If you were building a paradise, who would you invite in?
Visualize it, your fantasy. Who would you exclude? People you hate, right? You have the power to make them the villains. You’re probably also excluding the people you don’t think about, if you really don’t think about them.
As a teen I wrote (like many teens do) a convoluted fantasy based on everything I loved: giant robots, dragons, bunnies, amusement parks, the collective unconsciousness, all that. It wasn’t a perfect, paradisiacal world, but it was as worthy an escape as Narnia or Oz. I was dedicated, absolutely dead-set on making it multicultural. I had all these charts and shit about families, surnames, origins, and population makeups; I also kept a running tab of the gender ratio. I remember rewriting some of the superhero police force to be improbably female, and keeping a handful of an indefinite gender.
My approach to race was cribbed from Diana Wynne Jones: you never need to state race, but you can hint at it. Give them olive complexions or wooly hair, a mix of physical descriptions. Readers can be lazy and skim it, or readers can be perceptive and see for themselves. The reader doesn’t always need to know, but you do.
Most of all, I made sure to use evocative existent names. Amal and Autumn say things about class, race, religion, and ethnicity that Qaa’vileth and Vubulax never could. I researched naming practices from Spanish patronymics and matronymics to Indonesian mononyms.
Why did I do all this?
Because it wouldn’t be a worthwhile fantasy if it didn’t let everyone in, or so I believed.
I was always more of a futurist, a utopia girl than a historical fantasy buff. The past has plagues and slavery and syphilis. Forget it! I was all about Bradbury and Asimov. Both, I’ll admit, featured a lot of #Anglo names, mostly men. (Susan Calvin was a notable exception.) Still, I couldn’t see the characters, so could picture a world for me. Based on their value that this future is for everyone, I believed that Bradbury’s future, that Asimov’s, and it was mine too.
Now that I’m older, I know that these futures "didn’t see race," meaning that they glossed over it to the point of erasing it. If I were to become more like that Space Age image of normal, maybe that would be my future. If I were to give up all these parts of my identity, then I could have that future.
Now that I’m older, I’ll tell you that that’s not the way to do it. Making the entire world a utopia by positing a unified monolithic culture that just happens to be yours . . . that’s never the way to do it, unless you want a provincial fantasy.
Here are some more tricks for a provincial fantasy:
1! Make all the main characters Just Like You. Make everyone unlike you Other, preferably a villain or barbarian.
2! Make the entire human race Just Like You. Call them a “race,” not a species, a “race.” Maybe make some other “races” that are dark-skinned and violent or almond-eyed and inscrutable, and so on. Basically, just borrow from stereotypes. But don’t use the phrase “species.”
3! Just don’t mention anyone but people Just Like You. Who cares if your settings realistically require the presence of other ethnicities and genders and social classes? All that matters is the people like you.
Et voila! You have a fantasy with niche appeal! That’s what you were aiming for, right?
I originally wrote with white people as the Just Like You demographic, targeting mainstream fantasy and science fiction in America and the western world and explaining that many embed racism into their world-building. Race is often the easiest intersectional issue for me to cover, but anyone can make a provincial fantasy. I’ve read a lot of manga where Japan is inordinately important. Every nation’s, every culture’s, every person’s first instinct is to be this egoistic.
And sometimes it’s fine. You might have a story set so far in the past that everyone was insular in that way. It would be authentic to write an Ancient Greek who believed their culture is the center of the world. But you need to do that with a critical eye. This is the 2010s; we’re PoMo now.
You can no longer expect your culture’s views to be everyone’s. Your history is not everyone’s. Your indie middle-class antics are not the story of a generation. You can no longer sit in your armchair, think about your friends, and make universal statements about the world. If you do this shit, you have to acknowledge that you’ve left people out and that those people have no obligation to read you.
It is possible to write about yourself still imply universality. Look at those tricks again. Do the opposite.
Here, I’ll give you a card.
People mistake it for being from the Race Card set, but that expansion pack is an urban legend. I am giving you an ultimate mythic rare, shining holofoil, limited edition, secret, banned-from-tournament trap card: Ethnic Shit.
“This card can only be activated by Persons of Color. This card allows you claim the status ‘not the target audience’ and to dismiss as ‘ethnic’ any form of media that fails to represent your culture’. This card frees its holder from the obligation to read ‘The Classics.’”
It’s a fight-fire-with-fire kind of thing. If you don’t have to check out Bollywood, then I don’t have to check out Glee. You don’t care about the Tale of Genji, I don’t care about Don Quixote. You don’t care about my classics, I don’t care about yours.
Personally, I’ve only used the Ethnic Shit card to escape Southern Gothic fiction. The rest of my reading is based on themes and topics: I’m attracted to everyone’s science fiction and postmodernism and repelled by everyone’s romantic comedies and military drama. I like Dazai and Kafka, not the Iliad or the Ramayana.
I also love Dragon Ball Z. I don’t know why black people love Dragon Ball Z, but you’ve got to admit that it’s ridiculously diverse. It has Asian people, maybe-white people, literally-white people, literally-black golliwog people, brown people, green-antennaed people, pink people, noseless people, monkey people, androids, talking cats, pigs. It’s a world that feels like you can belong, because anyone does, anything goes. It’s anybody’s fantasy.
Harry Potter, however, is strangely white for Great Britain. I joke that my favorite character is Lavender Brown, a minor character originally cast as black in the movies (I wonder why?). But then it turned out that Rowling pictured her as a full-blooded wizard, so, you know . . .
I never finished Harry Potter. It just didn’t seem like it was made for me. I’ve heard that it’s anti-racism, anti-discrimination, something about groveling slaves being freed from their happiness in slavery. I can’t remember if Rowling used “races” or “species.”
I’m not reading fantasy much right now. I know a lot of current authors, such as China Mieville and Neil Gaiman, have succeeded at capturing that believable cultural melange that makes books worth escaping to. A lot of short fiction uses the rules I first learned from Wynne-Jones. I’ve seen these rules applied to instantly create homey spaces, melting pot connotations, and character depth.
The rules are a guard against the card I’ve just given you. I don’t want anybody to have to use that card. It’s an angry, resentful thing.
There is a song that comes to mind whenever I see minorities treated just as badly in a fantasy world. Its bard is the late Tupac Shakur; its title: "I Wonder if Heaven has a Ghetto." I often wondered the same as a child. Does it, Tupac? I hope not.