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.