Racial Issues in SF/F

Cool little article in the Boston Globe, linked to from Bookninja.

The June release of "Acacia," the first of a planned trilogy of fantasy books by black historical-fiction writer David Anthony Durham, brought attention to the small number of black writers toiling in what is sometimes called speculative fiction, and the people who read their work. The media took note of Durham as one of only a handful of black authors in the genre. That small group includes veteran Samuel R. Delany and the late Octavia Butler, as well as younger voices such as Nalo Hopkinson, Steven Barnes, and Tananarive Due, and respected writers who have also dabbled in speculative fiction such as Walter Mosley and the late W.E.B. Du Bois...

But some in the speculative-fiction community complain that a number of their white contemporaries no longer tackle these subjects. Durham, a former Shutesbury resident, was inspired to move into fantasy writing because he saw potential there that others failed to tap into... "In epic fantasy," says Durham, 38, whose novel is populated by a diverse crowd that includes blond warriors and olive-skinned beauties, "there is a lot of racism and sexism I don't think the good people who are writing it are aware of."


Durham raises an interesting point. Makes you wonder why, in epic fantasy, you get this effect. (Let's put the misogyny of "buxom wenches" to one side for now.) There's a good deal many white people in fantasy fiction. Is this a fair reflection of our world? I don't think so. The most obvious reason that springs to mind as to why this may be the case is that most fantasy settings are pseudo-medieval, and the weather is non-too-good.

..."Acacia" had been in the back of Durham's mind since the late 1990s. What spurred him to embark on the project was "The Lord of the Rings" films. Durham watched the three movies multiple times, and became increasingly irritated by the almost mono-racial cast of characters... "I did not love it," Durham says, "that the only people of color who didn't have speaking lines were the minions imported for the dark lords."

Then here we have the "good/light vs bad/dark" explanation, which is not necessarily racist, but raises certain issues with perception. Whenever you do get good non-whites, it perhaps tends to be a focal point, rather like in Othello. Sure, many authors sweep this aside—Steven Erikson, for one, never makes this an issue, and race is a concept made redundant when you have numerous species and gods stretching back to the beginning of time, and a bit further back before that.

For a genre to claim it shines a light on our world today, this subject of race remains a little in the shade.

Any thoughts?

— Mark N

14 comments:

Neth said...

What I find most interesting is the focus on just one racial minority with no mention of others. It seems a bit lacking

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree that we should have more diversity in the fantasy genre. I think the lack of the "minority" perspective has been sorely missed in fantasy. I disagree though with the criticism of The Lord of the Rings in that the movies lacked minority representation. They were true to the books. What was the director supposed to do? Make certain characters black just for the sake of minority representation? That just wouldn't make sense to me. But I do agree that it'd be nice to have more diverse voices in the genre.

David Anthony Durham said...

Neth,

Agreed. It would've been great if the article was more inclusive. I'm all about that, although I reckon that the space limitations of print journalism make it tough to go into real depth. I'm also not quite with the notion that I'm "toiling" away without getting noticed. Acacia is selling fine, and it's going to be published in Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia and Sweden. And there's more to come! I do think the article opened an interesting discussion, but it was far from complete.

Anonymous,

Hi. Is your disagreement in reference to anything that I was quoted as saying? I wasn't quoted that well, I admit, but for the record, I never suggested or would suggest that there was a lack of minority representation in LOTR. Where'd you get that? I didn't say it or even think it, nor do I think the author of the article said it. Look again and tell me if I'm wrong.

I only said that it's unfortunate that the only minorities in the movie are nameless baddies. If that's true to the books - which I haven't read in a long time, admittedly - than 1) Jackson did not need to reproduce the ethnic disparity if he didn't want to, and 2) the films are the films, and they can and should be judged on their own standards - which means as viewed by a contemporary cinematic audience.

That said, I freaking love the films! I've watched them tons of times. I own them. I know them well as do my children. I'm a fan of Tolkein and Jackson. A few things aren't perfect, but a lot is. That's about as good as it gets, in my experience.

Mark,

Thanks for posting about this in the first place.

Neth said...

