Dec 10, 2008
Writing about race in fantasy novels, part 2
A little over a month ago, I blogged about race in fantasy novels in response to an interesting online discussion about whether YA authors should make a point of describing their characters’ racial and ethnic backgrounds. I argued that in fantasy novels set in worlds that are different than our own real world, describing race can be extremely awkward–especially if the fantasy world doesn’t have the same racial issues as our real world does.
A couple weeks after that, Zahra posted a really well-thought-out comment about my blog post. Here’s what she wrote in part:
I think I must respectfully disagree with your perspective. I actually think it’s all the more important to include race of some kind in fantasy fiction, because the genre applies the white-is-the-default rule so often. …
Fantasy is supposed to be able unleashing the imagination, after all–why shouldn’t alternative worlds be colorful places? Why shouldn’t they have their own geographies, and ways of talking about ancestry that are similar or different from our own? … As for the technical questions of how you do that–the hardest and the most interesting part, I think …
I think that Zahra has a point, and she has made me rethink some of my positions on this. I think that if an author writes a fantasy world in which there are different races of humans, and if she/he writes that world well, there is plenty of room for race in fantasy novels. Of course, there will always be the caveat that each story requires a different set of rules for this issue.
I think that my discomfort with describing race in fantasy–especially in the fantasy world of Ash in particular–is that I am envisioning a world in which race, like sexual orientation, is truly unimportant. People are people, but without the tendency to categorize by race and sexual orientation that we as humans in the United States have. They categorize each other in different ways (like by class).
The problem is that reading requires two people–the writer and the reader. As the writer, I could write up a utopia in which everybody is of different races, but the reader might read everyone as being white if I don’t describe them as non-white. Similarly, the reader might read everyone as heterosexual, unless I describe them as queer.
I came across this problem, sort of, when I was in the revision process for Ash. How could I relate the fact that gay people are not out of the ordinary in this world? Baldly stating that fact would draw attention to it, which was not what I wanted to do. If something is normal (whatever that is!), it is simply not commented on. The problem with writing a fictional world in which it’s totally OK to be gay is that it’s going to be experienced by readers living in a world in which that is not true–and these readers will bring their own individual backgrounds with them to the book.
The fact that it’s OK to be gay in this world might actually fly under the radar. It might be overlooked. Just like the multicultural background of the characters. And for Ash, at least, I’m willing to accept that.
My next book, though, is another story, literally and figuratively. At this time I’m working on writing sample chapters for my publisher, and while I don’t want to say much about it before a significant chunk of it is out of my head and on paper, I can say that the world it is set in has clear Chinese overtones. I don’t think that my goal is to make it clear that the characters are not “white,” but I suspect that this will indeed shift the reader’s perceptions … at least a little.