Wednesday, 26 January 2011

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD: DIVERSITY IN FANTASY


This post started out one way, and kind of ended up becoming something else. I sat down with the intention of writing a How To article on the topic of world building, with the bullet points and all that. But I started thinking about a discussion I've been having with some writing friends lately, and some really interesting blog posts that I've recently seen from other writers, and instead, it sort of turned into an essay. No, not an essay. A plea.

I don't know if my little essay on my little rinky-dink blog can actually make any difference. In fact, alone, I'm pretty sure it can't. But fear about not being able to make a difference keeps a lot of people silent, and I don't want to be one of them.

So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. I can pass as straight, although actually I'm not (that's a whole complicated issue and not the subject of this post). And although I suffer with chronic health conditions which can be disabling, I can often pass as able bodied and, during 'good' periods with my illnesses, I actually *am*, or near as dammit. I'm also cis, which means my biological sex and my gender expression match up with commonly accepted ideals of 'feminity' in the modern Western world. Therefore, I have what is called privilege. This term encompasses a lot, but for the purposes of this essay it means that when I turn on the TV, go to see a film or pick up a book, the overwhelming number of characters will be people 'like me'. There are so many characters 'like me' being depicted that it would be extremely easy for me to unconsciously feel that people 'like me' are the majority of the world, that only the stories of people 'like me' are interesting or important. That stories about people 'like me' are somehow universal, archetypal, the default.

It would also be very easy for me to argue that I simply don't have the experience of being in any kind of repressed minority which is required to write about people who aren't like me. I've seen this one a lot. I've also seen writers who have made that arduous effort to include the odd gay or non-white or not-able bodied character talk about how difficult it is to correctly portray someone who is not like them. And I've seen other writers say that they can't be expected to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them because it would be too tough and too artificial.


But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. 100% straight arrow people who fit neatly within the modern Western world's narrow gender binaries are not the majority of the world. Able bodied people are not the majority of the world. We just think they are because the vast majority of the time, people who are NOT white and straight and able bodied only show up in the media in token roles. Look, we included a sassy gay boy who can give the heroine advice on clothes! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life! Aren't we broadminded!

No, I'm afraid you aren't.

Currently, the media is showing a horribly skewed picture of the real world. Fiction writers, with our limitless power to reinvent the world, to hold a mirror up to it or subvert it, are showing a horribly skewed picture of the world. If you are not white, if you are not straight or passing for straight, if you are not physically perfect (and to some extent, if you are one of the slightly more than 50% of the population who is female) you know how it feels to wonder why no one wants to write about people LIKE YOU for a freaking change.

Why isn't everyone - even the straight white (male) people - bored with straight white (male) characters yet?

The more I force my mind to open, the stranger it seems to write about characters that resemble me. Straight, white, able-bodied people are such a tiny minority in the real world that when you're attempting to create any kind of a realistic fantasy world it's quite *un*realistic to keep putting characters with those traits in the majority of the major roles. Unless you're deliberately writing characters that are similar to you or your family because you want to use your own life experience in your story, why would you LIMIT yourself that way?

I mean, that's not to say that writers with blonde hair can never write blonde heroines. It's not to say that straight, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, ethnicities, races, cultures, physical traits, sexual identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write about characters 'just like them'.

For example. I love Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments Books. I do. I think they're fabulous page turners and I own them all and recommend them to my friends. These books are favourites with a lot of people because they depict a gay couple and people from different ethnicities. They are set in modern day NYC, and Ms Clare makes a point of saying that her Shadowhunters don't have any racial prejudices because Shadowhunters randomly spring from all countries in the world.

But ALL her main cast are white.

That's hardly an accurate depiction of modern NYC, let alone a small group of people who apparently come from all nations of the world and have supposedly been breeding mostly within their culture for hundreds of years (logically, waaaay more of them would be mixed race). The one major character who is mixed race is Magnus, and he's an immortal warlock, an outsider. A book that embraced the real NYC and all the varied nationalities and races therein would have been even richer and even more interesting. And I think that Ms Clare knows this, because she has given a main role to a mixed race character in her new series The Infernal Devices. This character also struggles with a long-term, dibilitating illness. This character, for me = LOVE (Herongreystairs 4EVA).


So this is my plea to you, my blog readers, writers of the future. Even though it might sound strange, when you're creating fantasy worlds you need to look at the real world first. The REAL world. Not the version you see in mainstream Hollywood films or on TV. The world as it really is. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us, and no one is going to get it right first time or probably all the time, even if they're truly making an effort. But the first step to changing the world of fiction so that it reflects everyone instead of just a tiny, privileged portion, is to think about it and realise that things DO need to change.

What do you guys think?

50 comments:

Christina T said...

