Apr 022012

Most of what I post on this blog consists of fairly light stuff. If that’s all you want, well, this ain’t the blog entry for you. Come back next time.

Today, Salon posted an article by Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon. (Which, BTW, you should go out and buy right now. It’s fantastic.) In said article, Saladin raised the issue of race in the Game of Thrones HBO series. You can read it here.

A lot of the responses are just plain stupid. Accusing Saladin of reverse-racism (untrue if you bother to read the article), claiming he called GRR Martin a racist (untrue if you bother to read the article), or just spouting their own racist screeds. I’ve no intention of addressing any of that. It speaks for itself.

No, I’d rather address some of the responses that sound a lot more reasonable–and that the people who espouse them probably believe are more reasonable–but which are just as problematic.

First, a quick primer on, well, me. I’m a straight, white male in America. About 99.99% of the time, I will never have any idea what it’s like to truly experience discrimination. That’s simply the way it is.

I’m also Jewish. And for about a year and a half in middle school, a serious rash of antisemitism tore through the popular cliques and made my life, and the life of several others, pretty much miserable. I do not–let me say that again, I do not–claim that that’s the equivalent of the true persecution that others have experienced. I’m not claiming an equality of viewpoint. In fact, the whole point of this is that, despite some tiny shreds of a similar experience, I’m coming at this from a very different place than Saladin, or Nnedi Okorafor, or any of the others who have written about this recently.

So, back to my point…

Let me paraphrase two of the responses I’ve seen to Saladin’s article. First:

“I agree with you, but there’s no reason to be so defensive about it.”

Uh, what? If this was the only instance of something, then yeah, it might be advisable to let it go. But if it’s a pattern? If it’s endemic? Why the hell should people not be defensive about it? Why shouldn’t they speak up? It’s not like it’s changing on its own.

Try experiencing this sort of thing for years and not being a little offended by it–and reasonably so, I’d think.

But that’s not even the biggest deal. Here’s another response I’ve seen:

“”Why is it absolutely necessary that novels, films, and TV conform to the realities of real-world culture, society, and demographics? Isn’t the whole point of fiction to create realities that don’t conform?”

Wow. Where to start?

I’ll start with this: I firmly believe that the person who wrote the response that I’m paraphrasing meant no harm. But it’s a position that attempts to reason from a mistaken starting point.

First problem: Our own cultural reality isn’t remotely integrated or equal, for all that it’s supposed to be. So let’s not pretend that this is the reality from which speculative fiction should differ.

Second problem: It’s really damn easy to say “It’s just fiction, it’s supposed to be different, don’t take it so seriously” when you’re not the one being marginalized across the damn board. When you’re not the one being told, over and over again, “We’re not going to tell/read stories about you. You’ll have to settle for reading about the guy next to you.”

So, let’s look at those fantasy settings that supposedly combine humans of different ethnicities. Pick a fantasy series you like–any one–that includes both white/pseudo-European and non-white/non-pseudo-European characters.

Okay. In how many of them is the main character–or, if there’s a group of them, more than one of the main characters–of the latter variety?

I’m waiting.

(Some of you are already yelling out the names of series where that is the case. Well, yes. They exist; I’m not saying they don’t. But they’re rare as a bald wookiee.)

How many fantasies that aren’t set primarily or entirely in the Middle East (or a fantasy equivalent thereof) focus on an Arab as the main character? How many on a black character? A gay character? When they happen, odds are that’s the entire point of the book; it’s a gimmick (even if a well-meaning one) on which to base marketing.

Why can’t they just be there as more than a token?

Why does “It’s a fictional world, it doesn’t have to correspond to the real one” always leave out or marginalize the same people? Find me a fantasy–not a historical one, but one set in a secondary world other than Earth–in which the overwhelming majority of the characters are something other than white, with the white characters making only cameo appearances? Where’s the secondary-world fantasy that assumes everyone looks African, or Vietnamese, or Native American, or Indian?

