[GUEST POST] Writing About Race in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Part 1 of a Roundtable Interview)
Dear SF Signal Readers,
Hi! My name’s Zack Jernigan. I conducted this roundtable interview over the last year. Just so you know, I wrote a long, painfully self-conscious introduction about my upbringing as a white, heterosexual male born into a middle-middle-class family and how that contributed to my desire to start a discussion on the subject of Writing About Race in Sff Literature, but I scrapped it. When you’ve received such amazing responses from your interviewees, it’s best to get to them with the minimum of words.
So: Suffice it to say, this is an important topic for discussion. I hope that you enjoy reading this first part, that you’ll return for the second, and that you’ll feel free to comment. I also encourage you to visit the authors’ websites and buy their amazing work.
A Roundtable Interview with David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu
I hope so.
Personal point of reference on a limitation of mimetic fiction… My first two novels were mainstream works about African-American history. Readers that picked up those books did so because they wanted to read about race and slavery. They went in knowing the material would be difficult, and most of them probably believed that ruminating about our racial history is relevant for modern day. That’s great, but it means a limited readership. What about reaching more folks-including folks that don’t think they’d be interested in reading about race?
Fantasy certainly reaches a wide audience. It speaks to people precisely because it takes us out of our “mundane” world. I discovered fantasy like most everyone else my age or older-through Tolkien. As a kid, I happily escaped into a magical European past, despite the fact that I read The Hobbit while visiting my father in Trinidad. I sat in the shade of our back porch, smack dab on the equator, brown-skinned people all around, with views of palm trees and lizards and buzzards flying over hills lit up by wildfires. Not exactly Middle Earth. The excitement of Tolkien’s imaginative storytelling drew me in, and I was perfectly happy to read about a world that didn’t include anybody that looked like me. Shouldn’t the same possibility apply for anyone? And shouldn’t that mean that readers engage with non-European settings with the same enthusiasm?
One would hope so, but…
Especially in the epic fantasy side of the genre, nostalgia for a fantastical Europe is alive and kicking. We live in a world that is, in actual fact, majority brown, with myriad shades to either side and tons of problems because of it. But a lot fantasy imagines worlds that largely eliminate non-white cultures. For many fantasy readers that’s a part of what defines the genre as fantasy. I’ve heard people say that they read fantasy precisely to float off to Old Europe. What’s wrong with that? It’s just fun, right?
Fair enough, but part of why it’s fun must include the fact that those settings can be free of the myriad of thorny, aggravating problems we face along racial lines in the real world. So perhaps fantasy has Europe in its DNA, and the effort to complicate that by including variety inspired by the rest of the world is doomed to failure?
Maybe, but two things strike me as having great potential for including race in fantasy. One is that so much awesomeness is to be found in hanging out with folks not like you. What I remember from reading mainstream world literature in college was how exciting it was to get bombarded by different perspectives, and by the storytelling verve coming out of different traditions. Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe: writers from these places smacked me upside the head with all sorts of new ideas. I loved them for it. It was good for me, and it was terrific fun. What could be more interesting than adding magic to those myriad worldviews, throwing in a few weird creatures, and seeing what happens?
On the other hand, fantasy allows writers to create cultures inspired by our world but not constrained by our particular social history. Preconceptions are trickier to hold to. Sides aren’t inherited by blood. Guilt or shame aren’t inherently a factor. Fantasy can allow readers to engage with imagined “others” in ways that just might help them to see real world others in a different light as well.
At least, I hope that’s the case.
I think there is one huge difference between writing race in genre and race in “mainstream” fiction: there is less baggage associated with race in genre than there is in mainstream fiction. I can write about the persecution of yellow-skinned people by white-skinned people in a fantasy universe, and while people will associate them with Asians, there will be none of the knee-jerk reactions that I would have if I was writing about straight discrimination against the Chinese or Vietnamese (which can and will carry a lot of baggage both for the Chinese/Vietnamese, but also for White people). This means that it is possible to present issues to the reader in a way that will engage them instead of turning them off, and perhaps make them think more about what happens in the real world.