Great post! This is what makes fantasy writers like Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon stand out from the crowd. Malinda Lo's Ash is the first YA fantasy (and only as far as I know) that features a gay heroine which makes it groundbreaking. I recently read Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon and it is refreshing to read about a fantasy character who is Asian (that is not the only reason I love the books). I was sad however that the publishers chose to change the cover of the first book from one that reflects who Ai Ling is to one that depicts a girl who could be white and resembles covers for many other YA paranormal series. It was done in an effort to draw more readers in (and of course make more money for the publishers).

It would be great to see more diversity in YA fiction in general however if white/straight/able bodied authors struggle so much to write about people different to themselves then their efforts will probably not be very well written.

I have read two fantasy novels featuring South Indian main characters (like myself). Both books were written by white people and I could not identify with their characters. I'd rather have good fiction than mediocre fiction that stands out solely because of the diversity of the character.

What I'd like to see: white authors stretching themselves to write good fiction that reflects the real world as well as more publishing opportunities for talented authors who reflect our diverse society.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Christina. I'm SO with you on Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon - and I was disappointed with those whitened up covers too, although I think Ms Pon made a point of saying she was grateful that her publisher was willing to keep investing in her work, although the previous cover had apparently put a lot of the big chain bookshops off carrying it (craziness!).

I think the important thing about those writers whose work you didn't indentify with is, at least they were trying. Maybe that first attempt didn't grab you, but hopefully the more they open their minds the better and more convincing their work will get.

Shveta Thakrar said...

Everything Christina said. (Christina, what are these books you read? Being of South Asian descent myself, I'd love to check them out.)

And yes, sometimes the end result won't be great, but that's like with anything. For now, the more we talk about this stuff (and I've been preaching and probably boring everyone on my LiveJournal about it for the past couple years), the closer we come to real change.

Yes, Western publishing in general doesn't seem to get this yet, but times are changing. We still have a long way to go, but we'll get there. I believe that. In the meantime, we keep talking and making conscious choices. For example, I am working on an Indian-folklore/mythology-based novel for young adults, because I haven't seen anything like it in the North American market. Maybe I can start a trend. :P

Finally, Zoë, you did you part by writing what you want to see and making those deliberate choices. When people have privilege, it's hard to want to see past it, but who knows what seeds you've planted just by writing this post?

Nini V. said...

This was a fascinating post. I would love to see diversity, especially in YA. The protagonists are all the same. White, female, whiny... But I'm getting off point. I'm black and female, but when I create characters, their looks come naturally. Sometimes they're white. Sometimes they're black or Latino. I think that's what I'm trying to say: while you want people to get out of their comfort zones, diversity in fiction has to come naturally. If not, stereotypical and/or token characters would be created (like the ones you hilariously pointed out).

Have you read "The Hunger Games"? One reason that I love those books are the characters. Katniss, the main character, is described as olive skinned with dark hair. Another minor yet important character, Rue, has dark brown skin, dark brown hair, and dark brown eyes. This diversity (race is never mentioned in the book, though) came naturally.

As I've said, I love this post. One of my story ideas is a high fantasy world built upon the lack of diversity, an idea I started on when I thought exactly what you wrote.

Thanks for writing this post (and sorry if it sounded like I was rambling...)

Zoë Marriott said...

Sveta: I cannot wait to see your fantasy novel! It sounds different and diverse in all the most rich and exciting ways.

Nina: The problem with hoping for diversity to come naturally is that for a lot of people it just never will. Important characters will only ever appear in their heads as white, and any characters who end up being different in the ms will only end up that way as an afterthought, instead of forming fully as an individual with a unique culture and history. The tokenism that annoys us isn't a result of any kind of diverse thinking: it's a kind of defensive action to AVOID having to confront this problem. So I think sometimes people need a kick up the **** to get them to open their minds and get them out of their comfort zone.

Shannon the BookStalker said...

I love what you've said here Zoe, it's so true, their isn't enough diversity in YA fiction. My biggest pet peeve is when a novel is set in a racially diverse city, like NYC, LA or D.C. and yet all the characters are white. Really, can we not think outside our comfortable little box?

Part of being an author is to share the world you've created with other people. So I don't understand how sticking to what you've deemed comfortable, is creating something new and exciting for your readers. If the novel is Fantasy, Sci-Fi or Dystopian you really have no excuse. Are we really suppose to believe that only white people will be living in these magical, futuristic or apocalyptic places. How ridiculous! YA fiction need to do a better job of showing how the world really is today and how we'd always like it to be seen, anything less is just not good enough!

Megha said...

Zoe, I love you. I really do.

You spoke my heart and thoughts out. I totally agree with you. I am an Indian, proud to be one. I don't know why *lots* of writers, from all over the world, glue themselves to white characters.

And I'm kinda annoyed by that. That's why I loved reading DotF. Not many books actually show people from different races. I've read dozens of book with the description: 'she had long, blond hair, blue eyes and fair, white skin'.

I don't see anything wrong with people from different cultures. I don't know why *other writers* do.

What you said, Shannon, is right. Part of being a writer IS to make your own world. If an author is afraid to explore other worlds, they are not an author after all. It's different writing historically set stories, but the majority of books these days are fiction and set in modern times.

