Monday, July 5, 2010

The Trouble with Fantasyland

Being a black woman I have always been drawn to worlds that I could see myself in. I adored Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, but I could never finish any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books. Jordan’s world was rich with a diversity of human races - whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics - while the only non-whites in Tolkein’s world weren’t even human.

Few fictional worlds have histories of racial segregation and oppression such as slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow or Apartheid, yet often their characters and situations play out as if they did. The trouble with fantasyland for me is that there are just some places that I, as a black woman, cannot go – not even in my imagination.

One can argue, and many will, that conceptions of race in speculative fiction have come a long way. But I would argue that the more things have changed, the more they have stubbornly stayed the same.

Let us take the fantasy show “True Blood” on HBO. I discovered it this spring and I loved it. It was an intelligent twist on the standard vampire-falls-for-human story with complicated characters and a rocking good storyline. At least it was at first. By the second season, much of the subtlety of the show is lost amid the sturm-und-drang of witchcraft, sorcery, Gods and monsters that enters the storyline. And all pretence to racial complexity is abandoned as characters become more stereotypical: angry black girl Tara becomes even angrier and more spiteful; her alcoholic mother is no more than an ignorant bible-thumper. And the most vibrant character in the show, the flamboyant Lafayette, is brutally tortured for several episodes for a minor infraction. Throughout, I could not help feeling as if he were being punished for the crime of being an expressive black man. By the way, the white character who commits an even greater crime is never punished.

I suppose it is only to be expected that we bring our prejudices into the worlds we create. After all, many writers of speculative fiction write because we want to bring the inner worlds of our dreams and nightmares to life. However, I think more writers need to think critically about their creations.

I think we need to have more conversations about how we deal with issues of race in fantasyland. For instance, there is an implicit assumption in too many books that unless the color of a character’s skin is directly referenced, the character is white. Another example is having characters of African descent with straightened hair in a world where relaxers and weaves do not exist. Whiteness is the blank paper upon which other races are written.

Because this is a genre in which non-white writers are not well-represented, challenging these issues will be difficult. And it will be even more so for African writers of speculative fiction who are already dealing with issues of “authenticity” from audiences who feel we are inappropriately mimicking Western culture. Yet this is a conversation we need to join. As African writing moves onto the international arena, we must understand the field on which we will be playing. And we must be prepared to wade into the battle.


  1. So true. WE human beings have fallen into a pattern where we don't even think about these things any more and that is what is holding us back. I love the show too and I don't just want to see black but Asians and Hispanic too. Things are always more interesting when they are more diverse and realistic.

  2. You should check out the works of Charles Saunders and Milton Davis. Their fantasy fiction is African oriented and abundant with rich storytelling, high heroics and in-depth characterizations. Those authors are also members of the Black Science Fiction Society. There are other talents on the site that I think you'll find interesting.

  3. @Ronald, I just joined the Black Science Fiction Society and I must say, I was impressed by how much work is being done by writers of color. It is exciting!

    @Fuchsia, despite my ranting, I do love the show, I just fear it might have fallen into the trap many shows do when they become big - they get "mainstream" and lose all the quirky, thoughtful things that made them interesting in the first place.

  4. @Fuchsia, I agree 100%

    @Ronald, I'll check out those authors, though it might be a little difficult to get hold of them in my city. I've joined the Black Science Fiction Society and I am very impressed by some of what is going on there. It warms the heart.

  5. i think you also have to consider that a lot of speculative fic authors use their work to comment on certain subjects that are important to them such as race, capitalism etc. even though they create other worlds they are still coming from their earthly experience and it does shape them in several ways.

  6. The danger any writer of color has is does he or she want to be locked in the caste or ghetto of People Of Color speculative fiction and not write their best story because there will be an appreciative audience happy to see it. Dumbing down or giving what the crowd is supposed to want
    is an affliction here in the US. It has been rewarding to its better practioners, but a widening rut turned chasm for others. The best will attract. The mediocre or imitative will be a waste.