David - I imagine that you're right about space being limiting, but I'd still like to see more. And Acacia is great fantasy debut regardless of race of its author or its treatment of race - there's quite a bit of other interesting stuff (such as the treatment of gender, which is equally as refreshing).

Congrats on its success.

Simon Haynes said...

SF author Michael McCollum has an article called "Writing About Race: Anthropology 101" which you can find on the net.

David Anthony Durham said...

Neth,

Thank you. That's what actually matters - the book (books). I don't love getting into debates about small points. Actually, I wouldn't be trying to clarify my position if I hadn't been interviewed and quoted - not all that accurately - in the Boston Globe. Sure, I have opinions, but the focus of my creative life isn't debating those things. The focus is writing good fiction.

Thanks for noticing it and supporting it.

Mark Newton said...

David - no probs. I'm half-Asian, so it's certainly a subject of interest.

Neth - perhaps the focusing on one minority is an attempt to look at things, figuratively and literally, in black and white. Making things as simple as this perhaps helps get the discussion going in the first place.

Anonymous said...

David,

This is the line that prompted my comment:

"I did not love it," Durham says, "that the only people of color who didn't have speaking lines were the minions imported for the dark lords."

As far as I can remember, there are no people of color in the books at all, save for I guess Mordor units. The reason I commented the way I did is because that's not Peter Jackson's fault. If fault is to be given, I'd place it at the feet of Tolkien. And there certainly is a school of thought that criticizes Tolkien for his lack of "bad guy" POV. That's another matter entirely, however.

David Anthony Durham said...

Anonymous,

I hear you about that line, and I can see how – within the context of the article – you might read it in a certain way. From my side of it, though, I’d mention that I didn’t write the article. I've got problems with that line too. Mainly, it doesn't make much sense as a sentence! It's a bit wonky, and if I'd seen it ahead of time I'd have had the journalist change the wording. I consider it sort of garbled mis-quote. Not to say I don't know what I MEANT to say and that it isn't CLOSE to what that sentence says. But believe me I'd have reworded it if I had the chance.

That said, please consider what the sentence essentially means. I didn't "love it" that the only people of color were Sauron's evil minions. That's what I meant, and so be it that's what I feel. Not loving it is hardly a truly damning statement. There's nothing in that statement that says it's Jackson's fault more than Tolkein's. And there's nothing there that asks that he "Make certain characters black just for the sake of minority representation" - which is what your original comment suggested I might be thinking. That's a jump in thinking that reads an awful lot of preconceived notions into my statement. That jump frustrates me because it's not at all accurate to who I am or to what my writing is all about.

I can love the films in many ways, while also believing that an undercurrent of what made them so successful throughout the West was that they mirrored the international situation in a manner I find unfortunate. Tolkein's classic tale suddenly seemed to have strong parallels with the confused funk that the nation was in after 911. The brave "men of the West" fighting reasonless evil and the brown-skinned minions that served that evil... That’s surely attractive to a nation trying to come to terms with this new war and apparently new enemy we’re facing in real time.

Do I think Jackson crafted the whole thing like that in the first place? No. He was making a movie based on a book in which that undercurrent was already in place. Do I think, though, that Jackson might well have enhanced those elements as he edited and completed the last two films? Sure. I think that's likely, and I think it's smart. Playing on national fears and desires has always been a part of Hollywood decisions. A producer friend pointed that out to me recently, just sort of shrugging about it. It's not great, but it's the way it is. And he wouldn't turn his back on it if it's going to feed the box office. Just like he's all for making much more inclusive films - when those are going to feed the box office. I don't feel unreasonable for pointing these things out, and I'm not actually moaning about it - just mentioning that even if viewers aren't aware of such things filmmakers often are. That's part of why they're successful, and you bet the financial backers crunch the numbers on all this stuff as they decide whether to invest the next 100 million or so.

Two other things - small ones. You say that the Mordor units were true to the books. Were they? I'm asking because I don't remember. I haven't read the books in years, honestly, and I'm curious as to what the text says on the subject.