But Zoe, the reason I love you so, is that it's coming from *you*. You're white, but you're open to different cultures. You absorb the info around you; you actually take notice of it.

Most authors only write about what they know. Jacqueline Wilson; all her characters are white. J. K. Rowling; all her characters are white. Why?

And today I feel glad I rambled on. Because I really think this is something the whole world should know. Every single author. They've got to open up.

How can they expect us to like their books if all the characters are white? How can we expect to think of them as a role model if they're not open to the changes around them?

By changes, I mean that cultures are developing. While the white culture has remained it's rank, other cultures have developed. Many, many other cultures. But if some authors have their nose so high up that they can't absorb information from around them, then I'd rather... read their books for the sake of reading, not for the sake of enjoying.

Nattasha said...

Amazing post Zoe I agree with Christina T although I have never actually read anything by those authors.

Zoë Marriott said...

Shannon: Yeah, I know! That was why I picked on the Mortal Instruments books a little, even though I LOVE them. Jace and Clary or the Lightwood family or Luke or any of the other Shadowhunters could have been black, Indian - any race! Mixed race! So why only white in the main cast? The author clearly wants to write diverse fiction, so what I think this shows is that the best of us are battling unconscious assumptions and we have to work to break out of those.

Thank you, Megha. Like I was saying to Shannon, what this shows is that when privileged people are nice and comfy in their privilege they DON'T REALISE it exists. They're not intentionally excluding people who are different. It just doesn't occur to them to INCLUDE them. Anyway, I think you are going to love Shadows and FF!

Thanks, Nattasha. You're one of the few people in the world that are as white (like, see-through skin!) as me, so it's nice that you're thinking about this too!

Deva Fagan said...

Thank you Zoe, for posting this. I come from the same position (white, straight, female) and I WAS that clueless privileged person writing books mostly about white characters without thinking. Then I read a blog post (I WISH I could remember where!) written by a young reader lamenting the fact that she could not find fantasy novels that she saw herself in (she was not white). And I realized I had the power to try to change that.

I do think that for those of us on the privileged side, it has to be a deliberate choice to, as you say, wake up: To chose to make our fantasy worlds diverse, and to dare to fail at it, in the hopes of greater change.

Alex Mullarky said...

The trouble is sometimes the characters can just seem like token "look, I'm showing diversity" characters. I rarely find it necessary to mention skin colour at all, because I think it's so unimportant that it shouldn't factor into my description unless it's necessary.

On the other hand, it does bother me sometimes that when I imagine characters, they are almost always white. It's not intentional, but I come from a very rural area with few other ethnicities, so people of other skin colours don't factor into my imagination as much as maybe they should.

That's why I loved this post! It gave me a kick up the backside to use my imagination more. After all, that is what writers are supposed to do. I just have to learn to use it (as you said above) in ways that don't readily occur to me from my priveleged world.

Zoë Marriott said...

Deva: You're exactly right, and usually the impetus to change DOES have to come from the outside - because when you and I (and so many other writers) were growing up, the books we read, with their all white casts, reflected reality as we lived it. Our privilege shielded us from the mere knowledge that the world was filled with people different to us. Yes, we probably wanted more books about strong girls once we'd exhausted the back catalogues of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, but it wasn't a complete drought. It's hard to imagine how it must feel to grow up and be, effectively, invisible, wiped out of the books and films you try to enjoy.

Alex: I often come across writers who say that they are colourblind, that they don't consider or describe the race or skin colour of their characters. Unfortunately, those writers are invariably white, because people who are not white don't have the option of being colourblind in Western society, just like gay people don't have the option of being indifferent to other people's sexuality or disabled people the option to ignore the way the world is designed for those without handicaps. I think this is a very interesting article that gives some insight into why white writers need to consider and describe their characters, to prevent them all from being *perceived* as white: http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html

need-tea said...

Ah, this is such a wonderful! Especially since I'm a mix (Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian). I like reading about characters other than your typical straight up white person. Not to mention in Hawai'i the majority of the population is ASIAN not white.

(I'm Krystle who helped you earlier. This is my better profile name. =P)

Zoë Marriott said...

Hi Krystle - thanks for commenting. It's so true - most places the population is a wonderful mix, and in very few are the majority white. That's why I don't like that term 'ethnic minorities' because it's so dismissive, and so inaccurate!

raggedyanndy said...

Thanks for the fantastic post! I'm also glad that you addressed various aspects of diversity. So many white people (in the U.S.) seem to think diversity = race = Black people. Sexual orientation, dis/ability, gender, and more are included. I'm also glad you called out Clare's Mortal Instruments. Reading them, I was happy to see realistic portrayals of gay characters, but a little ticked there was so little racial/ethnic diversity.

