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Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?

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Thank you so much rbt. Thank you soooo much. There is no need for you to beat on yourself, you brought an intelligent and worthwhile topic to the light, that takes courage and I'm certain not many people here would have done what you have done. (I certainly wouldn't)

I must admit I took you for a hothead and I am terribly sorry if my comments were a bit snide, I can't apologize enough. Forgive me ole buddy, ole pal.

Now that this is settled, wanna go grab a beer?  :drink
#61 - February 02, 2009, 05:06 PM
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Now that this is settled, wanna go grab a beer?  :drink

LOL No thanks, I dont drink. But I'll settle for a good old friendship. A cool hundred thousand when your book sells a million copies wont hurt either. :yippee 

Just kidding about the cash. I do hope you sell a million though. Same to all here

 
#62 - February 02, 2009, 05:29 PM

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rbt -- great topic!

I got to see a presentation by author Mitali Perkins at a YALSA conference this past fall and she said some really eye-opening things about the races of characters in YA novels/movies/etc.  She showed the first mark-up of one of Ursula Le Guin's EARTHSEA covers -- and the character was white!  I think ULG pointed out to the publisher that the model on the cover was not what her MC looked like at all -- so they changed it to a darker skinned person. Not sure how much she had to fight for it, but still, weird that the cover of the white model even made it that far!

She also had some great insights on how teens just need real stories about people who look like they do -- without the book being ABOUT how they look.

As for the race of characters in fantasy, I don't read enough fantasy to make any good comments on it, but the make-up of teens in my library is so varied, including the teens who work as pages there.  I would LOVE to be able to show the teens with parents from Pakistan that there was a novel where that was the MC's makeup, but not what the book was about.  
#63 - February 02, 2009, 05:42 PM
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I've been watching this thread with great interest, but haven't felt like I really had anything intelligible to contribute.  But it's been such an interesting thread that I thought I'd post a couple of the things that have been flying around my mind anyway, even though I'm still somewhat unsure of most of it, just to see where you lovely people take it.

First, I've been pondering how so much fantasy and urban fantasy deals with the idea of being 'other' and the idea of prejudice and racism... but with race-as-in-species substituted for race-as-in-ethnic-group.  I haven't really come to any conclusions or *gone* anywhere with this line of thinking, but it did seem somewhat ironic that a genre that deals with this theme SO prominently (I mean, who among us COULDN'T list off a dozen books/comics/movies that dealt with the idea of discrimination based on supernatural category?) might actually be subbing in imaginative diversity for the real-world equivalent.  In other words, I guess I got to wondering whether fantasy authors might sometimes be less conscious of their worlds being white-washed (compared to contemporary writers), because part of them is saying "well, I've got vampires, werewolves, faeries, hybrids, elves, dwarves..."  Anyway, like I said before, this thought isn't particularly well-formed yet, but it's something I've been tossing around in my head, so I thought I'd toss it out there to see if anyone else had thoughts about this.

And the second thought I had was that it seems like high fantasy in particular could maybe be an incredible opportunity for an author to write characters outside of their race, because I know that one thing a lot of writers struggle with is the fear of writing outside of their experience and somehow getting it WRONG- and maybe (?) the fact that high fantasy can literally be set in a different world could possibly enable someone who might be afraid of writing something that feels inauthentic in a contemporary setting to broaden their horizons?  If that makes any sense at all (still not entirely sure that it does, but I've been trying to make sense of this thought all day and thought I'd share).

Thanks again for all of the great discussion.  I've been really interested to hear what people have had to say, and I definitely agree that this is a hugely important thing to talk about.
#64 - February 02, 2009, 09:48 PM
« Last Edit: February 02, 2009, 09:51 PM by Jen »

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I've been watching this thread with great interest, but haven't felt like I really had anything intelligible to contribute.  But it's been such an interesting thread that I thought I'd post a couple of the things that have been flying around my mind anyway, even though I'm still somewhat unsure of most of it, just to see where you lovely people take it.

