cindy_pon (cindy_pon) wrote in enchantedinkpot,

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diversity in fantasy mine

with the wonderful accolades for grace lin's
as well as the recent (and perhaps not so recent
but ongoing) controversies regarding white washing
of covers and race fail discussions, i felt that the
issue of diversity in fantasy writing a more pertinent
one than ever.

i presented the topic to my fellow inkies. the response
was overwhelming, but many warned, there will be
Flame Wars, beware! no doubt, it is a topic that many
feel very impassioned about, and some who think, what
the heck is The BIg Deal, why does everything need to
be about color? the reader can imagine the protagonist
to be like themselves, no matter what their ethnicity.

this simply isn't true. as a reader of color with a love
for fantasy, i never saw anyone like myself in any of my
favorite books, much less on the cover.
i've been writing since around twelve years old, and it wasn't
until Silver Phoenix (when i was thirty-two!) that i wrote a
story featuring fully asian characters. before then, they
were all white--like the stories i read. it wasn't anything i analyzed
or thought about when i was younger, it just was.

i've asked four fellow writers to contribute their thoughts
on this topic. and i hope that our viewpoints and concerns
as writers will bring up intelligent and respectful discussion
here at the inkpot. this will be a long post, but i think it needs
to be, because it is an important one.

i called this the "diversity in fantasy mine", because our
diverse world cultures is such the perfect place to turn to
for inspiration in fantasy writing. it's been done before tolkien
and since. Silver Phoenix, my debut, was inspired by ancient

on the flip side, it's also a land mine.
a place of accusation and anger, where words
like "appropriation" and "exotification" are used
in discussions that almost never end well.
how does an author write about another culture
or character of color without fear of Doing It Wrong?
or being misinterpreted to the point where they are
accused of being racist? is it a wonder that some white
authors feel, you're damned if you do, and you're
damned if you don't?

it's especially tricky in regards to fantasy writing.
unless you are writing a historical fantasy--where most
details of time and place and people need to be accurate,
creative license is often taken. i know Silver Phoenix caused
some confusion. where in china did this take place, in what
dynasty? but as i've said, it's a fantasy set in xia *inspired*
by ancient china. in no way is it actually china. i wanted the
reader to feel that chinese influence through my description
of costume, architecture and scenery--but as with many fantasy
writers before me, i made a lot of things up. it's what fantasy
writers do.

is this wrong?
or is it okay for me to do this because
i'm chinese-american?
if i wasn't, would i be "stealing" for
my own gains?

and as an asian-american author, do i automatically
have the responsibility to write of my culture, for
my culture, represent my culture?

you see what a land mine it can be?
and i can only offer my own thoughts and opinions
in this post.

i think authors should write what they are passionate
about, what fascinates them. if it happens to be the mayan
culture and the author is irish-american, good for you. if it
happens to be ancient egypt and she is of japanese descent,
hurrah for you! in no way do i think an author should feel
obligated to write about his own culture, if it is NOT what
he wants to write about--if it is NOT how he sees his
characters as.

simply because personally, for me, i understand how hard
it is to write a novel, and sustain your love for it. you'll be working
on the manuscript for at least a year, most times, often beyond
a year. you can't fake enthusiasm for writing something you don't
love, so go with your heart when you write. write what you want
to write, not what you feel you should write or have to write.

as for writing outside of your own ethnicity and culture,
research well. as you would for any novel. if at all possible,
speak to people who are from that culture or ethnicity, ask
them if they're willing to be beta readers for your manuscript.
be aware of history and stereotypes--and make sure you can
stand by the characters and details you've created in your

if there is one single thing that i've learned as a debut
author, it's the fact that every reader reads with her own
filter. from reviews i've read, i often can't help but think, wow,
did they even read the same novel? ha! there is no way you
can control how a reader interprets and reacts to your
story and your characters, the ONLY thing you can do is
make sure that you can stand by your story. whether you're
writing of another culture or ethnicity besides your own or
not, every author should feel at peace with every aspect of
their story when they send it out into the world.

that is the only thing WE can control, knowing that we
did our absolute best. i hope you find after reading the
following posts that the subject of diversity within fantasy
writing matters a lot to us. and each of us have approached
it with much consideration and thought, even if our views
may differ somewhat.

shveta says :

Why bother about diversity in fiction, especially if it's such a loaded concept? A great question, and Cindy's made some wonderful points already. There's so much to say that I'm going to concentrate on two things--the notions of appropriation and of "getting it wrong."

