Saaaay. Why AREN’T there brown elves?

Was trying to think of something to write for a blog post, and all I can come up with are reactions to stuff other people have written. Pathetic! What kind of writer am I? Must try harder.

Anyway, one reaction is to this article, written by the ever-thought-provoking “coffeeandink”, though quoting another gentleman:

Also, fantasy and sci-fi does frequently explore issues of racism, disability, addiction, etcetera, but through analogies, metaphors or substitutes. A story about a half-elf who feels as though she’s not fully accepted by either humans or elves can convey similar feelings as a literary novel about a pale-skinned mulatto struggling with being accepted by black or white cultures in the 1950’s, etcetera.

My initial reaction to this is noted in the thread, and I’m in agreement with coffeeandink on the wrongness of this allegory. But my secondary reaction is kind of tangential: why are we using elves as an allegory for skin color issues? Why the heck don’t elves have varied colors themselves?

Let’s think about this from a worldbuilding standpoint. Every story I’ve seen which featured elves has made them either a magically-created species (e.g., Tolkien) or a naturally-evolving one (e.g., Moorcock’s elfy Melniboneans). The MC elves usually seem to predate humans, but haven’t changed much in all that time. Generally NE elves are assumed to have developed in parallel with humans, which I imagine would affect their evolution since they’d probably compete within the same niche. But let’s forego that complication because that could land us with skin-camouflaging herbivore elves or something. Let’s also forego the hybrid MC/NEs — magically-created elves that then progress along natural lines, or vice versa. Wendy Pini’s Elfquest elves are a great example of this (and one of the rare cases of brown elves — some of them settled in a desert or on plains, and developed darker skin), but they’d throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing since some of them turned into magic eugenicists.

Anyway, let’s just say we’re dealing with a separate species which evolved on an Earthlike world independently of/isolated from humankind. There’s no logical reason why such elves should come solely in the colors we see in 99% of fantasy, which are either really pale white or really dark black (e.g., the drow/trow). Neither extreme makes sense, except in a fairly small environmental niche — and the niches used often are nonsensical too, like Forgotten Realms’ take on the drow; they’re an underground species. Nearly every underground species on our planet lacks melanin because there’s no need for UV protection; so why are these drow black?

Elves are usually written as intelligent, adaptable beings. There’s no reason for them to be confined to a single geographic location once they develop seafaring skills or whatever. So theoretically they could spread as far and wide as humans have, and theoretically they’d have to cope with the same environmental changes. They wouldn’t necessarily cope in the same way (e.g., humans develop deeper chests at higher altitudes; maybe high-altitude elves would develop “air-enriching” magic) but I would expect to see some regional variation among them, unless they had magical teleportation devices and could bop around the globe to keep the gene pool uniform.

It doesn’t even make sense from a mythological/literary standpoint. European myth is full of variation in its elflike creatures: brownies (who may not be brown, but that’s how I’ve always seen them in my head), wood-elves or dryads (which I’ve heard described as green or bark-colored), nymphs (usually blue or transparent), whatever. Yet from D&D to Laurell K. Hamilton, we mostly get tall, skinny, straight-haired, pointy-eared pale people. Scratch that — Hamilton’s got one black elf and a couple of vaguely brown ones. And a green guy. But much is made of the fact that these aren’t fully elves; they’re hybrids of elves and entirely different species, including animals, some of which can only interbreed through magic. I’m not sure if these “dehumanized” (de-elvenized?) examples should count.

This applies to any fantasy species, IMO. Unless they’re magical, I would expect to see a wide range of variation in the appearance, language, and customs of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, whatever. This may be one reason why I so love Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — as I gushed in a review on Fantasy Magazine — she doesn’t do one-note dragons. It may also be a reason to like a more recent novel: Marie Brennan’s so-far-excellent Midnight Never Come. I haven’t finished it yet, but it sounds like every human nation (and some non-human locales, like the ocean) in her world has its own population of elves, with its own distinct culture. This would bode well for elven diversity.

We need more fantasy like this, I’m thinking — fantasy with a scientific sensibility about worldbuilding. (Dare I call it… mundane fantasy? Ew, please, no.)

34 Responses »

  1. Amen. I’m here because the little bird of Google told me somebody had mentioned my book, but I’m far more interested in discussing your other points, so I hope you don’t mind me hopping in.

    Re: drow — I wrote a conference paper on the changing presentation of them over time, and one thing I noted was that D&D has two alternate myths explaining their color. I can’t remember which is the generic D&D story and which is the Forgotten Realms-specific one, but both are problematic in their own way. One is that they lived in a tropical region, in which case black skin makes sense — but I seem to recall that is also the story that gives them no agency whatsoever in their downfall; they were created in the image of Araushnee/Lolth, and got condemned along with her regardless of their own actions. The other — which I think is the FR rendition — says that “their bodies were altered to reflect their corruption.” It does NOT explain that comment, and since they were called “dark elves” beforehand, maybe it doesn’t mean black skin. But it’s hard not to read it in that incredibly disturbing fashion.

