If Tolkien Were…

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.

And yet.

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.

37 thoughts on “If Tolkien Were…”

  1. This is an interesting discussion – I admit that I have not thought about the realm of Scifi as Eurocentric, because I often don’t see an author’s picture or make assumptions based on their name. Now that you point it out, of course – it is. I didn’t know you were a person of color until the 2nd book (picture on the back). I can’t imagine people not being interested in stories taking place all over the world. As a child, I read mythology from all over the world, and I loved to find the similarities and differences. After all, civilization began in a place inhabited by brown people – we all come from there.
    I think white folks have had the luxury of not having to think about how their culture influences their work, because it is so dominant that we don’t even notice it.

  2. It’s only recently that I’ve started making note of the race/nationality of other authors and sometimes looking them up with that fact in mind. Though any work, regardless of the author, has to pique my curiosity in order for me to want to read it, it’s definitely the case that I’ve been trying to read books by a wider range of people and which, more importantly, take place in a wider range of settings than the traditional Eurocentric mould, and that does require the conscious effort of keeping my eyes peeled. It would be nice if I could just expect to walk into a bookshop and find an even balance of international, local, POC, white, male, female mainstream and indie authors in the YA and SFF sections, but that’s not what happens, and if I were to continue to base the majority of my reading choices solely on what my local, smalltown bookstore has to offer, then I’d never read anything new.

    Prior to doing this, I might never have stopped to consider whether a white author’s race were impacting their storytelling, but the more I read, the more relevant a question it becomes: not because there’s some obvious stylistic contrast between white and POC authors or anything like that, but because there’s something meaningful in asking why we authors choose to tell the stories we do – at the very least, we’ve cared enough to write them, and some of the reason why must necessarily be connected to who *we* are – and the more widely I read in terms of authors, the more diffuse and interesting those whys start to seem. The dominance of white culture in various industries and parts of the world is no excuse for using it as a default; and yet so many white writers slip into doing exactly that. Which isn’t to say white authors should never write about white characters – only that it shouldn’t be aberrant for us to do otherwise, and that if reviewers and readers are going to ask questions about the impact of race on the works of POC authors, then the same logic should be applied to white writers, too.

  3. As a father to a mixed-race little girl, I’m very glad to see more and more fantasy being written from and about different points of view. I’m a huge Tolkien fan (of course) but I’ve been reading a ton of different stuff these days and I’m glad that I’ll be able to give her lots of variety in fantasy settings.

  4. As Foz Meadows noted:

    “The dominance of white culture in various industries and parts of the world is no excuse for using it as a default; and yet so many white writers slip into doing exactly that.”

    I find myself doing this in early drafts of stories. Some of that is background. some of it emerges from what you use what you have read and learned, and some of it is just uncritical reproduction. I think there are a number of such traps that are easy to fall into with the prose story form, especially in epic fantasy. As a writer I need to not just consider “the story” as some well-defined object, but all of the signals and meanings that surround and interact with it. This is one reason that I write a lot of non-fiction; it’s part of an ongoing effort to understand the writing process so that I can write with more discernment and also make better reading choices.

    The Ninaloca problem is harder to deal with. If you are reading fiction for some sort of nostalgia, some return to Arcadia (and a very problematic conception of it at that), then you do not want ANY sort of innovation beyond some cosmetic/aesthetic modifications that create “freshness.” Readers too have to be willing to change, and I’m not sure how you make that happen.

  5. John,

    Readers are willing to change. For every “Ninaloca” out there, and every epic fantasy fan who’s decided that it has to tread in Tolkien’s “riffing on British mythology” footsteps to merit the name, there are other readers who are looking for some sort of change in the genre. Still more who gave up on the genre when they thought it couldn’t change — all those readers can be lured back. Are being lured back, not just by me but by authors like Mark Charan Newton, Martha Wells, and others who are taking the toys of the old genre and finding new ways to play with them. Or just creating something new. Maybe there aren’t enough readers like this to make HBO create a miniseries based on the works they love, but there are certainly enough to revitalize the genre. I’d’ve had to change my name and start self-publishing by now if that wasn’t true.

