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Fantasy Roundtable: People of Color in Fantasy Literature (part 1)

Recently, I convened a roundtable of writers, readers and editors to talk about the state of People of Color–both as authors and as characters–in fantasy literature. The conversation was so excellent and covered so much ground that I wanted to print it in its entirety (plus, I couldn’t leave off the lengthy list of recommended books and authors!), so I’ve split it into three parts.

The roundtable participants are:

  • 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: Let’s start out with the general topic of People of Color (PoC) in the fantasy genre. Nora, I know you have some thoughts on that.

Nora: I’ve been a huge lover of fantasy since childhood, but have lately become disillusioned with the way it represents PoC, on the rare occasions that it does. I think my bigger concern isn’t so much the way fantasy handles PoC, as the way it handles alternate-world humanity in general. I’m irked by fantasy worlds that are entirely, or disproportionately, monochrome.

Moondancer: I’m with ya on that one, Nora.

Debbie: Nora, do you feel the same way about say, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, in which virtually everyone is African-American, or Nnedima’s Zahrah series in which everyone is from the same tribe?

Nora: Debbie, no — but these are recent and noteworthy exceptions to the rule. If they truly represent a new direction for fantasy and not a short-term blip, then great. But it’ll be awhile before we can truly judge that.

Debbie: Good point.

Christine: In Anansi Boys there are African-American, African-British, and Caribbean characters.

Moondancer: I like variety in general. Same issue I had with The Hobbit as a kid–too many dwarves. I love many cultures in one story, but that’s less a problem with the genre there than a personal preference.

Christine: Apropos to Moondancer’s comment, I find it disconcerting how in fantasy issues of race are sometimes dealt with by partitioning off people into actual different races. I was wondering what people felt about that. On one hand, it would seem to group all humans together, but then a distinct racial Other is still created.

Nora: It’s a classic example of my problem with fantasy. What Christine said — yes. Lord of the Rings dubbed all the European-ish groups of humans on the “good guys” side as “men”, and relegated the non-European humans to animals or evil (the Easterlings and Southrons, who were pretty thinly-veiled Asians and African cultures).

Moondancer: One example (or close there of) is a series I love, but bugged me too: Dragonlance. Goldmoon people were one of the first Native American cultures I’d seen in fantasy at that age and basically they were still white.

Nora: Moondancer, another example is a recently-published series called The Queen of the Orcs, by Morgan Howell. It also depicted “another race”, the Orcs, as pretty thinly-veiled Native Americans (with a smattering of Asian and some other ‘exotic’ cultures). In some ways this was an idealization/exoticization of the “other” — the Orcs were more humane than the humans, once you got to know them. Not recommending this series. It had some issues.

Micole: Joyce recently blogged on the same issue in Terry Pratchett’s books, where racial politics are frequently discussed in terms of species politics.

Christine: Although I think that Pratchett is a lot more sensitive about those issues than others. It was interesting to see how racial tensions developed throughout the Discworld books and seemed to come to a resolution in the recent novel Thud!

Wendy: But then is that the same issue as the “default” issue you get in gender, too? I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me “I didn’t realize your protagonist was female till…” The default is “male until told otherwise”. Does that apply to race and culture too? “White American till otherwise specified”?

Nora: Yes, I agree, if you don’t specify that a given character is something other than white or male, most people who read fantasy will assume default white male.

Keilexandra: I remember there was a huge debate over at Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, over defaults. (Original post & Kameron Hurley’s responseed.)

Moondancer: Yeah, Wendy, you’re likely right there. I’ve had writers say they prefer to let the reader assume the race rather than describe it to them so they can relate better. I say, what’s the fun in that?

Tempest: That might work if the default race/culture wasn’t white/European.

Nora: I think writers who say they want their readers to map their own races onto undesignated characters are naive.

Debbie: I bet you don’t hear a lot of writers of color saying “I let the reader assume the race…”

Christine: Wendy, I think that’s generally held in literature. A little known African-American writer named Percival Everett deals with this issue in his book Glyph where partway through he suddenly asks his readers if they have assumed he’s white.

Now, I actually read Le Guin’s Earthsea books without realizing the majority of characters were not white.

Debbie: Lots of people read Earthsea and Starship Troopers and a handful of others without realizing that the characters are not white. This is because the default is so strong that implying it clearly or saying it once or twice is not enough. I just learned on Friday that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is not white!

Micole: I am less sure about people assuming the character is male without signifiers; I’ve often run into people who will assume the character is the gender of the author unless it’s otherwise signified.

Tempest: Yes, with gender it is a little more malleable. I usually assume gender is that of the writer if it’s ambiguous.

Chesya: I knew a writer who chose not to say that her characters were black because she was afraid she would lose her white readers.

Debbie: Chesya, that’s (sadly) a genuine risk.

Nora: I do note, though, that Octavia Butler (not fantasy, but still) rarely specified the race of her characters. If I recall, there was no specific mention of Lilith being white in the Xenogenesis books until she encountered other humans. Their reactions to her made it clear she was black. If I remember correctly, Butler did this in most of her stories.

Debbie: Good point.

Chesya: I thought I remembered that Lilith was black from the beginning, but it may have been the cover that told me.

Nora: My first version of Dawn was the early version in which Lilith was white on the cover. I remember realizing about 5 pages in that she wasn’t white, but that was my PoC-dar in operation, I think — it definitely wasn’t clear from the context or specifically stated.