If it’s not based on the real world, why is it the civilized peoples are clearly Western European knock-offs? Why do we assume that the default template is white/European until and unless there’s a story-based reason to do otherwise?

Again, sure, there are exceptions. Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I mentioned earlier, is set in a secondary world that’s obviously inspired by Arabia, but isn’t a direct port. But they’re far, far in the minority.

Some of you will cite sales. “Fantasies set in non-Western analogues don’t sell as well. Fantasies with black characters on the cover don’t sell as well. The publishers and filmmakers are just responding to the market.”

Do people really not see the problem with that?! Are people really going to excuse behavior that is at best insensitive, and at worst downright racist, by pointing to other insensitivity and/or racism?

And by the way… I’m as guilty of this as anyone. There are few non-white characters in my novels to date. And you know what? That bothers me. I apologize for it, and I’m working on fixing it.

That shouldn’t be viewed as “an agenda.” That shouldn’t be stamped “PC” and scoffed at. It should be viewed thus: Authors write about people, and hey, not all people look like me.

How about, instead of assuming that everyone who brings this topic up has an agenda, or getting defensive about how racist you’re not, stop to consider it from their side. Maybe they’re not calling you racist. Maybe they just feel like the genre they love as much as you do should love them as much as it loves you.

Think about it. And go buy Saladin’s book.

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  23 Responses to “In Which Ari Gets Fed Up and Dives Into the Discussion”

  1. Hi Ari:
    Excellent post. Have you analyzed your own reasons for why your novels have had few non-white characters? It might be beneficial for others to understand your own rationale of why you did it. And kudos for stating you are trying to fix it.


  2. I know EXACTLY why that’s been the case. It’s because I rarely bothered to try to break out of my own immediate headspace. It wasn’t a deliberate, conscious choice to EXclude; rather simply a failure to think to INclude.

    And honestly, it embarrasses me. We’re none of us where we want ourselves to be, I think; this is one place where I’ve clearly fallen short of my own convictions.

  3. I would think that is a common reason why many writers have failed to do the same. Which is why articles like Saladin’s are great for bringing attention to an issue that some of us do not think enough about. And I have read Throne of the Crescent Moon and loved it.

  4. “Which is why articles like Saladin’s are great for bringing attention to an issue that some of us do not think enough about.”

    Precisely. I wish more people would view them that way, rather than immediately getting defensive about it.

  5. Well said, and certainly something I want to try harder on myself. I will say that of my own novels, my favorite is The Queen Of Stone, precisely because it focuses on the non-human cultures; I think when it comes down to it I was more interested in Sheshka than Thorn, and according to some reviews it shows. Yet even there, the mere fact that she’s the QUEEN of Stone already points out the fundamentally western trappings even of the monstrous society. One of my favorite series is Tanith Lee’s Tales From The Flat Earth, because the overall flavor is very different from the traditional western fantasy. In any case, thanks for bringing it up and I’ll check out Throne of the Crescent Moon.

  6. The whole point behind good fantasy and sci-fi should be that in obscuring the restrictions of the real world, it allows a fuller discussion of subjects that are applicable in the real world than would survive intact in non-fantasy/sci-fi. There are some few examples that come to mind, but they’re few and precious and often redeem otherwise complete crap from the toilet of history.

  7. Um, Conan? Tarzan?

    Conan is clearly not “western” or “civilized”.

    If you just want to hold them up as problems because they’re white, then … ok I guess.

    But the fact remains that plenty of classic fantasy isn’t “all white, all the time”.

    The problem seems more hollywood than the books themselves.

  8. Conan and Tarzan are white characters in settings where just about every single non-white character is a savage of some sort or another–and, at least in the case of Conan, more often than not the villain of the piece. Trust me, the old pulps are the LAST books you want to bring up in defense of racial equality in fantasy.

    And I didn’t say the problem was always Western European analogues. I said that WHERE those analogues exist, they’re usually portrayed as superior or primary to the story.

