Monday, April 22, 2013

Black Authors Writing Fantasy…Where Are They?


Several years ago, a thought crossed my mind, wondering if there were black authors that wrote Epic Fantasy. I couldn’t really think of one. I was at a writer’s conference back in 2003, and I was talking with an editor from Tor, and I mentioned to him that I was not familiar with any black authors writing in the fantasy genre. He mentioned Steven Barnes and the Dark Matter anthology, but that was pretty much it. When I researched Steven Barnes and the Dark Matter anthology, I discovered that the fiction was mostly Sci-Fi and Speculative Fiction; with maybe some Urban Fantasy. That still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Where were the black authors writing Epic Fantasy? Something set in another/alternate world, with characters of color. I couldn’t find any at that time. After that, I pretty much gave up and continued reading what is normally available in the genre (at the mainstream level, of course). A few years ago, again, I started looking for black authors writing fantasy, and I stumbled upon N.K. Jemisin, a little before her book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was released. I thought, cool, finally a black author writing fantasy—and it’s a woman, which is even cooler. Later on, I discovered David Anthony Durham, with his Acacia book coming out. Again, I thought cool. These two authors have put out some pretty solid fantasy, and the books and their series are being well received. Then I thought: But…is this it? Just these two authors? Nnedi Okorafor has some works of YA fantasy which is being well received; they are not Epic Fantasy, but they are pretty imaginative.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, DAW Publishing (a major Sci-Fi/Fantasy publisher) published 4 books by Charles R. Saunders. This was the Imaro series, which is kind of like a “black Tarzan”, in comparison to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. Imaro takes place in an alternate Africa; an epic adventure with sorcery wars and stuff. The books were not well received when first published and went out of print pretty quick. A few years ago, these books were re-released. So, I can see Charles R. Saunders pretty much being the first black writer to put out fantasy books (correct me if I’m wrong). Despite the history of the series’ failure, a major publisher published the books. Maybe Mr. Saunders was ahead of his time back then, or it was bad marketing on the publisher’s part; or maybe readers in general (black or white) were not in to Imaro, the great African warrior. I have not read any of the Imaro books, but I read a little of the excerpt on Amazon.com, and I thought the beginning was pretty good. I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, so I’m still weighing whether or not I will try reading the books.

So, why are there not more black authors writing Epic/High Fantasy? I think the answer is pretty easy… Black people, in general, are not in to fantasy. The same could be true of other people of color (Latinos, Asians, etc). I think Americans in general love watching the big fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, etc; and people of color will watch those movies, but cinema is a different medium than the written word. When I was growing up, movies like The Dark Crystal, Legend, and the Never-ending Story (and Star Wars, of course) were like the best thing to me. Watching cartoons like He-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, Smurfs, and The Hobbit were so cool to me, because of the fantastic elements. Now, those movies and cartoons I’ve mentioned were a few of many that I enjoyed (Conan the Destroyer, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, was one of my favorites back then), but I couldn’t have been the only black kid that dug that stuff. Surely, black kids all over the nation loved these movies too…right? And they grew up and wanted to write stories about fantastic worlds and characters…or are people like me the exception? It sure feels that way. There is always a few.

When I was a kid, I loved walking to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the bookstore (back when there were a lot of them) and looking at the great covers, thinking that the pages within were just the best stories of all time--and there were so many to choose from. Well, I didn’t start reading fantasy until my late teens (probably more after high school), and I found out, that despite the really cool book covers, not all the stories were all that fantastic. I thought maybe it was just me. Maybe I’m reading the books wrong. After a while, I discovered that I was just plain finicky, and not all these stories were so great. Even if there are a lot of people praising the book(s) (hint: The Wheel of Time series).

So, getting back on topic, I can only conclude that Epic Fantasy is not the genre that a lot of black writers desire to tell their stories. How many writers and publishers out there are afraid that the same thing that happened to Imaro over 30 years ago would happen again. But, hopefully, it’s not like that now. Hopefully, a good story can just sell because it’s a good story that readers enjoy; not because of who wrote it and what ethnic the characters are. My hat off to the handful of authors mentioned above that wrote their stories within the fantasy genre, and giving the genre different kinds of characters than what we are used to seeing. I think the genre needs more diversity; and maybe this would be the next fad. Who knows?   