Tempest: Do you have to sneak the PoC characters on white readers?

Moondancer: Do I? Never, but I am known for being blunt in general. I figure as many people who will not read my work because the main characters are non-whites (or most are) ten more want that variety.

Nora: Tempest, I’m not sure. I think it’s crucial to let the reader know if the character is something other than white, but I’m not sure the readers will automatically reject that character if so. I think there’s a belief in the publishing world that readers will do that, but I don’t know if it’s true, esp. not in fantasy.

Wendy: But on the other hand there is the issue of identification. I could imagine myself as a starship captain when I watched classic Trek, if only those pesky nurses and communications officers didn’t keep reminding me I was going to grow up to be a bit part, not a star. Maybe there’s an advantage to using the default. And then you sneak up and whammy the reader by revealing the character is a PoC — but only after they’ve got their identification hat on?

Chesya: I agree with Moondancer, I don’t tend to hide my characters color.

Debbie: Let me clarify. I don’t believe that white readers as a group will automatically reject characters of color. But I do believe that some (unknown, probably small) percentage of readers will, and there are also institutional racist attitudes in editorial and marketing which make the risk higher.

Chesya: I agree Debbie. I think for the most part white readers, like most people, will read what they relate to. I just don’t think many of them think they’ll relate to PoC characters.

Moondancer: Maybe this sounds rough, but if people are that racist I don’t want them reading my books. They’ll never get what I’m trying to say anyways.

Debbie: I think that’s an entirely fabulous attitude. At the same time, I also (think I) understand why some writers of color make a different decision.

Nora: But if you don’t want the racists reading your books, how will they become less racist if they never get exposed to the idea that Native Americans (or whatever) can actually function in a fantasy setting?

Moondancer: If they aren’t willing to come forward with an open enough mind not to reject a character because they are not white they’re not ready to take that step to learn it anyways.

Micole: I’d agree with Debbie about institutional racism in the marketing of books being an issue, but I do also worry about aversive racism in the white audience. Lately a character of color on the cover is an attraction for me, but it’s only because I’ve been thinking about it. I think white audiences have it ingrained fairly deeply that race is a specialty interest.

The issue of the white default is related to Nora’s point about monoculture, I think, because we have two issues, or at least I see two issues: one, worlds constructed or depicted as monocultures, and two, the monocultures we see are usually a particularly well-worn set of white (Western) European cultures.

Christine: Or, I’ve noticed they have to balance PoC characters with white characters. I’m thinking of Gregory Keyes’ The Waterborn, here.

Nora: Micole — yes, exactly. Either way, it’s bad worldbuilding.

Micole: Because — to follow the monoculture thread — cultures often have more interaction, diversity, and trade than we assume from popularized histories, but sure, monocultures occasionally happen. They happen in fantasy disproportionately to real-world history, but I would mind less if we were getting more variety, because aside from the politics — which I don’t want to leave aside long — I’m kind of bored with default Ye Olde Englande.

Christine: I wonder if that has to do with the perception of the fantasy genre as a genre of nostalgia, and people are unwilling to break out of the Merry Englande Tolkien mold for that reason.

Debbie: Okay, let me say something controversial: writing about Merry Englande (which I honestly believe there’s a lot less of in contemporary fantasy) is at least something a white writer knows is not cultural appropriation. I also way like Micole’s point that race is considered a “specialty interest.”

Chesya: Oh, that certainly has something to do with it–this was their father’s place, so to speak, and they don’t want to change it. If that makes sense.

Nora: But there are so many other white cultures that could be tapped without accusations of appropriation, and I don’t see many people touching those either. Russia and Eastern Europe, for example.

Christine: Sometimes when authors incorporate PoC into their world-building, it can often be to create a stereotypical race to offset the white race. Examples: Robert Jordan, Raymond E Feist.

Nora: Ditto agreeing with Micole’s point — I think that’s a large part of the problem. Marketers have made PoC an “extra feature”, not the norm. (Remembering a blog debate about this happening in video gaming too.)

Moondancer: I wonder why that is. So many people I know of many races say they want more multicultural option. Maybe they want to zero in on that market?

Nora: I think it’s because of the boom in African-American-Interest fiction. Marketers have realized that if they specifically target that market (with black covers, “black English”, whatever), then they sell more books. But I think there’s a problem with their reasoning. I think the reason stuff in the AAI section sells so well is because that’s damn near the only place black readers can find characters who look like themselves. I think that if more PoCs were visible in the SF shelves and other “mainstream” areas, there wouldn’t be as much of a need for separate AAI fiction.

Moondancer: I think PoC characters need to be spotlighted by people who respect the culture, no matter their race. Heck, just writing about another tribe for me can be a stretch, much less the other culture my characters come from. If it means something to you, and you are willing to do the work, it can make a difference.

Tempest: Do you all feel that, more often than not, white writers are not approaching PoC with sensitivity or research?

Moondancer: Yeah, Tempest, I think that’s a huge issue. I can’t tell you how many times writers I know send me something with Native Americans in it all excited and I find myself cringing. Some mean well; it just takes an open mind and asking questions.

Chesya: The problem with this, I think is that many times writers will just fall back on what they know. Black = dark and ugly and bad, and White = light and good and righteous.

Christine: Issues of representation always have to be explored with sensitivity and with proper research, or else none of us could really write about anything!


Read Parts Two and Three.

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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