  9. What tripe. Honestly. If you authors would put as much time into not rehashing the same tired fantasy themes of R. E. Howard and J.R.R.T. as you do into these senseless soapbox diatribes you’d sell a lot more books.

    Saladin’s book keeps getting recommended to me, but I like stories from authors who are interested in telling a story, not pushing an agenda, and the more I listen to this guy on podcasts like sfsignal and the more I read his articles, the more I’m convinced that this guy is the Charlie Sheen of the written world.

    ASoIaF too white? What a joke. Posted by a fool on fool’s day.

  10. You were right, Ari. The moment you said ‘name a series’ I started yelling Steven Erikson back at you along with others. :D

    People, authors, write about what they know and what they would like to create. Also, what they are comfortable with and most people are comfortable with what they know and are familiar with.
    If a white author were to write a series with a predominately black cast (I’m sorry if that’s not the politically correct term, I mean no offence) they would likely come under fire for misrepresentation or the likes. Race is a double edged sword and no matter what you do and how sincere your intent is someone is ALWAYS going to preceive offence at it.

    Perhaps, instead of looking only at why white western authors write predominately about white, western-like characters we should also focus on trying to promote writing amongst those groups who are under-represented in fantasy. Encourage them to become writers themselves and to help them to represent themselves. I know it isn’t as simple as that but I think in a western dominated market it would be, amongst other things, refreshing to have new authors from different backgrounds publish novels that don’t confirm to the current standard – novels that highlight other cultures, views, races etc.

    I don’t understand how people can mistake someone’s own displeasure with a situation as being racist and/or of accusing others of racism. People far too often read subtext where no subtext exists.

    Great blog post, Ari. And I’ll be sure to add Saladin’s book to my basket the next time I’m in a book store.

  11. Chucked: Sorry you feel that actually writing about a variety of people is an “agenda,” or that it’s somehow contrary to telling a story. You’re missing a lot of really good fiction.

    I’ll thank you to refrain from the personal insults, however–and that includes calling someone a fool because you don’t see where they’re coming from–if you’re going to continue posting here.

  12. Well that’s an interesting response Ari. You just spent 1,100+ words telling us what Saladin didn’t say, as a response to comments left on his article you felt missed the mark, only to turn around and completely fabricate what you think I said.

    I never said anything about ‘writing about a variety of people’ being an ‘agenda’, or that doing such had anything to do with being contrary to ‘telling a story’.

    And sorry about the fool comment. Naturally, given you referred to these people’s comments as “stupid” I thought “fool” was a much safer if diminished version of the same that adequately coupled author with the quality of the argument presented.

  13. Hi Ari.
    I can telll you why my stories (when my story takes place in our world or close enough) don’t have people other than my own ethnicity. It’s because I don’t know people of other ethnicities well enough to write them.
    I’ve thought about this a lot, and wanted to include a non-white character in my stories, just because there are so many non-white people in the world.
    In many of my stories, I don’t describe the character very much. So that people can put any kind of ethnicity on them they want. I’m not sure that works.
    I’m including a gay character in one of my stories. And I’m not sure I’m getting him right either.
    Maybe this sounds like a lame excuse. I don’t know what else to say.
    It’s harder than you might think.
    The people I am acquainted with on twitter are wonderful people. But they have their own interests, their own feel. I don’t think I can write them authentically.
    What I can and will write is people in alternate worlds that I create, where colour or race has no relation to our world.
    Great blog Ari. It’s something that definitely needs improvement. From now on, I’m going to think more diversely about character when I write.

  14. I’m with Loki on this one (whoa, did I just agree with the trickster god?).

    The “write what you know” thing influences even SF/F. When it comes to representing other races and ethnicities, a lot of white writers who grew up on the Western canon go with what feels familiar. I agree that one way to fix this would be to encourage writers who are themselves from underrepresented groups… but I’d be even more explicit than “encourage”: BUY THEM.

