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Guest Post: Miriam Forster on Writing the Non-Western Fantasy Setting

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
The problem is, I never thought of myself as that sort of person. I was born and raised in North Idaho, where being not racist basically meant you didn’t notice or mention when someone was a different color. There is a world of difference between “trying not to be offensively racist” and recognizing the role that racism plays in our society and thought processes. I didn’t think about that because I didn’t have to. And I didn’t have to think about it when I read fantasy either. Because all the characters looked like me and lived in European-type castles and ate stew. They fought western-style dragons with western-style swords and no one talked about race or color at all. 

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
It’s scary to write outside your culture, even if it’s a fantasy world. What if you get it wrong? What if you miss something vital, do something that makes the situation worse instead of better? But the alternative is worse. If I only wrote what I’m qualified to write, then all my stories would be about sheltered white girls in the suburbs. And that doesn’t help the situation. I needed to write the story I was given, and wussing out and saying, “I can’t, I’m not qualified” wasn’t an option.

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.*

*probably not

Additional resources:

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.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. Great post, Miriam. I agree we need more diversity in fantasy (and other genres too). Loved hearing how you dived into it for your awesome book.

  2. Oh, man, I love this post, especially with the debacle about Stormdancer a while ago. I think focusing on details is key, as you said, to grounding the story in the world's surroundings. I also feel that "being qualified" is an inherent struggle for a lot of the writing process, so we shouldn't let it stop us -- but we should treat it with all the respect it deserves, just as we would if we were, say, writing from a POV of opposite gender.

  3. I'd argue that fantasy in general is very focused on Western Europe, not necessarily the West.

    Then again, my own contribution to epic fantasy is set somewhere loosely based on the U.S. east coast, so I'm likely biased. ^_^

  4. Great post! Very interesting and encouraging! My fantasy writing has an amazon jungle setting and varies from middle eastern cultures, to jungle natives, to supernatural beings, and back to the typical western castles. It's a big world. ;)

  5. That's one thing I loved about the Temeraire books--they meet dragons from England, France, Africa, China, and Australia. I think they're headed to South America next to encounter the feathered Inca dragons. Everywhere they go, the customs regarding dragons are radically different--in China, dragons have the same rights humans do. In Africa, dragons are revered as a sort of reborn elder, with all the tribal memories of their village.

    I do get tired of Western Europe fantasy. Sounds like City of a Thousand Dolls would be a refreshing change!

  6. I think this is a fabulous post, and I'm so glad you hosted it. As Miriam said, "I dream of the day when there are so many POC writers and so many authentic and beautiful POC stories." I dream this, too, as do many others.

    That said, would you consider one from a writer of color on the same topic? And maybe a list of awesome POC YA titles, both contemporary and fantasy? That would be amazing. :)

  7. This is awesome!! I would quote all the parts of this post I really liked but it was basically all of it. Especially the part about racism and how it's way more insidious than white people tend to think. Lack of representation can be just as harmful as slightly erroneous representation... the fact that you're willing to admit your mistakes and work on them is so great. Keep on being awesome, Miriam. :)

  8. This is such a great post! I'm a white girl from North Dakota still adores Western fantasy, but I wanted to something different with my own writing. I've been working on a Japanese-inspired novel and those feelings of being insecure still come up (I'm in revisions-- again). I read all different types of books and even went to Japan to experience the culture. Thanks for sharing your own experience because I also believe it is best to try than not do it at all. I was given your book for my birthday recently and am excited to read it!

  9. Thanks for sharing Miriam! I love your thought process. I grew up as a white girl living in China. So while I look like I know nothing about diversity or racism, I experienced it most of my life. I was the only white kid at my public Chinese school. I noticed this had a natural impact on my writing. In my debut novel my two main characters are not white but rather, middle eastern. I never thought about trying to be diverse or inclusive, it just happened. I'm glad you're putting a lot of thought into this subject and I hope others will as well. Thanks for sharing!


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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: Miriam Forster on Writing the Non-Western Fantasy Setting Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook