From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Multicultual Fantasists Alaya Dawn Johnson and Carole McDonnell

For a long time, the fantasy genre was dominated by European folktales, culture, and settings with a few other “exotic” locations thrown in for spice. But a surge of non-European fantasies written by non-European writers is set to change the face of the genre by exploring new cultures, myths, and viewpoints without tragically misusing them. Two of the newest belles to the ball are Carole McDonnell and Alaya Dawn Johnson, authors of Wind Follower and Racing the Dark.

Both writers love fantasy but find it lacking. From magic that comes too easy to monocultures to badly realized religions, Alaya and Carole found themselves dissatisfied with the norm and inspired to write something better.

Wind FollowerRacing the Dark
Carole McDonnellAlaya Dawn Johnson

K. Tempest Bradford: Start out by telling me what the major impetus was for writing your books.

Carole McDonnell: Wind Follower is a mix of indigenous folklore, high fantasy, and Christian myth. I wrote it because I like spiritual journeys and I thought there wasn’t a good multicultural high fantasy book out there.

Tempest: There is a lot of monoculture out there. As if no two different people ever came together to do anything.

Alaya Dawn Johnson: I weirdly enough had the germ of an idea for Racing the Dark after watching a truly strange anime movie (Crayon Shin-Chan, for the curious). The book honestly has nothing to do with the movie, but something about the concept of a family leaving everything they had known and starting in what was effectively a “different world” struck me as an interesting place to start a fantasy trilogy.

Carole: Culture shock sets in, I’m sure. I remember watching a TV documentary about certain islands that will probably be no more in fifty years or so because of rising sea level.

Alaya: Oh, is that Tuvalu? I remember reading about that.

Tempest: I found it interesting that you take on how the environment completely breaks down these people’s way of life.

Alaya: For some reason, the environment doesn’t figure very prominently in that many fantasy novels. There’s a lot of gold to mine there, I think.

Tempest: It’s not an issue a lot of people want to consider.

Carole: That’s because lords and warriors are too busy conquering and not identifying with the people in the land they destroy.

Alaya: Too true. When there are environmental issues, it seems to stem more from “angered gods” than anything really the humans can control (whether or not they choose to).

Tempest: Recently I’ve been thinking about spirituality and religion in fantasy and science fiction. Carole, you’ve said that “most spiritual fantasies pull their punches.” Much of the science fiction I read doesn’t deal with religion honestly, either. Do you find it hard to create a fantasy that’s based in religion? Though many fantasy authors make up a religion, not many take real religions seriously for fear of…I don’t really know what people are afraid of in that instance.

Carole: It was very easy for me to create a fantasy with religion. Everyone around me is so religious. There’s my Arab Muslim new age friend, there’s my born again neighbor, there’s my messianic Jewish friend. It’s such a part of my world.

Wind Follower is pretty folkloric, actually. There’s a line in the Bible which says God has put all eternity in our hearts. I tried to have universal folkloric concepts that mirror Biblical stuff. For instance, when folks are buried, a lamb is slain for them.

Alaya: That’s very interesting. And it makes sense, since I figure that a great deal in the Bible is rooted in folklore.

Carole: There is a kind of Tao of morality and a Tao of spirituality and a Tao of folklore. Many cultures have the same symbols, and Christianity has a very deep folkloric and pagan core.

Tempest: How do you go about weaving all those things together?

Carole: It just kinda came out. If I had planned the story, it would have seemed very controlled. But I went where the story wanted to go and all these issues came up.

I read a lot of spiritual memoirs so I’m always reading about religion and the spiritual journeys people take. I generally don’t read a lot of fantasy books because they seem empty to me. Although I do read PD James and Connie Willis. But of course they are both Christian. PD James’ Children of Men is one of my all time favorite books. As is The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Alaya: Well, part of the problem is that when you take on extant religions, you court the possibility of believers thinking that you have committed some sort of blasphemy (see: Salman Rushdie).

It’s not an unfounded fear. If you yourself are a believer in the religion you’re writing about, maybe the fear of sacrilege is personal? I’m just guessing here, as I don’t have any religion.

It’s interesting Carole mentioned Connie Willis, because she’s arguably one of the most materialistic authors out there. Passage is a book all about, well, doubt at the end of the tunnel.

Tempest: Did not having a religion make it harder or easier to create a religious system?

Alaya: In my novel the religious system is strange in that, instead of worshipping gods, people have imprisoned them. And I did that partly because I felt frustrated by what I felt were predictable ways that fantasy novelists tended to set up their religions.

Carole: That’s really wonderful. Do the imprisoned Gods have power to affect the world?

Alaya: They’ve imprisoned the gods to, in effect, control their environment, which is very harsh. And there’s always the threat that the gods will break free and destroy them all (hence the environmental allegory).

Tempest: How much does race and clashing cultures come into the overall body of work for both of you?

Carole: With me it’s often about power. Some culture has more power than another. Race comes into all my work. But sometimes the problem isn’t racial.

I’m also not into things that are specifically Afrocentric. I tend to write multicultural books where characters from all kinds of tribes abound. The main female character and her family are usually black, and then after that there’s just a whole bunch of indigenous folks.

Tempest: Some people would equate the term “multicultural” with “Afrocentric”.

Carole: I’m being super-literal. To me Afrocentric means black culture being at the center of the story. Multiculturalism means every culture being included in the mix. And Eurocentric means every character is European. When I came to the United States as a kid I was surrounded by many different cultures. My friends were mostly Orthodox or secular Jewish kids. In college the trend continued. My husband is Irish-American. The church I attend is 90% Ecuadorian and totally Spanish-speaking. I have several black friends but not that many. I can’t really do Afrocentric because it’s not really what I’ve experienced in life.

Alaya: There are thousands of cultures in Africa, and most Africans would consider a novel about several different African tribes to be very multi-cultural, though they’d all be “black.”

Tempest: Would you consider your book’s world to be multicultural, Alaya?

Alaya: I would, though I deliberately made “race” (being defined by the color of ones skin) subordinate to the place where people were born. So, the outer islanders, where my main character Lana is from, are very dark skinned, but the main issue is their cultural provincialism compared to the paler inner-islanders.

Though clashes in cultures will definitely play more of a role in the next two books, there isn’t much in Racing the Dark. Imprisoning the spirits forced the humans to be peaceful and smoothed over their cultural differences.

Carole: I have one big wish for Wind Follower — that it will contribute to making American speculative literature more multicultural and that it will contribute to making Christian literature less Eurocentric. I swear if I read one more Christian romance about some white pioneer woman taming the land I will scream.

Alaya: As long as we’re brushing against pioneer fiction, there’s really a problem with native people always being the Sacagawea character in fantasy. Helping the hero/heroine, but not actually having their own story.

Tempest: Magic Native Americans. Right up there with Magic Negroes.

Alaya: There’s probably more of a tradition of the Magical Native American than the Magical Negro (though it’d be a close race).

Carole: Ah, we minorities are such supportive folks.

Wind Follower is written in a kind of Native American rhetoric, Hebrew poetry, KJV kind of high fantasy language, but it also manages to sound very multicultural. And one of the reason I can’t stand modern fantasy is the way they do all that high fantasy-speak.

Alaya: My favorite fantasy novelist is Guy Gavriel Kay. His Tigana is one of the best things I’ve ever read. The language is gorgeous — different, but not stilted and dumb high fantasy.

Carole: Parsifal is my favorite book of the Arthurian cycle, although a lot of people like Gawain and the Green Knight. And Lord Dunsany is just wonderfully rich if you can deal with the language. But what always gets me is that folks who pride themselves on reading high fantasy have never heard of those two books.

For instance, I have many Christian friends who are writing Tolkien imitation and they have only read Tolkein and Lewis. Where is the research?

I generally don’t read Christian speculative literature. Too allegorical, too imitative of Tolkien, too Eurocentric.

Tempest: That’s interesting, I never would have guessed that Christian fantasy had the Tolkien problem as well.

Alaya: Tolkien himself was writing a Christian fantasy, so that isn’t too surprising.

Carole: Tolkien is wonderful but I’m just tired of imitations. And elves I have nothing to do with.

Alaya: I know! The world does not ever, ever need to see another damn elf.

Tempest: Unless they are black elves. Not drow, but black people as elves.

Carole: There are black elves.

Alaya: I wouldn’t mind elf-like things if they were rooted in a different culture’s folklore. I think that Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys actually did a great job with that. His spider god was a very authentic African elf-like creature.

Tempest: What other fantasy books do you like?

Alaya: I love young adult fantasy. Actually, that’s one of the things about Racing the Dark — because it’s sort of in that nether-region between young adult and adult fantasy, it turned out to be a bit of a hard sell.

Tempest: YA seems like one of those categories that can’t be hard and fast for too much longer. Adults love reading them as well as younger folks.

Alaya: I know! Yet publishing houses are still set up in a way that really segregates the two.

Carole: Genre-crossing is a toughie. I have no doubt that many Christian writers are going to come down on me because I write against imperialism, because there are sex scenes, and because my characters dance. But other Christian writers will like it. In the same way, I think a few feminists will be angry with me, and maybe a few atheists. We’ll see.

Alaya: Obviously, the more controversial stuff you write about, the more you can guarantee that some people object to it. I guess you just have to be satisfied with it yourself.

Tempest: Your book isn’t being marketed strictly as Christian fantasy, though it certainly has those strong Christian elements.

Carole: No, it isn’t marketed as Christian fantasy. It’s an odd little book. I just wanted to go with it to the extreme of fantasy, folklore, and Christian myth to see what happened.

Tempest: Do you think there’s a parallel between breaking down the strict white/black dichotomy and breaking down these hard genre barriers that publishers want to adhere to? Obviously, some genre labels are useful, but deciding that a book has to be strictly YA or not or strictly Christian or not is as limiting as having a strictly Afrocentric or Eurocentric book or shelving all books with a black person on the cover in the African-American section.

Carole: It depends on the publisher. There are books white readers will never touch, books Christians will never touch, books non-Christians will never touch. Now, if you happen to be a writer who happens to be cross-genre, strange things happen.

Genres belonged to a time when cultures and people were very closed. Science fiction was deemed white because supposedly only white folks understood science. And the way those books were written, black folks didn’t even exist in the future anyway.

Alaya: There are books some people who read any genre will never touch. But I think that publishers (and Hollywood production companies) underestimate the public. I think men will pick up books about women, and I think white people will read a story with a black hero. But they’re afraid to try, and I think that’s incredibly frustrating. They’re letting money cement these unnecessary boundaries for fear of attempting to break them.

Carole: But times change, so the genres have to change. Black folks can write science fiction like the rest of the world, and white readers of science fiction are missing a lot if they don’t read SF by black folks.

Alaya: The problem isn’t just science fiction (or whatever genre) by black folks, it’s science fiction about black folks. That’s what makes it visible, and I think that’s what makes some people wary of crossing that “African American literature” genre line.

Carole: Black folks are used to identifying with white folks. White folks in the suburbs aren’t quite used to that. They think that what we write about won’t concern them.

Alaya: Exactly. But part of the problem is that they aren’t expected to. Movie execs hold their hands and make sure all their narratives have white heroes (unless it’s a comedy). And, to a lesser extent, mainstream SF publishing enforces that notion, if only because there’s so few novels with black/non-white protagonists published in the genre.

Carole: I knew a lot of white girls who loved Waiting to Exhale and who loved the movie Soul Food. They identified.

Alaya: Now that’s awesome.

Carole: Yet the movie execs always make sure there’s a black guy in there ready to throw himself on a grenade to save the white lead. In that way they fill their quota and they show that blacks are noble folks.

Alaya: And we sure do appreciate it, don’t we?

Carole: No kidding. Sometimes I want to say to a black actor, “I know you need the work but why are you so excited and chewing up this roll about the black funny sidekick?” We a noble people. We a bad people. We a magical people.

Tempest: It comes down to the old choice. Money or Integrity. And sometimes you choose money hoping that someday you’ll be rich enough to have the integrity.

I suppose that can be a consideration for writers, too. But then, so few of us ever make a huge load of money. That might make it a wee bit easier to choose integrity.

Though maybe lack of integrity is too harsh a condemnation. I don’t think Bernie Mac, for instance, lacks integrity.

Carole: I go with integrity all the time. That has made me something of a pain to people but integrity and my own soul are all I have. For instance, integrity says I should mention the book has religion and race issues. There are people out there who don’t want to read books with racial or religious issues. They read to have fun. They don’t want to think about the sorrows of black folk. If I want to be rich I would not mention some elements of Wind Follower.

The Christians wouldn’t know about certain issues, the self-satisfied whites wouldn’t know about certain issues, the atheists wouldn’t know about certain issues. But know what? Life is short. And one has to be honest, come what may.

Tempest: True.

Alaya: And I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who all those elements appeal to and will be curious about the book. Maybe more than you think.

Tempest: Good books have all that and intriguing characters and a great story. It has to be all of those things to be successful. For me, at least. Whatever element you use to draw people in, they’re going to find value in the rest.

Carole: Some folks might find value in the rest, some folks won’t. The human mind is very talented at not allowing the human heart to be touched by certain things. People can weep at the death of Anne Frank and still be anti-Semitic. They can see a Magical Negro die gloriously for the white lead and still be racist. We might chip away some things here and there. We can’t hope to change everyone all the time. We can just write.

Alaya: And stories have their own lives and purpose. They can’t all be allegorical or representative of modern issues in the modern world. Then they’d be political issues. And I love political fiction, but not everything has to go that route.

Tempest: Plus, books that aren’t about any “issue” can still help eliminate it.

What are you both writing right now?

Carole: I’m juggling three novels. Daughters of Men, a futuristic novel about four types of humans — evolved, clone, chimeric, standard-issue. Father Gorgeous, a novel about a gorgeous intellectual priest who rediscovers that Christianity is a supernatural religion when he battles a demon. Inheritance, a story about a boy conceived by rape who is contacted by his rapist dad in prison.

Alaya: I’m finishing up a fantasy novel about a girl who wants to become a famous woman painter in a northern renaissance-like world. And a vampire novel set in 1920s New York City with a social activist main character that tries to subvert a few of that genre’s conventions, too.

Tempest: You’re both bowling me over with your workload! With all the novels and stories you’re working on, do you notice any common themes emerging?

Alaya: Parental relationships keep cropping up in my stuff. Not always the same kind, but it seems to be important. My main character’s relationship with her mother in Racing the Dark is an aspect of the novel I thought was very different and underexplored in most fantasy. I think that a character’s relationship with her parents is important, yet there’s so much fantasy that seems like their characters sprang out of Zeus’ head, fully formed. You know?

Carole: My recurring theme is interracial relationships. I got really slammed by one of my writing groups for always doing that, but hey, I don’t know any other kind and it would be pretty fake of me to force myself to write non-interracial love stories. Besides, we need stories like that. We’re getting more and more folks intermarried who want to see their own stories on the printed page.

Both Racing the Dark and Wind Follower are available online or at your local (independent) bookseller.

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