My one problem is with this sentence: "100% straight arrow people who have no gender issues are not the majority of the world." Saying "gender issues" makes it sound like being trans, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming is a problem for those people, when generally the real problems come from other (cis) people. BUT, on the flipside, it's rare that people outside of the queer community even recognize gender identity as a part of diversity, so props to you for that.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks for calling me out on 'gender issues' Raggedyanndy! You're completely right, and that's yet ANOTHER example of my unconscious assumptions popping out, even when I'm saying 'look at your unconscious assumptions'. I think what I was trying to say was more 'people who have (justified) issues with Westernised ideals of gender', but it didn't compute. D'oh!

Lauren said...

It's so good to read this post, and the thoughts of those who have commented.

I get especially irked by the lack of diversity in futuristic novels, lately. The world seems to become more mixed by the day, but I've read a ton of dystopians where everyone seems to be white and straight and I'm like, really?

I don't really like the idea of not mentioning characters' race in books, either. I think it's important that people see themselves reflected in books - or at the very least, that they don't see themselves as excluded.

I also have trouble getting my head around the idea that authors would think it's too difficult to create and write about a character who isn't the same ethnicity or sexual orientation as they are, just because they don't have that experience. I mean, you often get female authors writing male pov (and vice versa) and as far as I'm concerned, that's as much of a leap. I guess they're afraid of offending people, but I think readers are way more likely to be offended by a stereotype of a minority character... or no representation of themselves at all.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lauren: That's a really great point! A lot of authors are willing to put the effort into making that intuitive leap if they need to write a character who's of a different gender - but not one who has a different culture or skin tone? Not someone of the same sex but a different sexual orientation? That's just off. It's definitely fear holding people back, because if they don't try they can't fail and get accused of writing offensive stereotypes. The problem is that excluding people who are different is actually just as offensive - and hopefully more writers will soon start to realise that.

Isabel said...

Great post, Zoe! I think you're right - it annoys me when writers think they're being open when really they're not. I love DotF for that reason - you don't try to say 'Look! I've included a mixed race character in my book! Aren't I so open minded! I mean, they do only appear in three scenes, but isn't that so considerate!' You really depicted all sorts of races throughout your book, just like it would be in real life. It's hard to do that and takes a lot of open mindedness and courage. That means a lot to us people who are mixed-race and know that a very small portion of the world is white, straight, and completely able-bodied.

I want to heed your advice, but one thing troubles me. I make up my worlds, so how can I include, say, an Asian person in my story if Asia doesn't exist in my book? I'm Brazilian-American, and I'd love to be more open in my stories, but I wonder how I might depict it. I think I'd like my readers to sometimes just imagine the characters the way they want to, instead of me always saying 'this is how my character is depicted' and expecting them to go along with that. So I don't even know if I am excluding any races from my stories. A lot of it I leave up for interpretation.

I think another issue is having the main character be really beautiful. I like authors who change that, because it's not realistic for them always to be really good-looking. I'm not doing that for my character, because not everyone is absolutely gorgeous, and I want to remember that when I write. This way more people can connect with my character and feel as if they really aren't any different from them. I think what you've brought up is a real issue, and I'm definitely going to try to be as open as possible in my writing. Thanks, Zoe!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: I don't think that you always need to make characters in a fictional fantasy world directly analogous to races in the real world. You're making up your own lands with their own complex histories of evolution and migration, and people might easily have developed very differently than those on earth.

For example, in N.K. Jemisions THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, the dominant white race have wildly curly hair while the dark-skinned people have straight hair. A lot of people assumed that because N.K. is black her main character must be too, but actually on her blog she said that the main character most closely resembles someone from earth's ancient Mayan race!

People are always much more individual than a block of characteristics with a label on them like WHITE or BLACK or ASIAN. Just have fun describing your characters! Love your characters for who they are and luxuriate in their smooth brown skin or their icy grey, slanting eyes or their frizzy, golden hair, their freckles, snub noses, full lips, prominent brows, whatever! Don't force yourself to put a label on them like we do in this world. Let them be who they are in YOUR world.

Isabel said...

Yes. I have two kingdoms that are rivals in my story, and my main character's homeland is more dark hair and dark features. Sort of tan skin, I guess. And the people from the other place usually have lighter features, like blonde hair, sometimes red. I guess I already am pretty open.

Isabel said...

I mean, I'm creating my *own* ethnicities, which is pretty awesome, when I think about it.

cindy said...

christina, i want to thank you for reading Fury as well as taking the time to review it. i know many were disappointed by the cover change, but i really do feel the need to speak for my publisher. they gave (and spent $$) on a foto shoot so i had my first original cover, then, when sales were not as strong as expected, they spent more time and effort to repackage in the hopes that my novels will reach a broader audience.

to make more money for them? it goes hand in hand with being more widely read. to make more money for ME as an author, so i can perhaps sell more novels, instead of being seen as an author of books that was mostly bypassed by readers.

is the situation ideal? no. but since you have read Fury, you would know that the story is entirely mine. and *that* is what will always matter the most. THE STORY. who else is publishing a novel with an anti-hero who is a boy eunuch? my editor backed my vision for Fury and i couldn't be more grateful.

