When I started reading Fantasy, I started with Tamora Pierce, Madeline L’Engle, Mercedes Lackey and Jane Yolen. I didn’t think of the characters of those books as any different from me, except that they were in way more fantastic situations. But as I grew into an adult, I started to notice that there was a pointed different between me and the characters I was reading about.
Almost none of them looked like me.
I wasn’t sure if that mattered until slowly I realized I’d like to see more diversity (and admittedly, more of me) in what I was reading. So, I wrote it. And sought it out in new authors. A very wonderful list of authors can be found here. It’s so comprehensive, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
But the point is that all of this thinking has been circling around in my head for years, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who likes a little diversity in her literature. So, when author Cecy Robson got into contact with me and we started to discuss the lack of minority/mixed race in Fantasy, I knew it was something I wanted to further explore. And what better way to find out what other people think than by asking them?
So, I asked a few authors if they’d be willing to share their thoughts and they said yes! Which is how the “Minority Report” was born.
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This week we have a fantastic Minority Report with Kylie Chan, whose DARK HEAVENS triology, I’ve just discovered. It’s an amazing and unique read that I’m reviewing this week and I was honored that Kylie took time out of her schedule (and made an exception) to answer a few questions. Come to find out she too is always up to discuss diversity in fiction. But I’m not surprised ocnsidering the diversity of her characters, which is amazing to read.
Her take on the current diversity in fiction and how she’s crafted the world she has is seriously riveting. I loved every word. And I’m sure you will, too.
More about Kylie
Kylie Chan married a Hong Kong national in a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony in Eastern China, lived in Australia for ten years, then moved to Hong Kong for ten years and during that time learnt a great deal about Chinese culture and came to appreciate the customs and way of life.
In 2003 she closed down her successful IT consultancy company in Hong Kong and moved back to Australia. She decided to use her knowledge of Chinese mythology, culture, and martial arts to weave a story that would appeal to a wide audience.
Since returning to Australia, Kylie has studied Kung Fu (Wing Chun and Southern Chow Clan styles) as well as Tai Chi and is now a senior belt in both forms. She has also made an intensive study of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy and has brought all of these together into her storytelling.
Kylie is a mother of two who lives in Brisbane.
Kylie’s Contact Info
And now for her fantastic interview.
1. How do you feel about the presence of minority or mixed race authors and characters present in fiction, specifically speculative fiction and all its varied genres?
Every time I see an author or character that’s an example of diversity I do a little fist pump and go ‘YES’. Then I cringe, hoping that if it’s a character, that the author hasn’t just made them ‘ethnic’ to add little flavor, and they know what they’re talking about culturally and not appropriating. If the character is gay (and even when it’s not) I cringe, hoping that it won’t be gratuitously stereotypical, which is worse than not having a gay/ethnic character at all. When it’s an authentic, authoritative voice for diversity, a real person rather than a stereotype, I have to admit I do a little victory dance. So how do I feel? I think the short answer is: happy. Doesn’t matter whether it’s spec, genre, lit, YA, anything. All diversity is good and makes me happy.
2. Why do you think the presence of such authors and characters is at the point that it is? Meaning, are there certain attitudes, stereotypes or expectations that accompany such authors and characters, or maybe that don’t accompany them that make the prevalence what it is today?
I think the current point is tipping over into more diversity. The Old Guard are waning and a new, strong, diverse group of voices are speaking up and being heard.
When I was small (I’m an old lady now) my world wasn’t a very diverse place. All the speculative fic writers I read were white, and the vast majority of them were men. And I didn’t notice, because that’s the way the world was. A friend of mine at a spec fic con made the point about the ‘scene being ruled by Old White Guys’.
Younger readers and writers are born into a world today with more diversity. Hell, I added to it myself by marrying outside my own ethnic group and having mixed-race kids. In my parents’ time this would be unthinkable. In my time it was unusual. In my kids’ time – it’s normal. This is the new, strong, diverse voice that’s being heard and I am so happy to hear it sing.
3. Do you feel like something should be done about the popularity/frequency of minority/mixed race characters or do you think how it exists now is an accurate depiction of the audience of such fiction?
As it stands now, such characters still aren’t an accurate representation of the world’s vibrant diversity – there are probably a number of factors that make most of today’s successful English-language authors of the majority ethnic group – but this is changing all the time. As our cultures become more diverse, so will our authors. As our authors become more diverse, so will our characters. I think in the near future we’ll see more culturally distinct authors giving a voice to minority and mixed characters. Cannot wait.
4. How do you decide what race or sexuality your characters will be? Does it just come to you or do you purposefully choose certain races? What was the case with the DARK HEAVENS Trilogy?