First, I've been pondering how so much fantasy and urban fantasy deals with the idea of being 'other' and the idea of prejudice and racism... but with race-as-in-species substituted for race-as-in-ethnic-group.  I haven't really come to any conclusions or *gone* anywhere with this line of thinking, but it did seem somewhat ironic that a genre that deals with this theme SO prominently (I mean, who among us COULDN'T list off a dozen books/comics/movies that dealt with the idea of discrimination based on supernatural category?) might actually be subbing in imaginative diversity for the real-world equivalent.  In other words, I guess I got to wondering whether fantasy authors might sometimes be less conscious of their worlds being white-washed (compared to contemporary writers), because part of them is saying "well, I've got vampires, werewolves, faeries, hybrids, elves, dwarves..."  Anyway, like I said before, this thought isn't particularly well-formed yet, but it's something I've been tossing around in my head, so I thought I'd toss it out there to see if anyone else had thoughts about this.

And the second thought I had was that it seems like high fantasy in particular could maybe be an incredible opportunity for an author to write characters outside of their race, because I know that one thing a lot of writers struggle with is the fear of writing outside of their experience and somehow getting it WRONG- and maybe (?) the fact that high fantasy can literally be set in a different world could possibly enable someone who might be afraid of writing something that feels inauthentic in a contemporary setting to broaden their horizons?  If that makes any sense at all (still not entirely sure that it does, but I've been trying to make sense of this thought all day and thought I'd share).


Thanks again for all of the great discussion.  I've been really interested to hear what people have had to say, and I definitely agree that this is a hugely important thing to talk about.
This is interesting to me...

I've always wondered if we as a county would do better if we were made to understand the cultures that live here.  What I mean is that as a child, I took classes in US History, but none of those classes portrayed what truly is our History.  There was very little about Native Americans(except that about how the West was won) and nothing at all to humanize slaves and their descendants.  It was all relayed in such a political and geographical sense that you never got a clear picture of what actually happened and thus, didn't get a clear picture of why our cultures exist as they do today.  I truly believe we should add these classes (AA history, NA history) to our curriculums.  That way we can foster an understanding towards all cultures/races.  Everyday we are taught in different ways to assimilate.  Observe and assimilate.  It's never the other way around.  The majority is never told to observe the minority race--which is why I guess there is the fear of writing inauthentically.  African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring.  Off topic I know...but just throwing it out as  bait.
#65 - February 03, 2009, 05:04 AM

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I realize that this is maybe not the best example because it isn't published yet and people can't go out and read it, but what inspired007 is trying to do is, to me, something I'd like to see much, much more of, and I'd like to see it marketed with the regular MG books and not off in a special interest corner. She's got a great MG fantasy with African roots and black characters that, to me as a white reader, is perfectly accessible and interesting (American MC, drawing on African roots for the fantasy element). I would guess that it would hold "exotic appeal" for both black and white readers for different, if overlapping, reasons--white readers because it's new and different, black readers because of a sense of ownership over the magic origins (much like a Russian-American reader might identify with a Slavic-based fantasy on a personal level). I think that kids' books is perhaps the place to start this. Kids aren't born with racial issues--they learn those things. (Actually, my 7-year-old, who can see a full range of color as far as I know, asked me a couple weeks ago what color she was--she might understand hue, but she didn't know where she fit on the race issue. Up until this point I don't think she had any sense of racial identity at all.)

Part of the problem is maybe in marketing. I remember a discussion a while back in a different thread with similar yearnings for multiracial books on a variety of subjects, not just certain genres. And one writer here was frustrated because she'd written general contemporary YA--Just Plain Books--and despite her and her publisher's attempts, her books got shelved in AA in the bookstore. Not only did white readers miss out, but black teens overlooked them, too, since it wasn't with YA.

Thanks darlin'! :love
#66 - February 03, 2009, 05:28 AM

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Jen, I've thought about that a lot.  I think fantasy and high fantasy DO lend themselves to honest exploration of power dynamics -- which is really the crux of discrimination based on race/class/gender/sexuality, etc.  When I was growing up, I knew tons of people of Color who were obsessed, I mean seriously obsessed with Star Trek.  The show was such a reflection of our world, without it being overtly stated.

I think it might be easier for a writer to authentically write about power and control dynamics when they write them from a place of personal experience.  For instance, with fantasy, a writer can write about a majority of vampires who oppress and constantly demean and humiliate an elf minority (just an example -- not based on any written work at all).  If the writer is a woman, she may bring into the scenes some of her own experiences of discrimination to give them authenticity.  Yet, someone on the outside, say a person of Color, could relate to the writing because they share similar experiences, but on the level of race.  Likewise, a gay man or lesbian could write a scene about being ostracized or brutalized for not fitting into defined roles, but make the characters faeries and werewolves, and SO many people who've had similar experiences, but on the level of race or class, would relate.

