Emiko Jean on the need for di­verse worlds in fan­tasy

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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.

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