And, finally, I do hope that I don't come off as any sort of fanatic in all of this. As I said before, I'm a fan of Tolkein and Jackson. That doesn't mean I can't find points of contention in what they do, though. I'm glad I do, because that's part of what drives my fiction. I'd never, never ask for black characters to suddenly appear in LOTR's. That's silly, and I'm not a silly guy. Instead, I take joy in writing my own fantasy and placing it - not in any sort of all-black world - but in a world that represents our cultural diversity. My novel, ACACIA, is a fantasy, but it's a fantasy peopled with all the hues and variation of our world. That I'm proud of, and if you really do think "it'd be nice to have more diverse voices in the genre" please check it out. It doesn’t suck.

Anonymous said...

David,

I may indeed pick up your book. You have me interested in it now.

In terms of whether or not Mordor figures are represented accurately in the movies, I'm honestly not sure (it's been a long time for me too), but I suspect they are at least pretty close to how Jackson and his graphics people interpreted Tolkien's descriptions. They are all rather dark-skinned chaps as you know, expecially the Uruk-Hai. This didn't bother me, because I don't automatically associate dark-skinned people with "evil" or anything stupid like that. And all good people of conscience should not. There are plenty of bad white boys in the world.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Tolkien is often criticized for not giving the "bad guys" enough voices in his trilogy, and I think there's a certain validity to that argument. I mean, it's easy to hate something when you know nothing about it. It's easy to kill people in droves when you don't truely understand their motivations.

So that is why I recommend to you and to anyone interested in fantasy to read Jaqueline Carrey's BANEWREAKER and GODSLAYER duology. It's basically a retelling of the LOTRs, told primarily from the bad guys' perspective. Some criticize it for being a rip off, but I found it very compelling. Once you at least understand the motivations of "the enemy" it's often harder to hate them, and to kill them. I think she does a superb job in it.

David Anthony Durham said...

Anonymous,

You should so check out ACACIA! It's all about moral ambiguity. My "bad guys" are as much protagonists as the protagonists, and the reasons they do the things they do are complex and not without justification. And the "good guys" have a great deal of evil in their history that makes them morally compromised as well.

I respect Jacqueline Carey's work. No doubt about that. I was disappointed not to meet her last week at Comic Con. We were scheduled to be on a panel together, but she couldn't make it because of some travel issue. I'll connect with her eventually, though - I hope.

On the racial issue in Jackson's LOTR... I find it interesting that you're no surer about the original text than I am but you're willing to give Jackson a pass and I'm inclined to stop and question it. Same information; different responses.

Oh, and I'd make sure it's clear that I have no problem with the Uruk-Hai. They're not human, so I don't see their "darkness" as any particular problem. I kinda dig them. My query is ONLY about the human minions that seem to sport Eastern-ish dress and brown skin. That's a very different thing.

Okay, so it's been good chatting with you, even though I don't know who you are. I'd love it if you'd check out my work, and please feel free to visit and comment on my blog, forum, website.

zentinal said...

Since I'm mentioned in the first paragraph, I felt compelled to blog about Ms. Jones' article. Focused on the personal, and personal experience, rather than on the important global issues raised.
http://www.doublefeature.com/unconventionaut/

Tia Nevitt said...

I read David's book and I found the racial elements to be very transparent. All of the characters, white or brown, had their own motivations, and there were heroes and villians among them all. In fact, it seemed to me that David didn't make a big deal about race at all. There was inter-racial love and hate, and there was intra-racial love and hate. It was not a world obsessed with race at all. It is just a compelling story that uses race in a way that seemed very realistic to me.

Caroline said...

'What was the director supposed to do? Make certain characters black just for the sake of minority representation?'

Interestingly Jackson did a lot to develop Arwen (Aragorn's love interest, I'm not sure if I've got her name quite right) as Tolkein seemed incapable of creating an interesting or believable female character. (I like LOTR very much but I can't help noticing that.) So if he was happy to change the film to reflect the fact that most people live in a less exclusively male world than Cambridge University of the 1940s, then why not the racial aspects?

Having said that, I guess the dwarves always seemed Scandanavian to me, as they were drawn from Norse myths, and the elves lived in broad-leaved forests and their language seems like Irish. The hobbits are quintessentially and mythically English- from the early C20th.

Caroline