    Yes, it’s shameful that many publishers whitewash and quietly endorse an unfair status quo because they’re thinking about their bottom line. Shaking a finger at them isn’t going to make them change, though– giving them something to THINK about on that bottom line will.

    I’m a (white, female) public librarian responsible for the speculative fiction collection at my library, and I actively seek diversity in my collection. (I’ve had Ahmed’s book on my shelves since mid-February. ;) ) So, my advice: read out of your comfort zone. Buy SF in translation. Buy minority authors, and titles that feature minorities and non-Western cultures. Read fairy tales from all over the world to your kids (the Lang fairy tale books are a good start; the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library series is even better).

    If we read more diversely, we’ll be better equipped to write more diversely. Hey, we’re all about exploring strange new worlds, right? Maybe it’s time to start with this one.

    (Oh, and series, just off the top of my head– Octavia Butler’s Parables, Maurice Broaddus’ Knights of Breton Court, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, Catherynne M. Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, Caleb Fox’s Zadayi Red, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Spirit Binders, Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles… okay, stopping now.)

  15. If you want to see less Western-focused fantasy, have you considered reading more books by non-Western authors?

    It’s not like the USA’s the only country in the world with writers in it. There’s lots of literature written by non-Westerners. And – unsurprisingly – the protagonist characters in those books tend not to be white. African authors usually write stories with black protagonists, Middle Eastern authors usually write stories with Arab protagonists, Chinese authors usually write stories with Chinese protagonists, and so on.

    Are they doing something wrong by tending to make their characters look like themselves? I don’t think they are, but I guess you’d disagree. But in any case, that would seem to be the place you should be looking.

  16. Chucked:
    Howard and Tolkien were not 100% original. Both authors, and especially Tolkien, had numerous influences, borrowing themes and ideas from a multitude of sources. Just as many fantasy others do so today.

    Saladin’s novel is an excellent story, and if you read it, you would not feel as if the author was pushing any agenda with it. He is merely interested in writing a compelling story.

    Who are the authors that you enjoy reading?


  17. I also feel that author Howard Andrew Jones should be highlighted here. He is a white male, but has written some Arabic based fantasy, including The Desert of Souls and Waters of Eternity, both which I highly recommended.

  18. I agree with both Loki and Kyeikki.

    It’s like when people complain about Hollywood ruining the film industry…meanwhile the worldwide film industry is currently flourishing with original material. Hollywood is only one place on a massive planet full of cultures.

    When it comes to fantasy and sci-fi, Kyeikki is right…you only have to look at other countries to see great, great work. Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series, which has a decidedly Polish flavour (even in translation) and has not only been translated worldwide, but has spawned a series of very successful video games that are quite popular in North America.

    Cornelia Funke is one of the most successful YA authors, and she writes with a distinctive German folk-tale voice.

    Look at the contemporary literature section for a clue. Are author’s of other ethnicities finding success by writing about the West or Caucasians? No, very popular author’s like Indian Arundhati Roy (writing about Indian mythos and culture), Tatiana DeRosnay (French culture and history), Steig Larsson (Swedish culture), Ai Mi (Chinese culture)…why do they do this. Because it’s what they know…and moreso it informs English readers about their culture. This achieves far more in my opinion than a Western writer attempting to turn his book into a Benneton ad and write characters of ethnicities he/she does not know…or worse does so and represents them poorly. In fact, many recent top ten lists are author’s from various cultures and countries doing exactly what we say which is write what you know. No one is asking Arundhati Roy to put more white people in her books…

    I feel the disservice actually comes from complaining about Western SFF, and completely disregarding the work out there done by authors from other countries who write in said genre and are well-received by critics and fans alike. Posts like this one Ari seemingly dismiss them as not worthy of pointing out [or the myriad of North American authors who do put many ethnicities as heroes (Steven Erikson's Malazan to name one) or Homosexual heroes (Richard Morgan's land fit for heroes series) ] and only using examples that prove the point.

    How about Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife…one of the most successful books of the last year in North America, the whole book is a wonderful love letter to the 25 year old author’s Slavic upbringing.