Since power, control, and access are the things "otherness" really boils down to, not putting a scene within the framework of the social structure we live in may free up a writer's mind to bring their own experience into the work.  But without worrying about things not being "authentic enough."  And maybe because of that, scenes come out truer and, um, more authentic ;D.

An aside: I do, however, also see the value in portraying contemporary social structures in realistic fiction and challenging them or re-creating them so that the reality is more equitable and just.

These are quick thoughts off the top of my head, so please forgive any incoherence :P.
#67 - February 03, 2009, 07:07 AM

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African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring. 

When I was in college I used to catch the bus near the building housing the African American student organization. There were always events going on, and there were also classes like you're describing that I think met there. I really, really wanted to take one of those classes because I felt like it was a huge hole in my education, but it seemed to me at the time that the classes were all bound up in the organization/major/whatever. I didn't know if, as a non-major and as someone who didn't really qualify for the student organization, if I would be allowed to take the classes. (I'd run into that with other classes that were major-bound.) I found a similar situation when I lived in Charleston, SC, which is commonly considered the Ellis Island of black America. (75% of all slaves came through that port.) And yet, despite the local culture being DRENCHED in African influence, the buildings nearly all built by African Americans, the land shaped by those hands...you still had to go on a special AA tour if you wanted to know about it. (It wasn't all swept under the carpet--there's an awesome black arts festival, the Moja festival, that's very well attended by both groups--but I just wanted more, you know?) So yes, I agree that it should be more integrated within the regular history classes.

I agree with Jen that it can be very daunting to try to write characters outside of one's own ethnic group. So far my characters have been from all different backgrounds, because I write about the kind of environment I live in, which includes Americans, Germans, Arabs, Ghanaians, Tongans, Latinos, etc. At the same time, one of my greatest fears is to be slammed for writing inaccurately, to write a character in a way that offends someone because they are from X group (even though the same words or actions would maybe not offend if that character were white--because they would be seen as individual characteristics rather than a statement on ethnicity). I think that kind of fear sometimes limits writers into keeping within familiar zones, which can have the effect of making books all white, or all Asian, or all black, or whatever. So I agree that fantasy is a fantastic way to get out of that box. It's a great place to exchange ideas without the sometimes-limiting ties of race, religion, politics, or whatever other potential hot button you have. What Jen and Neesha said, basically. :)

(And as a complete aside, to answer a question several posts back--to do multiple quotes, open your reply screen. Then look down at the previous replies, and you'll see something that says "insert quote" at the beginning of each one. You can pick as many as you want to stick into the same reply. To trim off excess parts of the quote and use only the part you want, delete the text you don't want to quote that lies between the [ quote author = whatever] and [/ quote] thingies. Clear as mud?)
#68 - February 03, 2009, 07:21 AM

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I truly believe we should add these classes (AA history, NA history) to our curriculums.  That way we can foster an understanding towards all cultures/races.  Everyday we are taught in different ways to assimilate.  Observe and assimilate.  It's never the other way around.  The majority is never told to observe the minority race--which is why I guess there is the fear of writing inauthentically.  African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring.  Off topic I know...but just throwing it out as  bait.

I go to university in Virginia (I'm a History and English major), and so far, there hasn't been one class I've taken on American history that hasn't devoted a considerable amount of time to slavery or African American culture.  Granted, my school may be an exception, but it's something I've appreciated greatly.  This semester alone there were at least 3 classes offered on the subject,  or on the general idea of race (not to mention those that crossed over with the Black Studies department).  Whether or not it gets attention in an introduction to US History class depends almsot entirely on the professor (the generally *have* to teach the class, rather than *choose* to teach the large intro class--it's done on a rotating basis) and what they consider their speciality.  LIke I said, my school could be an exception, but there is a General Education Requirement for the entire school that asks you to take a history course outside of the European tradition, and most choose to fill it with a course on Africa or Latin America.  Obviously the system isn't perfect, but higher ed is also improving with time.

