Didn’t mention this here ’til now because I wanted to think about it a bit, though those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably saw it already. But anyway, last week I had an interview with columnist/critic Laura Miller from Salon, who talked with me and David Anthony Durham on the recent incursions of people of color into epic fantasy — which as she noted is a traditionally very Eurocentric sort of bastion. The interview was a lot of fun and the resulting article is phenomenal; she made me sound much more coherent than I actually am in everyday conversation! An excerpt:
Nevertheless, when Jemisin decided to write her own epic fantasy in grad school, she found herself abiding by some of the genre’s most shopworn conventions. Her main character was a man. “I was thinking it had to have a quest in it, with a MacGuffin of Power being brought to a Place of Significance,” she said. The book didn’t quite work, so she set it aside, and when she returned to it a few years later, she decided to start over. She made the main character a woman and, in an even more marked departure from the norm, she decided to have that character narrate the book in the first person. “I knew that what I was writing was inherently defiant of the tropes of epic fantasy,” Jemisin said, “and I wasn’t sure it would be accepted.”
After every interview and reading I do, I regret something. I think it’s just part of my writerly nature — I create, then critique — so I’ve learned not to angst too much about anything. But after this interview I couldn’t help wishing that a) I’d namechecked a few of the other authors of color doing fantasy of an epic nature, because the article gives the impression that there’s only two of us when in fact there’s maybe a dozen (a few offhand: Michelle Sagara/Sagara West; Saladin Ahmed; Charles Saunders; Carole McDonnell; Nnedi Okorafor; Eugie Foster; Karen Lowachee; Cindy Pon). And b) I kind of wish I’d hit harder on the point that a lot of PoC writing epic fantasy aren’t labeled as such, whether by themselves or their publishers or the wider literary community, for good or for ill, because the genre works so carefully to police itself. You may have heard the joke that magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish. It’s not true — there’s more to MR than that, IMO — but there’s definitely something to the way in which works which in every other way fit within the genre boundaries are consistently pushed out and called something else, when the major difference is the race, nationality, or first language of the writer.
Miller’s article hits on some of this, and I agree with her about the inherent conservativism of the genre. I’ve seen this tendency of epic fantasy readers to reject, say, works by women, or works by people coming from outside of the US or British Commonwealth (and even works by the colonized peoples of that commonwealth, rather than the colonizers). Or works set in lands too far removed from medieval northern Europe, like the slew of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese-set epic fantasy that’s come out in the past couple of decades. In some readers’ minds, it’s very clear that “Writing about brown people in Africa isn’t going to touch that child inside of us and bring back memories of our childhood when we could escape totally into that fantasy cocoon in our heads” (commenter “Ninaloca”, in response to Miller’s article). For those definitions of “us” who aren’t brown people, Ninaloca’s statement may be true. And even when a writer isn’t writing about brown people in Africa — I’m not (yet), David’s not — there’s some assumption on the part of readers that we are. Because of who we are. That this is epic fantasy’s purpose: to create new mythologies into which we the reader can escape… and that those mythologies must be ones which actually exalt our own cultural background. That’s why Tolkien did it, after all.
(There’s an extended and interesting discussion between several commenters to that exact effect in the Miller article, note, and exploring Tolkien’s intentional attempts to address bigotry re the Numenoreans. I’ve seen these arguments before and they never quite explain the LotR books’ bigotry re the Southrons and Easterlings, but maybe Tolkien didn’t intend that. Anyway…)
Stuff like this keeps me awake at night, sometimes. After all, in a few months I will be debuting a pair of epic fantasies featuring brown people in a fantasy analogue of Egypt (which is in Africa), and I suspect the Ninalocas of the world will decide to skip it. Which is why I have mixed feelings about articles like the one in Salon, which simultaneously confront the genre’s segregationist tendencies and yet by doing so, subtly encourage them. The article helps more than it hurts, IMO, because for every Ninaloca who writes me off because I’m black or whenever I write about black and brown people, there will be a reader who picks me up for those same reasons. And in addressing the issue, the article encourages epic fantasy to wake up a little more from its reflexive adherence to traditions that are underlaid by some seriously creepy assumptions.
My race is relevant to my writing. Of course it is. Every writer’s race is relevant to their work, whether they believe it to be or not — whether they have the privilege of ignoring that relevance, or not. But my race is not the be-all and end-all of who I am, or why I write. That’s also true for every writer.
So I’d like to ask something of all critics, reviewers, interviewers, etc., who read this. Think of it as a challenge, maybe, or just a new way of looking at your work. A thought experiment. When was the last time you considered the impact of a white writer’s race on his/her work? Just curious. Maybe you can work that into your next interview, or something. Because I think there’s all kinds of nummy lit-crit goodness that’s come out of people considering Tolkien’s whiteness (c.f. that convo in the Salon comments). So try applying that brush to the whole genre, and see what comes of it.