Writing Non-Western Fantasy for the Unqualified
When Kristin asked me to write a post on doing non-western fantasy, I said yes without thinking. After all, we need more non-western fantasy, and we need people who can write it with respect and understanding, to open the doors to still more diversity.
|Author Miriam Forster|
Then I got older and was gently informed that while it’s easy for me—sheltered white person—to ignore race, it’s pretty much impossible for others to do so. And I began to read about cultural approbation and misrepresentation and to see what a very, very big deal this was.
By this time, I’d moved away from writing western-based fantasy and was working on the book that would become City of a Thousand Dolls. I had many moments of “What am I doing here? I am not qualified to do this.”
Fortunately, I’ve had lots of experience doing things I’m not qualified to do. And I know that if you’re not qualified, then you work harder. You study and research and try your best and when someone calls you out on a mistake, you say “Yes, I messed up, I’m sorry. I will do better next time.”
|City of a Thousand Dolls, featuring|
a South Asian fantasy world
So I dived in. I read books about ancient India and South Asian history, as well as novels with similar cultural settings. I watched documentaries and fact-checked everything I could. (Especially anything I found on Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia information is often incomplete.)
And I focused my research on the details. The clothes and the food and the weapons, the trees and the flowers and the animals. I wanted to create a world that was grounded in South Asian surroundings, the way most epic fantasies are grounded in western surroundings. BUT—and this mattered to me—I didn’t want to set it in an actual place, like a reimagined India. Because I didn’t know enough, and I felt like even three years of research wasn’t adequate to teach me about this rich and complex area. So the places and geography of the Empire are all my own.
There are things I wish I had done differently. For example, I was very careful to say, over and over again, that most people in this world had dark hair and dusky skin. There were only a few people in the book with the more exotic “fair coloring.” But one of them was my main character’s best friend, a girl widely considered to be stunningly beautiful.
Making Tanaya a dark blonde was originally part of a subplot that vanished in edits, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized that I had inadvertently set up a dynamic where the fair girl was considered prettiest. If I could do it again, I would make it clearer that the standard of beauty in the Empire is oriented around dark skin and hair, and that Tanaya’s beauty is less related to her coloring and more to her manners and poise. Or change her coloring altogether. But that’s something I learned, and I can take into the next book.
It’s important to be aware of those things, and to learn about the issues surrounding multicultural writing. To be informed about the ways that people have done it badly, so you don’t repeat their mistakes. (I’ve included some great starting links below.)
We need more diversity in our literature. The majority of fantasy novels, both YA and adult, are still predominantly white. We’re called as writers to reflect the truth of the world around us, and THAT IS NOT THE TRUTH. The truth is much more varied and interesting and amazing, and we need to reflect that in our worlds and characters.
I dream of the day when there are so many POC writers and so many authentic and beautiful POC stories that no one needs to read my fumbling attempts. Maybe then I’ll start writing stories about suburban white girls in North Idaho, or try another western fantasy. Maybe.*
Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story
Writing Race in YA by Nicola K. Richardson
Links on Diversity and Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman
Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl
Miriam Forster is the author of City of a Thousand Dolls, releasing February 5, 2013 by HarperTeen. Find out more at Miriam's blog, twitter and goodreads pages.