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People of Color in Fantasy
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12 comments:

  1. There's an out of world fantasy with a black lead named Bridget Reid. The book is Landwhig's Pride: The Fifth Token of Life, by J.J. Joenes.

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  2. Blacks just aren't into epic fantasy? That seems to me a somewhat lazy assessment and this Black man will have to disagree. I see what you're getting at but lack of representation of Blacks/POC in epic fantasy is a major issue, from the onset of the genre with Tolkien to the very recent and popular works of George Martin. When something is pretty much unheard (at least in the mainstream and frequently) of in the mainstream, we have to search extra hard to find something we can relate to. Doesn't help that most of these epic worlds are placed in lily-white settings that look like medieval Europe, nor that many of the few Black epic fantasy writers that there are often get shelved in the Black books section simply because they are black (and even if their characters are not) and not based on the merit of their work. When the big time books make it to the screen we rarely see POC in these all-white fantasies. Many folks aren't even aware enough to realize that *something* is wrong. It is hard for both Black writers and Black readers of this genre and the last excuse I can think of is that we are simply just not into it.

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    1. To Unknown:
      Thanks for your comment… It shouldn’t be up to white writers to write about people of color (even though there are a small few that have done so). We see epic fantasy set in an medieval Europe with an all white cast, because these books are written by white writers; and that’s the world and the people they can relate more to. It’s up to black (or POC) writers to write stories with POC, because they can relate more with them. So we should not be upset because popular fantasy is predominately made up of white writers and white characters.

      It is troublesome to know that black authors are thrown in the African American section just because they’re black, and not because of the genre of their books. But if black fantasy writers are being published by major Sci-Fi/Fantasy publishers, then that would not be so prone to happen. The indie publishers or “African American” publishers will be more likely to be set in the “black section” than a publisher like Del Rey, Bantam, Ace, Orbit, DAW, etc (who would find their proper place in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section).

      So that’s why I come to my conclusion that blacks are just not that in to Epic Fantasy. There’s hardly any black writers writing any of it. That’s why people like you and me are having this discussion. And when I talk about Epic Fantasy, I’m not talking about Speculative Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Weird Fiction, or Science Fiction. I’m talking big fat Epic/High Fantasy. You can practically count on one hand the number of black writers that have broken into popular fiction under the Epic/High Fantasy genre (and probably have fingers still left on that hand). :-)

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  3. I know I'm late to the party, but I never really realized how rare it is for blacks to write High / Epic fantasy. I've always complained about how European white-bread fantasy tends to be, but never really made the critical connection.

    I found your blog and article while researching this phenomenon. I run a blog at Dimanagul.com and I'm closing in on my contribution to dispelling the notion. Looking forward to seeing your work in the future as well.

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    1. Thanks, Eric, for stopping by. I appreciate your comment. I'll check out your blog as well.

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  4. I'm glad you found Jemisin and Durham, two brilliant writers of fantasy epics who happen to be black. A perfect place to start. The most troublesome fact about fantasy is it's whitewashed surface. You say that it is not the duty of white writers to include PoC characters. By this, you buy into their fallacy and their (often accidental) racism. Authors who envision something so vast as a multi-cultured, international, ages-spanning secondary world do themselves and their readers sever disservice when they paint their world in white. Blatant ignorance of something as simple as skin color is ludicrous; take that deeper--ignorance of divergent cultural norms and social structures--and this slip of the pen by any author (white, black, Latino, Arab, Asian) is insulting.

    I cannot wait to see what you bring to our genre. There's still so much room for growth in epic fantasy. As black authors (or white authors searching for deeper authenticity) we bear a unique burden. Let's rise to the challenge and invent truer worlds.

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    1. To mrisomwrites:
      Thanks for your comments. I certainly agree that cultural diversity is needed in the genre, and makes a world more realistic. The main gist of my comment regarding not depending on white writers to write about POC, is that people of color should be writing about people of color. Why should one ethnicity sit back and complain about another ethnicity not writing about people like them? That’s the whole purpose of this post—to point out how there are very few black writers writing fantasy. Like you said, epic fantasy has much room to grow; and as black authors, we bear that unique burden. Well said. Now’s our time. Multi-cultural books are in demand; they just have to be great.

      Wish you the best!