To me, it is both a good and a bad thing: the good one, as I said above, is that there are fewer preconceptions, and that people will be more disposed to listen, and less encumbered by prejudice. As a writer, I am also free to make up history and context, and this allows me a wider range of situations than if I were writing mainstream fiction set in a very specific place and time. It is also a bad thing, I think, precisely because of the wider freedom: it’s all too easy to create problematic representations (erasing entire populations in future histories, for instance); and it’s also all too easy for the reader to think of the racial representations in genre as something that doesn’t apply to the real world-to remain firmly in escapist land, and to think that the problems faced by, say, Black people in a secondary fantasy, or Asians in an urban fantasy in which cities have a vampire court and several packs of werewolves, have nothing to do with real life, precisely because of the presence of the fantastical or science fictional elements.
Speculative fiction is the kingdom of “What If?” Setting aside all the questions of genre boundaries and whether you can even have fiction that is not fantasy, writing that is bounded by the parameters of the real world can never ask that “What If?” question freely-because the answer would usually be a quick, “It isn’t.”
There is no field of human interest that cannot benefit from “What If?” and the issue of race is no exception. However here, the subject is especially fit for speculative treatment, because the issue, in the real world, is so politicized that it is extremely difficult for any writer to approach it objectively. Everyone is fighting from a corner.
Speculative fiction, therefore, allows the writer the facility to construct his “What If” scenarios whilst keeping a greater distance from the mire that is political reality. One can, essentially, conduct experiments that would be impossible in more conventional literature and examine attitudes to race with a freedom otherwise denied. Because the writer can control so many more of the variables of his/her literary setting, the possibilities for exploring real issues by way of speculative treatment are endless.
It’s well worth noting that although speculative fiction offers this toolkit, it by no means insists on it. When issues of race are considered, there is a lot of extremely reactionary material in the genre. Not just the overt and (to modern sensibilities) grotesquely unpleasant material that one often saw back in the pulp days of Howard, but even nowadays a lot of fantasy settings are essentially a sea of white faces, whilst the isolated black characters often have difficulties escaping from the “noble savage warrior” box, and religious fanatics continually erupt from the desert. Sometimes this can be examined in great depth and used to great effect (Peter V. Brett’s Desert Spear for example) but all too often this sort of stereotyping seems to happen because the author is using a kind of shorthand rather than thinking it through. It’s a short step from there to Tolkien’s orcs-a race presented as irredeemably evil and fit only for death.
Hence speculative fiction has a heavy responsibility in a way-an unparalleled tool for examining prejudice, or merely reinforcing it.
Since others have already given many insightful answers, let me try to ask more questions.
When I first saw the question, my instinctive reaction was to answer “Yes.” But then I thought, why?
It seems to me that if science fiction and fantasy allow writers and readers more freedom to engage with the subject of race than mimetic fiction (which I’ll assume to be true for the purposes of this discussion), it’s natural to ask if that’s indicative of a problem with the way we approach mimetic fiction.
What is it about writing and reading mimetic fiction that makes us afraid to ask the kinds of question we can ask in speculative fiction, that makes us blind to concerns that are highlighted when the genre is fantasy? Is that a problem primarily with writers or with readers?
And those questions led me to another one: what are the advantages of approaching the subject of race through fiction instead of, say, an essay? If you want to “make a point,” why write fiction at all? Why not go write an op-ed or law paper?
Instinctively, it seems that there are advantages to addressing race through fiction (broader audience, more provocative questions, more emotionally resonant arguments, etc.), but again, why? Is this indicative of a problem with the way we make arguments in nonfiction, with the ways in which we evaluate rhetoric and methods of persuasion?
I think the comparisons between speculative fiction and mimetic fiction on the one hand, and between fiction and nonfiction on the other, are somewhat parallel. In each case, one member of the pair is seen as straying further away from the rules of “the real world” and thus giving readers and writers more “freedom.”
But that freedom comes at a cost. In the case of the fiction/nonfiction divide, I think what tends to happen is a shift of power from the writer to the reader. In an essay, it is hard to miss the message of the writer. In a novel, a reader is free to interpret the elements of the story in accordance with the reader’s own conceptions of how the world ought to work. And the better constructed the fictional world, the more likely it is to support multiple interpretations. I have often seen readers come away with wildly divergent readings of the same story, and many authors say that few of their readers get what their story is “about.”
So perhaps the same dynamic applies in speculative fiction versus mimetic fiction. The gain in freedom comes with a loss in the power to persuade. The writer may be able to ask more interesting questions and present more provocative perspectives on real-world problems, but the reader is also more free to re-interpret them to suit preexisting beliefs.
In the end, I wonder if the advantages of straying further from the real world are illusory.
