From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Fantasy Roundtable: People of Color in Fantasy Literature (part 3)

Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, and Yay Kwanzaa dear readers. The final installment of our Fantasy Roundtable — featuring book, author, and story recommendations — comes just in time for the post-holiday return-those-awful-gifts-for-something-you-actually-want days. If you’ve ever wanted a shortlist of must-read books by and about People of Color (besides the one for the Carl Brandon Awards), your wish has come true.

Part One | Part Two

Again, our participants:

  • 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.

Tempest: Can anyone think of other PoC written books that subvert the genre in illuminating ways?

Micole: 2007 books or any year?

Tempest: Any year.

Micole: We have Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s books — Zahrah, which is a traditional YA coming of age story made fresh by the use of Nigerian folklore, and The Shadow Speaker, which does some very rich things with tropes of invasion and aliens and foreignness, and the subversion thereof.

Christine: There is the previously mentioned Anansi Boys by Gaiman which I think deals with issues of race and post-colonialism pretty well.

Moondancer: The Circle of Magic series.

Chesya: Agreed, Moondancer.

Christine: Ah yes! A friend brought up Tamora Pierce’s Circle series as an excellent YA series with PoC.

Nora: I also recommend Heather Gladney’s Teot’s War and Bloodstorm. They’re old and out of print, 20 years old, but they actually tackled a fantasy North African culture in a way I absolutely loved. Unfortunately, the books didn’t sell well, and she never completed the trilogy. Another problem with fiction containing strong PoC characters: sales.

Tempest: That’s what happened to the Imaro books, unfortunately.

Debbie: What did people think of Justine Larbalestier’s PoC characters? I have reservations, myself.

Tempest: I love the Magic or Madness series, though I haven’t yet read the final one. One of the reasons I love Reason is that she is half PoC, but that isn’t the “point” of her character. It’s a good example of bringing mixed-race characters into fiction where their problem has nothing to do with their race, but their race does inform them as people.

Moondancer: I’m not normally big on Christian fiction, but I enjoyed Wind Follower.

Micole: Other oldies, but I think more recently in print: Virginia Hamilton’s work. The Justice trilogy which takes on the old SF tropes of evolution towards higher consciousness, but with an African-American instead of default white slant. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, which is one of my favorite ghost stories.

Debbie: Nalo’s books, of course. Brown Girl in the Ring and The Salt Roads are both fantasy. I’d say The New Moon’s Arms was too, though some might disagree.

Tempest: I don’t.

Nora: I’ll also recommend Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books — in the latest volume, it becomes clear she’s been doing an interesting sort of subversive anti-colonialism theme.

Nora: Nobody’s brought up Imaro yet. I haven’t read it, I confess — hate Sword & Sorcery.

Tempest: I love Imaro despite its Sword & Sorcery-ness and also despite its questionable characterization of the major female character. My love of it is probably founded in the fact that it’s an African epic that does not treat Africa as if it’s a monoculture.

Debbie: Micole pointed out Karen Fowler: Sister Noon and Sarah Canary. This list of female characters of color might be helpful.

Christine: Although it may not be as relevant, I enjoy Gaiman’s American Gods as a novel about the American immigrant experience and the problems that immigrants have with integration and retaining traditions. So PoC are dealt with in the novel.

Moondancer: I never pay attention to the color of the author, just the respect used to portray the cultures within.

Nora: I definitely pay attention to the color of the author, but a bigger thing for me is the color of the characters. I’m as happy with a fantasy novel that does a decent job of PoC if it’s written by a white author as by a PoC. The problem is that it’s harder to find white authors who do it right.

Debbie: But is “getting it right” binary? i.e., will all PoC agree about whether or not a writer “gets it right”?

Moondancer: When have humans agreed on anything? People just try their best I guess.

Nora: Debbie, good question. I think PoC will be divided on a given characterization just as much as any readers would be divided on any characterization. But that still doesn’t absolve the author of responsibility for trying.

Debbie: Absolutely!

Wendy: Good point. PoC aren’t any more a single viewpoint than women.

Joyce: I think you can definitely find works in which a higher percentage of PoC like or dislike something though.

Debbie: Yes, absolutely. I’m looking for authors who a) care about the issues; b) try; and c) succeed enough not to push my buttons (which are a moving target).

Moondancer: True enough.

Tempest: Debbie, are there any you’ve found (that you haven’t mentioned)?

Debbie: Oh, almost certainly. (Though I read more SF than fantasy.) Catherynne Valente’s Tiptree winner, The Orphan’s Tales, fits my criteria.

Tempest: YES! I wanted to bring that up because it’s not often mentioned that The Orphan’s Tales is a very multicultural book. (discussed in this interviewed)

Debbie: But it is!

Tempest: The story takes place all over her secondary world, and that world has many cultures that aren’t all just European with slightly different flavors. She drew from folklore and myth from all over the world.

Moondancer: I like L.A Banks stuff.

Debbie: Again in YA, anything by Francesca Lia Block.

Tempest: Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Racing the Dark is YA-ish. She does explore culture and race some in the book.

