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Diversity in SF and Fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Philip Overby, Sep 5, 2013.

  1. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    The hashtag #DiversityinSFF was going around on Twitter today, discussing what people thought about this topic. Later that day, someone shared with me this survey, which I filled out:

    A survey about SFF fandom | Mary Robinette Kowal

    My thoughts about it afterwords was "Wow, almost all the fantasy I read is only by English speaking, Western authors."

    That has always made me a little sad, being that one of my favorite writers is Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Since discovering his work, I've been eager to read more fantasy fiction from writers from all over the world. South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. These are places I've either read very little from or not at all. This in part with me not being a multilingual. If translations existed from more of these places, I may seek out their fiction more often.

    The topic also seemed to focus on depictions of gender and race in fantasy. We've had discussions about these topics with mixed results, but one thing that kept coming up on Twitter was the lack of diverse heroes SF and fantasy.

    So when I read about this, I thought we as a community at Mythic Scribes should be discussing these things. In order for our fantasy horizons to be broadened (both as readers and writers) shouldn't we explore more outside our comfort zones? Shouldn't we seek out translations of writing from authors that represent a whole new approach to fantasy story-telling? Shouldn't we try to read more fiction about characters that don't look and act exactly like us? Isn't that how the genre grows and expands?

    Chuck Wendig tackled this discussion and there are some comments about non-English speaking authors:

    Crowdsourcing The Essentials: Non-US, POC Sci-Fi and Fantasy? « terribleminds: chuck wendig

    My two questions are these:

    1. What are some examples that you've seen recently that seem to show a positive shift toward more diversity in SF and fantasy (meaning authors, characters, worlds, etc.)?

    2. What do you think could be done to improve diversity in SF and fantasy? (more translations from non-English speaking countries, more diverse characters when it comes to gender, race, or other backgrounds)

    Let's keep this discussion friendly and productive!
     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2013
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'll take this opportunity to put in a good word for the author of some of my favourite books: Tove Jansson - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The books in question are the ones about the moomin trolls: Moomin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Technically they're children's books, but even adults are able to enjoy them and I don't think that's just because I've loved them ever since I was a small child. Some of them, in fact, are way too dark/deep to be suitable for children - especially in this day and age (Moominpappa at Sea - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

    The stories are set in some kind of fantasy version of Finland, inhabited by all kinds of strange and interesting figures... and no humans. The world building is nothing like the kind we discuss here. It's more whimsical and playful than your average modern day fantasy world. Consistency gives way to amusement and fantastical and inexplicable things happen as if it's completely normal.

    The books have been translated to English and in my opinion the translation is pretty good. There are some losses here and there, but overall the general feel of the prose carries over well.
     
  3. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    In fantasy, diversity of characters is a product of diversity of settings. We have a lot of white males because a lot of fantasy is about settings similar to medieval Europe, and most history books that deal with medieval Europe talk about it in terms of white males.* If, say, you're writing about Africa like Jabrosky does, that won't come up as much.

    * I'm avoiding saying that white males were the "dominant" people in that time and place, since I'm guessing if I do so, someone who knows more history than me will name one or more queens who played a prominent role in that time period.

    Diversity of authors is a separate issue, and I'm not sure how it should be best approached.
     
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  4. SineNomine

    SineNomine Minstrel

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    Hmmmm, for the "positive shift" question I really don't want to break any rules about bringing politics into this, so I will try to be as general as possible. The recent events in the SFWA have been very revealing of two things; For one, they have shown just how far we have to go before the community of SFF authors is truly a safe, inclusive place for all, not just white heterosexual cismen. And they have also shown that, as a group, while we still have major issues, we always legitimately want to fix them. We want to get better. And that is promising.

    That deals mostly with authors, obviously, but it's an important barometer of whats present in the genre as the whole. Stories are profoundly influenced by the default assumptions of the author, and what isn't said in a story can be just as important as what is. Increased diversity representation in stories is a great first step when focusing on building the next generation of SFF authors. However, there is this horrible endless feedback loop of stories being written about western europe analogs starring white males, which then serves to inform those readers as to what fantasy fundamentally is. When they start writing, they tend to make those same assumptions. Someone, somewhere has to step up and try their hardest to break that chain of the harmful assumptions that SFF is only about or for certain people. And that can be incredibly messy since authors' hackles tend to raise the instant you mention something they "should" write about.
     
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    But SFF is not done only by white guys. First of all, there are plenty of females in the genre, and this has been true for a long time. Second, From Chesnutt to Delaney to Butler there have been black writers. I didn't know they were black until I happened to look them up, because it didn't matter: it didn't matter to the stories they wrote and it didn't matter to me as a reader. Nor did their religion, their sexuality, or their favorite baseball team.