    So I say let the Ninalocas of the world have their tried-and-true cultural tropes. There’s good stuff in the medieval Europe milieu; nothing wrong with it. But I believe that as time passes this milieu will become a subset of epic fantasy — probably a big one, but still just one of a number of settings and situations that readers embrace. It’s already happening. So eventually there will be something in epic fantasy for everyone else who wants a sense of nostalgia and homecoming in the stuff they read.

  6. This reminds me of when I was writing an epic fantasy novel and originally made the main character white because that’s how “heroes” looked in all the fantasy I’d ever consumed, from books to movies to video games (this last one perhaps my biggest influence).

    But then I thought about designing the hero after my own likeness, and it created some serious cognitive dissonance. I just couldn’t see MYSELF in the role of an epic fantasy hero, even after I hired an artist to illustrate a character based on me. And I don’t think I realized why I had such a hard time with it until now.

    Because…OMG, I’m black, and I’d NEVER seen a black hero in fantasy before. At the time I was oblivious to the many dimensions (especially the subtle ones) of racism, and definitely had never heard of internalized racism. Looking back on it now it seems a real travesty that I was trained to exclude my own likeness from legitimacy in a fantasy setting.

    The shit runs deep, huh?

  7. Most of us Fantasy and Science Fiction readers _want_ to be taken away from our boring world and shown and new and different ones. But we also want a good story, a new and different story, not just another repeat of the trope. Give us both, and you’re golden, er, brown, whatever. ;)

  8. The perception of bigotry is a very personal experience and we cannot say that people’s FEELINGS are wrong. Tolkien’s readers have debated how much bigotry might have been used in the story to tell the tale of bigotry’s fallacies and how much it might reflect his own personal views.

    He was a man of deep views who, by all his written accounts, detested bigotry but he would not be immune the cultural biases he must have been grown up with — none of us are.

    On the other hand, sometimes the perception colors the book the wrong way. The Haradrim, for example, are a non-homogenous group of beings (some of them are purely fantasy creatures), and many people overlook the fact that many of them are supposedly descended from Numenoreans (the majority of whom supported the heretical kings who led their civilization into destruction).

    The Easterlings are presented as fanatical followers of evil but I think that is simply because Tolkien felt that Sauron’s influence had to be shown as stronger somewhere else than in the West. There have been attempts (at least through some fan fiction) to reverse the roles and show that the Elves and their allies were “evil” from the perspective of the other side.

    Such fictional polarity actually supports the very realistic feel of the fiction — which, again, idealizes cultural preconceptions. I think Tolkien wanted to challenge some of those preconceptions by pointing out that those who think they are superior are, in fact, wrong to feel that way.

    He only ever expressed personal empathy with the hobbits in the book. He set out to tell a story, and that he did. His millions of readers have little hope of all agreeing on much more than that.

  9. This might be a tad unrelated, but have you run into the people who call your ‘blackness’ into question?

    I like all the fantasy settings personally. It’s hard to say that character race and the setting doesn’t matter to me. It does and doesn’t. I’m more interested in what drives the character to do what they do.

    Damn. My train of thought derailed.

  10. “A thought experiment. When was the last time you considered the impact of a white writer’s race on his/her work? Just curious.”

    There are so many levels to this. (As you know.) Glad you stated it so baldly.

    Kermit, one I can think of off hand is Sean Russell’s Gatherer of Clouds and its sequel (whose title I’m blanking on), which is East-Asian-inspired epic fantasy.

    Well, also the Three Kingdoms story, which I would identify as epic fantasy but I suppose not everyone would. Have you seen the epic Red Cliff 2 parter (John Woo), not the cut down USA theater version?

  11. Kermit,

    Yes, it runs deep. And it’s not just race; I mentioned this in my convo with Miller and it’s noted in the article, but when I was younger I couldn’t write women. You’d think it would be easy to just draw from your own experience — but my experience in literary terms was dominated by stories about white men, so that’s all I knew how to write. As writers, we are what we read.