    On a broader level, most high fantasy essentializes its non-human races. Elves are Like This. Dwarves are Like That. Only humans get to be diverse and capable of change. The creepy thing is, that’s a *lot* like the way we used to (and still to some extent do) characterize non-Western ethnicities. Asians are inscrutible and mystical — ALL of them. Africans are extroverted and earthy. They don’t get to have the same degree of complexity granted as a matter of course to Us, the white middle-class Protestant educated Westerners. Fantasy doesn’t just use non-human creatures to comment on race in a planned fashion; it also reflects in an unplanned, and much uglier, fashion.

    Not always, of course. But often enough to raise my anthropological hackles. I adore Novik’s dragons for exactly the reason you name, and would love to see more of that.

  2. One of the reasons writers use, say, elves as an allegory for racial issues is b/c using an allegory puts the issues at one remove, and it’s easier sometimes to make certain points to the reader about, say, the structural problems of racism, without getting caught up in the (often obscuring) specifics of a real place/time. This can be a very effective strategy, sometimes.

    But it’s not the only way to write about elves.

    Nor do the elves all have to be lily-white in order for the allegory to work. So I, too, would like to see some diversity, darn it.

  3. I laughed so hard when, in adulthood, I suddenly realized that every horse in the entirety of the Lord of the Rings is gray. Every good horse, every horse ridden by a good person, every horse mentioned that is not ridden by a villain. I think, at final count, the only not-specifically-gray steed in the whole thing was Sam’s pony, and that was only because we never found out her color.

    And that was just the horses!

    So, erm, yes. Variation not a strong suit, in fantasy.

  4. Hey, cool! Welcome to my blog, Marie. I’m enjoying your book a great deal.

    And yes, exactly. I refrained from commenting on the obvious symbolic implications of an underground species being black despite all evolutionary logic, and also being “naturally evil”… but they are pretty blatant. I don’t much run in tabletop RPG circles anymore (I did as a child), but that sort of thing was what kept me from ever trying D&D, out of all the games I did play. It might’ve been the first, but it was never the best.

    And it’s laziness, really, this kind of essentialism. Mythology is so much richer, so much more intriguing, than the gross simplification of it seen over and over in fantasy. I don’t understand why any author would want to be so lazy. It’s not just a matter of leaving stereotypes and implicit assumptions unquestioned, it’s bad writing. I’m almost more offended by that than I am the creepy internalized racism!

    Anyhow, thanks for commenting. =)

  5. Hi Lori!

    I really do miss Elfquest. Now there was a fresh take on elves. Hey, did Wiscon ever have her in as a guest?

  6. I’m pretty sure Wendy Pini has been proposed as a guest, but never voted in.

  7. We need more people of color writing fantasy. And, uh, getting published. :-D

  8. Ha! I was going to mention the Elfquest brown/red/Black elves — they made a big impression on me as a kid. In fact, Leetah was one of the only Black-looking fantasy heroines I can remember LOOKING AT (as opposed to reading about) from my youth. Honorable mentions also go to Princess Ariel from Thundarr the Barbarian and Grace Jones in the second Conan movie (yeah, I know…)

  9. Ariel was brown? I can’t find her in Google Images and I don’t remember her; keep getting a mental image of some blonde chick.

  10. Wikipedia has an ok image of her (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Ariel_(Thundarr_the_Barbarian)), and they say she might be of Chinese ancestry, but she was definitely more brown than yellow. They show reruns on Cartoon Network sometimes, and it’s cool b/c she’s very much the smart one — knows about Earth’s pre-apocolyptic history and such — and kind of treats Thundarr like a lunkhead. :)

  11. I would add that yes, in a typical fantasy story, my elves would be white, but not just because of the cultural roots of the elf mythology.

    First, because I think that by making the elves non-white and the humans around them white, you are still, in some small way, diluting the racial issue (I think the reader would still think of them more as “elves” than as, say, “black elves”).

    Second, because I would (and am, in the book I’m writing) include non-white humans. The elves would represent human racial issues and diversity through analogy, and the humans would represent such issues and diversity directly, but the readers wouldn’t feel like they are being hit twice with a polemic on racism in the same story.

    To even add on top of that racial issues WITHIN the elven society (e.g. black elves deemed a lower caste than white elves or something similar) might be a bit much in the same story. Again, it depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell. But I think would be great to explore that in a separate story that focuses on elven culture, for example, or a world where, for whatever reason (interplanetary/ inter-reality transplantation, geographic isolation, etcetera), the majority of humans in the area where the story takes place are of one race (be it McEuropean, Asian, African, or other). It makes complete sense that elves would be multi-racial (as migration of elves around the world would have had similar evolutionary impacts on their bodies as on humans).

    Again, not every story needs to include an in-depth exploration of racial issues. And yes, analogy and metaphor can become an excuse if that is ALL you use WHEN there is no good reason not to include persons of color and cultural diversity in the story. But it is still a useful and important tool to be used IN ADDITION to actually including meaningful racial diversity in your fiction.