Nora: Any paranormal romance recs that are good on race? I’ve been trying to get into this for awhile, and have had trouble. Though wait, does that count as fantasy?

Joyce: Nora, I think the few paranormal romance recs I’ve heard with PoC protagonists are the same ones you probably have heard of — Marjorie Liu and Eileen Wilks. Though I haven’t read either yet, just heard the buzz. And I have noticed from the back cover copy that most of Liu’s seem to be PoC/white romances.

Moondancer: Paranormal is often counted as dark fantasy.

Tempest: Any more recommendations of PoC written fantasy?

Debbie: Larissa Lai, for sure, Hiromi Goto, a host of interesting writers from/about India.

Tempest: Ashok Banker is Indian, though I don’t know if he ever finished his fantasy series in English. I think it was all published in India, though.

Debbie: I was thinking of some of the “mainstream” writers like Divakaruni, whose themes are clearly fantastic.

Nora: Some of Mary Anne Mohanraj’s stuff would count, though it’s more mainstream/slipstream. Tananarive Due’s stuff qualifies as fantasy, though it’s more commonly published in horror. The Living Blood, for example, is about immortals (kinda like Highlander).

Chesya: The Living Blood is amazing.

Micole: This is a few years old, but I never heard any SF buzz about it, so I’ve been recommending it right and left: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (check out literary fiction or African-American bookstore sections), which has a peculiar Pyncheon/Stephenson SF world-building feel to it, though nothing outright fantastical happens. It’s about an ideological war in a guild of elevator operators in an unnamed city that is clearly 1950s New York, and has a lot to say about race and gender and is just plain wonderful. And weird.

Debbie: Tobias Buckell.

Keilexandra: Buckell’s novels are definitely PoC-focused.

Debbie: His shorts are too, and they are excellent.

Tempest: What about stories? I don’t know how many of you are short story enthusiasts. I always feel like whenever people put together lists they focus more on long works. I would really, really recommend the Dark Matter anthologies. Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders (from the first one) has haunted me for years.

Debbie: Short stories are harder to keep track of.

Tempest: True.

Wendy: Short stories? A. H. Jennings’ stories, although having published him twice I may be a tad biased!

Tempest: Jennings stuff is really awesome.

Joyce: I haven’t read it yet, but Minsoo Kang is a Korean author with a collection of short stories out. Yoon Ha Lee read it and liked it, if I recall correctly.

Nora: Speaking of Yoon, a lot of her stuff counts as fantasy, and she does shorts.

Tempest: I’ve read a lot of amazing things by Yoon. The last Farrago’s Wainscot has a wonderful story of hers.

Nora: Yoon does some really cool stuff with math in her fantasy — math-focused mages, for example. Also reminiscent of Valente for sheer beauty of her fiction.

Debbie: I don’t know what people think of The Years of Rice And Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, but one of the lovely things he does there is erase white people from 99% of history and then re-examine it. I would call it fantasy, but others might differ.

Moondancer: That sounds fascinating. I love alternate history stuff.

Debbie: It’s a great book. It follows a handful of PoC characters who meet repeatedly in the bardo (Tibetan afterlife) and then reconvene in different configurations through earth history. Some people have huge issues with the last, and most contemporary, section which follows Muslim women. A plague wipes out most of Europe pretty early on, so the only white people are ones who happened to be traveling at the time

Chesya: I’ll have to check that out.

Moondancer: It’s going on my To Read list for sure.

Tempest: If there were two fantasy books written by or including PoCs that you’d recommend, what would they be?

Nora: I’ve already mentioned mine: Heather Gladney’s Teot’s War, and Nnedi’s Zahrah The Windseeker. Though I think the latter is YA, not fantasy, but its subject matter is fantasy.

Tempest: YA can be fantasy.

Moondancer: Circle of Magic series (okay that’s more than two books). It’s best to catch the readers young. And Amberlight.

Debbie: A Wizard of Earthsea and The Salt Roads.

Wendy: I’d have to go with the classics and recommend Delaney’s Neveryon tales and ditto Debbie on Earthsea.

Although actually can I disagree with myself and go for a different Le Guin? Always Coming Home, please!

Christine: The two Gaiman novels I mentioned previously — Anansi Boys and American Gods.

Joyce: I loved Susan Vaught’s Stormwitch and Kij Johnson’s Fudoki.

Chesya: I’d go with The Living Blood and one I’m reading now by Octavia Butler: Wild Seed (may not be regular fantasy, but it fits, I think).

Tempest: Of the non-PoC writers, I would definitely recommend Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness series and Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology (I’m completely breaking my own rules, here). Of stuff written by PoC, the two Imaro books are great for the reasons I already mentioned and I am partial to Acacia.

Joyce: I definitely second the Zahrah rec.

Debbie: Doesn’t everyone?

Tempest: They should!


Much thanks goes to the participants of this roundtable for their opinions and insight. The issue under discussion is a complex one, and they tackled it with wit and wisdom.

I compiled all of the recommended books in list form. Are there any worthy novels, stories or authors you feel we missed? Tell us in the comments.

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.

Tagged as: