Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For Discussion: Racism in Fantasy & Its Effects on People of Color

Note:  I apologize for the length of this post.  I know there are a lot of posts on the topic, but I just wanted to show my support for the cause.  This is a complex topic.  You do not have to read the post, obviously, but I hope you will.  If you don't, I hope that you at least click on the links I post within it.  They are excellent, particularly the link to the post I Didn't Dream of Dragons and to the video about being black in America.

There has been a great deal of talk recently on blogosphere about the book Magic Under Glass which features a dark-skinned protagonist in the story but a white-skinned model on the cover.  This has led to a lot of very interesting and useful discussion, in my opinion, but also to a lot of defensiveness and anger.

I have also just finished reading the book Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, the second book in his First Law trilogy of epic fantasy.  And while I love this series, I think it's prejudiced.  Actually, I think all epic fantasy is deeply prejudiced, but I am using Abercrombie's work as an example.  So, just to make clear- as a fantasy fan, I love The First Law trilogy (or the two books of it I have read thus far).  As a person of color, I am disappointed and somewhat offended by it.

Abercrombie's story revolves around a Union that is under attack from the north and from the south.  The northerners have names like "Logen Ninefingers," "the Dogman," and "Threetrees."  They have a tribal culture with a strict hierarchy of Named Men, down to Carls and then to the Thralls.  They are hardened warriors who are used to a cold and bitter climate and used to traveling under austere conditions.

In fact, they sound exactly like the Saxons, particularly those that took over Britain (from the north) after the fall of Rome.  Eventually, some of the Northmen come down to the Union to help their forces defeat the person who is true evil, a northman named Bethod who wants to expand his empire.  The Unionists eventually let these men help them, and they all (to paraphrase) become fast friends and work together to a greater cause.

The other enemy in Abercrombie's story are the Gurkish.  The Gurkish believe in the Prophet Khalul, live in a place called Sarkant, have frightening flesh-eating fighting zombies, are dark-skinned, and have representatives named Shabbed al Islik Burai.

I would venture to say that (based on the name of the representative alone) the Gurkish are basically Muslim.  But maybe I'm jumping to conclusions.  I hope so.  I won't bother explaining how offensive it is that the Gurkish have flesh-eating zombies because I feel that is fairly self-explanatory.  I will point out, however, that at the end of the second book, there were no "good Gurkish" people who realized that they were on the side of evil and switched to the side of the Union.  There was one who wanted peace, yes.  He was beheaded.  Also, I am not sure as I haven't finished the series yet, but I have a feeling that the Gurkish are a greater enemy than the northmen since their leader, the Prophet Khalul, broke a tenet of magic and now is destroying the world.

Many people say that fantasy cannot be racist because it takes place in other worlds.  I say, based on the above (and on many other fantasy novels I cannot cite at the moment), that it is an inherently racist genre.  Not only because it seems fairly clear here that the darker-skinned race who follows a power-hungry prophet is the enemy, but for many other reasons as well.

How many people of color do you see at fantasy conventions?  At sci fi conventions?  How many authors of color do you know that write in the genre?  How many epic fantasy novels take place in a non-quasi-feudal-Europe setting?  Very, very few.

In researching for this blog post, I came across some fantastic articles and posts by other people.  One in particular struck me to the core, perhaps because the author is an Indian who enjoys fantasy fiction.  In her absolutely excellent post I Didn't Dream of Dragons, deepad writes:

 When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern. 
But there were no taverns in India. Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

And that's exactly it.  I love epic fantasy and I love European historical fiction.  The two are not unrelated.  Most epic fantasy is based in a Eurocentric world.  I wish it wasn't.  I wish there was good epic fantasy out there that was based in other cultures and other mythologies.  I wish the very idea of epic fantasy did not by default preclude an ancient Indian setting.  And I wish epic fantasy was not so very race-heavy.  Why do we so rarely see integrated groups of people?  Why is it one race always pitted against another?  We live in such a multi-cultural, mixed race, tossed salad of a world.  If people have evolved to the point of being more integrated, then shouldn't the fantasy genre evolve, too?

Rose Fox wrote an article for Publishers Weekly about this exact topic:

What I would like to see are more fourth-stage narratives where cultural and physical differences matter but aren't all that matter, where stereotypes show up and are then questioned and refuted, where the cost of enforcing isolation is made clear and at least one person wonders whether the payoff is worth it... and all of that as a sidebar to the main plot, not a way for the writer to proudly parade around their anti-racism and ask for cookies.

It's true and it's necessary.  I grew up Indian in America, reading a lot of English fantasy novels involving tall, handsome, white heroes, dragons, wizards and feudal class systems.  I also probably read a great deal like Abercrombie's, that pitted one race against another, with the Eurocentric race always the race of focus, the center of the story.  Is this right?  Why is it that I have such a fascination with British history but not so much with Indian history?  Why is it that I love epic fantasy?

Maybe because that was all that was available for me to read growing up.  Sure, I read Amar Chitra Katha like all the other Indian kids, but most kids around me never knew what I was talking about.  I could not discuss the Amar Chitra Katha stories with my classmates because they would never read those stories.  But they could all discuss The American Girl Collection with me.  And I knew where they were coming from because I read them all.  They were all about white girls.  I wanted to be Samantha.  She was a wealthy Victorian white girl.  I wanted to get married in a church in a white wedding dress.  Growing up, I never dreamed about being an Indian girl.  All my imaginings were of white culture.  As deepad says so well in her post (really, just read it in its entirety because I must stop stealing his words):

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers.

 Maybe there are so few people of color writing and reading fantasy novels because we are either not present in them or because when we are represented, it is usually as the enemy.  Ursula K. LeGuin said, “...'what sells’ or 'doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy—which they mostly don’t—could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”

Yes, LeGuin, it could be.  And it makes me so sad to think that children are growing up in America still believing that white = better.  In this really great video, you see black children today believing that white dolls are still better than black ones.  And, I'd venture to say, it's not just the black kids in America who feel that way.  It's the Hispanic, Asian, Indian and any other minority kid, too.

So for those of you commenting on blogs saying that "white privilege" doesn't exist, and that you have faced discrimination, too- for your sex, for your sexuality, for your weight, for your economic status, for your accent- I'm sorry, but you're wrong; it does exist.  As Mary Anne Mohanraj says so eloquently:

You know other suffering, yes. But it’s not a contest. It’s not a ‘my pain is bigger than your pain’ debate. The question is whether you have experienced a particular thing — whether, in a culture of institutionalized racism, you have walked down the street in a brown or yellow or red or black skin, and dealt with the consequences therein. That’s all. Because while there’s a damn good chance that you’ve suffered more than me (I’ve led a relatively sheltered life for a PoC, insulated by being part of the model minority, and by my family’s upper-middle-class status), that’s still not the point. The point has to do with specific experience.

And that is why racial diversity matters.  Not just in life itself, but in access to reading materials.  Yes, I could read books in other genres that have Indian characters.  But, damnit, I like epic fantasy.  And I want to read it.  And I am not asking too much for people like me to be represented fairly and positively.  Not only in epic fantasy, but across all genres.  Because, when it comes down to it, I don't want any future children I might have to be like me- I want them to dream in color.


  1. This post is beautiful and made me want to weep. Thank you for writing it. I don't read epic fantasy, really at all, so it was also very informative.

  2. Nothing I can say besides Beautiful.

  3. How utterly heartbreaking. When I first learned about the doll study (in a Constitutional law class) it broke my heart. I hate that so many people think racism ended with the civil rights movement, or ended with the election of Obama. No it hasn't. I love that you speak unapologetically about the racism in fantasy. I love that you post about how pain isn't a competition. Kudos for such a moving post.

  4. That post was indeed beautifully written. As a fan of epic fantasy, I don't see why switching away from the "pseudo-medieval European fantasy world" wouldn't be welcomed by all fantasy readers. For one thing, that kind of setting has been done to death, IMO. For another, as a history instructor, I've had the opportunity to at least sample some of the ancient epics of non-Western cultures (including Gilgamesh, from Babylon, the Sundiata from West Africa, and the Ramayana), and there's plenty of fuel for the imagination there. I can't promise people would read fantasy that uses a non-Western inspired setting, with kitsunes or rakshasas instead of dragons and Griots instead of bards. However, I do know that if the books aren't out there, they can't read them at all. So I really hope this posting is widely read, and I join your call for greater diversity across all literary genres.

  5. Something that you said at the beginning of this post really struck me because it reminded me of an experience I had a year ago. I netflixed The Tale of Despereaux for my boys to watch, and was horrified when the rats were depicted as a caricature of Middle Eastern "exotic" culture, complete with a bizarre. It made me so angry, both on a generic and a personal level (my brother-in-law is a Palestinian refugee and he and my sister live in Palestine, where I got to visit for their wedding 2 years ago). Little touches like these are put into fantasy all the time and it's so offensive. :(

  6. Lovely post! I'm an Indian living in India and I still grew up reading more English authors than Indian. Which is why I'm now on an Indian-author reading spree and I've found some fantastic books!

    I'm not a fan of fantasy and can't really comment on that, but thanks for this great post!

  7. You and deepad. I happen to know that Hinduism is full of epic mythology. Write some epic fantasy in it, dammit. We'd eat it up. We don't need no stinkin' dragons in epic fantasy. We'd love some topless Indian women. Adapt some Hindu mythology. Write it. We'll read it. Epic fantasy isn't about dragons and white people. It's basically about The Hero's Journey. Hunduism is full of those stories. Think about Hanuman, about Ganesh. Then don't make them look like animals. Shit, maybe I'll have to do it one of these days. But I have my eurocentric first book planned. Write some epic fantasy based in Hinduism. It'll sell. We westerners love us some yoga. We'll love anything that smacks of old India. Write it.

  8. Excellent post, Aarti. It really baffles me when people say fantasy can't be racist - just like it does when they say it can't deal with any actual relevant human issues :\

    I think, though, that this is starting to change. A slow change, of course, and way overdue, but you see more diversity now than you did 20 years ago. Which isn't to say there isn't a LONG, LONG way to go.

    Even though I'm a big fantasy reader, I'm actually a bit sheltered when it comes to books like the one you mentioned. For example, the thing Amanda mentions seeing all the time in fantasy is something I've encountered in very few books. The only one I can think of is A Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. Which isn't to say it doesn't happen, of course. Maybe it's just that epic fantasy is my least favourite sub-genre? One thing some of my favourite fantasy authors have in common (Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys, Terry Pratchett in Thud, Nation and others, Nalo Hopkinson, Martin Millar, etc.) is that they include diversity without exoticizing people of colour. None of this is to say that what you're talking about here isn't a BIG problem - but I have hope for fantasy as a genre still. And now I'll shut up, because I'm mostly blabbing at this point...

    Also, what Cara said! If you wrote a series I'd totally read it :P

  9. This beautifully written and very thought provoking... thank you. I would like to post something and link to your post but I'm going away from the computer for a few days so I'll see how it goes when I get back!

  10. Excellent, dignified, and thought-provoking post, especially for me. I hope you'll still read the third book, and that you'll be (somewhat) less offended and disappointed by the end of the series.

  11. Thank you for such an interesting, and passionate, post. I am surprised and saddened by how you describe your childhood experience. I grew up in London in a highly multicultural environment, reading books about girls called Parvati just as much as I did about girls called Jane, sitting next to asian or black kids just as much as I did white kids. I had an asian and a black barbie, I watched TV shows with kids from all nationalities in them, I had friends of all skin colours. I think the UK tries very hard to be representative, perhaps more so than the US? I don't know...but I do think, from reading Eva's post yesterday, racism in Britain is a different ballgame to racism in the US.

    You raise a fascinating point about how eurocentric many genres are, and how most books by 'people of colour' (not a phrase used in the UK) are about immigration experiences, etc. I would love to read more novels about 19th century life in other countries - but it's a struggle to find anything that isn't about Europe or America. This has really made me think about why that is, and whether publishers really don't think there's a market, or whether people from those cultures don't think there's a market so they don't write them in the first place.

  12. Great post Aarti. I had seen that cover around but I never knew that they changed the colour of the person on the cover. That is just wrong. Who on earth is that girl on the cover then?! Makes not sense at all.

    But yes, I do write fantasy and yes it is "European", then again I must write what I know about, celts, and northmen. I do have a mix of a Chinese/Egyptian empire too, or some Mayan there too. I go go crazy sometimes with mixing people together. But as for making one race bad, nope, it is the pure "European" white people that are the bad guys when I write.

    I do love reading fantasy that isn't all European, have come across some Chinese/Japanese, American Indian, and this way cool sci-fi that have the Hindu gods as..can't remember but it was cool. Something about them fighting, spaceships and stuff

  13. I am so glad that the whitewashing of a fantasy novel has opened up this conversation about racism in fantasy lit. I'm actually not a fantasy fan, but it very well could be because I'm tired of the Eurocentric model most fantasy is set in.

    And there is one very clear reason why fantasy can be racist: it is written by people living in a racist culture. Fantasy does not spring fully formed out of the ether - flawed people are writing down these stories which have unfortunate implications at best, and are downright racist at worst.

  14. Beautiful post! And I understand very much. I grew up the same way. Not in America though. I grew up Indian in Dubai. In spite of the predominant Asian population out there, most people still went towards books with "white privilege" elements. It still bothers me. And even now, I am very sensitive to "character defamation" in books - that is, ridiculing people of a particular country or color. It might just be a passing note, but enough to take notice.

  15. Thank you for posting this. I don't read much epic fantasy - almost none actually - and this is one of the reasons why.

    I am white, and I grew up in a racially diverse town, in a racially diverse family that values knowledge and acceptance of differences. I'm very aware of the many casual privileges I get from being white. It drives me insane to hear other white people saying that they don't have special privileges - they usually preface this by saying "I'm not racist but" - and that people of color do not face everyday discrimination. It's so willfully blind; just a way of protecting themselves from feeling guilty for having these privileges.

    I read this article - yesterday, coincidentally - all about perceptual segregation, the situations in which people of color will notice racism, where white people won't. Well worth a look:


  16. Amy & Pam & Marieke - Thank you. I'm glad I got my point across in a way that makes sense even to people who don't read the genre.