  12. Good discussion :)

    In My Defense:
    It was my post that you quote above, and upon which this blog entry is based, so in my own defense let me say that first, you cut off the final sentence of my original post:

    “Not saying this excuses the lack of racial diversity in fantasy, but rather that it is an additional tool that can be used to further the awareness of racial issues.”

    Also, in that same thread, I went on to say:
    Ideally, you’d consider such racial issues and influences when world building your fantasy races (to make them rich and believable) AND include non-white human races with well-thought-out histories and issues as well.

    AND
    I am not saying Allegory and analogy are THE answer. I’m saying they can be part of the answer. Obviously, the bigger part of the answer would be including actual people of color.

    Why White Elves Aren’t Always Bad
    Finally, in the original article on racial diversity in American genre fiction that inspired the blog from which these quotes are taken, I commented:

    I would add that yes, in a typical fantasy story, my elves would be white, but not just because of the cultural roots of the elf mythology.
    First, because I think that by making the elves non-white and the humans around them white, you are still, in some small way, diluting the racial issue (I think the reader would still think of them more as “elves” than as, say, “black elves”).

    Second, because I would (and am, in the book I’m writing) include non-white humans. The elves would represent human racial issues and diversity through analogy, and the humans would represent such issues and diversity directly, but the readers wouldn’t feel like they are being hit twice with a polemic on racism in the same story.

    To even add on top of that racial issues WITHIN the elven society (e.g. black elves deemed a lower caste than white elves or something similar) might be a bit much in the same story. Again, it depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell. But I think would be great to explore that in a separate story that focuses on elven culture, for example, or a world where, for whatever reason (interplanetary/ inter-reality transplantation, geographic isolation, etcetera), the majority of humans in the area where the story takes place are of one race (be it McEuropean, Asian, African, or other). It makes complete sense that elves would be multi-racial (as migration of elves around the world would have had similar evolutionary impacts on their bodies as on humans).

    Again, not every story needs to include an in-depth exploration of racial issues. And yes, analogy and metaphor can become an excuse if that is ALL you use WHEN there is no good reason not to include persons of color and cultural diversity in the story. But it is still a useful and important tool to be used IN ADDITION to actually including meaningful racial diversity in your fiction.

  13. PS – And again, I’m personally only writing from the perspective of epic fantasy novels, where, if the focus of your story is action and character arcs, etcetera, and not racial issues, then using short-hand for elves makes sense, especially if you are including racial diversity in your humans. But again, I am all for brown elves, green elves, yellow elves, purple elves, and any color or culturally-influenced elves you can think of.

    But then again, I was just arguing hypotheticals. I wouldn’t include elves in an epic fantasy novel anyway, and especially not elves and dwarves. SO overdone. :)

    So if you use mythologies from cultures other than European, Germanic and Scandinavian, the “elvish skin color” issue becomes somewhat moot.

    And even if you REALLY want elves in your story but want to find a cultural replacement for the “traditional” epic fantasy Germanic/Scandinavian elves and wanted them to be non-white, you still have plenty of options (including inventing your own mythology, of course):

    Xana are fairies from Spain.

    Diwata are Filipino fairies.

    Ciguapa are from Dominican folklore.

    Etcetera.

  14. Nora – thanks for the great discussion. I honestly enjoyed it and learned a lot. And don’t worry, I’m not going to keep posting and posting and posting on your page, or pull an Ashok or Lamar on you ;)

    Look forward to future discussions.
    Randy

  15. Nora – please ignore and delete my previous comments. They are merely further evidence of my fingers typing out responses faster than my brain can fully form a thought :)

    And please allow me to provide a better, less defensive sounding response.

    Randy

  16. Nora – I agree :)

    Where are the Brown Elves?
    Great question. While I think that the “white elves” tend to be based off of the Tuatha De’Danaan (which were pre-Christian Irish gods) or the Germanic elf mythology (or, more to the point, derivatives and knockoffs of Tolkien and other writers’ visions based on these roots), there is no reason why in modern fantasy they can’t be of varying races, for the same evolutionary reasons as humans have a variety of skin colors and cultures.

    As I pointed out in the Fantasy Magazine post, making your fantasy races of non-McEuropean cultural origins adds rich detail and realism to your created world.

    You can even use non-European/Germanic/Scandinavian elf myths, such as the Filipino Diwata, the Spanish Xana, or the Dominican Ciguapa.

    Having said that, elves do not always have to be multicultural, or even non-white — not if you include non-white humans, and optionally also non-elvish fantasy races, including from non-European, non-Scandinavian, and non-Germanic origins.

    First, lets say you made the elves non-white and the humans around them white (which isn’t my recommendation, just a hypothetical), you are still, in some small way, diluting the racial issue (I think the reader would still think of them more as “elves” than as, say, “black elves”).

    But let’s say instead that you include non-white humans, and white elves. The elves could represent human racial issues and diversity through analogy, and the humans could represent such issues and diversity directly, but the readers wouldn’t feel like they are being hit twice with a polemic on racism in the same story. You work on their unconscious and conscious racial and cultural expectations and thinking simultaneously.

    To even add on top of that racial issues WITHIN the elven society (e.g. black elves deemed a lower caste than white elves or something similar) might be a bit much in the same story. Again, it depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell.

    If you are telling an epic fantasy that focuses primarily on the actions and adventures of human characters, you may not gain a lot from doing so.

    However, I think it would be great to explore that in a separate story that focuses on elven culture, for example, or a world where, for whatever reason (interplanetary/ inter-reality transplantation, geographic isolation, etcetera), the majority of humans in the area where the story takes place are of one race (be it McEuropean, Asian, African, or other).

    Thank you again for the excellent topic and discussion. As for the quote of my post above where I gave an example of how analogy has been — yeah, it’s a pretty weak one, with obvious flaws, which you rightly pointed out. Doesn’t mean the larger point that analogy can be used to represent racial issues wasn’t valid, or that I didn’t also say you should include racial and cultural diversity in addition to using analogy, however. It just means sometimes I come up with lame examples :) I hope your readers will read the full post so they get the context of that quote.

    Thanks again for the great discussions and topic,

    Randy

  17. Oh — turns out I was confusing Thundarr with He-Man, and visualizing She-Ra. My Eighties Child Card needs to be revoked!

    Anyway, I don’t think I ever actually watched Thundarr, so this might be why I never noticed Ariel. The show was interesting to me because it was postapocalyptic, and I liked postapocalyptic stuff even back then, but it was so stupid. But glad it had enough sense to put a brown chick in there.

    Y’know… in some ways, I’m beginning to think that the Seventies were better for racial representation than they are today. Back then we were tokens and stereotypes, but we were there, more than today. What the hell happened?

  18. Wow. And that is why caffeine and blogging doesn’t mix, folks. ;)

  19. Holy crap, Randy. I looked at my moderation queue and it was all you.

    Look, the issue isn’t that complex, and it doesn’t require a whole treatise (or seven). =) My point is really very simple. Fantasy should be complex.

    Complexity does not mean strictly racial complexity. I’m talking in general here. Complexity does not need to mean incomprehensibility, either. In fact it won’t be incomprehensible if it adheres to certain rules of logic. Frankly, I believe fantasy writers should be just as bound by logic as science fiction writers. Yeah, I know we’re talking about magic here. But magic reads better when it functions logically; any good writer understands this. It’s no fun to see omnipotent godlike people zipping around willy-nilly and smiting away at each other without limitations or cause-and-effect chains that we can intuitively follow. That gets boring, unless there are rules. And what better rules are there to follow than those of nature?

    I’ll use an example: we don’t see fantasy novels set in worlds without gravity. (At least I haven’t seen any.) If we did see such a world, I think readers would reject it unless the author worked really hard to explain it. This is because we know, almost instinctively, that any mass has gravity. Therefore we don’t question the notion that gravity should affect the characters in any fantasy setting. We don’t expect to see knights unseated in a joust fly off the horse and keep going until they leave the atmosphere and die in the vacuum of space. If this happened and it wasn’t clearly established as comedy or something, we would think the author was smoking crack. We would laugh at best, throw the book across the room at worst, because it would defy our understanding of the natural order.

    So why do we routinely see fantasy novels set in worlds sans diversity? Diversity is the natural order of our world too. In nature we see black and tawny jaguars (and some with rosettes versus some with squarish patches); we see common squirrels come in red and black and tawny brown and gray. Beyond coloration, we see some monkeys which only mate during estrus and others that boink whenever they feel like it; we see great diversity of size and age in any population; we see gay animals in every species; we see meerkats forming either benevolent oligarchies or ruthless dictatorships. Modern readers also understand that diversity protects us as a species; there will always be a few survivors of any epidemic disease because there will always be a few people who are genetically different enough to be resistant/immune. Not all (or even most) such differences are visible, but they exist in any healthy species.

    So when a fantasy author creates a magical species which lacks this diversity, then IMO she’s done the equivalent of creating a planet without gravity. Sure she can do it, but she’d better explain it, or she’s going to get some odd reactions.

    But this is where racism comes in and screws up all my nice logic. =) We should be just as quick to reject a world sans diversity as we are a world sans gravity. We should instinctively recognize that a species which appears to be monocultural, monochrome, etc., is badly-designed and incapable of surviving for very long in any Earthlike natural environment –yes, even a magical species, and even in a fictional environment. Yet we’re bombarded with monocultures in our fictional environments all the time. Prime time television in the US is chock full of fantasy versions of New York, Los Angeles, etc., which contain no brown people, no fat people, no old people, no GLBTs, etc. In fact, we’re so inured to these overly-simplistic, completely irrational fantasy worlds that some of us even defend them, insisting that they should only be diversified “for a good reason”.

    As if making sense isn’t a good enough reason.

