When I was nine, I wrote a story about a house eating robot in New Delhi. When I was eleven, I wrote a Sailor Moon fanfiction where Chibi-Usa was an adult and lead her own set of Sailor Senshi (Scouts for you dubheads) into a battle in a wartorn Crystal Tokyo. When I was fifteen, I wrote a story about a world where only black people were superheroes. Twenty, a doomsday story where the last city left in the world was Nakuru, Kenya. Twenty-five, a series of Ranma ½ and Inuyasha fics all equipped with demons and elves. At twenty-nine I started a story that would eventually become The Halo of Amaris, my debut novel.
What do all of these stories have in common, other than the fact that I have a tendency to kill off characters? They are comprised of fantasy or science fiction centric plots. I am a fanatical person. I spend entirely too much time in my favorite character’s head, immersed in my favorite character’s plotline. I write fanatical things–a story isn’t a story to me unless someone is a super powered angel, or a dark mage, or an Alpha wolf with super speed, senses and maybe homoerotic tendencies. These things are in my head, have always been in my head. I need, thrive and live to write these things.
I also need to fill these stories with faces that look like mine or my neighbor. If my angel isn’t a divinely powered African American, if my mage isn’t a Desi Indian, or my Alpha Wolf isn’t…Korean, then I don’t want them in my story, I don’t want to write it. My stories need to be comprised of the marginalized, faces that you don’t often see in fantasy or science fiction plots. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think it’s a brilliant thing.
The problem is…I’m not sure my characters, full of life and color and sometimes superpowers, are welcomed on a large scale either.
So, what do we do?
The very opposite of this is a common thing– the saturation of white faces in science fiction and fantasy (I’m not even going to touch high fantasy because that genre doesn’t even try).
If we are “lucky”–and I laugh at the word “lucky” in the same way I would laugh at clowns, nervously–we will get a leading role or maybe one of some importance. In The Avengers we got Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury and Elijah Price in Unbreakable, Zoe Saladana as Gamora in Guardians of The Galaxy, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Cassidan in Star Wars. Will Smith, apparently the go-to magical negro in Holly wood, with roles in Men in Black, Hancock, After Earth, and iRobot, Lawrence Fishbuorn in the Matrix, and Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile. Um, let’s see… Oh! the wonderful Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhrara and George Takei as Hikaru Sulu…and um…let’s move on.
In literature, we have Sierra in Shadowshaper, we have all of the protagonist in Octavia Butler or Nnedi Okorafor’s work. Native Americans HAD Katniss Everdeen and Peeta and everyone else in the Seam– had, until handy dandy movie adaptation magic mysteriously made them four shades lighter. June, from the Legend Series, Jin, Aiden, Jon, Tahir, Key and Rooke from The Halo of Amaris, Minho in Maze Runner, the entirety of any afro-futuristic novel in existence.
Notice, this list isn’t very long. Good luck finding Asian leading roles where they don’t want him or her to fight. A Hispanic role that isn’t blatantly stereotypical. Indians HAVE to be scientist or mathematicians or astrophysicist and they have to talk with really thick accents or else they aren’t believably intelligent as they are. Native Americans? Insert some kind of Native American expert on Native Americans doing Native American things, preferably in South Dakota or New Mexico. Expect there to be a lot of cow skulls and feathers and turquoise.
Of course, there are exceptions to these really pathologically stupid rules. Exceptions, however, shouldn’t be the modus operandi when we are talking about the representation of people and cultures. This is ridiculous.
That leads me to ask this question: where is the disconnect? I know plenty of fantasy writers of color and I know plenty of science fiction writers. They have written books, they are there, right there on Amazon and Barnes and Nobel. Right there! Why aren’t they selling? Why aren’t they topping any of the charts, en masse? Why don’t we, collectively, as a society on a whole, know about them?
While I was reviewing a draft of The Halo of Amaris, I’d hired an editor before I was signed to my current contract, one who would do some developmental editing to prepare my manuscript if I indeed went the self-publishing route. She was fired within two weeks of starting. Why? She kept suggesting that I change the race of my cast, which is completely and entirely filled with POC characters, to white ones. The last and final straw?
“Angel or not, this person is a person of authority, and power, and respect, and it makes more sense for them to be Caucasian.”
I’m not the only one this has happened to and it has led me to believe that I’ve discovered the disconnect. That is a story staring people of color, but not extrinsically about people of color, as in their culture or struggles that don’t mimic white ones, is not something that belongs in the fantasy/science fiction world. If it were a romance or a piece of literary fiction, something culturally based and nuanced, fine, fill it with all of the POCs you want. Hello, Zane, hello, Khaled Hosseini, hello, Junot Díaz.
Why? This story is about you, your culture, the human soul pried open and as long as you stay over there, with all your feelings and blue magic hair grease, your emotions and your kimchee, your life and your kente cloth, we’re absolutely fine.
READ: List of films featuring whitewashed roles.
You want to be an elf in Middle Earth? Oh, no. That’s…that’s OURS. What about we…let you stand here and uh, you can, um, hold this golden sword, look menacing, say “what’s up” or something real hip and cool? Or how about this? You can be the muscle, the tough guy, throw a mage or two around, huh? Or you, lady, you can be the sassy black sorceress who just hums a lot. How does that sound? You won’t speak a lot though. Asian guy, you’re the Kung Fu Master alien. Remember your hi-ya’s and take this cute hat from China. Oh, you’re Japanese? Uh, take it anyways.
READ: 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report
I’m not sure how to fix this, as in I’m also not sure how to fix this so it begins to be a more successful and inclusive genre set for not only writers of color, but authors period, who want to write more people of color into their funky space operas and their western shootout wizard tournaments. I don’t know how to prevent screenplays from leaving their POCs on the cutting room floor in order to make their new leads, faster…stronger…whiter. I don’t know how to stop an agent from turning down a manuscript because it stars Taehyung or Fakhriya, and not Riley or Hunter.
I don’t know but I plan to find out.
Until them, I’ll continue to dip my pen in the African diaspora, along the shores of Japan and Korea and China, across the red bricks of the Akshardham, the jungles of South America, the streets of Mexico and somewhere over the rainbow where I’ll paint the world and the universe with its color. Because that is that is what I do.