    April- I heard about that study in history, too, but it was done AGAIN recently and that is what the video is about. That black children still choose white dolls.

    Kimberley- Yes, I agree that the world has so much rich history and mythology that I think if we step away from the "traditional" box, we could do a lot with the genre.

    Amanda- That IS horrible. I think I read something about Libba Bray's book portraying Indians in Bombay selling snakes to eat, too. Not to mention Indiana Jones... And remember the whole Aladdin thing when they had to change the lyrics to Arabian Nights?

    Kals- If you have books to recommend, let me know!

    Cara- I don't think I can really WRITE epic fantasy. I just like to read it :-) And that's the thing. European-based cultures can just pick up a book off the shelf and be totally immersed in a world they recognize, regardless of genre, really. I don't have that luxury. If I want it, I'd have to write it. Which I'd love to do except I need to, er, come up with a story.

    Nymeth- You're right. It is starting to change, and that's excellent. I completely agree about Pratchett & Gaiman and I'll clearly have to look into LeGuin as you have told me before!

    Joe- Thank you so much for reading this post! I certainly plan to finish the series. As I said at the start, I think it is excellent. And I am glad you didn't (at least in writing!) take offense that I held your book up as an example. I will be sure to let you know what I think at the end.

    Rachel- I can't speak for the UK, really. But I don't think the issue is really people growing up and playing with different Barbie dolls. It's whether they prefer the white doll to the "ethnic" one. And I don't mean to imply that America is horrible about race. It's not. I grew up in a very open environment and was lucky to have a lot of other Indian kids with me to share experiences with.
    As for the immigrant experience- I think it's because the host cultures are so fascinated by them :-) I can't tell you HOW many people have told me that they can't wait to attend a "super-huge, really colorful, loud Indian wedding."

    Blodeuedd- That book you describe sounds great! Is it Lords of Light? Or River of Gods? I have those two on my shelf. And I think your story sounds excellent :-)

    Angela- Thank you for your comments! I don't know if I'd go so far as to say writers are being racist- just that the genre hasn't come as far as it could and is stuck in a past that doesn't reflect the world we now live in.

    Aths- I am very sensitive to that, too! I think a lot of people in that area of the world- India and the Middle East- have the white privilege thing down due to all the colonialism.

    Jenny- I am off to read that article now! Thanks for sharing it.

  17. Aarti - I didn't think you implied the US was horrible about race - don't worry. I just think the UK in general is a lot more concerned about being politically correct than other countries and that is the difference between our cultures, which I was trying, and clearly failed, to articulate.

    And you're right, I must have missed what you meant about not having access to, but about prefering the dolls. That is awful that girls are growing up not wanting to play with dolls that look like them.

    Yes, host cultures ARE fascinated by the immigrant experience, culture clash, etc...but I think there's room for a more broader range of plots!!! What about Indians who STAYED in India? I'd like to know about that too!

  18. Aarti,
    That you understood anything of my weird explanation :) But yes it was Lords of Light! I really enjoyed that one, it was my 2nd book after Dune I read in the sci-fi genre.

    Thank you, well who knows, if I I for some reason actually makes an effort to show my story to the world then you will get to read it before it comes out ;)

  19. Rachel- Based on your comments on Eva's blog, it *does* seem like you think the UK is better about race than a lot of other countries. I would strongly disagree with that, as I said on Eva's blog. I read your comments on white privilege and positive discrimination there with interest. I don't know how I feel about positive discrimination (or affirmative action as we call it), really. I don't think it's very fair to choose one person based on race, but then I don't think it's fair that certain races have so many points against them, either.

    There are myriad books about Indians in India :-) Mostly written in English, too! Just find them!

    Blodeuedd- Well, THAT book just moved up on my list of TBRs! I have it... somewhere. And I look forward to my ARC of your book!

  20. I was totally going to mention Lord of the Light in my comment this morning! But then I lost my train of thought, which happens a lot :P It's been a while since I read it, but I remember I LOVED all the Hindu mythology, and also that it sent me on a mythology reading spree.

  21. Aarti -- this is an amazing post -- one of the most thought provoking articles I've read in a long time. I am not very familiar with the fantasy genre, but it seems that so much of it is derivative of Tolkien. Tolkien drew richly on the cultural and literary roots he knew so well, being a professor of English Language and Literature. That's all well and good. However, there are so many other cultural venues that could and should be explored.

    That Abercrombie premise you described makes me cringe. The thing is (and never having heard of this author, I am just guessing) I doubt he did this consciously. The true power of bigotry (against darker skinned races, or against Islam, or whatever ... the list could go on and on) is that it is often embedded in our unconscious -- so we pass it on, through our actions, our use of language, and the stories we tell.