    But that’s racism for you. It doesn’t make sense. It allows white people to think of the brown people around them as unimportant or extraneous to daily life. It allows them to compartmentalize the world — as you are doing, Randy — into a central “white” and a peripheral “other”. Let’s examine these statements of yours, for example:

    As I pointed out in the Fantasy Magazine post, making your fantasy races of non-McEuropean cultural origins adds rich detail and realism to your created world…

    But let’s say instead that you include non-white humans, and white elves. The elves could represent human racial issues and diversity through analogy, and the humans could represent such issues and diversity directly, but the readers wouldn’t feel like they are being hit twice with a polemic on racism in the same story.

    To even add on top of that racial issues WITHIN the elven society (e.g. black elves deemed a lower caste than white elves or something similar) might be a bit much in the same story.

    Emphases mine. Now, I know full well that you don’t intend to say anything racist here. You wouldn’t have posted a novel’s worth of comments on my blog if that was your purpose. =) However, I want to point out the way your language positions as default the notion that a created fantasy world should contain white people. You’re not questioning that at all. However, you are questioning the presence of non-whites. You’re speaking of “racial issues” — by which you seem to mean the presence of non-white people (as if just by existing we carry political baggage, and as if white people have no “racial issues” themselves) — as an add-on. An extra feature. Something useful but not necessary to your worldbuilding.

    On top of that, you’re speaking as if building your world requires some kind of intricate, highly volatile racial formula. Start with a stable base solution of white people (and maybe white elves). Introduce a catalyzing substitute for brown people — say, another species which can “represent” those issues of oppression, otherness, etc., without actually being brown. Lastly, add small numbers of Actual Brown People in isolated suspension — but careful! Not too much! Or the whole thing might blow up!

    I’m pretty sure you don’t mean for your suggestions to come across this way. But that’s how they sound to me.

    And for that matter, that’s how it sounds to me whenever I hear fantasy fans trying to justify the insane, illogical oversimplification that’s rampant in the genre, not just along racial lines. It’s as if, because we all initially get exposed to fantasy as simplistic children’s tales, we immediately decide that fantasy must always be simplistic. We can’t just have normal, diverse humans and created species; they have to be only one ethnicity, two tops. And all the members of that species have to speak the same language and follow the same religion, because we can’t be bothered with showing them as whole, complex people like ourselves. Their job is to Represent The Other, and by gum that’s all they’ll do! And we can’t have both multiracial elves and multiracial humans, good Lord — what would the neighbors think?! And, and, and…

    It’s fear, I think. I’m not sure what causes it, but there’s something hysterical (argh, can’t think of a non-gendered word) about this kind of thinking. Maybe it’s that sociology, anthropology, etc., have traditionally been the province of science fiction rather than fantasy, and as a result many fantasy writers don’t feel equipped to deal with those things well. (Neither do science fiction writers, but that’s another rant for another day.) Or maybe it’s just the usual fear that comes with white privilege — the fear that questioning one’s default assumptions, language, attitudes, etc., will reveal just how deep-set the ugly conditioning of racism has gone into one’s psyche. So rather than scratch that surface and risk that horrifying revelation, we get avoidance/denial behavior. We get a fantasy genre which is practically obsessed with ancient Europe — and an idealized, whitewashed ancient Europe at that — to the exclusion of… well, sense.

    Anyway, I’ve spent enough time on this. Sorry, Randy, but I won’t be conversing further here; I’ve got books to write. =)

  20. Fair enough. And yes, I agree, I can see where my comments might be read as coming from a stance that the default is white races, and including others is an “extra.”

    Again, I was addressing the existing reality — which is that fantasy worlds look awfully white — and was making an argument to all those writers who would otherwise continue that tradition that there is a better and more realistic way to go.

    My posts were not aimed at people who already realize the equal validity of fantasy (or actually write fantasy) where the characters are non-white. My arguments would not be aimed, for example, at yourself, or Octavia Butler.

    And by “racial issues” I didn’t mean simply inclusion of persons of color. I mean making a core theme of your story something like oppression and discrimination of a specific culture through prejudiced and uneven laws, courts, and law enforcement, for example.

    Your typical sword and sorcery and dragons epic fantasy novel doesn’t often deal with those kinds of issues. And so, depending on what kind of novel you are writing, and what you hope to accomplish or communicate with that novel, you have to make conscious decisions about to what degree you write the characters, plot, scenes, and themes to deal with such racial or cultural issues — will it truly add to the story you are writing, or distract from it?

    This is a separate issue from simply writing your stories with persons of color as some or all of the characters.

    Again, thanks for the great discussion. In addition to the obvious points of interest, it has helped me learn to take my time in responding to these kinds of topics and work on my clarity so that my point is not lost in the semantics debates, and I don’t come off like a rambling idiot. Much. :)

  21. My posts were not aimed at people who already realize the equal validity of fantasy (or actually write fantasy) where the characters are non-white. My arguments would not be aimed, for example, at yourself, or Octavia Butler.

    ::confusion:: …Then why did you come post this? Who else would you expect to reply, here on my personal blog? The kinds of people who

    And by “racial issues” I didn’t mean simply inclusion of persons of color. I mean making a core theme of your story something like oppression and discrimination of a specific culture through prejudiced and uneven laws, courts, and law enforcement, for example.