    ETA: Chinese-set epic fantasy: offhand, Cindy Pon’s books, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, Kay Kenyon’s The Entire and the Rose, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. Also, not book-form: the children’s TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which is some of the best worldbuilding and storytelling I’ve seen in some time. Not all written by Chinese-descended writers, but you asked about content, not creator.

  12. Michael,

    Agreed that some evaluations of bigotry are simply perception. But bigotry also has real, measurable effects. Bigotry in literature has an historical context, and the author’s intentions don’t always trump the real effect that his/her work has had on his readers.

    In Tolkien’s case, much of the evidence against bigotry does not exist within the work he’s best known for (LotR); it exists in peripheral or unpublished sources, like the Silmarillon and his personal notes. Judging him on his published fiction alone, it’s hard not to notice that he does the same thing that many fantasy authors before and since have done, which is to reduce the presence of non-white people to “the enemy” or “the other”, and further ascribe to them qualities like “decadent” and “evil” and “easily duped”. Not altogether different from the way people of non-European cultures have been described by racists for several hundred years.

    And further, Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre is part of the reason why it’s so heavily focused on medieval (especially northern) Europe and pseudo-medieval Europe; his legacy is not just his own work, but also a generation of Tolkien clones, Tolkien-inspired D&D games full of racial essentialism, and publishing gatekeepers who simply assumed that epic fantasy wouldn’t sell if it wasn’t Eurocentric, like Tolkien’s work. All that’s not really his fault; I’m sure he didn’t intend to have that kind of effect. But for the readers of color who try to engage with epic fantasy and run smack into that essentialism, or those stereotypes, or those gatekeepers, the effect is real and lasting.

  13. Now’s my opportunity to confess that I did not know either your race or David’s when I first read your books. I felt there was something great/different about both at the time — they felt “wider” to me, but I didn’t have any notion as to why. When I saw author photos of both you at a later point, a light bulb went off.

    At any rate, to me this is not an issue of feeling bad about the books I like (because, contrary to what one of the more dogged Salon commenters seems to think, I love Tolkien) but about finding new books to like in new ways. You can have reservations about some aspects of a favorite writer’s work and still go on appreciating the parts of it that you do like. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.

    As for the ninaloca factor, I’m reminding of Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” a novel by a white writer about black characters that never points out the characters’ race (not because it doesn’t matter, but because the author is taking it for granted). The hero eventually visits an archetypal landscape that Gaiman intends to stand for the birthplace of all stories, and it’s an African landscape. Africa is, ultimately, the “cultural background” of every last human being on the planet because that is where human culture originated. If you believe (and not everyone does) that part of what fantasy does is reach back to that archetypal material, then it’s an obvious place to visit, not a daring exception.

    I guess that doesn’t quite address ninaloca’s nostalgic longings tied to her own childhood, but I know that one of the things I liked about fantasy narratives as a child was the feeling of deep cultural resonance, and I also get that from works based on non-European mythologies.

    I think, though, that the coziness of reading, say, Tolkien, has less to do with European iconography than with the comfort of the simple moral binary you cited, Nora, the whole good-vs.-evil deal. In addition to being an easy, unchallenging way for individual persons to interpret a complex world, the binary is definitely a politically useful framework; you can employ it to cast other peoples — enemies, alternative religions, colonial subjects, etc. — as less than fully human. As soon as a narrative starts constructing a relatable POV for those other peoples, the binary gets undermined, and there goes the coziness.

    I do think about the whiteness of white writers when reading fairly often, but that’s probably because I mostly read literary fiction set in the real world, and as a result it’s more reflexive to check that depiction against my own experience of that world.

  14. When you started out you said you had a problem writing in women. I had the opposite problem. The first epic fantasy (or high fantasy) stories I read had women in the lead and I reveled in it. My first novel (written in 9th grade) featured two girls from a historically mixed race society. Strangely enough, it was when I was a young adult and started writing “seriously” that I defaulted to white for my main characters.