    This brings me to the fact that, throughout human history, stories and folktales and been used to hand down cultural knowledge and beliefs, from one generation to another. (Modern fantasy literature, among other things, is kind of a modern version of that). How powerful those stories are!

    Many years ago, I was leafing through my Grimm's Fairy Tales and I ran across a story about a hideous little Jew. it was the kind of story that, for whatever reason, gave you kind of a primal chill. Creepy, conniving little man in the woods. WOW! The existence of that story -- part of Europe's literary and cultural history -- spoke *volumes* to me about the history of antisemitism in Europe. Very, very chilling.

    Nowadays, I suspect few people even know about that story -- it's not exactly the kind of thing they revive as a Disney movie or picture book. But think of the message it passed down, generation after generation.

    I am sorry I am written such a long comment. I have other thoughts rattling around in my head, but it's time for me to shut up. :-)

  22. Nymeth & Blodeuedd- Ok, now I DEFINITELY will read Lords of the Light ASAP. I will aim for next week, perhaps, after Blankets and The Help!

    Stephanie- Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree that a lot of fantasy is derivative of what came before, and probably back to Tolkein or Medieval poems and beliefs about chivalry. I think it's fascinating to read the older stories that have the prejudices still in them. I read a translation of the Mahabharata, and granted that is a really long and involved story, but the translator mentioned he took out all the insults between one king to another, insults on race, etc., and I just felt sad about that because it makes the people in the story seem more god-like than human, which is always dangerous.

  23. "Many people say that fantasy cannot be racist because it takes place in other worlds. I say, based on the above (and on many other fantasy novels I cannot cite at the moment), that it is an inherently racist genre. Not only because it seems fairly clear here that the darker-skinned race who follows a power-hungry prophet is the enemy, but for many other reasons as well."

    There are huge number of fantasy works in Japanese Literature-it is called the Ancient Samurai genre-The most popular is the Guin Saga by Kaoru Kurimoto with over 100 titles in the series-The books are not high literature by any means-the characters are nonhuman in many ways but I see no suggestion in these works that light skin is better-

  24. That's great, Mel! I've never heard of those. Great that they don't say light-skinned is better, but maybe that's the case because they are written by and for Eastern audiences particularly? Not sure as I know nothing about them.

  25. What an amazing post! You gave me plenty of things to think about. I certainly hadn't ever really thought about the ethnicity or color of characters in fantasy.

  26. Oh, and I've been meaning to tell you how absolutely stunning your header image is. I love it!

  27. Wonderful post Aarti! Good for you for discussing this. I think part of the problem with being white is that many of the privileges you get from that are 'invisible.' Until college, it never occurred to me to be grateful that there were tons of book characters and movie stars and TV shows full of people who looked like me. Because that's the norm, you know? And even now that I'm aware of it, I simply can't imagine not living in a culture that is full of people who look like me...it's so beyond my realm of experience, I can only even begin to understand when people actually talk about their experiences (like yours). I think one of the biggest privileges that being white in a white-washed culture brings is that white people don't have to pay attention to race. We can say that we're 'above all that' because we're never reminded on a daily basis that the colour of our skin is different from the 'norm.'

    So hopefully, with all of these posts going up, it'll get through to more people.

  28. Fantastic post.
    Racism is a topic that is very much in the media here in Australia at the moment.
    As you probably know there have been a number of very well publicised attacks on Indian students here recently. Some of them have been simply a result of criminal activity, but some have very definitely had a racist component.
    Don't get me wrong Oz is a quite inclusive and multicultural society, but this sort of issue has been much more prevalent over recent years. I think that the cause is unfortunately largely the fault of our previous government.
    Our politicians have seen an electoral advantage in the politics of fear post 9-11 in the US. A unintended (I hope) by-product of this has been increased marginalisation of recent non-European and non East Asian migrants.
    The only thing that gives me hope for the future is how well we have ultimately accepted other migrant groups in the past. In the 50's and 60's Italians and Greeks were often treated abysmally. Later in the 70s and 80s it was Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants who were often marginalised. Yet today most would not hesitate to include the migrants and their descendants of all these groups as "Aussies".
    Prejudice can ease and even vanish given the right conditions and goodwill from most.

  29. Alyce- I'm glad the post gave you some food for thought. And thank you for the compliment on the blog header! If I get into grad school, I promised myself that my gift to myself will be buying a print of that painting!

    Eva- You know, I don't really think about it as much in day-to-day life. I think at some point, people just assimilate and feel pleasantly surprised when they see someone representing them somewhere (for example, I like the Big Bang Theory tv show, but I LOVE that there is an Indian guy on it). I know that we've talked a lot about this at your blog, too, and over email, so I promise you that if you ever tell me you are "above" the race discussion, I will send you a virtual kick in the rear :-)

    Al- Yes, I've heard a lot about the attacks on Indian students in Australia. I think Australia has a very complicated racial history as well, what with the Aborigines and the White Australia policy. It is disturbing when governments use laws to create that sort of rift between people and don't notice the consequences, especially now when those actions are fairly transparent. I think that prejudice can ease (though I don't know about vanishing), too. And I think discussion always helps that along!