    …This is a separate issue from simply writing your stories with persons of color as some or all of the characters.

    But that’s what I’m talking about. I don’t understand why you would come here and spend so much time writing comments on my blog… about something entirely different from my post. =)

  22. Crap, meant to say, “The kinds of people who see no validity in writing fantasy featuring non-white characters would probably not be reading the blog of a black fantasy writer.”

  23. I posted here because it was an interesting topic, and because you quoted me, and so I wanted to share my own thoughts on the subject. It was more of a “Yeah, I hear you, and this is what I would say to folks about racial diversity in fantasy races — which may not be what you’d expect from my quote.” Not an argument with you, or anything like that. Just attempting to further the discussion, and sort of work out my thoughts on the subject with an intelligent and like-minded sounding board that I could respect the opinions of before distilling them down and sharing them with others. And it’s a good thing I did too, based on how many semantic issues you’ve pointed out.

    Also, yeah, part of it was that I like to try and leave a good impression where I can, and build friendships rather than alienate people, especially people like yourself with whom I expect to share future discussions in places like the Fantasy Friday blogs. So in a way I guess it was partly for your benefit, in that I had the feeling you had a fairly poor impression of me based on your other comments about the above quote, etcetera, and wanted to try and rectify that if I could. But they were not for your benefit in the sense that I thought you actually needed such advice. Clearly that is not the case. The thoughts themselves are examples of advice I would give to your typical McEuropean epic fantasy writer.

    And yeah, I suppose if I get brutally honest about it I didn’t want my single quote above to represent “me” to whoever read your blog. Intellectually I understand that nobody who does read your blog would actually think twice or care about me or my quote. But you know, sometimes it’s just hard not to care how you are perceived, regardless. Something about seeing your own words out there in the world, in print, representing you and doing so poorly kinda sucks. And boy have I done a bang up job of fixing that here, eh? But again, I would not expect your readers to need to be told to include racial diversity, but rather was looking for a meaningful debate on arguments to present to those who do need to be told. Did my arguments sound valid? Or is that not a good message to put out there, and if not, why not? That kinda thing.

    In fact, I’d be perfectly happy if you deleted my posts. Or at least everything except the “Where are the Brown Elves” one. I doubt your readers really care to hear about my inability to communicate on this issue clearly. I would have had this discussion via email, but you didn’t have an address on your site.

    But MOSTLY, I just like to chat with fellow writers and genre fans, and seize any lame excuse to do so ;) Also, I’m probably procrastinating on doing actual work.

    So before you point out (with perfectly valid examples) how something I said in THIS post makes me sound ill-informed or a poor communicator, why don’t we just all agree I seem to have a sad need to share my thoughts where nobody asked me to, I worry too much what others think of me even when nobody thinks of me and “it’s not about me,” and that I seem to have a knack for putting my foot firmly in mouth, and all get back to some real writing :)

  24. OK, I think I understand… ::headscratch:: Maybe. I wish I’d realized you weren’t talking to me before I spent hours replying to you yesterday. That’s what this blog is for (and that’s why my email isn’t posted; it’s redundant), after all — talking to me. If you want to talk to someone else, you should, er, probably go post on those people’s blogs. =)

    I don’t honestly have a poor impression of you, though. Mostly because I’ve encountered so many fantasy writers who think just like you (seem to) — that writing diverse fantasy requires this convoluted, complicated feat of justification. It’s not, it doesn’t, but they have to do this because they’re trying to find a way to rationally parse the complete irrationality of racism. You really can’t reason through that kind of illogic; easier to just acknowledge that it is racism, and decide that it stops with you.

    It sounds to me like you’re trying to work this out for yourself, and I respect that effort. If you want to use my blog as a place to do it, fine. Just — please make it clear in the future if you’re not talking to me, so I can spend those hours doing something else. =)

    And one more thing. If you do consider me a like-minded soul, then may I point out that preaching to the converted is pointless? If you actually want to help increase diversity Out There, then you’re going to have to leave safe spaces like this blog and the Fantasy Magazine blogs. You’re going to have to go make this argument to people who aren’t like-minded souls. That’s hard to do, I’ll be honest; it’s emotionally and mentally draining. You may want to do some reading on white privilege first, to prepare yourself for the kind of resistance you’ll inevitably encounter. But that is the kind of thing that needs to be done if you actually want to see change happen.

  25. Nora! Geez! :)

    I was talking to you.

    Don’t you have discussions where you say “Doesn’t it suck that there aren’t brown elves?” over a pint with some friends?

    And one of them says, “Yeah, but you know, if your story features (not “includes” but features ;)) multiple cultures with persons of color and addresses the theme of racial and cultural discrimination and oppression through their interactions, don’t you think it’s okay to have white elves that also portray similar issues through analogy so that you get twice the message in there without coming off as overkill?”

    And you say something like, “Perhaps, but you could do that if all the elves were uniformly brown.” NOT “Why are you talking to ME about that? Like I don’t know that? And by the way, when you said ‘overkill’ you came off as kind of racist for implying that discussions about racial issues need to be doled out in portions”?