I’m an African-American. Of course, being African-American doesn’t mean just one thing. It means I’m a mixture of races, one of them being of African descent. Here’s how it breaks down…
My mother’s father is a very light-skinned man from South Hill Virginia. Rural, farm country. The Old South. Everyone knew his family was black, though he wasn’t actually darker than a white person. My mother’s mother was just as light-skinned, but she came from Barbados. Another plantation culture that likewise produces “black” people that are probably genetically more Caucasian than African.
My father is from Trinidad. Trinidad’s population is about equally African and Indian, with a healthy mix of others in there as well. My father’s family reflects that. They look African, but they also have a bit of other brown-skinned peoples in them as well.
And I am the sum of all that.
One way it has affected my writing is that it’s made me skeptical of racial categorizations. “White” and “Black” are fallacies. We simply aren’t that diametrically opposed, and I’ve always felt that pretending that we are is more harmful than productive. My second novel, Walk Through Darkness, looks like it’s about runaway slave being pursued by a slave tracker in the 1850’s. But things aren’t what they appear. It’s really about a white man acknowledging his parental responsibility to his “black” son. You know, the kind of acknowledgement that founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson never saw fit to get around to…
I’m half-French, half-Vietnamese, and have lived in a bunch of different countries. It’s always hard for the writer to say how their background influences their writing… The obvious influence for me is a fascination with different cultures-how they think, what they value, and what happens when they meet and mingle (and the answer is seldom as simple as “they go to war”, or “they live in blissful harmony”!). I also write a lot of fiction that uses Chinese and Vietnamese culture as inspiration. Finally, coming from two cultures obsessed with food in very different ways, I have a well-known tendency to lovingly describe meals-one that once got my copy-editor complaining about all the time I was wasting describing what my main characters were eating!
I’m sufficiently prudish, fussy and repressed to be almost too British – however, as the name might suggest, I’ve got my roots elsewhere. One grandfather came over from Poland during the war, the other from what’s now the Czech Republic, and I’ve always felt a strong connection with that part of the world. There are a lot of recent historical events being mirrored in Shadows of the Apt-and especially as the series goes on you can see a fair amount of central European history feeding into it. I think that part of me-identifying with another culture to the one I was born into, and being for that reason more aware that there was a wider world of history out there than our classes on Queen Elizabeth and the Enclosures Act-has helped a great deal in broadening my mind and my writing. I suspect it’s pushed me along in another way, too. Even though I grew up white in a country predominantly white, the name still fed into that melange of factors that had me singled out by other kids at school (this was in a part of Britain that was particularly conservative and traditional-one nickname I got was “Commie” if you can believe it: having a Slavic surname was just two steps down from having the head of an otter or something). Given that most writers of fantastic fiction seem to have some similar story of being “different” that has served to fuel their creative fires, I think my heritage has certainly been part of mine.
I’m Chinese-though that term is often misunderstood in the West. The English term “Chinese” doesn’t quite capture the multiple ethnicities and regional identities that are covered by that term, and the more specific “Han Chinese” is itself an amalgam of many ancestral peoples who have merged into one. But this doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that the term “Chinese” is too diffuse to be meaningful. To the contrary, it’s an enormously cohesive and meaningful idea to those who self-identify as Chinese. This is because historically, the Chinese have always been a people more defined by culture than blood, and so a Chinese identity is constructed less by an individual’s genetic inheritance and more by an individual’s ongoing willingness to become Chinese in an endless process of cultural growth and discovery.
As for how my being Chinese has influenced my writing, besides obvious things like choice of subject and literary influence, I think it’s this cultural acceptance of the negotiated, tentative nature of identity that has played a role. As I mentioned above, being “Chinese” is both simple and complex, unitary and diverse. And it has pushed me to think about the extent such fluidity in identity is or isn’t true for everyone.
Sometimes I think readers assume that I’m writing about race just because I’m a writer of color and/or because I’ve done so before.
With the Acacia Trilogy I’m a little surprised by readers that mention my exploration of racism. Surprised because racism isn’t, to me, much of an issue in the books. I wrote about these topics explicitly in earlier historical novels (like Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness), but the Known World is free from the racial hierarchy of our history. Sure, there are tensions, but I don’t think anybody in the novels believes that one race is inferior to another. They have national pride and-particularly in the case of the Meins-a desire for racial purity. But that’s a product of having been a proud clan of people that have suffered exile. That’s very different than the hundreds of years that our Western society used science, religion, laws and myth to differentiate the races in the starkest of terms.