As much as I wish we lived in a world with a level playing field, we don't. Not yet, anyway. Cindy mentioned growing up and never seeing a fantasy book that contained a face like hers, that she wrote white characters without thinking about it. For a very long time, I did this, too (which is why I'm now writing the novel I wish I'd had to read). It's what we consider normal, the standard. Anything else is Other, and we've all internalized messages and stereotypes about that Other.

But that doesn't make sense, both for us as authors and as people. Imagine saying that despite having a rainbow of seven colors to choose from, we stick to red. Red is the beautiful color, the standard, the one we choose to paint everything in. Everything else is lesser, less desirable, less lovely. Not only would we miss out on a whole spectrum of beauty, but we'd be cheating the other colors by pretending they didn't matter.

Still, red is safe. Red sells. No one's going to say, "I can't relate to red. No one will buy red." And yet we know that our world is made up not only of red but also of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. As writers, we want our writing to reflect what we see in the world around us. We want to break down the wall that says we're limited to red and keeps everything else separate.

Yet we know that the other colors have been ignored. When they try to write their own stories, they're brushed aside or told they're to focus on their color and nothing else. Meanwhile, red gets to write anything.

So we think long and hard about this and then decide to go ahead and write those other colors, anyway. Because it's not fair to write only red. Because that's not what we see when we look around. Because we care about those colors whose stories are being neglected, whose experiences we've been informed don't count. Because there's a whole world of tales to be told, and we want to help tell them.

We know it's up to us to help bring about the change we want to see in the publishing world. Fine.

How, then, how to avoid being accused of appropriation? Easy answer: Until power dynamics shift, we can't. Longer answer: All we can do is really imagine a character of a skin tone different than ours, really flesh him or her out, really try to do research and understand what factors and experiences shaped that character. We can do this with the intention of celebrating that character not as different from us, not as exactly the same, but as he or she is, and hope we did it well.

Someone who does a wonderful job of this is Justine Larbalestier. Her characters are usually people of color, but they're teens first, issues second. And they're definitely not defined by their color; it's just one more facet of who they are.

So what about "getting it wrong"? Again, that's a valid fear. No matter what we write, it'll hit someone wrong, and that's okay. All we can do is try our very best.

I may be a writer of color, but I'm not immune to this fear, either. My perception of what it means to grow up as an Indian American kid is probably very different from someone else's, and my novel may well hit an Indian American reader as false. That's fine; I'm certainly no authority. I did my job, and the reader did his or hers.

Part of writing, whether writing a diverse cast or not, is accepting that once we've done our best and released the book into the wild, it stands on its own. As long as we really did our research, sought out knowledgeable first readers, and wrote from the heart, that's all we can do, no matter what the color of our skin. If we're later told we got it wrong, we listen, thank the person for the feedback, and strive to do even better next time.

We're the pioneers on the edge of the publishing frontier, paving the way for others to follow. By consciously writing diverse characters, we do our part to help create a literary landscape where all readers know they matter, not just one set. And that's worth taking all the risks in the world, don't you think?

gretchen says :

This isn't a topic that sits well with a lot of people. I'm just going to put that out there for starters. And I'm in no way an expert on diversity or multi-cultural relations so take my words with a grain of salt. I'm just a writer, and as such I write what I know.

What do I know? I know that I was lucky enough to grow up in that culturally, religiously and ideologically diverse landscape known as San Francisco. I know that the world around me came in all shapes and sizes, beliefs and creeds. I know that in order to reflect this world, the world of my reality, I need to show my world for what it is.


When I decided to write a novel about a half-Chinese, half-Irish girl set in a Catholic school in San Francisco, I didn't do with the specific idea of portraying a "minority" character. Bridget is just based on people I knew growing up. And her friends – a gay Hispanic boy, a gay Caucasian boy and a nerdy Korean boy – are the same. These were the people I knew. These were the stories I saw. This was my world.

Funny story. I forget sometimes that other people from other parts of the country do not share the same frame of reference. I'll never forget when I was in grad school on the east coast and heard someone say for the first time "So-and-so's Asian, but she doesn't have an accent or anything." My brain had an immediate WTF record scratch stop the presses and back the truck up moment. "Doesn't have an accent?" Yeah, well very few of my Asian friends growing up had "accents." In fact, many of their families had been in California longer than my family. But see, that was the world I knew. That was the world I wanted to show.