i write because i want to be read. making money is secondary, but i need to sell enough of my current books to make future sales of my unwritten novels be viable!

my cover change did upset people, but what upset *me* was that so many of them who were upset never bothered to read my book. much less supported the original cover by buying it, or borrowing it, or telling someone about it. and that didn't help my stories in any way, alas.

i AM grateful to all those who rallied for Silver Phoenix during that time, as it was a difficult one for me. but in short, covers are almost never representative of actual story, be it setting, dress, hair color, props, whatever. it's an ad to get the reader to pick up the book.

i don't belittle the symbolism and importance of diverse covers, but it's also important not to forget the importance of the story inside. support those stories. =)

thanks for your thoughtful post, zoe. and letting me vent, ha!

Zoë Marriott said...

It is awesome. Don't be trapped by the definitions of the world as we know it - create new terms and new races and new ways for your characters to define *themselves*.

Zoë Marriott said...

Cindy: Thanks for commenting! I love that you present the publisher's side of this - I think too often it is easy for people to assume that the publishers are the Big Bads in the industry, but in my experience people who work in publishing (especially ch's publishing) are passionate about books and love challenging, diverse fiction as much as writers do.

I really think that if we writers take the responsibility for writing the future we want to see, hopefully one day we will live in a world where publishers will never even have to consider changing a cover like that. And I LOVED Silver Phoenix, Cindy! I must update my website and put it on there...

cindy said...

zoe, that is so true. i know everyone at my publisher works hard and is passionate about books. thanks for reading Silver Phoenix. i'm glad you enjoyed it!

and Shadows on the Moon will be out in the uk? i hope so. i've had no luck selling uk rights so i'm really heartened that books like sarwat chadda's The Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess as well as malinda's Huntress will be on the shelves there. and yours too!

Zoë Marriott said...

Yep, Shadows will be out in July in the UK, and probably Spring 2012 in the US. I've had no luck selling rights anywhere but the US, unfortunately, but I hope that will change in the future (and the same for you!). Rights sales don't half move slooowly if you're not a bestseller. *Sigh*

Nate said...

Hey Zoe,

There are a few gem's in this article, so I'll definitely be tweeting to it. I'll also book mark it for a future spot in one of my "Article Hunts" =)

Anyways, race is one of those issues that I'm still getting my head around. I get rather torn up when it comes to this issue as I love learning about other cultures and other races. I'm especially in love with all things Asian. But at the same time I am very proud to be white and British and I am proud of my heritage, which is how I think everyone should be.

There are many reasons why writers mainly include an all white cast, though one of your previous commenter’s stated what I believe to be the main one. Writers don’t intentionally do it, they’re not being prejudiced it simply doesn’t occur to them. I do apologise but I can’t find the comment to directly quote from it.

I am all for seeing a wider ethnicity of main characters but at the same time there needs to be a balance to this. After all I believe it is very unfair to expect or even demand that white writers should have to write about another culture or race. That should never happen. If they choose to then BRILLIANT but most people write (and read) for escapism, not for political reasons. Therefore they want to imagine themselves in the story and I believe it is perfectly fine for them to do so.

So where do we get a greater diversity of heroes from?

Well I see these coming from 2 places. Firstly each ethnic group. There are talented writers who are not white as the poetry circle has shown that. So why are we not hearing from them?

Secondly and the one that interests me the most is an education in World Building. From reading through the comments and what I’ve studied and observed on my own I see that most people already have their characters before world building.

So when you’re trying to “open people’s minds” to writing about other ethnicities I’d come from the world building angle as opposed to the politically charged “race” angle. If someone came up to me and said:

“you need to include an Asian as your main character because it is your ‘duty’ as a white person to show equality.”

I don’t think I would show them too much kindness, as I find that rather offensive. However if someone pointed out an interesting part of my world - maybe due to geography, politics or some other element I’d created - then presented the idea of writing about a character from there I’d be much more open to it. I realise I haven’t explained this part well so I’ll come back and expand on it after a few comments and once I’ve thought some more on it.

Another option is to take charge yourself and lead by example. I think Cindy makes this point brilliantly:

“my cover change did upset people, but what upset *me* was that so many of them who were upset never bothered to read my book. much less supported the original cover by buying it, or borrowing it, or telling someone about it. and that didn't help my stories in any way, alas.“

There seem to be plenty of people in the world who happily stand on a soap box and preach about how bad it is that everyone writers about white characters. Yet when they have an opportunity to lead some actual support to a writer they vanish and merely stand on their box some more. I think you mentioned that you’ve written about non-white characters yourself so it’s good to see you’re helping.

As I say, this is a topic that really has me torn. Does any of what I’ve said make sense to you?

Right, off to tweet for you :)

Nate
The World Building School

p.s sorry about the SUPER long post.

Nini V. said...

