For several years now there has been quite a bit of discussion, debate and ranting about the lack of people of color in the science fiction and fantasy genres. The greatest of these discussions is probably what was found in 2009 on Live Journal, under RaceFail ’09. RaceFail ’09 brought together a heap of blog postings and comments on the topic of race in SFF. It’s an important conversation to have, and it’s great that we’re having it; and I believe such talk will eventually produce more diversity in fantasy fiction.
Of course, the main argument here is that there’s an utter dominance of white characters in the fantasy genre. Inasmuch, the genre predominately consist of white writers. Why is that? That’s the question we should be focusing on. The creative force behind fantasy is mostly from white people. The premise in which modern fantasy stems from is of Norse and Western European mythology. The initial writers of fantasy were from white, western society. The white, western society published and sold such fiction. The white, western society purchased and supported fantasy fiction. The white, western society was inspired by the genre and wrote more of it—from their worldview. And so the cycle went on. I don’t understand the shock and disappointment of folks when they see the dominance of white characters and white writers in the fantasy genre. What did they expect?
Now, growing up I did not read much at all. My love for fantasy started with television and cinema. Cartoons like Bass & Rankin’s The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dungeons & Dragons and ThunderCats, were like the best things ever. Movies like The Dark Crystal, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer (with Arnold Schwarzenegger), as well as Legend, were all epics to me that I watched over and over again. I started reading fantasy by the time I was in high school, and haven’t looked back since.
One key point that is brought up the most is the lack of non-white protagonists in fantasy—that readers of color have no characters to relate to. Personally speaking, this was never a problem for me growing up, because I didn’t really think about it. I was just entertained, and that’s what I really cared about—and that’s what I still care about; however, a good story is most important to me now. The cartoons and movies that I cited above still had characters of color (as supporting characters). Diana in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series was a black girl, and was skilled and quite the leader at times. Panthro in the ThunderCats series was basically the black character in that show (even though he was grayish-blue)—the voice of Panthro was performed by Earle Hyman, who played Cliff Huxtable’s (Bill Cosby’s) father on The Cosby Show. James Earl Jones played the villain in Conan the Barbarian. In Conan the Destroyer, Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones played supporting roles, and both of the Conan movies featured Mako Iwamatsu (a Japanese-American actor) who played Akiro the Wizard. In The Beastmaster, John Amos (in which I knew as James from the sitcom Good Times) had a supporting role. So I never felt like I didn’t see people of color in the fantasy that I watched growing up. Yet, of course, there were no people of color in leading roles in such programs or films then.
It wasn’t until later in my life, as I began to read fantasy fiction, that I started to think about the lack of people of color in fantasy, especially as the protagonist. But my first thought was not: “How come these fantasy writers are not writing about people of color?” It was more like: “How come people of color do not write fantasy?” I posted about this last April (see here). I don’t think people should be pointing fingers at white writers, telling them how non-diverse they are, or how racist they are because their made-up worlds only consist of white characters, or very few people of color. It’s okay to challenge them, but don’t degrade them or their work. I don’t believe people should tell others what they should do with their art. Writing/storytelling is an art; and if a white writer wants to tell their story where people of color are few to none, that’s their right, and they shouldn’t be criticized for taking that route. I bet there would be no fuss over a black writer writing fantasy with only black characters in it—with the setting based in pseudo-Africa.
My point is, people should not expect white writers to write non-white protagonists. The burden should not be on them, but on people of color who are writers, and who love the fantasy genre. Why is it that I can count on one hand the number of black writers writing mainstream epic fantasy—Charles R. Saunders, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and David Anthony Durham—and I’m stretching on a couple of these. There are black writers that write other aspects of speculative fiction (Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, and Nalo Hopkinson, just to name a few), but this blog focuses on fantasy fiction.
Apart from black writers, there seems to be only a few other non-white writers writing in the genre (on the mainstream level). Saladin Ahmed is an Arab-American fantasy writer who’s receiving acclaim for his first book in his Crescent Moon Kingdoms series. Ellen Oh is a Korean-American who’s having success with her YA Fantasy series The Dragon King Chronicles. Chinese-American author, Cindy Pon, has her books, Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, seeing success in the YA Fantasy category as well. Over in India, Amish Tripathi is like a “literary pop star” due to the J.K. Rowling-like success he’s having in India for his Shiva Trilogy, which is based on Indian mythology. He’s considered to be the bestselling Indian author of all time.