I like Jen's idea about the "other."  I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think she's right.  I've stopped myself in the past from writing characters from a different culture, mainly because I didn't want to offend anyone or get something wrong, but the idea of the "other" is still there, regardless.
#69 - February 03, 2009, 07:50 AM

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Granted, my school may be an exception
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YOU MAY GO BACK ON TOPIC NOW.
#70 - February 03, 2009, 07:52 AM
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The only history class I took in college was taught via Native American Studies...
#71 - February 03, 2009, 07:59 AM

Thank you, BlueBoarders, for this intriguing discussion. I've been in an internal dither about my characters and their races.  :eh2

My fantasy quartet features four kids from different ethnic backgrounds because the overarching storyline is that the four corners of the earth must come together......you know the drill. So race is an explicit feature of the plot. Each kid will get his/her own book...

...but in the back of my mind, I always hear Sherman Alexie's scorn and his call for a moratorium on white writers writing about Native Americans since he thinks they tend to exoticize, orientalize, romanticize, and spiritualize their characters -- not to mention that the contracts go to white writers when he believes that the contracts should go to Native writers who portray their cultures more honestly/authentically. In other words, Alexie worries that we're paying white writers to perpetuate dominate cultural myths about Indians and making Indian culture signify for white consumption....and Indian writers are totally left out of the loop.

So, I feel dishonest no matter what I do. A book with all white characters is not true to my neighborhood or my culture or my (white paternalistic) desire to reflect/create a diverse world.

But books about a Greek girl, a Hmong boy, a Lakota girl, and an Igbo boy make me wonder to what extent I'll necessarily write these characters from my own cultural assumptions and experience...and end up reproducing and transmitting cultural stereotypes and myths... eeks.

On the other hand, I take a great deal of comfort in Toni Morrison's faith in the power of the writerly imagination!!
#72 - February 03, 2009, 08:31 AM

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I don't have an opinion on this as I have not been privy to this experience.  I can tell you however that in the books I am writing, I have lots of kids of many different races, bi-racial kids, etc.  That is how I grew up and that is what is reflected in my writing.  It is natural in my work and I really don't care if my characters are whatever race.  I do think however, that from a marketing perspective, publishers are going to steer main characters one race or another to sell books.  It has been interesting to be an African American woman who writes her main character who happens to be Caucasian.  My AA friends were all shocked that I was writing a Caucasian main character and I did not understand why that was.  They assumed I was writing an AA character and I just did not feel the need.  I always smile when people are amazed that the creator/writer for Grey's Anatomy is an African American woman.  It's like they cannot believe it and wonder why there are not more African American people on the show! Anyway - thanks for the topic.  I had fun weighing in.

Cheers-
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#73 - February 03, 2009, 08:46 AM

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(And as a complete aside, to answer a question several posts back--to do multiple quotes, open your reply screen. Then look down at the previous replies, and you'll see something that says "insert quote" at the beginning of each one. You can pick as many as you want to stick into the same reply. To trim off excess parts of the quote and use only the part you want, delete the text you don't want to quote that lies between the [ quote author = whatever] and [/ quote] thingies. Clear as mud?)

Thanks for the tip!!

I go to university in Virginia (I'm a History and English major), and so far, there hasn't been one class I've taken on American history that hasn't devoted a considerable amount of time to slavery or African American culture.  Granted, my school may be an exception, but it's something I've appreciated greatly. 

That's great news!  My undergraduate school is a Historically Black College so our US History was acutally completely AA History, but my grad school offered it seperately and not as part of the US History.  My dh and I met while he was finishing his undergrad there and I was getting my Ph.D.

I don't have an opinion on this as I have not been privy to this experience.  I can tell you however that in the books I am writing, I have lots of kids of many different races, bi-racial kids, etc.  That is how I grew up and that is what is reflected in my writing.  It is natural in my work and I really don't care if my characters are whatever race.  I do think however, that from a marketing perspective, publishers are going to steer main characters one race or another to sell books.  It has been interesting to be an African American woman who writes her main character who happens to be Caucasian.  My AA friends were all shocked that I was writing a Caucasian main character and I did not understand why that was.  They assumed I was writing an AA character and I just did not feel the need.  I always smile when people are amazed that the creator/writer for Grey's Anatomy is an African American woman.  It's like they cannot believe it and wonder why there are not more African American people on the show! Anyway - thanks for the topic.  I had fun weighing in.
Wow, I guess this comes back to how we really are all individuals and have different perspectives and why we can't pigeon hole anyone into special categories just b/c of their race.  I liken it to a bell curve.  Most of the population of one particular culture with fall in that category, but there are always outlyers and people who don't follow the trend.  I personally only write black characters, but who am I to say that a black person must write black characters.  Do what feels true.  I can't lie, there's a series of books called Keena Ford, Trouble Maker of the Second Grade, and when I found out that the author was white, it threw me for a loop! I wondered about the motivation behind choosing the little black girl as her mc.  The books are obviously written for AA children (although I haven't read them yet).  I felt a little territorial even.  But then I thought to myself that maybe she's a school teacher and has probably observed so many wonderful things that children do and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she saw something unique and fresh that others couldn't see from so up close. 
#74 - February 03, 2009, 10:32 AM