Thought I drop back into the conversation. You're absolutely right about my comment about "natural diversity." You do need to kick them in the butts sometimes.

I love Alex and Lauren's comments and your response to them. I remember reading an article by Ursula Le Guin on her responding about the casting choices for "Earthsea." She too said the same thing about colorblindness, something that stuck with me.

I want to go back to Lauren's comment, about not pointing out someone's race. I have a small problem with that because it seems to be one-sided. I noticed that in most YA and children books a minority character will most likely be pointed out as that ethnicity. Yet the funny thing is, the main character (most likely white) is never "said" that they are white. We are left to assume that they are, but never with the ethnic minority characters. I know that, chances are, if a character is described as pale skinned with blue eyes and blond hair, then they are white. Yet, when a writer writes that a character is black, Latino, Asian and never writes that a character is white, it makes me feel that being white is a default choice.

Alex Mullarky said...

That's a really good article, thank you, Zoe. I was watching Blood Diamond last night (a very good film, but often very difficult to watch) and I could feel this guilt creeping over me: because by including characters of other ethnicities I feel a sense of accomplishment, as though I have done something charitable, and that's awful. Blood Diamond is one of those "real-world reminder" films which just makes you think, I'm not doing enough. One of those films that makes you feel guilty about your lifestyle because even the writer character in the film, a white journalist, was doing all she could to help the situation. I'm pushing at some deeper philosophical point here that I'm never going to be able to grasp so I'd better shut up. I guess all we can really do in the end is what's best for us in the sphere we know.

Hm. Don't know what to make of my own comment.

Also! I have to agree with Nini; it does seem strange to point out the skin colour of a character who isn't white, and never mention the skin colour of the white characters, as OF COURSE they would be. Very odd. But this is one thing I noticed in Daughter of the Flames, that I remember being impressed by even before this conversation came up: that the characters' skin colour was just a fact, and not pointed out and overdone.

flameraven said...

This is a very good post, and I totally agree. It's especially egregious in fantasy/sci-fi stuff, because you have an entire created world where anything can happen, and most people stick with a vaguely European, all-white setting. That's so boring. Especially since Europe was really not nearly as all-white as we tend to assume.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nate: "After all I believe it is very unfair to expect or even demand that white writers should have to write about another culture or race. That should never happen. If they choose to then BRILLIANT but most people write (and read) for escapism, not for political reasons. Therefore they want to imagine themselves in the story and I believe it is perfectly fine for them to do so."

I'm afraid I have to disagree with you very strongly there, Nate. Letting writers of any race, culture or sexuality off the hook by saying that it's unfair to ask them to include people different to them is silly. My post doesn't try to dictate to people - it merely points out the stupidity, narrow mindedness and unconscious predjudice that causes writers to erase people different from them from their own writing. Writers who never think to write about any gay character, any disabled character or any character with a different racial background ARE displaying prejudice. Unconscious prejudice, but prejudice nontheless. As another commentator pointed out, we rarely see male writers saying 'I couldn't possibly write from the POV of a woman!' or vice versa, and yet THAT is a much greater paradigm shift than writing from the perspective of a person with skin of a different colour. Refusal to write anyone who is different to you results in stagnation and complacency and NOT in better, more diverse and more realistic books, which is what I think everyone should want.

Nini: Your point is well made. I too have noticed that in many books, white is sort of the default setting and race/skin colour is only pointed out when it's something else. I make an effort in my own books to describe everyone's colouring, because to me it's *interesting*! But if I tell you that one character has blue eyes, blonde hair and pale, freckled skin and another has dark skin and soft, curling dark hair, I hope I've made them equal, in a sense. by not assuming that you will take either of their races for granted without a textual cue from me.

Alex: I think I know what you mean. That uncomfortable feeling is the awareness of your own privilege as a white person in our extremely messed up, racially unequal world. It's good that you know it's there - now you have the chance to examine it and try to overcome it so that you can become an ally for people who don't have the same privilege you do and who are also struggling to make the world a better place.

Zoë Marriott said...

Flameraven: thanks for commenting! I'm glad you liked the post.

Megha said...

Something I picked up from Nate's comment:

But an Asian person, when reading a book, would naturally imagine an Asian character. An Australian person would think of an Australian character. And so on.

So it's not OBVIOUS that someone's white. Internationally bestselling books SHOULD include a mention of culture. Even everyday stories should. We can't assume the world is white.

Something I picked up from Alex's comment:

If you want to know your character, you need to know their race. If you want your READERS to know your character, you NEED to know their race. Same sentence, different importance.

Isabel said...

Oh, Megha, that's a really good point! Thanks for pointing that out. :D

Isabel said...

I have a snow day, in case anyone was wondering why I'm not at school. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Extremely well put. Good work, little grasshopper :)

Anonymous said...

That was a great post, Zoe. I totally agree with everything said.

