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. This week features Holly Kench, who I’ve had a great time discussing many matters with, including this one and who was the original push behind me making “Minority Report” a feature on the blog. Thank you, Holly!
Holly Kench is a writer and feminist. She enjoys stories that make her think and laugh, and is addicted to young adult fantasy.Holly looks for books that contemplate the world as much as books that provide escape, but doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive. She seeks stories that offer positive considerations of sex and gender. Holly is convinced we can change the world through popular culture. She has recently begun her own project called Vis Fic, which will be a site featuring primarily YA literature featuring minority groups–in other words, inclusive YA fiction. And I’m happy to share that Vis Fic is now open to submissions and guidelines are available here! She’s also an awesome member of the Super Reviewers!
Holly’s Contact Info.:
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?
The genre I’m most familiar with is certainly young adult paranormal fiction. In many cases this is a genre that has seen a recent increase in the representation of typically marginalised characters, including those of minority and mixed race, but what is notably absent is minority and mixed race main characters. I get the sense that authors are aware of the need for greater racial representation in their stories, but they seem to feel hesitant to extend this representation to their protagonists. I feel that this is something that desperately needs to be addressed.
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?
What we see in popular culture usually reflects our societal values and I think the lack of minority and mixed race characters in speculative fiction is fairly representative of the attitudes and standards in mainstream culture at the moment. Walking past advertisements on the street, I mostly see white faces starring back at me, with the occasional token Asian face thrown in the background. I think that’s the problem: when it comes to race, we are still stuck within an attitude of token representation and rather than helping anyone, I think this is the safe way out of real and meaningful representation of our actual diverse audiences.
I was interested in Susan Griner’s comment, in one of your earlier interviews, that television usually follows books in trends, but television seems far more representative than mainstream books these days. The fact that television has developed in this way suggests that attitudes are continuing to move in a positive direction, but it is very disappointing that fiction is lagging behind. This makes me wonder; what is the difference between books and television that creates this gap? Is it that television series more often have multiple main characters and, therefore, their creators feel they can offer more upfront racial diversity? Books, on the other hand, are more likely to have one protagonist. Is this why authors are leaning towards the perceived safety of white in their main characters? Sorry, I’m meant to be answering questions, not asking them!
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?
I definitely do not believe that the current frequency of minority/mixed race characters is an accurate depiction of audiences, and I certainly think something (many things!) needs to be done about it. I think the best and most important thing we can do is talk about the current disparity among characters’ racial representations. By opening discourses, just like you are doing by way of these interviews, we can encourage people, authors, publishers, and audiences to think about and discuss the issue critically. This is the way to contribute to changing attitudes for good.
4. How do you decide what race your characters will be? Does it just come to you or do you purposefully choose certain races?
Particularly when I’m writing young adult fiction, I’m very conscious of how my characterisations might affect any possible audiences. If anything, I tend to over think such problems. I believe that we owe our audiences diverse representations in our stories. Straight white characters are everywhere, but the reality is that’s not the reality, and our audiences deserve more representative characterisations in fiction. In the past, I have mostly been concerned with providing representation for people from sexual minorities, without much concern for race. However, after reading your interviews, discussing the issue with you and others, I have become increasingly aware of the need to pay race greater consideration. Inevitably minor characters in stories will fall into a minority race category, but, as I mentioned above, this is not always enough. In the future, I intend to pay much closer attention to the race of my characters and how to represent minority and mixed race characters in a positive way that is both true to my fiction and my audience.
5. What effect do you think reading books with primarily white heroines and heroes in them has on minority/mixed race readers, if any?
I think this is the most important question because, what we read has a huge impact on our understandings of the world, society and ourselves. Popular culture, including fiction, is a reflection of societal values, so when certain people are not visible in our fiction, the meaning of their identity in our society comes into question. Stories are also how we learn our place in the world, at the very least others’ expectations of our place, so if we cannot find ourselves in available stories, what are we meant to think about our existence and the importance of our existence in others’ lives? Particularly for children and teens growing up, the feeling of having limited or no visibility in pop culture can be extremely isolating. If we write stories with representative characters, we are creating fictional realisations of real people’s identities, which is so important.
I’ve heard some writers say that there is no moral obligation in writing. Excuse my language, but that is bull crap (and a few other expletives that might not be suitable for your site). A writer’s obligation is to their audience and we owe our audiences the respect that comes with broad, meaningful and inclusive representation. We owe it to those in our audience who are from non-white backgrounds to provide representation that allows them reflective visibility in fiction. We owe them evidence that non-white people have relevance and importance in our society. We owe them a reflection of their existence in fiction that goes beyond stereotypes to provide literary reality, even when other aspects of reality in our stories are speculative.
But you know what? Representation of minority and mixed race characters is just as important for our white audience members. No one benefits from non-inclusive writing, and we owe our audiences more respect than to think that’s the only fiction they want to read. We owe it to everyone to create a changing practice of racial representation in our stories. We owe it to everyone to write stories that create new attitudes, shift stereotypes and develop understandings. We owe it to everyone to show through our fiction that all people have value and importance in our writing and in our society.
And, by the way, it’s not only authors from minority and mixed race backgrounds that need to take responsibility for this. All writers and authors have a responsibility to their audiences to provide meaningful representation in their characters.
*takes a deep breath*
6. If you could make one statement about the frequency/popularity of minority/mixed race characters in speculative fiction, what would it be?
7. If you could ask successful editors one thing about their acquisition of books and if race plays into it at all, how would you ask it? Or rather, what would that question be?
I think editors are considering diversity as part of their acquisition process more and more, but for those who aren’t, I’d like to ask what they think will be the result of choosing stories with greater racial representation. Do they believe that white audiences will be put off reading texts because they have minority and/or mixed race characters? If this is the case, I’d like to suggest they should give their audiences a little more credit than that.
I’d like to think so, at least. Thank you to Holly for such thoughtful answers! It’s always great to hear from her, so to get such a candid look at her opinion on such an important topic is a joy!