    It’s only recently that I began to actively place CoC’s in my stories. Maybe it’s the baggage of being an African-American. But when I started a new novel with half of it in “Afirca” it’s turned into the best tale I’ve ever written.

  15. Nora:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly; I just get discouraged by the highly visible resistance of some readers and the raw numbers who still seem to go for the same old stuff. I see that conservatism pop up so often and try to squelch substantive change and diversity. I see people in my bookstore who are turned off by the stereotypes of the genre and I try to show them the work that resists and shatters them. I see readers who refuse to consider something new, and a few who even denigrate what I think are fantastic, genre-altering works. But, as you say, we just need to keep writing and reading and sharing the stories that feed us rather than hold us back.

  16. I think about it as a matter of course — also the writer’s culture of whatever community in the country in which s/he’s born and / or brought up in.

    For instance, that “Magical Realism” term? Not only was it coined to write about fiction written by South American or Caribbean writers who write first in Spanish, it was coined by white, U.S. reviewers to write about their work. “Magical Realism” is not a literary term or critical one employed by fiction writers in Spanish or by literary critics who write in Spanish.

    Love, C.

  17. I read the article on Salon the other day. I’m a past-voracious fantasy reader, although I’ve been reading more non-fiction lately, and I was looking for something new. So much of the fantasy out there is just a rehash of the same old stuff. What got me to buy your book (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I just devoured in the past 24 hours) was just the description of the idea behind it…an idea I had never heard before. That always wins me over.

    Of course, having read the Salon article I started the book paying more attention to see how race might affect the story…but to be honest I got so caught up in the storytelling that the question was completely forgotten after a few chapters. Please take that as the compliment it is intended to be.

  18. Laura,

    Welcome! Thanks for dropping in.

    You can have reservations about some aspects of a favorite writer’s work and still go on appreciating the parts of it that you do like. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.

    This, hard. IMO, one of the best ways to engage with something you love is to critique it. Personally, I don’t bother saying anything about books that leave me in “meh” mode. I have to really love something — or really hate it — to spend time and energy on analyzing it.

    And ditto on Tolkien’s neat good/evil binary being one of the reasons people find it (and all “Tolkien clone” epic fantasy) so comforting. Though I think it’s more a Christian binary, since I gather Tolkien’s iteration of it was influenced by his upbringing and friendship with C. S. Lewis (who also tried to engage with his Christianity via his fantasy). That binary is very much endemic in “Western” culture’s worldview, and in Tolkien’s day it had an influence on how other races were regarded (often slotted into the binary as good or evil, pious or decadent, saved or sinner). Given that Tolkien was born in apartheid South Africa (though raised in England), I always wonder how much that, or his parents’ probably-binary attitudes about Africans, impacted his portrayal of the Southrons and Easterlings. Maybe one of the Tolkien scholars in this thread will give me some illumination on that!

    I do think about the whiteness of white writers when reading fairly often, but that’s probably because I mostly read literary fiction set in the real world, and as a result it’s more reflexive to check that depiction against my own experience of that world.

    It’s probably easier to see in real-world-set fiction. But it’s pretty clear in fantasy, too, primarily by representation — or lack thereof. As Foz notes upthread, race (or more specifically, culture) has a clear impact on why we as fantasy writers choose to tell the stories we do. There’s a reason European-set fantasy is overrepresented, and fantasy with other cultural roots is underrepresented. There’s a reason male protagonists are ubiquitous and female protags are unusual. There’s also a reason why Christianesque binary good/evil themes are so prevalent, and so comforting to readers raised with that binary.

    The problem is that the epic fantasy genre treats these tropes as universal givens, not something racially/culturally-influenced; the genre as a whole does not consider the impact of race on itself. Except when it comes to people like me. ::sigh::

    So thanks again for your article; I think it will help to hold up a mirror, and maybe encourage more of that introspection.

  19. I’m not a Tolkien scholar, but I’d like to recommend reading the interesting article Margaret Sinex contributed to Tolkien Studies 7.