The only thing is, I think people need to be careful whilst writing from another point of view they are not used to. I could just decide to write from the point of view of an African person, yet not really understand their culture and how things work. Someone could fool themselves with loads of research and yet still not really know what it would be like to be from an African culture where things work very differently, and then risk offending someone more by writing about it in an unsuitable or British way. I can certainly not write about someone with cancer, because I have never had cancer and therefore have no experience of it. Tolkien is a good example of that. Some people would think that he just imagined everything in his world with his ingenious mind, but obviously he didn't. The reason he could write about wars is because he lived through one, fought in one, and lost friends in two wars. I'm not saying that you're not allowed to write about things you are not familiar with, as obviously this is not the case with fantasy and such (obviously you can write about anything in fantasy) But, I am a Welsh speaker, and live in Wales. I've always loved the language and fought over it, but if someone came from America and decided to write about the situation here, but had never really experienced it for himself, his writing would not be as close and personal to the Welsh people than if I wrote about it, or someone who had lived here all their lives.

Obviously, this is not the case with everyone. Some authors really have experienced situations like these and actually can write about another country as they lived here. But, the point is, not everyone has. I couldn't write about a life as an Asian woman, nor could I write about an African child with Aids. And that is why most people do not. Of course, when you are writing about something like New York or London, then of course you have to include diversity, because that is how it is in the real world and you can't change it. But, when it is set in the past or fantasy, as Tolkien did, of course people are more comfortable writing about what they have experienced. It's a natural thing, and that is why people do it.

But the reason that Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings wasn't because he wanted to show diversity, but because of the message. Many writers write to write a good story, but many writers like Tolkien or Jostein Gaarder write for the message and the morals in the story, and because it reflects life. What people write and why is completely up to them, but if you have no experience of something, you cannot write about it as well as someone who for example has battled disabilities all their life. They could write about it much better than I or any other privileged person ever could.

Alessandra @Out of the Blue said...

Loved this post, too. And I totally love Jem as well :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks!

Steph Su said...

Megha: I am Asian, and yet I imagine a white character for most books I read, unless I am told otherwise. Perhaps it is my American side coming out? I would LOVE to be able to naturally imagine an Asian person as the main character when I first start a book. Unfortunately, it has long been subconsciously ingrained in me, since my childhood, that whites are the majority, and thus it is "easier" to imagine them as the main character. I'm not condoning this sort of thinking, but it is the very real fact of what happens in my--our--world. It's a societal thing, definitely, and I'm still thinking about how we make take steps towards changing this attitude of minority deference to the white majority, and it is only if both whites and non-whites commit themselves to actively overthrowing these assumptions about racial makeup that progress can be achieved. I so wish your first point was true, but you make some wonderful points as well!

I appreciate that Nate was brave enough to state his opinion here. He does bring up the kind of thinking that so often hinders more progress from being made. Race is not simply a political issue; it is a HUMAN issue, so regardless whether you are writing and reading for escapism or for "political" reasons, it cannot be separated from its HUMAN relevance. We minorities are not dictating the majority and insisting that they show diversity in their writings: in the words of Paolo Freire, that is how we got into this situation in the first place, with an oppressor-oppressed dichotomy. The oppressed (in our case, us minorities) do not climb out of this unequal relationship of power by taking on the characteristics of the oppressors, by insisting that things be some way or another. It is only when both parties can engage in constructive and equal dialogue that progress will occur. There is no "me against you" going on; we are all trying to work for the same side. :)

Nate also asks the question: "So where do we get a greater diversity of heroes from? Well I see these coming from 2 places. Firstly each ethnic group. There are talented writers who are not white as the poetry circle has shown that. So why are we not hearing from them?"

We are hearing from them. But are we *really* HEARING them? Too often minority figures--and we'll just stick with writers in this case, since that is what we're talking about here--are seen as having to be the representative of their entire community. Whereas the same pressure is not demanded of white writers, who have the privilege of writing from a position that does not need to defend itself and its right to exist, be smart, contribute to the development of humanity, etc. There are other factors, too, like the fact that creative writing is not a career supported by many Asian families. But there are Asian writers out there. The sad fact is that when these minority writers are not actively writing about politically charged racial issues, then they are often not "heard," because obviously if race in a story is not constructed as a political issue, then race is irrelevant, right?

Not.

Zoë Marriott said...

Your comments are extremely shrewd and insightful, Steph, and far better expressed than mine! Thanks for responding.

N. K. Jemisin said...

Just saw this, via a link on one of your readers' sites; thanks for writing a brilliant article. At the risk of adding this too late to participate in the conversation, I wanted to point out one ironic thing -- the map at the top of your post. It's obviously an imitation of old maps designed before the real proportions of the world were confirmed; Australia is obviously too tiny, Antarctica is bigger than the rest of the world. But Africa is also far too small -- in reality it's far larger than the North American continent. South America is almost equal in area to North America. And so on.