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A lot of writers (myself included, not so long ago) use the excuse of "what if I get it wrong?" But when you examine that, it's such a bizarre notion. How do you write, say, a  black man "wrong" other than to write a really flat character or to fall back on stereotype? Aren't those the exact same problems writers face every time we sit down to write any character, of any race or gender or occupation?

(I think it's also important to keep in mind how a character's experience has been shaped by their gender, race, profession etc. -- or lack thereof. A black character from our world might respond differently to the previously mentioned minority elves than a white character, even if the difference is small. A black character from a world where black skin doesn't carry the same history that it does in ours would react differently yet again. All of which is just another way to say that all the details of a character affect the way they think and feel, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large. As an example, if you read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, you might notice that the narration identifies when people are white, but not when they're black. The mc is black, so he notices when people aren't. I didn't notice reading it, it had to be pointed out to me, and I thought that cool. I admit to using the technique to some extent when writing our Asian-American mc.)

Anyway, Sherman Alexie be damned, nothing good can come of empowering writers to be lazy : ) I think this is something we all need to at least think about, even if every book we write isn't diverse.
#75 - February 06, 2009, 07:21 PM
« Last Edit: February 06, 2009, 09:51 PM by Mike »

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Having so blithely dismissed Sherman Alexie, I should probably still mention there's a very different approach to this topic which basically derides cultural appropriation by the majority culture. This is actually extremely pertinent to fantasy (whether you ultimately agree with the thoughts or not) where writers will quite often take the (sometimes sacred) stories of other cultures and use them for entertainment, or to add a little dash of exoticism, etc. Sometimes very little of the real culture is brought over -- only the fun costumes, perhaps.

When is it okay to borrow/steal another culture's stories and traditions for the purpose of entertaining the culture at large? Yet another thing to think about, I suppose... though as a writer, I don't think I'll ever really buy into any philosophy of thought that limits where I can get ideas. Still, worth mentioning, since it's a radically different POV than most of use here espouse, and quite a challenging one for fantasy writers (like me) who don't just want to keep rewriting Medieval Europe.

Sorry about the double post >.>

[Edited to fix link.]
#76 - February 06, 2009, 07:42 PM
« Last Edit: February 06, 2009, 09:50 PM by Mike »

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I like your insight, Mike--to remember that no matter what group we are writing from or into, we're ultimately writing an individual, not a cardboard cutout that happens to look like X. Of course you want to do extra research when writing outside your group (I have been turned off by books with MCs supposedly part of a group, only they are full of glaring errors nobody in the group would ever do or say, I admit), but in the end--you're just writing one person, not a whole group.
#77 - February 06, 2009, 08:35 PM

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Another example to add to my Earthsea one earlier - Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers wasn't published as a YA novel, but was apparently written as one. The protagonist is coloured (Filipino), something which is revealed via just one reference in the whole novel.

There's a distinction to be made here between fantasy set in a world of your own devising, and fantasy set in this world. If it's a world you've made up, there might be only one race and culture, but unless you're making a political point or being satirical, that does reduce your dramatic possibilities and I'd also suggest is a lack of imagination in worldbuilding. Even if there are no racial differences, there will be other differences between people, even if just between rich and poor.

In the real world, there's a balance to be struck between not reflecting it on one hand and overly PC on the other. I live in England, and it's well known which areas of the country have a large black and/or Asian population and which are mostly white, and you'd lack conviction to say the least if you ignored this. An example from my own experience: medicine is, at least in this part of the country, a profession with a large number of Asians, and Asian women in particular. I've had iritis four times, and each time I've been to the eye clinic at the local hospital, only one of the doctors I've seen there has been white (and he was formerly from the army hospital locally which closed down). All the others have been Asians, and a couple of exceptions from a total in double figures, and women as well. So if I wrote a scene with a doctor and wrote her as an Asian woman, I wouldn't be PC but realistic as far as I'm concerned.