    I don’t remember if I agreed with everything the article said, but I found its premise quite revealing: that Tolkien modelled his Haradrim (southrons) on the medieval imagery of the ‘Saracen’ (muslims as perceived by medieval western christians). Sinex says that the Haradrim colors, red and gold, were used to depict Saracens in the Middle Ages iirc. It also seems that in the medieval imagery Saracens were frequently described as unhuman, monstrous beings. So in a way Tolkien, in describing the Haradrim as human beings, undertook a kind of definitive humanization of the very enemy that used to be a monster in traditional depictions.

    I think Tolkien did this when it says in The Lord of the Rings that the Haradrim were misled by Sauron, that common soldiers from Harad were possibly forced to fight in a war they really had no part in, etc. Everything really paternalistic stuff to say, of course, however well-intentioned it may be. However, Tolkien also has a part in actively dehumanizing the Haradrim himself, when he describes them as intrinsically cruel, as “men like half-trolls”, and so on. It’s an ambivalent thing at least, I think.

    Speaking of Tolkien’s birthplace, he wasn’t literally born in apartheid South Africa. Tolkien was born in 1892, went to Britain with his mother in 1895, and the first laws that would later become the apartheid regime’s system of segregation were established in the beginning of the 20th century. Tolkien was born in colonial South Africa though, and spent the biggest part of his life in the British Empire or its remains, a context which (in a general frame of colonial domination and postcolonial dependency) includes a lot of racist contempt and legal discrimination of PoCs.

    In his published letters Tolkien once criticizes the way blacks were treated in South Africa. Note that his attitude, although critical of open racist discrimination, is paternalistic once more. It would be interesting to know how Tolkien reacted (or if he reacted at all) to self-empowered black resistance against racism and colonialism, which he must have heard of in the 1950s/60s at least.

    I find it interesting that the fantasy written in the high times of European colonialism and its aftermath (by Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs…) usually takes place in India, South America oder Subsaharan Africa, where the decidedly rational and at all times superior western hero is confronted with decadent civilizations, cannibalistic natives and monsters from the jungle. And then, with the end of official colonial domination, suddenly there is a massive shift in the creation of fantasy settings and you have all the Europe-inspired worlds that are so typical for epic fantasy, where the western hero is not so unanimously superior any more, but still the racist stereotypes creep in through the backdoor, via the depiction of the typical enemy from the east or southeast. Racial/cultural influence on fantasy? There you have it.

  20. I don’t understand the nostalgia excuse. If I am nostalgic for something, I will re-read it. (hello Phantom Tollbooth). If I’m reading a new book, I want it to be new and different.

    It’s not epic fantasy, but can I put in a plug for Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series? The non-western set-up/world-building is very cool.

  21. Liliana Bodoc’s Saga de los confines has never been translated into English, I think, but for everyone who reads Spanish: It’s an epic fantasy that takes place in a second-world South/Central America battling against the European Conquista. Bodoc is a stylistically brilliant Argentine writer, and her Saga de los confines is a really striking example of how fresh and interesting epic fantasy with a non-eurocentric perspective can be.

  22. Pingback: We Need a Hero! We Don’t Need Another Hero. | Epiphany 2.0

  23. As a white middle aged male I find my taste for non-european based fantasy is much much greater than the marketplace seems willing to deliver. I find the gender gap harder, personally, to get across. There is a lot of female oriented fantasy now. I have read it in the past, and enjoyed some of it. As my free time decreases though, I find those the first books I cross off my list. There are just always other books I would rather read and given the increasingly finite amounts of free time, those books will probably never make it to my hands. That’s just a descriptive look at my reading. I didn’t make those choices overtly, but there they are.

  24. At first glance Ninaloca’s comment made a kind of icky sense? At second glance I realized that the fantasy novel which most stirs the inner child and brings back memories of childhood (as a white boy in a still quite racially segregated, on a social level, 1970s Northern Virginia) escaping totally into that fantasy cocoon in my head, is the one I am currently reading to my thrilled 7-year-old son: The Wizard of Earthsea. Which is brown people in (secondary-world) Oceania.