    Yes, I know, literary criticism majors read all sorts of Significance into ratios and race. The one place it truly matters is if any sort of prejudice makes it harder for a particular work to get published. Getting published is hard enough as it is without the writer facing additional hurdles. But when it comes to the story, the author's race and gender matter no more than does the reader's.

    It would be amusing to write a short story in which an orc complains about how orcs are portrayed in literature. He would of course go on a rampage.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Read Octavia Butler. Great books, and she addresses issues of diversity in the stories.
     
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  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I have trouble seeing it as a priority to read non-Western books when you're reading to improve your fantasy writing. There's translation issues, and often a cultural gap - there isn't as much you can borrow in your own writing. And it just seems like your typical must-read list is long enough already. I don't mean to overstate, but you've got to prioritize the things that will help you most.

    That said, I think too-large-a-portion of the genre has gotten stale and repetitive in more ways than one. We should probably all be looking a little more closely at stories with out-of-the-box settings and more diverse characters.
     
  8. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    Some writers of colour who write stories about characters of colour in non-Western settings, but also write in English as to avoid the problem mentioned by Devor:

    • Saladin Ahmed, Arab-American, who is active in the #DiversityinSFF tag. His novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, was nominated for several awards and I'd recommend it. You can also read a collection of short stories by him for free on your Kindle, here.
    • Nnedi Okorafor, Nigerian-American, one of my favourite authors. The book I'd recommend for this website is Akata Witch, which is about a young black American girl living in Africa who discovers that she is a witch and attends lessons and events and fights a big bad. The backbone is similar enough to other, Western fantasy novels that you can really appreciate the worldbuilding and the characters. She also wrote Who Fears Death, which is for an older audience.
    • Malinda Lo, Chinese-American, who is perhaps better known for her lesbian retelling of Cinderella, Ash, wrote another novel called Huntress, which is set in fantasy!China. I haven't gotten my hands on that one, but I've read Ash and can tell you that she's a great writer.
    • Nalo Hopkinson, Jamaican-Canadian, who has written more books than I could recommend, but nearly all of which have strong Caribbean influences. Midnight Robber is probably my favourite by her. It's more science fiction than the others I've rec'd, but it's got a lot of fantasy elements, too.
    • Some others I'm less familiar with but will recommend for the sake of the list: Kiini Ibura Salaam, Karen Lord, Cindy Pon, Grace Lin, M. Lucie Chin, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Hiromi Goto.
     
  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Does Lauren Beukes write in English? If she doesn't, she must have a very good translator. (There's a thread about her buried somewhere in the Novels section.)
     
  10. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    I'm pretty sure she does, yeah. She's from South Africa, right?, so I'm guessing she speaks either that or that Dutch-ish language I can't remember the name of that sounds sort of like 'African'? I'm on my phone so I can't google it. She's definitely on my to-read list, I've heard great things about Zoo City. And it's nice to see a book cover that actually shows that the protagonist is black - it always makes me wince a bit when they whitewash the characters on the official artwork.
     
  11. Darkblade

    Darkblade Troubadour

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    I'm going to second Hiromi Goto and Nalo Hopkinson. Having not only read their work but done workshops under them (they are friends of the mentor from a young writers group I'm involved in) I can say that more people should be exposed to their works.

    I'd also recommend Silvia Moreno-Garcia an up and coming Mexican-Canadian author who just released her first collection of short fiction, just kickstartered the funding to take a year writing her first novel and has edited quite a few anthologies. Her urban fantasy captures the wonder of the natural world and the paradoxical blend of corruption and mercy displayed by society in a fashion that seems both deeply Canadian and Mexican.

    There is also Isuna Hasekura's Spice and Wolf series of light novels (illustrated novellas) about a ambiguously medieval European traveling merchant and a Shinto-esque Wolf goddess that he takes in going around from kingdom to kingdom trying to turn a profit. While both the anime style original cover and the western naked wolf-woman covers leave something to be desired the English translation by Yen Press is quite good and it presents an interesting view on the standard fantasy setting that you probably wouldn't get from someone as exposed to the Tolkien-esque mold as we are.

    You are on the internet so you most likely have at the very least heard of Nagaru Tanigawa's Haurhi Suzumiya series, at least the anime adaptation of it. Again these are light novels and therefore may seem quite short to western readers. None the less Yen Press did a good job with the translation, capturing the snarky narration overlooking a strange metaphysical look into the whims of a strange teenage girl (it's hard to explain more than that without major spoilers so I won't even try).