    I was trying to talk WITH you, not AT you. That’s all I was saying.

    And I do talk about such issues outside of this. I lead a writers group where I raise such issues. I am volunteering at an international empowerment organization. I blog on Fantasy Magazine. I blog on my own blogs. I try to reflect it in my fiction where it fits.

    But can’t I have a friendly chat with you where we share our ideas, learn a little something, and sharpen our arguments in a positive way? I learned a good deal from this thread on HOW to say what I want to say, and that is a good thing, because hopefully in the next conversation I have on this topic I will be more clear and persuasive on the topic. So that is good. But I just was aiming for something a little less, I don’t know, personally critical, and more logically critical. Not that you are obliged to do so just because you allowed me to post on your blog or anything. Just sayin.

    Randy

  26. PS – and before you latch on to the “personally critical” comment and point out all the ways you weren’t being so, but just criticizing my wording, let’s just chalk it all up to my being overly sensitive or misreading you or whatever, and save you the time so you can focus on your novel instead :)

    Also, in my mini-resume of social enlightenment above, I forgot to mention that I worked on an editorial team for two years on the primary Seattle newspaper writing and raising awareness on issues or racial, gender, homosexual and economic inequality, I encourage and try to participate (as an audience member) in convention panels on such topics, I call people on their racially insensitive or outright racial remarks when I hear them, etcetera.

    So this is not me timidly hiding in a safe place. It was me trying to share a conversation on a shared topic of interest in what is in theory a safe place, and refining my position on the topic in order to better relate that position to others in future, and to feel a sense of camaraderie with folks who share similar positions.

    And this is me being defensive, so I’ll stop. And so as not to distract either of us further from our work, I will refrain from responding to whatever you post next, even if it is to say that I’m a sadly typical defensive white-guilt writer or some such.

    But I do still look forward to future conversations on different topics.

  27. Don’t you have discussions where you say “Doesn’t it suck that there aren’t brown elves?” over a pint with some friends?

    Yes, I’ve occasionally said this with my friends, though with a caveat: I would say more brown elves, because as has already been noted in this thread, there have been a few good examples out there (e.g., Wendy Pini’s Elfquest).

    But I don’t drink beer. =)

    And one of them says, “Yeah, but you know, if your story features (not “includes” but features ;)) multiple cultures with persons of color and addresses the theme of racial and cultural discrimination and oppression through their interactions, don’t you think it’s okay to have white elves that also portray similar issues through analogy so that you get twice the message in there without coming off as overkill?”

    No. I don’t believe portraying PoC issues through analogy, especially when the analogue is nonhuman, is effective. (I actually think it’s detrimental, as both Tempest and coffeeandink so effectively explained.) I tend not to hang out with people who think this way, so fortunately none of my friends would ever say this.

    And you say something like, “Perhaps, but you could do that if all the elves were uniformly brown.” NOT “Why are you talking to ME about that? Like I don’t know that? And by the way, when you said ‘overkill’ you came off as kind of racist for implying that discussions about racial issues need to be doled out in portions”?

    Actually, I would never say either, because I would probably still be giving the hairy eyeball to any friend of mine who suggested that substituting elves for brown people is OK. =)

    I was trying to talk WITH you, not AT you. That’s all I was saying.
    And I do talk about such issues outside of this. I lead a writers group where I raise such issues. I am volunteering at an international empowerment organization. I blog on Fantasy Magazine. I blog on my own blogs. I try to reflect it in my fiction where it fits.

    Great. These are all great safe places in which to develop your ideas and language. But when you’re feeling ready, you need to take the next step, and start discussing this outside of safe environments where discussion of these issues is encouraged and (sometimes) protected. That means talking about it in places where decisionmakers, creators, and the influential will hear that you, as a fantasy reader, want to see change on this issue.

    Maybe you’re already doing that, and if so, again, great. Nice to see another fighter enter the fray. Good luck.

    But can’t I have a friendly chat with you where we share our ideas, learn a little something, and sharpen our arguments in a positive way? I learned a good deal from this thread on HOW to say what I want to say, and that is a good thing, because hopefully in the next conversation I have on this topic I will be more clear and persuasive on the topic.

    It’s great that you’re learning so much. But I’ll again be honest. I’m not getting anything out of this conversation, except sore fingers. In fact I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this, both here and in the Fantasy thread, pointing out things that you could probably figure out for yourself if you sat down and thought about it for a bit, or chatted with your friends about.

    It is not my job to educate you, help you “sharpen your arguments”, or help you sound non-racist. People of color get pressured to “teach” well-meaning white strangers all the time, and well, most of us get tired of it. It’s very draining, both in emotional resources and (in my case) time. And we tend not to get anything out of those conversations, other than weariness and a deep sense of frustration with having to have the same discussion, for the umpteenth time, with yet another person who doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of this information is out there already to be read. (One of the best recent resources was linked in the Blog for a Beer original post: International Blog Against Racism Week. Many of the posts there — like coffeeandink’s — address some of the things you have concerns about. I think you should read as many of them as you can, and as many of the attached discussions as you can, and use that to help you sharpen your arguments. Note that I didn’t say talk; I said read. You might come across as less defensive if you simply listened and said nothing for awhile, or maybe if you acknowledged hearing the criticism and went off to think about it for a bit, rather than responding with a flurry of lengthy, anxious comments.)