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  5. Epic fantasy, the reason why I read, the reason why I write. I have NEVER read Epic fantasy by an author of any race other than Caucasian. For a long time, it didn't bother me. Then, I went looking and couldn't find them until last week. I have yet to actually read these authors but i was glad to see that they existed. I thought I would be the only one writing in the genre.

    My goal is to break the mold. Be the first mainstream black author of Epic fantasy. How? By combining the best of both worlds. My debut novel will be out soon. Money is tight but I will get it accomplished. The Demonspawn will set precedence.

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  6. I've been frustrated with this subject too but I first noticed the problem with video games.
    XBOX released a fantasy role playing game called Fable that I enjoyed but I don't think it contained any black people. They tried to address the disparity in later installments but it angered many of their fans. Look at this thread http://www.ign.com/boards/threads/there-are-a-lot-of-black-people-in-fable-3.205433874/

    The same happened with my favorite video game series Mass Effect. It's a sci-fi/fantasy game set in the distant future where the majority of the main characters are white. I sent them many Tweets expressing my disappointment when they asked, "What would you like to see more of in our next game?"

    I told Bioware, the developer of Mass Effect, that I wanted to see more diversity. "You'd think, in the far distant future, that the most common face would be beige," I told them.

    National Geographic made a video showing that the most typical face is that of a 28 year old Chinese man. They also said that soon afterwards, the most typical face would be from India. http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/the-magazine/the-magazine-latest/ngm-7billion-typical/

    I later came to the same realization you came to, however, that it's not fair to expect white people to create stories about non-white people. Here is a picture of the Fable development team:
    http://www.lionhead.com/blog/2012/march/15/fable-heroes-@-spring-showcase!/

    and here is a picture of the Mass Effect development team:
    http://blog.bioware.com/2012/11/12/an-update-from-bioware-montreal/

    There are no black people on their teams.
    All video game teams that I've seen look like them.

    Now consider that this same problem occurs in movies. The Hunger Games is the latest Sci-Fi/Fantasy story that got people talking about race discrepancies. If you are unfamiliar, people were outraged when a character in the story was played by a black actress in the movie.

    Therefore, there are at least two factors you need to observe: Producers and Consumers. If you don't have enough producers who are people of color, don't expect the cast to be people of color; if your audience is mostly white, expect the cast to appeal to a mostly white audience.

    The only way I can see to change status quo is to create works representing global demographics. Unless your story is about an African Tribe, for example, don't make every character black just to balance the disparity. If you create an all black cast, you'll annoy non-blacks and our goal isn't further divisiveness. Our goal is to be as inclusive, uniting, and as true to global demographics as possible that it shows how exclusive, segregating, and unwelcoming everyone else is.
    Considering our global economy, this is the logical move.

    PS

    The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (and later Brandon Sanderson) is an amazing Epic Fantasy series!

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    1. Montaz, thanks for your input. I’m not much for video games, but I know that the lack of diversity in a lot of scf-fi/fantasy media is prevalent. It’s something how you can look at a large group of game developers and not see one dark face—however, you do see some Asians (depending on which company you’re looking at). Again, it goes back to my point that there are just so few black people getting involved in fantasy. But I think as fantasy strengthens its presence on the screen, it will influence a lot of young people of color to create their own worlds through all types of media. I’m pretty optimistic.

      Your last paragraph is right on point. The book that I’m working on is very diverse—which was my original intent.

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    2. I have been noticing the same issue, but I have hope for the future. The Wheel of Time series is actually the first fantasy series I noticed in which black and other minority races are depicted without the minority stereotypes (the language, behavior, and dress). As a matter of fact, I admired Robert Jordan for taking this a step further by switching each race's culture for another. The Harry Potter series is the next I noticed. The 3 main characters were white, but there were memorable supporting characters that were not (Lee Jordan, the Patel twins, and Harry's girlfriend before Ginny). I'm so glad you've identified other authors out there because I was despairing I wouldn't find any. It encourages me to fulfill my own dream of writing fantasy with my own group of minorities and non-minorities as characters. I may never become well known like Jenisin, but I've got to put something out there. Without a good example, you don't have much encouragement and I know plenty of good black writers who'd probably try to publish too if they felt their work might hit public view. Wish us all good luck!

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