literary stuff is fantasy, precisely because there’s no England.

Debbie: Nora and I are agreeing, I think, but using “that type” in opposite ways.

Nora: laughs Yes.

Moondancer: I don’t think it should be hard to incorporate PoC into any kind of fantasy, or fiction for that matter. It’s all about perception.

Joyce: I agree with Nora and Debbie, that the perception of fantasy is often “high fantasy medieval Europe”. I remember reading a lot of fantasy as a kid and teen and being stunned by seeing Spanish culture in fantasy. Much less anything non-European.

Nora: So part of what needs to be done is to drag fantasy out of medieval Europe. That makes it easier to bring in PoC. (Even though there were plenty of PoC in medieval Europe…)

Tempest: I think it goes to what Joyce said about understanding more about PoC in history. And realizing that we did exist in those times and may have been doing some damned interesting things that had nothing to do with Europe.

Debbie: Oh, yes.

Joyce: Yes, definitely. And I would actually love to see the stories of cultures meeting as well, such as the PoC in medieval Europe. Because I have read way too many books on “China” that don’t seem to realize China does not equal monoculture.

Moondancer: Fantasy could be based anywhere, even the most traditional kind. It’s not harder–in fact I think it more interesting that way.

Joyce: Exactly.

Christine: Regarding the China stuff, I wonder about translating non-Western fantasy. There is a lively tradition of wuxia which is like Chinese fantasy. Probably best known in the West through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Joyce: YES! With an entire set of genre tropes of its own. I would love to see more fantasy dealing with the fantasy genres of other cultures. Wuxia’s the one on the top of my head right now, but there are probably a ton more.

Christine: While I haven’t read them, I’ve heard from my dad that a major wuxia novel series is called the Condor Heroes.

Moondancer: I’d love to see fantasy from a tribal viewpoint. I may have to write it, but there’s so many options when in comes to hereditary magic and ancestral spirituality.

Tempest: I would love to see that, too.

Debbie: R. Garcia y Robertson has done some good stuff along those lines.

Nora: Moondancer, there is some. Mostly the endless trickster stories that I see in places like F&SF. Who was it that did the Coyote stories — Robert Reed? I didn’t like them much.

Moondancer: I’ve seen some attempts, some I even found offensive. To find good stories like that would make me so happy.

Tempest: There is a whole anthology of trickster stories called Coyote Road (which I just finished). The lead story has a Native narrator but is, oddly enough, about a white guy who encounters Coyote and has a bad time of it.

Moondancer: Another for the list.

Joyce: And to go on with the list of things I’d want to see: I want to see more turning over the tropes of “medieval Europe fantasy.” Like, medieval Europe fantasy from the viewpoint of a PoC foreigner to that culture, or something.

Moondancer: Oh, Joyce, that’d be cool!

Joyce: I was just thinking that because I was watching yet another “white savior” movie about stopping slavery and realizing how few movies I knew about slavery that actually starred, say, black people.

Chesya: Agreed. Too many are about how whites had to save the poor black souls.

Debbie: Larry Yep does that some in his YA novels. I agree that more would be better.

Joyce: And I think part of this is growing up non-American, but I would love to see things that reposition the white European cultures we see so often in fantasy as “foreign”.

Nora: Yes!! Not the default point of view! But not exoticized to the degree that non-European cultures are, please.


Next week is the final installment. The panelists will recommend books they love by and about people of color and non-Western cultures. Again, we’d love to read your reactions to the conversation and the issues brought up. Comment, discuss!

K. Tempest Bradford is a black writer of SF and fantasy. Her fiction has appeared in Farthing magazine and the Interfictions anthology. She is the non-fiction editor for Fantasy magazine.

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