    Now, the truth is that I’m a very friendly Southern girl at heart, and I never mind talking to people as long as they’re civil, which you certainly have been. But there comes a point where I have to say “enough”, and that point is now. (Actually, it was two comments ago, but that’s how friendly and Southern I am.) Sorry. You’re welcome to comment on other topics on my blog, but I’m going to let any other comments you make in this thread pass.

  28. Okay. I fibbed. Can’t resist responding one last time. I’ll pull a “Nora” and point out three specific things in your post that I feel come off poorly, rather than yet again try to share my viewpoint with you. ;)

    1. You said, Yes, I’ve occasionally said this with my friends, though with a caveat: I would say more brown elves, because as has already been noted in this thread, there have been a few good examples out there (e.g., Wendy Pini’s Elfquest).

    Unfortunately, the title of this blog is not “Saaay… why aren’t there MORE brown elves?”, it is “Saaay … why aren’t there brown elves?” So you would start a conversation that way, and that is what I based my imaginary conversational starter upon.

    2. You said, No. I don’t believe portraying PoC issues through analogy, especially when the analogue is nonhuman, is effective. (I actually think it’s detrimental, as both Tempest and coffeeandink so effectively explained.) I tend not to hang out with people who think this way, so fortunately none of my friends would ever say this.

    First, really? Analogy is never good or useful? If you feel that way, okay, but I think you are throwing away a perfectly legitimate, useful, and long appreciated tool of the trade there. Again, I fully understand how if it is used INSTEAD of representing human PoC and racial issues directly, it can be harmful and an excuse, but if you use it IN ADDITION to? Or what if you have a story where the humans are legitimately of a single race or color, be it white or brown (either because of the limited number of characters, or geographic isolation, or transplantation, etc.)?

    Second, it’s a shame you would refuse to be friends with anyone who has a different opinion than yours. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but it comes off that way.

    3. Actually, I would never say either, because I would probably still be giving the hairy eyeball to any friend of mine who suggested that substituting elves for brown people is OK. =)

    Which is why I didn’t say that. I said “if your story features (not “includes” but features ;)) multiple cultures with persons of color and addresses the theme of racial and cultural discrimination and oppression through their interactions, don’t you think it’s okay to have white elves…”

    Meaning that there would be humans of color IN ADDITION to brown elves, or white elves, or purple elves with pink polkadots.

    Finally, I was not looking to you to be my teacher. I was looking to have an intellectually stimulating conversation. The learning comes naturally from that, no effort required on your part except to actually engage in the conversation rather than tear my word choices apart. I was trying to be polite and put a positive spin on that by saying I’ve learned better word choice (which is true).

    I am saddened that you got nothing out of this conversation except sore fingers. Not even the joy of a spirited debate or conversation? Perhaps that can be what you get from this — examining how to get something out of such conversations by engaging in conversation rather than grammatical corrections :) And that you learned nothing isn’t really important, but also a bit surprising, and disappointing. Seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.

    And that, REALLY, is all I will say.

    Cheers.

  29. And that was a defensive response. Sorry. Should have given it some time.

  30. It’s easier to sidestep realistic portrayal of people if everything looks like white bread. No one can accuse you of misrepresenting non-white peoples if you don’t include them, right?

    Just an opinion, mind, I’m not exactly involved in the TV/film industry, so I don’t know their motivations ^^;;

    Re: Your 80s Child card–consider yourself warned!! :P

  31. Nora,

    Thanks for spelling this out for others. As a brown person who has read fantasy since childhood I’ve thought about this question often.

    It’s not so much the absence that gets me, as that can somewhat be rectified now. But what puts me off is the defensiveness, rejection, and dissertations about racial issues this subject always brings up. Why is it never so simple as “hey that would be neat.”

    As you said there’s this feeling that by adding “color” baggage is added, complexity ensues, causing chaos in the fantasy genre. I’m not sure why epics cannot contain racial issues because really the gist of that issue is racial issues as they exist in real life.

    Humans fighting against Orcs as in LotR is definitely a racial issue, though it was not presented overtly in that manner. I find that generic fantasy has a plethora of issues that for the most part people just don’t see (or wish to see.) As in your example between light and dark skin colors, with the dark color almost always representing evil or “primitiveness.”

    I write a little too, but am hoping to one day find elves of a different color on the bookstore shelf.

    -Kia

  32. Interesting reads on elves and color. Not to delve too deep into all the interpretations and speculations of those before me but the Brothers Hildebrandt (The famous artists of many Tolkien calendars and book covers) conceived of a book called Urshurak with Brown Elves, and turncoat White Elves. Standard fantasy fare but with some good twists.