I made the Quota/Mist trade one that takes slaves from all races of the Known World. I wanted to contrast that against our history of the Atlantic Slave trade. Anybody’s children are at risk. Anybody can be sent overseas to an unknown fate. And in the later books, I was interested in what that means for those slaves. How do they come to define themselves in their slavery? Not, surely, by their race. Are they more a part of the culture that sold them into slavery, or do they draw their identity from the one in which they’re raised-that of their enslavers?
I find that the readers most likely to engage with this are the ones that have spent the most time thinking about the role of race in their own lives, especially those that come from-or are themselves creating-multicultural identities.
The flip side of this is that some readers don’t notice anything unusual in the multicultural vibe of the books. I’ve heard readers express surprise that I identify as African-American. “I didn’t know he was black until he said so in a blog post.” That sort of thing. I think part of what’s going on there is that some readers expect a black writer to write about race in a certain way, to write primarily black characters and to have a particular platform that’s easily recognizable-and potentially dismissible-to them. I want to believe that what I do is a bit different than that. And, honestly, I’m very glad to be able to have a dialogue with these readers as well.
I don’t specifically tackle racism in my work, though you can argue that I’m making a statement about race simply by not adopting the default White Western viewpoint, and by creating societies where Europe is often absent or very far away. I did deliberately write the Obsidian and Blood books to present the Mexica (Aztec) society as a vibrant, accomplished culture with a progressive social system and decent women’s rights, instead of the bloodthirsty Barbarians that are all too often found in fiction. I think that I accomplished my goal, as most of the comments for the books were about how alive and sympathetic the society and the characters seemed; and I’m very glad to see this kind of reaction from readers.
My experience is limited, but it seems to me that many of the discussions involving the author’s race revolve around issues of authenticity, which is a bit of a slippery slope for me. I fully recognize the need for, well, basically not screwing up the culture you’re telling stories in (I’ve read stories featuring French or Vietnamese culture which had me annoyed because they were so completely out of line). I also recognize that you have a strong and significant difference between “insider” writing of a culture and “outsider” writing (or insider perception vs outsider perception): insiders are more likely to get it effortlessly right, and less likely to exoticize something that is part and parcel of their daily lives; while outsiders often have a better perception of what to explain and what to showcase for an outside audience (though it’s a dangerous tightrope game, as it’s easy to overdo the showcasing and veer into exotic land altogether). And even this is simplistic, as perceptions of a culture or subculture run the gamut between those two polar opposites, from tourist to guest to insider-by-alliance to insider-by-birth and everything-in-between…
But authenticity, as Malinda Lo pointed out on her blog, also features a strong normative component. It can easily be used (and is in fact often used) to exclude people on the basis that their experience differs from the “norm” of the acceptable cultural experience (like, “the Chinese-American childhood”, or “the daily experience of a Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City”). It can also be used to strongly encourage people to only write what they know, leading to a paucity of experiences and themes-for, after all, isn’t SFF about stretching your imagination and opening your mind, and how will you open your mind if you keep writing and reading about people like yourself? (Also, since a lot of authors in the SFF genre are male and White, this reinforces the uncomfortable state of things where most SFF is written about the experiences of White, middle-aged American males.)
The kinden in Shadows of the Apt give me a proliferation of different human cultures and races, and a great deal of the setting is to do with the way that different kinden regard one another, the stereotyping that goes on, and the fact that there are plenty of characters that demonstrate the unfairness of those stereotypes. Hence, everybody “knows” that all Spider-kinden are duplicitous and untrustworthy, but there are plenty of exceptions to that rule.
The Wasp Empire itself, the main antagonist, does believe in an inequality of race-the Wasps view themselves as a superior kinden who have a right to rule over and enslave others. They are attempting to translate their military superiority into a philosophical entitlement. Again, though, it’s more complex than that, and there are some kinden that get along better as second-class citizens in the Empire than they might outside it. Whilst the Wasps are set up as the obvious “racist culture” the world of the kinden is a hotbed of inter-race prejudices, from the Mantids’ unreasoning hatred of Spiders to the antagonism between the successful Beetles and their fallen former masters, the Moth-kinden. Cultural differences and historical causes are subsumed in the dismissal or demonization of entire races.