However, in other contexts, you can be too PC. I'm all for ass-kicking heroines, but the opportunities for such are likely to be much reduced in certain Middle Eastern countries which subjugate women. I've never worn a burqa or a chador, but I suspect it wouldn't be easy to kick someone's arse while wearing one. :) That's not to say you can't have a heroine in such a society - although it's not fantasy, see Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel (and film) Persepolis for one example - but the parameters are inevitably different.
#78 - February 06, 2009, 10:25 PM

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Having so blithely dismissed Sherman Alexie, I should probably still mention there's a very different approach to this topic which basically derides cultural appropriation by the majority culture. This is actually extremely pertinent to fantasy (whether you ultimately agree with the thoughts or not) where writers will quite often take the (sometimes sacred) stories of other cultures and use them for entertainment, or to add a little dash of exoticism, etc. Sometimes very little of the real culture is brought over -- only the fun costumes, perhaps.

Yes, I agree that writers should be aware of cultural appropriation. As I'm currently studying linguistics at college, I've seen quite a few examples of how the concepts of race and gender affect and are reflected by our language. One thing that really sticks out for me is the idea of marked and unmarked terms. The unmarked term is the "default" one and draws on the dominant cultural ideology. The marked term, however, takes another word or two to distinguish it from the "default."

A good example: when we say "working mother," this implies that the "default" mother does not work. Same with "male nurse," which distinguishes itself from the "default" female nurse. These ideologies go deeper than stereotypes, even, since they're part of what we consider "normal" or "just common sense." To tie this back to the discussion at large, "person of color" is obviously a marked term, as are phrases such as "African American protagonist." The mere fact that we have to specify a character is nonwhite means that our default conception of a character, particularly a protagonist, is white. And by "our" I mean many/most Americans, regardless of ethnicity.

What do I think? I really dislike it when people use ethnicity as the primary or sole description of a character. I remember seeing a sample query that described a character as "a Jewish boy," nothing more, and this offended many because of the idea that "Jewish" alone entirely describes a person. On the other hand, I can see how writers would want to purposely specify that their protagonist is not "default," just to snap readers out of their preconceptions. What I like the best: when a writer does it subtly or skillfully enough that race (or any other "nondefault" attribute) is both a part of the character and not everything that character is, if that makes sense.

Also, in my WIP, I'm switching the race of one of the main characters after having completely written the draft. I did this earlier with gender, changing a male protagonist to a female after several drafts. That way, I tried to bypass my own preconceptions about gender and race. Hopefully I succeeded.

Karen
#79 - February 07, 2009, 12:00 AM
Out now: DEADLY DELICIOUS

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This post is so long, everyone could have written a diverse sci fi or fantasy novel that doesn't offend anyone by now. Ha.

A good example: when we say "working mother," this implies that the "default" mother does not work. Same with "male nurse," which distinguishes itself from the "default" female nurse. These ideologies go deeper than stereotypes, even, since they're part of what we consider "normal" or "just common sense." To tie this back to the discussion at large, "person of color" is obviously a marked term, as are phrases such as "African American protagonist." The mere fact that we have to specify a character is nonwhite means that our default conception of a character, particularly a protagonist, is white. And by "our" I mean many/most Americans, regardless of ethnicity.

What do I think? I really dislike it when people use ethnicity as the primary or sole description of a character. I remember seeing a sample query that described a character as "a Jewish boy," nothing more, and this offended many because of the idea that "Jewish" alone entirely describes a person. On the other hand, I can see how writers would want to purposely specify that their protagonist is not "default," just to snap readers out of their preconceptions. What I like the best: when a writer does it subtly or skillfully enough that race (or any other "nondefault" attribute) is both a part of the character and not everything that character is, if that makes sense.

There's really no way of getting around that. It's like when I try to explain to friends, usually white ones (I am mixed), why affirmative action is necessary. No one seems to understand that it is possible to support affirmative action but still think it needs to be fixed. Affirmative action exists so that eventually it won't have to. Of course, it shouldn't only be about race but also about economic background, because an African American child whose parents make a million a year and who attended private school may not need as much help getting in or paying for college as a white kid with a single father who works three jobs, but still. Affirmative action strives to erase the need for affirmative action.