  30. Such a great post, and really interesting comments in the discussion. The topic of racism in fantasy is one that I've thought about peripherally for years; it has always bugged me that so often the antagonists' side has a different skin colour than the protagonists'.

    Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword is really interesting when looked at from a perspective of race and colonialism; if inspected closely, the inspiration for that world seems to be India during the early British colonial era. I'd also really like to see what you have to say about Allison Croggon's books, which include many different races as both protags and antags, and they're epic fantasy.

    I really enjoy reading fantasy based in other cultures; one of the reasons I like manga so much is that it often draws on traditions I'm not familiar with. I'd love to read more.

    That said I'm not sure how comfortable I'd feel writing something like that myself, as a white Canadian from a very WASP-y background -- things that smack of cultural appropriation make me squirm a little bit too. When entering a fantasy world, readers naturally look for the parallels to the real world. Thus I can say McKinley's Damar is like India, and Croggon's Innail is European, maybe German. I'm not saying that a white fantasy author shouldn't use inspirations from cultures other than their own; I think what I'm trying to say is that the author must have a deep understanding of and respect for the culture they're taking their inspiration from. So perhaps part of the problem is a slew of white fantasy authors who are uncomfortable with using inspiration from cultures that aren't their own.

    I think I may have veered a little off-topic; there's no suggesting that a European-based epic couldn't have all protagonists with dark skin, either. Skin colour does not a culture make.

    Okay, self, stop. This comment is long enough.

    Thanks for offering me the opportunity to think out loud, Aarti!

  31. Thanks so much for those recommendations, Kiirstin! I'll keep those in mind for sure!

    As for your comment on not feeling comfortable- how much do people in 2000 REALLY know about living in Medieval Europe? Maybe a bit, but I assume they do some research. And it's fantasy- you can make things up as you go along, anyway :-) And I agree with you- even if it IS European-based, is it so necessary to make it so obvious that the "enemy" of choice is dark-skinned, and follows a different religion? I think it's just as easy to be the same skin color and follow a different religion. Maybe there's a huge difference between blue-eyed and green-eyed people. Who knows- *I* don't write the stories, I just read them ;-)

  32. What a really great post. I think is the most informative I have read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and those of other writers. Very thought-provoking. I so agree with the suffering is not a contest mentality
    I hope someone starts writing the fantasy novels that need to be written.

  33. Aarti, you wrote a beautiful post! Thank you so much for writing about what it's like to read a genre that doesn't include people of color. I think with the Bloomsbury controversy and more people writing about their experiences, the blogisphere is starting to have a great dialogue about race, reading, and representation.

    I don't read much fantasy or science fiction but I am going to check out all the wonderful authors that hav ebeen recommended in your post and in the comments.

  34. This is a fantastic post with a lot of food for thought.

    (I'd just like to note that Deepa D. is a woman.)

  35. OH, I didn't realize the name was "Deepa D." I think the name was Deepad. I had never heard of that name before, but... how embarrassing! Will change that!

  36. Oh wow, you hit my feelings about fantasy and the whole love it but hate it feeling all in this one, beautifully eloquent post. *bookmarks*

  37. bookmagic- Thank you! I am touched :-)

    Vasilly- I think your post is wonderful, too. I'm glad we're all making a statement.

    Ah Yuan- Thank you! I am going to check out your blog, too!

  38. What a great post. I don't read epic fantasy, but you've given me a lot to think about.

    I'm white living in a predominantly minority neighborhood, and it hasn't been an easy experience being called "whitey" and other kinds of mean names. I would never think of calling my neighbors names based on their skin color -- I don't even care about their skin color. Heck, if I did, I wouldn't have moved there, right? And I know my experiences pale in comparison to the experiences of people of color, it just makes it so obvious that race continues to be an issue. I don't know how people can act like it's not an issue.

    Thanks for this food for thought.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  39. Fantastic post, thanks for sharing so much of yourself with us. I agree with Nymeth that it's crazy to say fantasy can't be racist because 'it's not real', all fantasy operates as a commentary on our world because it's the only world we and authors operate in, making it impossible to get away from even in fantastical tales.

    I think I'm starting to see more Asian fantasy slowly turning up, but Indian fantasy published in English is unheard of to me. I did read something recently about how many Indian writers are now choosing to write in Indian languages (and we all know how little translated fiction makes it into the UK and US market) so perhaps there are great Indian fantasy stories being created by Indian writers that we all don't have access to yet. I hope they are out there.