    What I think I’m saying here is that focusing on North American or even Western SFF and wagging a finger at it is going to do no good at all. It truly isn’t. The key to changing things is most certainly in people like Saladin writing books about his culture like he has done, since I hear it’s a stunning book, but it’s also going to be a very true representation of his ancestry, and that can only inform the masses who read it. It’s why I tell people to read Koushin Toukami’s Battle Royale (since it is a very accurate representation of various aspects of Japanese mentalities – being Japanese myself), or THE Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko because it presents a post-Soviet Russia in a very accurate way…in fact it does so in the way that only a Russian author could.

    I’m not going to ask Martin to write stuff he doesn’t know…but, if he is writing the books with Westeros playing the role of a War-Of-The-Roses England (which he is), then how the Dothraki are perceived is exaxactly how they would have been perceived. It’s not until Daenerys is fully immersed in Dothraki society that she learns that it is not as the stereotypes would have her believe. That’s the POINT of showing them as barbaric through her eyes to begin with, so that when the revelation comes that though different, they are just as human and heroic or fallible as Westerosi are.

    My four cents.

  19. An excellent post, Ari. Saladin doesn’t deserve the trolls he is getting…but maybe his increase in sales will be a golden lining out of this.

  20. Allow me to recommend another book featuring non-caucasian-analogue main characters living in a non-European-analogue epic fantasy world: Range of Ghosts, by the inimitable Elizabeth Bear.

    Temur’s an exiled not-Mongol prince, grandson of the Great Khan. Samarkar’s a not-Chinese former princess who gave up her title (and her womb) to become a wizard. Hrahima’s a giant atheist tiger-person. They fight crime! (Also, hordes of not-Hashishin assassins, and swarms of blood-drinking ghosts, and giant electric grave-worms, and a roc.) It’s set along a rough analogue of the Silk Road, where the actual sun/moon/sky/stars change with the borders, because the gods are apparently actually dead serious about commemorating the divine right of kings.

    According to Bear, she decided to write a world where the Europe-analogue never happened. It’s an excellent book.

  21. My comment kept getting longer, so I just turned it into a blog post of my own. My basic question is: given we’re talking about fantasy worlds with analogues of real peoples and cultures, rather than historical fiction, is it really about the appearance, or the cultural norms? If you can’t write an authentic “young Egyptian”, say, is writing about a people who look like, say, Mongols, but have an invented culture that isn’t based on real or imagined Mongol culture an improvement over populating that same invented culture with Anglos?

  22. I’m in a very similar position to you, Ari, in that I grew up in a community with very few non-white residents. My first book is set in 16th-century England, where there were quite a few black people around – but because of their comparative rarity, including one in my cast of spies would have been difficult. Not impossible, but this being my first novel (that I actually completed, not just published) I decided to stick to familiar territory.

    However for this second book I’m venturing further afield, into the eastern Mediterranean, and trying to make my cast both more diverse and more accurate with the help of friends who have more experience of these cultures than I do. After all, writers go to experts all the time for other topics – why not race, gender, etc?

    I’m more and more convinced that my next project ought to be a secondary world fantasy where I have more freedom to include diversity and tolerance than if I write in my comfort zone of European history…

  23. Ari, interesting points on a topic that is challenging to approach without getting lots of people all wound up.

    I think the more interesting angle on this subject is discussing the opportunity for authors who choose to portray different characters and cultural perspectives, instead of noting that “fantasy is just too darn white and why is that so?”

    (Not saying that you or Saladin are saying that, but I can see more than a few people using that kind of shallow short-hand description in their thinking)

    I think most authors write what they know (are familiar or comfortable with or that conform to genre traditions and expectations), often subconsciously. (Heaven knows I do it subconsciously.)

    This discussion may be very useful and encourage a few of them to try a more diverse cast. With the opportunities in publishing directly on Amazon and others, there’s no reason for alternate voices not to be heard. I think authors interested in such perspectives have a real opening here.

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