    Beyond looking going out and reading books by authors from other countries translated or in English originally we can also turn our attention to other cultures ourselves. Look at their mythologies and histories, draw on that research to build our worlds so that within time they become as tied to fantasy as Howard's barbarians and Tolkien's elves and dwarves. Just because you may be straight, white and male doesn't mean your heroes have to be. Go out, experiment, write as other genders and orientations, explore other races.
     
  12. Devora

    Devora Sage

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    Afrikaans.
     
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  13. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    Thanks everyone for contributing so far. I think that for us to move past only reading about medieval style fantasy, there needs to be infusion of different cultures into fantasy writing in general. I do love my fair share of medieval fantasy (A Game of Thrones being one), but I would like to get my hands on fiction that is told from the POV of characters I don't feel like I know already.
     
  14. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    I definitely agree that there should be more non-medieval fantasy, but I think it's important to diversify our standard medieval epics, as well. People of colour were certainly fewer in numbers back then than in modern Britain, but they weren't non-existent. After all, even the Knights of the Round Table had a Moor, aptly named Sir Morien. It wouldn't be hard to have at trader from the fantasy!Silk Road or a mixed-race bastard or two running around.

    Rec for non-medieval story: N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series. It's a fantasy version of Ancient Egypt, except without any of the usual 'curse of the mummy' and tomb raider nonsense that is the premise of, I believe, literally every other Ancient Egyptian fantasy story.
     
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I want to agree . . . I mean I do agree, we need more diversity. But we can't handwave the challenges. Is it really better to include racial diversity if it's setting after setting of medieval oppression? I mean, especially if those aren't themes that necessarily fit into the work. And in that kind of setting, sometimes good intentions still lead to portrayals that are panned as the opposite of what they're intended to be.

    Don't get me wrong - I'm not even working in a western-medieval setting at the moment. And I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm just trying to give a shout out to the fact that dealing with these issues can be extremely challenging, specifically when you're boxed into a setting that limits the available archetypes.

    If I had to suggest a solution, I think we should look at elves and dwarves and orcs - I mean, specifically, the way that we've taken these races and littered them throughout the genre. Is there a way that we can take modern racial experiences, insert them into the medieval setting, make them more flattering than backwoods tribal nations, and then litter that culture throughout the genre like we have elves and dwarves and orcs? Y'know, give people a better baseline archetype to work with.
     
  16. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    How oppressive is oppressive, anyway? I mean, the U.S. pre-Civil War was pretty oppressive to black people, but there was still a sizable community of freemen. (Massachusetts even had a black judge by 1848.) I'm not that knowledgeable about the medieval period, but one-size-fits-all models of oppression are often overly simplistic.
     
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  17. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    Depends on the story. Medieval Europe, though unquestionably racist, was largely pre-slavery, so the sorts of racism they experienced were more of the casual assumptions about their culture and language, a fear of the unknown, but not quite as actively oppressive. There is evidence to suggest that some areas, trading cities and Viking colonies, were even relatively accepting of their non-white residents.

    I would also point out that the vast majority of medieval fantasy is far from historically accurate, and you could simply include a Moorish trader without ever addressing the racism he may or may not face. After all, I don't expect (or desire) every story with a female character to deal with sexism, nor do I want every story about gay characters to deal with homophobia. Whether you go with a trade route city in a pre-Crusades and pre-colonization timeline or just take the BBC's Merlin route of 'colorblind casting' (if you will) with a black Guinevere and Latino Lancelot without comment or question, you can definitely include people of colour in your historical setting without having to deal with oppression and race issues.

    But I do also like the idea of just changing up the setting enough to account for the varying cultures, as we do with elves or dwarves. You could even just make elves or dwarves black/[email protected]/Asian and skip a step in the middle.
     
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Yeah. Okay. But none of those are challenge-free. "Blind Casting" can break immersion for some people or in some stories, and it would be easy to see a Moorish trader as a token character.

    What I would want to see is a whole new way to present racial issues in a medieval setting, something that would be closer to reflecting race in our society, that wouldn't portray everyone of another race as the distant Moor or tribal warrior or whatever-else we expect, and that we could copy-and-paste as prolifically as we do orcs and elves. I want to see a setting where the black knight, the black lord, the black wizard, and the black peasant can make sense without having to make it a big deal in every story. Is that too much?
     
  19. saellys

    saellys Inkling

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    You want a new way to present racial issues, without any potential for racism to be an element of the story? That treads dangerously close to making major omissions in the worldbuilding process. Attitudes about different races and cultures are an important part of the world, if not necessarily an important part of the story. I thought The Lathe of Heaven and The Steel Remains struck a particularly good balance of illustrating attitudes about the races of major characters without hinging those characters' arcs entirely upon their struggles in racist societies, but I don't know what you consider "making it a big deal".
     
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    That's a big misread of what I said.
     
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