Emiko Jean on the need for diverse worlds in fantasy
Emiko Jean tells us why we need to see more diverse worlds and characters in fantasy.
One of the hallmarks of great fantasy is that it holds up a looking glass to the world we live in. It challenges us to understand our history, problems and differences. If only some of the world’s voices write fantasy, only part of the world is reflected. We lose out on a fuller understanding of our shared world, we ignore cultures with a rich history of fantasy-based storytelling, and we miss the opportunity to explore new terrain. Most importantly, we hurt those who don’t see themselves reflected in our pages. We are beginning to see this landscape shifting. But we need more, faster. Middle-earth. Westoros. Narnia. What do all three of these fantasy worlds have in common? They’re bestsellers, they have huge fan bases, and they’re all dominated by Western mythology. Carl Teegerstrom, avid fantasy reader and enthusiast, writes that “despite the variety of different characters and stories offered by the fantasy genre there has been a consistent motif in regards to setting; most of the secondary worlds developed by fantasy is based off of Europe.” And even when the fantasies aren’t set in Medieval Europe, “much of the cultures and languages of fantastical, secondary worlds are still based on European culture or tradition.” Not all fantasy is set in Medieval Europe. There are always exceptions to the rule. But deviating from Western culture shouldn’t be the exception.
There is good news. In the last decade, fantasy writers of colour have ever so slowly been gaining space and visibility in the publishing world. They are challenging the status quo and helping to redefine the fantasy genre in different ways. At last, societies previously left out of the canon are being introduced, ancient folklores are being rediscovered and reimagined, and whole new worlds are being born. In Binti, Nnedi Okorafor’s character hails from a desert community inspired by the author’s Nigerian heritage – a welcome addition to a genre that often bypasses Africa. In The Grace Of Kings, Ken Liu constructed Dara using a multitude of influences as his source material, albeit some Western, but the majority from historical China. In NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, there is a sole massive continent where catastrophic geological events shape societies, and communities are continually destroyed and rebuilt.
More importantly, writers of colour are putting complex, dimensional characters of colour at the forefront of their narratives. People of colour “hunger to see [themselves] as heroic figures, desperate parents, star-crossed lovers or battle-weary outcasts,” says sci-fi/fantasy author Kirk Johnson. In The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin’s main character, Essun, is a teacher and a woman of colour who is multifaceted and deeply human. The Fifth Season’s characters “are a slate of people of different colours and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars,” says Vann R Newkirk II. By casting characters of colour at the forefront, Jemisin and authors such as Liu and Okorafor are able to create “a framework that also asks thoroughly modern questions about oppression, race, gender, class, and sexuality,” says Bernard Hayman. Binti, too, explores questions about race and cultural identity as the main character is put in situations where various identities clash.
Change is slow and sometimes frustrating. But diversity and diverse writers are gaining traction. Once I would never have believed an article like this could exist, because books like this didn’t exist. My wish for the reading world is that a day comes when non-Western-based fantasies are the rule rather than the exception. I do hope my children will get to see it.
“writers of colour are helping to redefine the fantasy genre”
Empress Of All Seasons by Emiko Jean is out 8 November from Gollancz.
Multi-national characters make richer SF worlds.