As the kinden can interbreed, there is also the matter of miscegenation, which most kinden cultures are highly prejudiced against, which gives me an opportunity to show that the Wasps don’t have a monopoly on discrimination. The lead in Book 1 is Stenwold Maker, an educated man from the most liberal and enlightened culture in the Lowlands, but when the half-breed Totho asks after his niece, he cannot bring himself to bless the idea, even though he knows his position is unreasonable and unfair.
Readers have definitely picked up on all this-I’ve had book-specific questions after panels on fantasy races (panels on the pros and cons of elves seem to be very popular at the moment), and I’ve tried to explore the issue with sufficient nuance and variety that it gives my readers something to think about. The key thing I’m trying to do is avoid the monoculture where everyone of a given race has a given culture, and everyone of a given culture has a given personality. In the past fantasy has often been guilty of presenting irredeemably evil or insufferably good races, in the aid of setting up a story where the hero can write off (and then butcher) an entire culture without thought or remorse. That’s why I have my decent Wasps, honest Spiders and the like.
As for my own racial identity, I think my awareness of my ancestry has at least led to the race issue being front and centre in the kinden books-with both Slavic and Jewish ancestors in the recent past, and a history where both have been labeled as “less human” within living memory. At the same time, I am a thoroughly anglicized white middle class man, and I think it would be dishonest for me to claim otherwise. I hope it doesn’t debar me from taking on the race issue in my writing, but it does mean that there are areas of the race debate that I haven’t had personal experience of.
I don’t usually make race itself a core focus of my work. Rather, race tends to show up in my stories as one ingredient among many in the interplay of prejudice, identity, power, and history. As a result, I think it can be hard for me to tell how readers are specifically reacting to my own racial identity or the way race is used in my work.
I have, however, sometimes been surprised when readers ignore some aspect of racial/cultural identity that I think is critical to a story. For example, in “Maxwell’s Demon,” a science fantasy set during the Second World War, the main character is of Okinawan descent (as opposed to the Japanese home islands). Indeed, that is the source of her inherited magic, and the story repeatedly makes references to anti-Okinawan prejudices held by the Japanese military, to the colonial administration of Okinawa by Japan, and to the independent history of the Ryukyu Islands. Yet I think many readers ignored this and referred to the main character as “Japanese American” when her unstable relationship to that identity is at the heart of the story.
I think this is related to how we tend to think that the way we-meaning the family, tribe, subculture, country that we belong to-view racial categories and identity politics must also be how everybody else views them. But the rhetoric of race in America (or any other place) is a product of that country’s unique history, and not at all universally applicable. We tend to magnify those distinctions that we see being enacted and emphasized around us, and minimize those distinctions that are not. I try (though I don’t always succeed) to use my liminal status to resist that tendency in my own work.
More to come in Part 2…stay tuned!
David Anthony Durham is the author of the Acacia Trilogy of fantasy novels, as well as the historical novels Pride of Carthage, Walk Through Darkness and Gabriel’s Story. His novels have been published in the UK and in nine foreign languages. Four of them have been optioned for development as feature films.
Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese who works as a Computer Engineer, and pays far too much attention to languages, cultures, and good food. She lives in a flat with her husband, more computers than people, and two tentacled Lovecraftian plants in the process of taking over the living room. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and the Year’s Best Science Fiction, and has garnered a Writers of the Future Award and a BSFA award, as well as nominations for the Hugo and Nebula. Her trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot. Visit http://aliettedebodard.com for more information.
Adrian Tchaikovsky was born in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, before heading off to Reading to study psychology and zoology. For reasons unclear even to himself he subsequently ended up in law and has worked as a legal executive in both Reading and Leeds, where he now lives. Married, he is a keen live role-player and occasional amateur actor, has trained in stage-fighting, and keeps no exotic or dangerous pets of any kind, possibly excepting his son. The self-styled foremost UK writer of insect-themed fantasy fiction, his series, Shadows of the Apt, begins with Empire in Black and Gold and book 8, The Air War, is out August 2012. Catch up with him at www.shadowsoftheapt.com for further information about both himself and the insect-kinden, together with bonus material including short stories and artwork.
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won the Nebula and been nominated for the Hugo and the Sturgeon awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Zachary Jernigan was inspired to start the above discussion after tackling the issue of race in his first novel, No Return, and his second Asimov’s story, “The War is Over and Everyone Wins” (January 2012). He lives in Arizona, where the sun is always shining and the politicians are always pissing him off. Now and then he blogs about sff literature and his many goofy hangups at zacharyjernigan.blogspot.com.
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!