  25. I agree with Anubis and Mr. Rosenbaum about the idea of Eurocentric epic as a “loss of Empire,” but even more so a loss of . . . not power, but of its easy cloaking. Some people long for the “good old days” but also the “good old days that never were.” There are many elements of epic and heroic fantasy that resonate with this idea, with a confabulated nostalgia and a longing for the rhetoric of America to be completely true. I’d love to tackle this topic in more depth at some point.

  26. Wow. I never thought I’d have a reason to actually feel gratitude to the second or third Quest for Glory video game. But now, because of Ninaloca, I do. It was set in Fantasy Africa of some flavor, and while I have no memory of the story, the setting blew my tiny child mind. Now when I hear about African-flavored fantasy, I immediately settle into that pleasant childhood cocoon!

    Due to extreme crabbiness developed at an early age about boy protagonists, I don’t think I ever contracted the ‘can only write what I’ve read/am not’ problem. Possibly I started writing BECAUSE I wanted girls to be the chosen ones, dammit.

  27. It’s difficult to come from the white side of things, too, when writing brown/yellow/black people. Every time I write a person who’s NOT like me, I get a lot of flack for not being “right”, (I have difficulty writing ghetto-slang, and in fact I have a translator who writes up dialog for me – I write what I want the character to say, and she helps me shape it into the slang that I’m not as familiar with) for not understanding, for not presenting, or for including it just to check off a tick mark on my list of Socially Correct things to do.

    No, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman from New York (I’m a white girl from Virginia) but I also don’t know what it’s like to be an elven dragon-slayer.

    It seems to me, coming from the other side of things, that we – as white writers – are not considered to have “permission” to write a minority character; that once we do so we’re either sucking up, having white regret, or doing so for some politically motivated selling books specifically to black people stuff that, in all honesty, makes no sense to me whatsoever. I write what I write because that’s what I feel. If the character is black, white, purple, blue, yellow whatever.

  28. Lynn, I give you permission. See here, where I wrote on the subject at length:


    Others may also enjoy the syllabus for the course I’m currently teaching, on minority authors in SF/F:


    And if you want more, the Carl Brandon Society, which supports people of color in SF/F, has extensive booklists:


  29. John S,

    Thanks for the compliment. And I’m pleased to know that you didn’t think about my race while you read; I’m assuming you’d do the same for a white writer or writer of any other race, so that’s good to know. But if you do decide to consider how my race affects my writing, all I ask is that you apply that brush to every book you read. I think you’ll see that race isn’t always overtly a part of the story, but it’s there, at least for most US writers. It’s too much a part of our cultural zeitgeist not to be. (Might be there for writers from other countries too, but the US is what I know and can actually speak to.)

  30. Ken,

    Well, it seems to me that if you’re aware that you tend to make biased choices, and you don’t do anything to break that tendency, then you’re making an overt choice to keep being biased. So the question becomes: do you continue? Or do you make an effort to change?

  31. Anubis, Ben, John Stevens,

    All very interesting points, and good stuff to chew on here. I’ve heard the idea before that much of modern fantasy is rooted in colonial aesthetics and ethics. It’s no different from modern SF, really, except in that SF replaces the human racist stereotypes with aliens (who usually conform to human racist stereotypes). The legacy of colonialism permeates all English-language fiction, IMO, because the writer is either descended from the colonizer or the colonized. Which is why there’s been a big effort in the last few decades to wean writers off adherence to this mode of thought — to become postcolonial, if such a thing is possible. Gaining an awareness of where the “nostalgic” tropes of fantasy come from is one way to start.

  32. Chrysoula,

    Glad to hear it too! But honestly, I don’t believe in the idea that what you imprint on as a child will dictate your reading choices for life. I think it will if you let it, and Ninaloca has chosen to do so. But like I said in the Salon article, I read books mostly about white men in my formative years, and I made a conscious choice to try something different. Hopefully someday Ninaloca will, too.

  33. Pingback: Tolkien and Racism Revisited – Again | Tolkien Studies Blog

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top