There are books by white authors with protagonist of color. Irish author Col Buchanan’s Heart of the World series has a diverse world, where its protagonist, Ash, is a black man, in his sixties, who makes quite an interesting character in the series. The latest Wizards of the Coast book in The Sundering series, called The Reaver by Richard Lee Byers, features the “mahogany brown” protagonist, Anton Marivaldi—he’s on the super-cool cover below. In Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s diverse Tales of Goldstone Wood saga, book 4, Starflower, describes the title character as having rich dark brown skin and glossy black hair. A novella in the same saga, Goddess Tithe, which was released late last year has an Asian protagonist, in which will carry on into the next full-length novel, Golden Daughter (due out in Autumn of this year). The Circle of Magic tetralogy by Tamora Pierce, as well as The Circle Opens quartet, have protagonists of color. Also, Ursula K. Le Guin’s YA Fantasy series, Annals of the Western Shore, feature protagonists of color. And Brent Week’s Lightbringer trilogy is based in a Mediterranean-like world, and the majority of the characters are of color, some even having kinky hair—and they’re not just side characters.
The above list is not exhaustive, but they’re books and authors that I’m familiar with in the mainstream. Other fantasy series, though they do not have main characters of color, include non-white characters in their worlds. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series have the Sea Folk (also known as Atha’an Miere), who have very dark skin, as well as other dark and olive-skinned peoples. Karen Hancock’s Legends of the Guardian-King books have the mahogany-skinned Esurhites. Hancock’s hero is blond-haired and blue-eyed, and his first love (his first wife) is a woman of “honey-colored” skin and dark eyes. Urulani is a strong, black warrior woman in Tracy Hickman’s Annals of Drakis trilogy who becomes very important to the protagonist, Drakis, giving the trilogy an ending I have yet to see in any other work of epic fantasy (Urulani is also featured on the cover of book 3 with Drakis). The wise wizard, Ogion, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books was a Gontishman, who had dark copper-brown skin.
Returning to my point about people of color taking the burden, or responsibility, to write fantasy fiction; I’d like to mention that David Anthony Durham stated that he was one of those kids who didn’t really read until he discovered The Hobbit, Lloyd Alexander, and Ursula K. Le Guin. He said, “They were so much for me. They were my gateway into literature.” Durham wrote three historical literary novels prior to writing fantasy. “…but I got a hankering for fantasy,” he said, “because it seemed, in a way, dishonest to spend so much time being this literary writer without paying some tribute to the genre that got it all started for me.” I think Durham lays it out perfectly here. He’s an author of color who was influenced by fantasy fiction. He felt compelled to write in the genre that inspired him in the first place. People of color who love fantasy fiction and want to write should hone their skill, write a darn good story, and take the long road of sacrifice to get the best of their work published mainstream.
If you don’t see a story in fantasy that you can fall in love with, or that satisfies that itch that you’re looking for, then take up the responsibility to write it—and writing it exceptionally. Ellen Oh didn’t sit back and wait for a (white) author to write in a Korean-like setting, she took it upon herself. In an interview she says, “I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical—I couldn't find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal—ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue.” She was inspired by the thought of a story that she wanted to see written, and she wrote it.
So before people start wagging the accusing finger of shame at white writers who write white characters, they should direct their discourse toward publishers. So if publishers are deliberately turning away works of fantasy fiction because the author and/or the protagonist are of color, and not based on the quality of the work, then shame on them, and they should be called out for it if it is proven true. Otherwise, there’s no real evidence that publishers are doing such things today, as you can see from the examples of authors and books mentioned above. However, there was the whole controversy that happened with Bloomsbury Publishing a few years ago where they “white-washed” the cover of Jaclyn Dolamore’s novel, Magic Under Glass, releasing the book with the image of a white girl on the cover when it was obvious that the protagonist was a girl of color. The same publisher had did the same thing with a non-fantasy YA book, Liar, just before that. The publisher did eventually correct their “mistake.” You can read about it here. Such a thing is disgraceful, and it’s good that the publisher was called out on it.
It’s great that readers and authors are having this discussion abroad. I believe publishers and agents are starting to hear it, and that the ground for more diverse characters, worlds, and stories in fantasy is beginning to be laid and ready for the planting. I’m optimistic that, in the coming years, the fantasy genre will become more varied in its content. Young literary agents are already saying that they are looking for more diverse and multicultural fantasy fiction. So this should be a glimmer of hope for readers and aspiring authors craving such things.
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