  40. Aarti, I read this post a few days ago, and am back now to comment on it. I actually read it out loud to my husband and kids, who are huge fantasy readers, and it sparked a huge dinnertime debate over the fact that minorities are so marginalized and prejudiced in most fantasy novels. Even my husband had to agree that his favorite books suffer from these problems and that he desired to see something different. As a family, we basically agree with everything you said, although you said it with much more eloquence than I ever could. I am right there with you, hoping that things begin to change and that people from other nationalities are regarded with more respect and dignity in fantasy in the future. Your post was just beautiful!

  41. Anna- that is mean of people to call you. I think whites get a lot of reverse discrimination but can't really say anything about it because of all the history, which is unfair.

    Jodie- I am starting to see more Asian fantasy, too! I hope that continues and spreads across the rest of the world's mythology, too!

    Zibilee- Wow, that is fantastic! I can't believe you and your family did that :-) I want so badly to meet your family- I feel like I know them.

  42. I don't really read epic-fantasy novels too much. However when you did mention the Gurkish in the book by Abercrombie I also believed he meant muslims which irritated me.

  43. I want to stand up and applaud you. Such a wonderful post. I haven't much more to add, but I love that you wrote this.

  44. Oh thanks for this post! I don't read much fantasy but I love what you've taught me here.

    "I want them to dream in color."

    Of course!

  45. Wonderful post Aarti! I've stayed quite on the subject but will chime in now. I am white and I know that white privilege does exist! Just one example is the dark maid who worked in our household. My mom was quite nice to her to her face but use to make jokes about her to her white friend that she played cards with weekly. No, we didn't live in the south but white privilege was and still is alive in the north as well. It's funny because my mom talked to me about racism and told me that white and black people, just the same. However, she didn't walk the talk. In fact, she hated it when I made friend with black kids. I love my mom but I really resent her for those things.

    As for a white girl on the cover of a book about a darked skin girl. WTF (excuse my language) but the people who decided to do that aught to be ashasmed! Shame, Shame!

  46. Yazzy- Yes, I think it was fairly clear he meant Muslims. I was annoyed, too. Enough to write this post, I guess!

    Memory- Thank you :-) That means a lot as I so love your blog.

    Rebecca- Ditto to you, my message to Memory.

    Teddy Rose- Yes, I think it's so easy to say things, but it's harder to follow through. Maybe your mom was trying really hard but just didn't make it the WHOLE way over racism. When you consider how deeply ingrained it was (and is), it's hard to expect people to change so quickly. At least now you are able to see your mom's weaknesses and try to make up for them.

    And WTF is right!

  47. Anonymous10/12/2011

    Hi, thanks for the article. I'm a little annoyed by people suggesting that fantasy has to be based in some culture that exists or existed. What happened to imagination? I agree that there has been a "Colonial Rape" and serious retardation of imagination in fantasy and science fiction, everyone seems to be copying everyone else after Tolkien. You can just look for images of barbarians and this or that and you'll find the same images across different video games and book covers. It is like nobody has any imagination. It annoyed me so much to hear people saying write something about Indian culture. Yeah, sure, if you want to, but why not actually invent something? Why base a story on Hanuman when thats been done before, yet people arent familiar with it so much these days. Why does something have to look like a culture that exists or existed. Why is it called fantasy if there is nothing new and fantastic in it? Why is it always brave forces of "light" against "evil" forced of "darkness"? Can't anyone make something unique? The neo-romantic mind-rape goes beyond racism, into an annoying philosophy that has also been "done to death".

    No offense, but Cara Powers comment bothered me, and Ursula Le Guins quote where she said "black kids" seemed a little rough actually.

    Cara said "Think about Hanuman, about Ganesh. Then don't make them look like animals. Shit, maybe I'll have to do it one of these days. But I have my eurocentric first book planned. Write some epic fantasy based in Hinduism. It'll sell. We westerners love us some yoga. We'll love anything that smacks of old India. Write it."

    I don't know, I thought that was a little rough too. Hanuman and Ganesh are not considered animal joke characters by many Hindus, I thought it was a little disrespectful.

    I've come to term with the sad reality that many people are just deeply racist and are unwilling to adjust to any other understanding. I think they can change, but they are comfortable in their weird little racist world, and might even make little racist fantasy worlds of entire races of blonde people just to get off.

    I also call those people insane, and its possible a whole ton of people are insane and getting away with it, thats fine, I'd reccomend moving beyond this "Hero's Journey" garbage and try something so unique that it can't actually be said that you borrowed from any culture. No matter what you do, you'll always be an inferior "darky" to some. Your life shouldn't be about earning their respect or approval, because it might not be possible nor is it worth anything.

    Anything "ethnic" will be viewed as an "ethnic story" and "oh of course it is ethnic, it was made by an ethnic person".