I have four main characters; all the others rotate around them. I wrote my books for a Western female audience, so the main POV character is a western woman. I use her POV to contrast the Western customs with Chinese culture. She’s the anchor so I’ve made her something familiar for the reader (and I’m delighted that men find her just as valid a POV character). The rest of the characters – the vast majority of them – are Chinese, and I chose to add a black gay American just to throw some variety into the mix. This was deliberate, actually; I wanted to depict the noble Chinese God of War and the man – and woman – who love both him and his child. Sexuality is something I have a great deal of respect for, I wanted to write a gay character who isn’t the stereotypical effeminate, and any reader of my books will know that I love gender-bending. My latest work, Small Shen, has the main character of a Chinese bisexual rock who can change gender at will. Most of the readers who’ve already seen it adore him, and the artist who illustrated Small Shen, Queenie Chan, has produced a poster of his male and female forms for her own amusement that is simply delightful.
5. What initially drew you to Chinese mythology and culture?
Living there! It’s so ubiquitous in Hong Kong, you never even notice it. The Monkey King is everywhere. Chinese New Year is full of depictions of the God of Fortune. I never knew there was so much depth and wonder in the culture and I was boring everybody by rattling on about it so I decided to write it up. When I returned to Australia I wanted to write to share my experiences of the culture and mythology, and decided that it would be much more fun to do a wuxia (martial arts comic-book style story) rather than a dry essay.
6. I wouldn’t say that I see very many authors writing from the POV of a race different from their own, but you did—which I think you did authentically and with beautiful skill. It’s also terribly fascinating and admirable. Were there any kind of challenges or fears in doing this? Why do you think there aren’t very many other authors doing the same?
Oh thank you (I’m blushing now). I was always concerned that I would be accused of cultural appropriation; of using the culture merely to further my own agenda. The exact opposite has happened. The Chinese community has rallied behind me, and I’ve received so much – so much! – generous positive feedback it’s been humbling and wonderful. I constantly receive emails from Asian people thanking me for doing the hard work – the research – on the mythology that the older generations are either generally quite ignorant about or are loath to share. They love that I’ve brought Chinese culture into a story that is so popular, but at the same time I’ve treated it with respect. I have a special folder for emails from gay and Asian fans, and it warms my heart.
I think the main reason that most authors don’t do it is because of the cultural appropriation thing. If you just dip into a culture, and don’t live it, don’t experience the nuances, don’t spend time living with the people and being totally immersed in it, then your voice isn’t authentic and most authors know it. It’s completely wrong just to watch a few movies, do a few Google and wiki searches, and then try to use a culture. That smacks of exploitation.
As more members of different cultures gain their voices, though, I’m sure we’ll see much more literature – in English and in diverse languages – that breaks down this barrier.
7. What effect do you think reading books with primarily white heroines and heroes in them has on minority/mixed race readers, if any? What about the effect on white readers, if any?
I think my own daughter has felt, in a way, marginalized. The heroes and heroines aren’t ‘her’. Very often the mixed-race or minority character is ‘just a sidekick’. She doesn’t want to be a sidekick; she’s definite heroine material. (This is actually one of the reasons why one of my four main characters is a half-Chinese young woman who is dealing with both her god-like powers and mixed ethnicity – and dealing with both magnificently.)
On white readers – it reinforces the idea that the world is white, that all the most important people are white, and really reinforces the superior white worldview. Ugh.
8. If you could make one statement about the frequency/popularity of minority/mixed race characters in speculative fiction, what would it be?
We need more.
9. If you could ask successful editors one thing about their acquisition of books and whether or not a character’s culture/race plays into it at all, how would you ask it? Or rather, what question would you ask about this topic, if you could?
I’ve asked this! My old editor at Voyager retired recently, and I asked both her and my new editor about books with different races and cultures. (I asked them about their opinions on sexuality and gender-bending as well, because that’s a very big part of the books later in the series.)
They want more. They want a lot more. I’ve been asked by an editor if I could do something with a different Asian culture from just Chinese – could I do something with the marvelous Indian Hindu pantheon (I’m often asked this at cons as well) or with Japanese gods and demons, or … anything else? (I want to go to Japan – dip into the culture there, live there for a while – and share the wonderful Japanese demons with a western audience. Those things are truly, mind-bogglingly awesomely weird. Great stuff.)
I told my editor there’d be some massive gender-bending in a later book – a character would change gender completely. Her response? ‘Excellent’.
Editors are looking for a truly authoritative voice of cultural diversity. They can spot fakes a mile off, and are very leery about obvious and exploitative cultural appropriation. They don’t want diverse culture just for the sake of it; they want to give a voice to diversity that’s real, heartfelt, and authentic. I don’t think there’s any sort of discrimination against a diverse voice in fiction – I think it probably the opposite. The success of my work is an example of what the future could bring, and it looks very bright.
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It is seriously awesome to hear the answer from someone who has actually had the chance to ask and for there to be such a bright future with such inclusion is exciting. Thank you so much, Kylie. I don’t have anything to add. You’ve been wonderful.
Join the discussion. What’s your take?