By the way, the concept of diversity goes both ways. After describing my story and my main character to a very good friend (a San Francisco native of Chinese descent), she looked at me rather strangely and said, "There aren't any Chinese Catholics in San Francisco." Which isn't true. I know several. But from her frame of reference, all the Chinese people she knew were Christians, not Catholics, and she thought the whole concept of my character very odd.

Most of my Chinese friends in the Bay Area were second or third generation, many of them went to Chinese school, and their religious upbringings were pretty much across the board. But I wasn't writing about all of them, I was writing about Bridget. Bridget's story, Bridget's frame of reference. Bridget's world.

I guess my point is this: when I write a character – whether they are white, brown, black or purple with pink polka dots – I'm writing a character. Sometimes race, gender or religion is important to that character, to that story. Sometimes it's not. But I didn't write Bridget as a minority character simply to make her a minority character. It's just who she is.

dawn says :

I think diversity is important in pretty much any circumstance. Writing, especially with speculative fiction where we like to ask a lot of "What If?" questions, is not a place to stay safe. We should be pushing our boundaries as well as the boundaries of the reader to consider other ideas, perspectives, opinions, attitudes and experiences. It's necessary to bend our beliefs to create things like magic, new cultures, and alien creatures -- we *want* to believe. I think it's also important to create a space that welcomes new readers and readers outside our own experience to feel that they have a place in our fantastic universe. I don't want someone to ever feel like they "couldn't be a part of" the story I'm telling, that it "couldn't happen" to someone like them. I'd like fantasy to not discriminate on the basis of their readers' color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, creed or culture, but have the possibility all-inclusive. I really enjoy when fantasy worlds have people of different colors (Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea & Gail Carson Levine's Frell & Ayortha), different beliefs (Mercedes Lackey's world of Valedemar) & different myths (Ellen Jensen Abbott's Watersmeet or Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys).

I could say it was because I love anthropology and cultural myths [that I wrote about different ethnicities and cultures], which is true, but honestly, it makes it sound like I had a choice! Consuela's story, SKIN & BONES, came to me in a rush and she is Mexican-American. She just *is* and with her story being based on Dia de los Muertos, that is where her story began. I had to research, learn, ask questions and travel to explore things I'd never really thought about before and I loved it. I love her character and her story! My latest WIP borrows a lot of myth from some favorites I learned in college: legends from the Amazon and Norse mythology. I like anchoring my fantasy in some basis of reality where there's something that resonates as "possibly true." I *do* use some of my own culture, experience, and religious upbringing in my writing, but I'd like to think that I do so consciously and not by default.

I guess my biggest fear is that I'll offend someone. Maybe not push buttons (because good writing can and should do that) but there is a worry that I don't handle material outside my experience with "enough" respect... whatever "enough" means. (Un)fortunately, I try to be an equal-opportunist in my writing across boundaries and I realize that can be misconstrued as being disrespectful and I, the author, have to own that, which is scary. But if I'm *really* committed to treating everyone equally, then all of my characters, regardless of whether they are male or female, gay or straight, Causian or Latina or African-American or Asian or whatever, have an equal chance of being the hero or villain, kind or cruel, right or wrong, a bully or a victim. I can't pull punches and depict anyone differently for fear of being Politically-Correct. People are people and are rarely ever just one thing. Characters of all ethnicities or cultures are multi-dimensional; this means that I have to make a conscious effort NOT to shy away from characters being true to themselves and their actions even if they are a minority (or even if they share the same ethnicity as me). This is a huge leap of faith and once the text leaves my hands, the story has to stand on its own. That is something truly terrifying, vulnerable and ultimately, hopeful. We have to trust our readers to be generous and intelligent, and to my mind fantasy readers are -- I think -- the most open-minded readers of all, able to suspend belief beyond their own comfort zones and see what might be there.

My own guidelines: be honest and humble. No matter how much I know, there will always be more that I do not know. Many, many people know elements of this "Other" better than I do, and while it is imperative to do responsible research (wiki is never enough!) and respectful inquiry (talking to real people, experts and teens, is the best!), there will *still* be so much more that I cannot possibly know, and I have to own that. So my job is to portray a person, culture, myth, social status or story with as much respect as I can -- to breathe it "true" to the best of my ability and let it speak to a reader as somehow being real. My aim is not to be perfect, it's to seem "real." This is fantasy, so you *can* make up a lot, but since I like to have at least a toe-hold in reality, I try to do it justice by lots and lots of research.