    My reccomendation is to seriously think about all the tropes and repeated themes and racism and junk that is flooding the market, and making something that makes sure not to fall into any of those traps, including anti heroes, heroes, good vs evil, race vs race, conflict between two forces, or any of the oft repeated storylines done by every fantasy book.

    What is the point of creating something done a zillion times and making all the same characters wear different clothes?

    Freeing oneself from the Colonial Mind does not come only from finding some pride in ancient heritage, but realizing the lies behind Eurocentric fantasy, and not just making an "ethnocentric" fantasy as it would surely be viewed by the racists, but making something so mind blowingly different that people from anywhere can appreciate it in their revolt against the dead horse of eurocentric literature and the philosophies behind most fantasy stories.

    1. You're right. Cara's comment was pretty rough.

  48. Anonymous8/23/2013

    I...I just on one hand feel really deeply about this problem and still I feel powerless to do anything about it in a way.
    I live in a city with a highly popular international university and in a part of that city where a lot of these students live. It's still a predominantely white society but it's not as bad as it could be I guess.
    Point is though where I'm from racist is so easily a word used for bullying. Or lightly thrown around sort of like nazi even though it's a highly powerful term.
    I feel like I'm racist just talking about it but in the end it feels like it's true. It's not about who feels worse about it I just feel like I can't hold it in anymore because normally I am not allowed to discuss racism since I'm white and therefore not affected by it.
    I am not allowed to say, in public how much I love my country because of how easily I can be called racist for it, even as a joke it hurts.
    It has meant that I have been repeatedly told to walk on eggshells around people of a different skin colour for a fear that I'll unbeknowst be perceived as racist, called out and that it'll stick with me for a long time "there goes that racist" and I've taken to it because I know how uncomfortable I get when some of my older relatives go on a tirade about 'those blacks' or similar things.
    And that a slang word for my countrymen has become almost synonymous with racist isn't helping.
    In the end the racism is still bad and my fear isn't helping but in the end what'll I do?
    Even asking poses the danger of being called the worst word I could possibly imagine being called. Whith all other forms of social behaviour it's just a matter of trial end error but doing something that's perceived as racism feels like it sticks, you can't better yourself from it, you were just raised that way and it doesn't matter you're a lost cause anyways.
    This fear is a bit irrational. This is just something that's developed over recent years as I've read more and more of these kinds of texts over the internet. I've cried over a lot of them too out of sheer unjustified guilt.
    I feel like I should be ashamed of my colour, and my country and its history and I often wish I wasn't white. If not for anything else at least so I could join this debate without the sneers I imagine I'd get.
    Even one of my relatives when I talked about a text that upset me said: "What ethnicity is the author? Cuz if they're white then it's probably just some overreactive bullshit that's not even supported by real ethnics." and that sort of mirrors how I feel about my own struggle to counter any racism, and a reason why I feel like I can't.

    Sorry about the wall of text.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. It takes a lot of courage to say something like that. I think if you are aware enough to be struggling with your own biases and those of the people around you, then you are on a good path. And as you continue to grow as a person, I think you'll find that you will seek out experiences that make you more well-rounded. Obviously, we can't all get rid of all of our biases, but we can work really hard to be aware of them and fight against them when we have the opportunity.

  49. Anonymous9/10/2013

    When it comes to writing fantasy I have to say that the minorities have to take up the mantle and write more fantasy. I’m a white girl trying to write a story. I’m going to use european mythology, because I’ve familiar with it, it inspires me, and I’m concerned someone will accuse me of misrepresenting their culture. I am not deliberately going to say all my characters are black, because I don’t want people saying I’m trying to whitewash blacks and I have a mental image of most of my characters. My concession is I’m not going to tell the skin color of my characters. Readers can decide for themselves.
    Minorities should have more representation in fantasy. They should step up and write fantasies inspired by various heritages. I am not going to offend someone by trying to do it for them.

    1. No offense, but I think you are entirely missing the point. You act as though it's so easy for minorities to write stories and then get those stories published and then get the support from publishers to market the stories so that they succeed and more can be written. That's a lot of hurdles to jump over. It's not like they are not "stepping up" to write.

      When you don't mention the skin color of your characters, people will assume they are white.

  50. Incredibly insightful and depressingly necessary.

  51. Anonymous7/15/2022

    Its 2022 now and I Googled: Is Joe Abercrombie racist? This post came up first. Now, in the future, Last Argument of Kings has been published. I hope when you update your excellent criticism, you would frankly say, yes, he's a racist. Angland is England and Gurkish is Turkish. So many deliberate references to skin color, the pinks and the browns. "The brown men watched them, staring and trembling, their mouths and eyes wide open." Reminiscent of early Tin Tin Africans, the marginal flat depiction of non characters. I regret spending money on this garbage and giving him the benefit of the doubt until the middle of the third book.


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