Oct 28, 2008
Writing about race in fantasy novels
Last week, author Mitali Perkins posted her Ten Tips on Writing Race in Novels, which resulted from a lively discussion on her blog about whether authors should describe race at all. It’s been really interesting to me to read her tips. Like most readers, I’ve encountered the food-related descriptors (coffee-colored skin) and groaned. I’ve also found it surprising and a bit unsettling when a character just comes out and says “I’m Asian American,” as Min does in Brent Hartinger‘s Geography Club and sequels. It’s unsettling not because I think that Brent did a bad job, but because of my own experiences of being an Asian American teenager. Min is much more self-confident about it than I ever was, and it was startling for me to realize that.
Which brings me to my own book, Ash, which is a fantasy. Where or how does race fit into fantasy novels? I’m not talking about orcs or goblins; I’m talking about humans. It’s been my experience that most humans in fantasy novels are white, and when you think about it, the descriptors that we Americans (or people of Earth) use about race simply do not apply in most fantasy fiction. There are no African Americans in fantasy because there is no Africa (usually). So what do you do?
Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. Most of you know the Cinderella story. There’s Cinderella, and then there’s Prince Charming, except in my book Prince Charming is a woman and she’s not a prince(ss), either, but for simplicity’s sake in this blog post, I’m going to refer to her as Charming. So, Cinderella meets Charming. They fall in love. I’ve always envisioned both Cinderella and Charming, in my book, as Asians. For the few people who have read a draft of my book so far, this might come as a surprise, because that is never explicit in the story. But why should it be?
I do agree with Mitali Perkins’ third point when it comes to the specific case of Ash: Respect your readers’ right to cast the story. I do describe my main characters’ physical appearance, but not terribly specifically. I want readers to imagine the Charming that they would fall in love with, because everyone has different tastes. But for me, she’s Asian. Except she has green eyes, because, frankly, I’ve always liked green eyes and she’s Charming, you know, and that’s how I see her. So I guess to be specific using terms we are familiar with, she must be biracial, or Hapa. And so is Cinderella, because she has brown hair.
(In case anyone is wondering, I am also of a mixed-race background, which may be why I started out with that as the default option for my characters. There are other characters in the book who are distinctly Caucasian, though.)
Can you imagine how bizarre it would be to insert the term “biracial” in a fantasy novel? So I left it without the specifics. If anybody asks me what race the characters are, I’ll tell them what I think, but really, it’s up to the reader in this case.
When it comes to fiction set in the real world (as in Earth), I actually think it’s necessary to explain a character’s ethnic and racial background. I realize it can be difficult, but race is always there in real life — it never leaves my side, haha — and as an Asian American writer, I want to write myself into the story. Other writers may not see that as a necessity for them, and that’s fine. For me, it will always be something I consider, just like I’ll always consider a character’s sexual orientation. Those are foundational for me. Race and sexual orientation influence the way the characters are seen by other characters, and the way they interact with them.
So I guess I have two different rules. In a fantasy world where there is no racial distinction, describing race is unnecessary, although I see my characters through my Earthbound eyes as being Hapa. In Earthbound fiction, race cannot be left up to the reader’s imagination, because I believe it is fundamental to a character’s identity.