The same here, I think. It's terrible that everyone in this country thinks of a white protagonist whenever it isn't specifically described to be anything else, but that's why for the time being, it is necessary to describe a non-white protagonist as non-white. There are just better ways of saying it than "A Jewish boy" or "an African American girl." You can describe someone's skin color just because the protagonist thinks the guy is really hot, or you can mention how someone's braids swung out when she shook her head, or how she spoke Tagalog on the phone to her mother, or she couldn't go out with her friends that night because it was Diwali, or whatever.

It's also nearly impossible to think of a protagonist as non-white because white privilege kind of applies to non-whites as well, in that everyone is affected by it. I always refer people to Peggy McIntosh's article: www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

I guess I think more of regular fiction with this issue, though, and it's both harder and easier to deal with this in fantasy, since you get to create the rules of your world when you're writing a fantasy or sci fi story.

This came up at my reading group last night when we were talking about this poem. Here's a link to a scan of it: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v202/ispeakchicana/horesampiona.jpg
We got especially stuck on the mention of the Indians and the Mongolians, and everyone kept talking about how they represent people of long ago who no longer exist, and I was taking Edward Said's
We talked about it for a good hour, and I was annoyed by it in a lot of ways, because it reminded me of when people say things like, "Gosh, I think Native American names are so interesting. If I were Native American, my name would be Girl Who Runs Like the Wind With the Sun in Her Hair." It's like people pretend to be interested and sensitive to other cultures, but they don't even understand how to name the culture correctly, dont' realize that the "culture" is actually many cultures that you shouldn't lump together, and they find one little aspect and attach it to the entire thing. Like, hello, the term "Native American" doesn't really mean anything, because not all people who are from a native tribe of the Americas are in the same tribe and they don't all have the same customs, not to mention there are other things that define a culture and make it interesting, not just that one little "quaint," interesting thing.

I'm not sure how well I explained that, but you know what I mean? And I think that's a dangerous thing in fantasy, because everyone feels entitled to grab from the European tradition, partly because, at least in the US, we're all taught that it belongs to us and it's the only thing that does, because we're all white, or should be. Since it's not a default to teach African American history, Asian American history, Mexican American history, or Native American history unless it's an instant in white history when white people clashed with another group through slavery or war or something, nobody knows enough about a lot of other cultures' mythology to be able to natural grab from them and almost assuredly be rather accurate. And I'm all about researching and taking aspects of whatever you find interesting to create a fantasy. After all, it's a fantasy, and as far as your readers know, you know nothing about anyone and this all floated out of your head. But I think the problem is that if people do want to be obvious and say that this fantasy has something to do with a Chinese myth or an Egyptian fairy tale or whatever, they are not faithful to the myth so much as they just draw out something "quaint" (like my names example) and almost insult the culture because of that. Mike said it better, but I'd just like to agree, I guess. It's a fine line to walk, but I think it's worth doing, because the more fantasies that are sensitive to other backgrounds, the more natural it will become, and then authors will be able to borrow from Japanese or Peruvian or whatever myth as easily as we do from European. Again, it's like affirmative action.
#80 - February 07, 2009, 11:29 AM

i'm reading neil g's graveyard book right now,
and he described the girl talking to a bus driver
whose skin was even darker than her own.

this told me that both the bus driver and
the girl protagonist were not caucasian. easy as that.
i didn't find it offensive or obtrusive. i love that
neil g has added diversity in his book--as it should
be, based in london and all.

and i think he handled it fantastically in the
anansi boys.
#81 - February 07, 2009, 01:06 PM
« Last Edit: February 07, 2009, 02:38 PM by xiaotien »
Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow: 4/28/09)
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i'm reading neil g's graveyard book right now,
and she described the girl talking to a bus driver
whose skin was even darker than her own.

That's exactly how it should go.
#82 - February 07, 2009, 01:42 PM

omg, i called neil a "she".

neil is def a HE. whoops!

and hannah, exactly. i DO need some small
indicators. i love diversity in a novel.
and NG handles it like a pro. LOVE the
graveyard book so far--i almost don't want to
finish it lest it ends...
#83 - February 07, 2009, 02:37 PM
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Sorry 2 be away - but I was writing - LOL! And, sorry to start a sentence with an "and" and sorry to not use quotes when referencing other's comments. AGH! But I just wanted to say that like everything else that as a writer, when you write about something you may be less familiar with; like writing for a character who is not the same race or religion or even gender as you, you should research and make sure you get it right.