I'm also a visual person so going to museums, examining, art, listening to music or attending festivals or performances of other cultures helps me feel and see what stands out as important. Unfortunately, what should be celebrated or highlighted to me as an outside eye, I know that I'm blind to a lot of the subtleties and symbolism: I can easily miss a lot of things that I don't know how to see or don't know what to look for... that's when asking questions helps! I'm not afraid to look foolish or ask "dumb questions," I'm FAR more afraid of making a mistake and putting it on paper for the whole world to see! I try to approach everything the way I'd like someone to approach me -- like a Golden Rule of Asking -- if someone wanted to ask me what it was like being a 30-something, married Jewish American female, how would I want them to ask? (And when someone *does* ask me something that sounds "off," I try to remember not to be offended, but honored that they are dropping some social walls in order to learn something new and felt comfortable enough to ask me.) It's a dance on a high wire, but being a writer, you can't be shy. The benefit -- i.e. a good book -- outweighs the risk.

Skin and Bones, Dutton, spring/summer 2011

lena says :

When Cindy brought up the topic of diversity and the challenges of writing multicultural fantasy, it caught my interest. My work-in-progress is a fantasy for young adults, set in a world shaped by Maori culture & folktales. A while back, I read some of the #racefail discussions online and began to worry about appropriation and culture lifting. I’m struggling with how to proceed. It's hard to express how much it would pain me if someone of the Maori culture were offended by my work.

I’ve been drawn to other cultures since I was young and my dad would come back from a tour of duty, bearing gifts from around the world. The dolls he gave my sister and me weren’t the kind you played with. They lived in a glass cabinet and we took them out occasionally to hold them, very carefully. These dolls are in my office now as I write this, dolls from Scotland, Costa Rica, Peru, Alaska, India, China, Japan, Spain, Portugal... And they’re all wearing these amazing outfits, clothes that inspired awe in the younger version of me. Who were these women? What were their lives like?

Also, my dad grew up in Paraguay and moved to the states as a teen. That side of the family laughed a lot and enjoyed life. Whenever we got together, the conversation would inevitably break into Spanish. How I longed to speak that wonderful musical language! (Maybe that’s why I later took Spanish in high school. :)) And then there are my two cousins who are half Guatemalan. They lived there during their early years. As a kid, I'd look at a photo of them in traditional Guatemalan dress and think they were so much more interesting and beautiful than I was.

Was it all about the clothes? I wonder now. lol

As a writer, I’m still drawn to other cultures. I was drawn to Maori folklore because I found it FASCINATING and my research sparked a lot of creative energy. In a way, the setting chose me, not the other way around. But I’m not an expert in the field. I’m not Maori by heritage either. Instead, I'm (distressingly) white American. All I have is research and imagination to guide me.

I'm left feeling conflicted. Do I risk setting this story in a Maori world, which was my original vision, or do I fictionalize everything, taking the ”safer” route, and potentially depriving my story of cultural richness?

Wait, a little voice inside me says, this is just fiction and isn’t all fiction an appropriation of sorts? We read a news article and it plants a seed, one of many. Those seeds somehow merge together and begin to grow, eventually mutating into an entirely different species of plant (to torture a metaphor!). That news article was one of the initial creative seeds.

I think there’s truth in that, but I also believe we need to be especially careful and respectful when dealing with a culture other than our own. I think we need to research extensively and develop as close a personal connection as we can to that world. And somehow find a way to work through any feelings of fear and indecision.

Fear and indecision? Yeah, that would be me.

I recently read an article by Karen Healey about how she sought out cultural consultants to vet her Maori fantasy, GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD. She had this to say about her own fears:

“So I'm saying this not to evoke pity for the poor little white woman, but because my fears were, if not entirely groundless, wildly exaggerated, and because no matter how scared I was, I still had to do it; having done all the work I could do myself, I had to ask for these perspectives.”
--Karen Healey,

I can relate to her terror of making a misstep and offending. That really speaks to me. And I’m tucking away the advice to find resources to vet my work. What does this mean for me and my story? I don’t know yet, but I’m learning it’s not just about writing the book (which is hard enough in itself!): it’s perseverance, it’s sweat, it’s craft & research, and it’s also about being brave.


what are your thoughts?

cindy pon
Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia
April 28, 2009, Greenwillow/HarperCollins

Tags: cindy pon, dawn metcalf, diversity, gretchen mcneil, topic of the week

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