One of the reasons why so many readers honestly believe that straight white, etc., people are the majority of the world is because the media greatly overrepresents them and underrepresents everyone else, yes; you're right to call that out. But another reason this happens is because so many of us -- all of us -- are badly educated. We've been the recipients of deliberately-skewed facts and wild supposition for centuries, most of it with a racist slant, and we don't even know it. We're not just encouraged to be "colorblind", but facts-blind -- and for those of us who protest this, we're accused of "revisionism", as if it's a terrible thing to want the unvarnished truth. Or as if revisionism hasn't already occurred.

Medieval Europe, for example -- the setting of choice for most fantasy writers. Zoe, you mentioned that it might be logical for a writer doing a European fairy tale in a European setting to have an all-white cast. But really, it isn't. Southern medieval Europe was, for a good chunk of time, ruled by the Moors; most influential families of the time (e.g., the Medicis) had some part-Moorish members. The Silk Road, which brought Chinese and Middle Eastern traders into Europe on a regular basis, was a major source of trade. It brought Chinese and Middle Eastern technology, too, that revolutionized European civilization -- the mouldboard plow, for example, and writing. Even the Nordliest of the Nordic types, the Vikings, had contact with American Indians long before Columbus; they shared Greenland with the Inuit until they essentially destroyed their environment and were forced out. Frankly, real medieval Europe was far more diverse than the all-white fantasy of medieval Europe that readers seem to think is so realistic.

So for readers like Steph or Nate, who find themselves defaulting to "writing white" because it's all they've seen, in fiction or in real life -- I used to do this, too. I had to start making a conscious effort not to. And I've found that it helps to study reality -- not the local, too-small-for-statistical-significance reality of our hometowns or the communities we grew up in, but the global and historical reality. Once I began to understand where my local reality fit into a larger tapestry, it became infinitely easier to write diverse fantasy. I just had to make my fantasy worlds look like the real world.

Zoë Marriott said...

N.K.: Thanks so much for responding! Your blog and your RaceFail articles were a large part of the inspiration for this post.

I actually chose that old, inaccurate map for the very reason you mentioned - because it's so ridiculously inaccurate, but still strangely reflects the way many people think. I should probably have captioned it to reflect that. D'oh.

You make such great points here, which make me reconsider this issue YET AGAIN. I think that's part of the process, to keep constantly revising our own understanding instead of expecting the world and our conception of it to be fixed. Thanks a million times for commenting! I'm really honoured :)

JChevais said...

OK. I'm going to leap on the bandwagon here and am going to admit right away that I haven't read all the comments so I don't know if someone has already said this.

What we read is what publishers have decided to let us read because it'll make money for them.

So... in North American cultures, this is largely about "the white/straight people" because that may be the larger demographic.

But North American (or rather, Western English speaking) publishing houses are not the only publishing houses, just like Hollywood is not the only place blockbusters are filmed. I like to imagine that each region of the world tailors output based on the demographic of the region. It wouldn't make sense for an Indian publishing house to crank out books with white MC does it?

Zoë Marriott said...

JChevais: White and straight and cisgendered and able-bodied isn't really the majority in North America, or anywhere for that matter. That's what the constant outpouring of media images has made us BELIEVE, but it really isn't the case. And people who are not white and straight and cisgendered and able-bodied really can't be expected to move to their own nation and set up their own publishing companies, you know! :) They (we) need to be reflected in the media. The real world needs to be reflected in the media.

Cherie Rosemin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cherie Rosemin said...

I know you posted this blog entry two years ago but I only just saw it and I would like to say something too. One thing about YA novels that really gets me is that there are never ANY asexual characters (not in any I've read, anyhow). Characters are straight, or occasionally gay or bi (and it's always nice to see that) but I would love, one day, to buy a book, get home, and discover that the MC is asexual.
I've heard that asexual people make up 2% of the population (but I reckon those people are just the ones who've realised and that there are actually more) and as an asexual myself I actually feel kind of proud about it. Although there are always people who look a you when they find out and you can just see their eyes are saying 'Oh, what a shame. She'll never fall in love or have children and she'll die alone.'
So I would really love to see it one day, because maybe more people would know about it, too. I told a friend I was asexual and they replied 'Like a plant? So...do you self-reproduce?'
I mean, seriously -.-
Maybe it's because people enjoy a bit of romance in books.
This post is so amazing, though, and I've sent a link to my writer friends. Thank you for being so brilliant.

Zoë Marriott said...

Cherie: I know of one YA with an asexual heroine and that's Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson. I haven't read it yet but R.J. is a phenomenal writer and reviews are great. I'm glad this blog was useful for you - and I've got your email. I wonder if you would mind me answering on my blog?

Cherie Rosemin said...

I just googled Quicksilver, and it looks amazing :D And then I realised that R. J. Anderson wrote the faery books, which I thought were brilliant, and if I hadn't just spent the remainder of my money on The Swan Kingdom and Shadows of the Moon I would go and buy it.
And The Swan Kingdom is really really good and even better than I thought it would be (and I was quite hyped up for it).
And yeah, that'll be fine :D

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