I don't understand why someone would hesitate or be surprised or even limit themselves to only writing for characters who are the same skin color or ethnicity as their own.  Would you not write a MC who is male as a female writer or vice versa? You may not even give it a second thought? But a different race? OMG you would NEVER.  That seems limiting and hey- why not? I say, free yourself from that limitation and go with it and research and ask yourself, why am I doing this because I don't think I can? Would I write a character that has a disability? Could I? Challenge yourself? Why not? I think this conversation will open up a lot of people's minds and hearts to the possibility that as a writer, you can and should allow yourself to write any kind of character and story your little heart desires as long as you are true to yourself.

At the end of the day, people are people.  Race aside, people all need the same things.  So when writing for people, write for people based on their basic humanity and not because of the color of their skin!

Cheers-
Georgia 
#84 - February 10, 2009, 08:44 AM

Oh dear.

Well, my debut novel has an overweight Latina MC, a wealthy Caucasian kid, a poor Caucasian kid, an Italian loner, a Native American guy from the rez, a Chinese theoretical mathematician, a Japanese transvestite, etc. I am cringing with what people *may* construe about my thoughts or qualifications of writing these characters but here's the thing: I am writing characters and being as true to them as I can be -- it's the best that I can do. (Admittedly this included a heck of a lot of research and a healthy dose of leaning on my background in cultural anthropology, gender studies, and hermeneutics as well as talking to lots and lots of people from diverse backgrounds!) Still, I would not say any one of these characters is in any way supposed to represent ALL people of the same race/ethnicity/sexual orientation, etc. That would be just as silly/insulting as if I only wrote about White, Jewish Liberal Women -- the identity that I guess I'd be "most qualified" to write -- and then claim that character somehow represented ALL W/J/L women, too.

Nuh-uh.

I'll confess, I'm nervous about what folks might think about my story/my characters/my personal philosophies/me just from reading this one piece of bizarre speculative fiction. Sure, it's nerve-wracking but also, perhaps, eye-opening because I believe that people ARE equal and that means that every character of every kind of social/economic/religious/racial/ethnic background has equal chances of being kind or cruel, good or evil, friend or foe, bully or victim, hero or villain and that is not often perceived as the case before someone shouts "Foul!" and waves a red flag. Equality means that, all things being equal, we have equal opportunity of being seen as...well...equal. We make our own choices and should be judged by our decisions and actions, not by the color of our skin or the way we pray.

I hope that I honor each of my characters as people in their own rights as I tell their stories (even if they don't share my exact identity characteristics...besides, I'm WAAAAY too old!) and that, by choosing to tell a story with racial diversity not being the "central theme," but merely a reflection of a modern teenager's reality, that young readers can appreciate the story and see a little of themselves in just about everyone on the page.

...which may be a bit much to expect from a dark, twisted paranormal fantasy about parallel worlds and mythic superheroes, but *eh* what can ya do?
#85 - February 10, 2009, 06:37 PM

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And the thing is, having gotten a taste of duskydawn's book, she approaches all these diverse characters in such a way that all I see is their humanity (well...um...okay, since they're not exactly typical humans) -- but you get the drift.  I'd say that's what Georgia's getting at too.
#86 - February 10, 2009, 08:25 PM
Robin
Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BSR6CPJ/
Website: www.robinprehn3r.com

Has anyone been following the discussion on Esme Raji Codell's blog (and others) about who should be eligible to win the Coretta Scott King awards? She argues it should be based on the content of the book not the ethnicity of the author. I would be interested in hearing opinions from blue boarders on the subject ...

http://planetesme.blogspot.com/2009/01/coretta-scott-king-award-dream-awaits.html

Apologies if this has already been discussed. If so, could you point me to the right thread?
#87 - February 16, 2009, 11:38 AM
Red Turban White Horse (Scholastic India)
Starcursed (Red Turtle/Rupa India)

http://www.nandinibajpai.com

Traci Dee

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Hey Schmancer, I don't think an agent would admit to passing on a book because an MC was of a racial minority--it would smack too much of racism. But people don't have the same taboos about homosexuality as they do about racism (or sexism or any other -ism). Personally, I think a paranormal starring a gay dude sounds like good reading, but what do I know? Apparently I'm part of that fringe audience whose opinions don't matter. Glad your story ended well though as far as snagging a more 'with it' agent.
#88 - February 18, 2009, 12:14 PM

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