Nearly a decade ago, having spent four nights reading my story “A New Grave For Monique” aloud to a late-night workshop audience, I won an award for fiction from the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. The audience (and the conference in general) was uniformly Caucasian.
About a year later, I showed the story to my friend Ellie, who immediately noted that when I introduced the Haitian character, Monique, I stated in the text that she was black. Not a foul in and of itself, except that I did not introduce any of the story’s many white characters as white, a fact Ellie was quick to note. Had I read “A New Grave For Monique,” since published in Traps (Darkhart Press, Scott T. Goudsward, Editor), at a conference of African-American or multi-national writers, I suspect I would have won little more than a pie in the face. And deservedly so.
We in the business of writing (and reading) speculative fiction and adventure fantasy should be especially sensitive to this issue, as the stories, the settings, and the readership remain predominantly white –– Nordic, even. Conversant we may be with Greek or Aztec or Navajo mythology, but the wellspring from which most adventure fantasy draws its nectar is indisputably Northern Europe, and the many exceptions only prove the rule. That this should still be the case in our globe-trotting, air-travel era ought to be a wee bit alarming.
If we reduce all this to pure technique, the issue of introducing a character’s race in prose is solvable simply by not settling for easy, untrue descriptors. Toni Morrison (among others) eschews “black” and “white” entirely, as well she might, and relies instead on vivid and specific skin tone comparisons, suggesting that one character has skin like a polished walnut table, another like old coffee, a third like pinkish chick peas and so on. (None of these are examples culled directly from Morrison––or if they are, it’s only happy accident.) Color, after all, at least in the realm of skin tone, is only a case of black and white when one is watching re-runs of Star Trek’s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”
Post-Ellie, I have generally taken Morrison’s tack, and I’m well pleased with the results. I will be employing it again any day now, as I introduce a new character into my shortly-to-be-completed novel, The Portal. The character in question, Hehshear, is decidedly “black,” although in literal terms, he is no more black than a street-lit city by night. (If you really want to see black, go caving, then turn out the lights.) The exact phrase I’ll turn has not yet occurred to me (“…he stood there dripping in the rain, his skin the color of overripe avocados…”) but it certainly won’t involve the adjective “black.”
And I don’t think I’ll be using that absurd avocado line, either.
Let’s face it: From Tolkien to Moorcock to Leiber to [fill in your favorite adventure author here], the rule of thumb is pale-skinned heroes and heroines, the kind you might bump into in Ireland, Russia, or Hungary. And now we have Twilight, with much the same result. When these characters run into people from warmer Southern climes (think Tolkien again), they tend to be dangerous and unpredictable Saracen types with desert ways and darker but not truly dark skin –– not like, say, the people of sub-Saharan Africa or southern India.
So where was I? Oh, yes. At the tail end of The Portal, my book’s heroes, who range in skin tone from ecru pale to sun-burnt bronze to camouflage green, will encounter Heshear the Poet, accomplished scholar and diplomat, an aging patriarch of wisdom, learning, and (sometimes) narrow-mindedness. How will he interface with the rest of the book’s characters? Well, he will certainly not be running through jungles waving a spear and trying to chuck Tarzan in a cook-pot. Nor will he be a shifty-eyed thief lurking in some Casablanca-style doorway. Rather, he will be cultured, helpful, and firm, self-motivated and unpredictable. He will, in short, be a full-blooded human being.
Unfortunately, Hehshear will also function as a watermark by which to judge this author’s racial sensitivity. There’s really no way around this. It’s the inheritance of the world I’ve been born into, a world where I come crowned with a certain kind of privilege, that of the white male. It’s my task –– my fortunate task, really –– to swim these currents as best I may (and without complaint).
We do have exponents within the genre who are tackling all this, some intentionally, some by simple happenstance. (Heck, even Conan the Barbarian was a “Cimmerian.”) Howard Andrew Jones, as many BG readers surely know by now, is mere moments away from unleashing his first Dabir and Asim novel on the world. At least one recent editor of my work, D.L. Russell of Strange, Weird & Wonderful, is African-American –– but he’s the only one I can think of, at least in the SpecFic department. Surely there are others –– two or three –– disguised by the impersonal veil of the internet?
The underlying tropes of fantasy and science fiction are not, in the main, suspect. That is to say, the genre is capable of more inclusion than exclusion. The trick is to generate work that honors that spirit of inclusion, that opens rather than shutters our fictional possibilities (and our real-world lives). Sure, we can settle for Elves, Dwarves and Orcs –– no difficulties with racial description there –– but we beggar our available themes if that is all we attempt to write or read. If world-building (or world-reading) is our work, imagine what might happen if we started avoiding Northern Europe as our default starting point. Just think: What if Umslopogaas had come to England in search of Allan Quatermain instead of the other way around?
Hmm. That actually sounds suspiciously good. Maybe I should go write that. I could call it Queen Victoria’s Mines.
On second thought, I think I’d better finish off The Portal, instead.
“His was skin the color of burnt cloves in a storm-lit sunset…”
Nope. Back, as they say, to the drawing board.
‘Til next time, dream hard. Write harder.
Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press), as well as the play Acts Of God (Playscripts, Inc.). Upcoming short stories will appear in Black Gate, Realms Of Fantasy, Sleet, and Day Terrors, among others. His website is www.markrigney.net and he lives near most of the many-hued and wonderful people depicted here.