23 June 2006

On being black in fiction.

Recently read some interesting articles from Ursula K. LeGuin's site, as well as a super reply by Pam Noles.

Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
"I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time."
— Speech to the Book Expo America children's literature breakfast, June, 4, 2004.

And Pam Noles wrote about this in her essay called "Shame." This sprung up after the Sci/Fi network did a movie based on Earthsea -- totally trashed it -- and they made Ged and all his buds white as the pure-driven snow. Cause I guess wizards of colors aren't good for ratings?

And Pam wrote about reaching that point in Earthsea when LeGuin mentions that while Ged and Jasper were red-brown, Vetch was black-brown.

And because Le Guin snuck up on it, let us thrill with Sparrowhawk as he made his way, the Revelation came as a shock. I do remember bursting out into tears on the living room couch when I understood what was going on. And the tears flowed again when Mom came home from work and I showed her the book while trying to explain. Sparrowhawk is brown. I think he's like an Indian from India. And Vetch is black like from Africa. There's a bunch more and they have real power. Not the girls, though. But still they are also the good guys. It's the white people who are evil. And Sparrowhawk is also Ged, and he's going to be the most powerful one of them all, ever.

And I look at all my lily-white characters in Symphonians. And cringe.

I mean, I look at the diversity of kids in elementary schools these days. Even my nephew and niece, who are part Portuguese, have cinnamon skin and that black hair and brown eyes I love so much. Why can't my characters reflect this reality?

I've been wanting for ages to write a fantasy novel with all-black characters. I mean the dark-black ones -- what did Toni Morrison call them? Coal-rock? (I can't remember and I can't find my copy of Paradise on my bookshelves.) I'd have all the dark colors, maybe have a token white, just to turn the whole race thing on its head. I really think we shouldn't assume that all our MC's are white just because we see a lot of whites. That's because whites seem to have a way of making other colors feel uncomfortable. And I've done my share of dumb things in the past, though I don't do them again, Lord willing.

But the thing that really got me was that one of the characters I've known longest -- Roderick, one of my wonderful Symphonians, and one of my favorites -- has always been part Spanish. His mom was Spanish. The man has black hair and brown eyes, and I've had an idea that he's dark-skinned, but it never showed up on the page. Many times I've thought, "Well, heavens, he's got to at least look like he has a tan," but it never shows on the page.

And Yvonne could easily be Asian; I can see her looking like some wild anime angel to try and freak out her parents. Not to mention the butterfly tattoo and the crazy earrings.

I'd like to bring myself next to have my main character be of a different color, race, or heritage. But I'm shy of this ... what if I offend somebody is the usual excuse. "You can't learn all about being black just by listening to the Tom Joyner Show on the radio," I tell myself. I need to do more research. I feel it's important for all to be included in my stories. I know, I know, I'm writing about the human condition, blah blah blah. But I think it's important that we acknowledge the human condition isn't only about being white.


Lizzy said...

Insightful post. Thanks.

Lady S said...

what an awesome essay. as a white girl, growing up in "lily-white" Vermont, I had never really given any thought to it until I got to college (Virginia, 10% African American) and started reading more varied fiction. You make me want to read more. the only book i've read of LeGuin's is Gifts (I hated it), but I think I will try the Earthsea series now.

btw I found you via Big A little a who I found via GottaBook. I can't wait to read more of your blog.

Writerious said...

I'm always looking for diversity in fantasy, not just of characters, but of the stories themselves and the culture they're based in. We need more fantasy books that have something on the cover other than swords, elves, and dragons. Lloyd Alexander explored mythic cycles from other cultures in some of his works. I found one very good novel based on Hawaiian myths, and one based in Mayan culture, and there are the Tales of the Otori series, but these finds are few and far between.

Melinda said...

Thanks, Lizzy!

Lady S, I had the same problem you did. There were almost no black people around, it seemed, when I was growing up, and I always felt like you had to act different around them. It's so strange, the dumb mindsets I had. I used to always look at the color and worry about how to address folks. Now I've figured out, you don't look at the color, you look at the person.

It wasn't that I was evil to folks due to skin color or anything. But due to my ignorance, I felt constrained and all worried about how to talk. It is strange. I'd like to write an essay about it sometime, and try to work out what I was feeling and what it meant, and what it says about the society where I grew up.

You'll like her Earthsea series. It seems to end at "Farthest Shore," but about 20 years later she went on to write "Tehanu" and then more Earthsea stuff. I love LeGuin!

Octavia Butler is good too, though I can't remember any titles right now.

Writerious, I totally agree with you. I want to pull from all kinds of cultures in my dream novel. This medieval thing in fantasy novels has been played to death. Why not a fantasy set during the Napoleonic years? Or one that draws upon African myth, like the lady who wrote "The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm" and "A Girl Named Disaster"? Shoot, I can't remember her name either. This is bad. I better go to sleep!

TadMack said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TadMack said...

(Nancy Farmer, btw, is the name of the author you're looking for, Melinda!)

Thanks for this great post, which I also found via Big A little a's Carnival post. As a fantasy lover and also a writer of color, I've felt the same weird discomfort, only the other direction. My agent has been weirded out because I've written characters who are Caucasian in straight fiction, but after his initial panic, he was okay with it. It's hard sometime to avoid writing the dominant culture... You want your work to be read, to not be shuttled aside in a portion of the library or bookstore reserved for Black Fiction - never mind the genre or age group, but it seems sometimes the mindset is that black writers write for black readers, and there is nothing else.

It can be equally uncomfortable for writers of color writing fantasy with dark characters -- because what is there for me from which to draw? There is nowhere in history that allows me a castle, or a pennant or wimple or, God forbid, maids-in-waiting? It's all make-believe, of course, but when I do it, I feel weird, like I don't know how to play.

Tamora Pierce is a well known fantasy writer whose YA Circle of Magic series has a neat twist on traditional and typical in fantasy. Her character, Daja, is dark brown skinned, and her people were traders, and so was she. Also in Pierce's worlds are brown skinned warriors and smiths who work magics into metal. Her books were really fun to discover and read, and encouraged me to strike out in new directions with my fantasy ideas as well.

If you embellish on your Asian and Spanish characters, you will have readers who will be confused or uneasy, but you will have readers who are grateful to be included in the game. We want to play too!

Melinda said...

Hey Tadmack --

Glad you ran across my post! I'm the same way that you are, except I want to play with African, Native American, and South American myths, but there's no easy framework for me to use. I keep going back to that medieval mindset, because fantasy novels are supposed to take place in the Middle Ages. But this thing's been played to death.

Case in point: I found out that there was once a huge Indian city near where St. Louis is today, and a bunch of mounds where they held ceremonies, and maize all around as far as the eye could see. A real civilization that I can use, and research, and see with my own eyes! But I'm like, this wasn't like the medieval cities, there were all these separate little huts, not the big buildings. And I want a big church with a big plaza outside, just like they have in Italy ... and there I am, stuck in the medieval mindset again! I don't even know what Italy looks like! Cripes.

And then I'm like, but what if we tried it anyway? Just keep working at it ... trying to do things differently.

I want you guys to play too. The world ain't just about white people. That's another way I am trying to change my mindset. And the sooner the better.

cloudscome said...

i just found this post today from reading Big A little a's carnival of last June. I was so interested in reading about LeGuin's comments. I often write about race and kid's books on my blog. I'll have to keep reading your blog to see if you take this conversation further. Thanks for addressing it!