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 Lane Heymont.
Before we jump into it, though, while speaking to my friend Holly about the first interview, she said two very quotable things and I’d like to share those here:
- ALL of us have a responsibility to our fellow humans to respect and realise them into our fiction.
- I believe so strongly that minority visibility of all kinds is essential. Popular culture is where people go to find understanding and identification. If people, especially children, cannot find positive representation for themselves in culture then it undermines their sense of importance and self efficacy. -Holly Kench
Lane Heymont was born in Pennsylvania. After earning a BA in Liberal Arts, with a double minor in psychology and business, he turned his focus back to writing. He has written two novels, is working on his third, and attends Harvard University in Extension, pursuing an MLA in creative writing. When not reading, writing, or researching his next book, Lane attempts to run a fantasy blog at A Goblin, a Unicorn, and a Dragon: A World of Fantasy (http://laneheymont.com/).
Lane’s Contact Info.:
Well, first I’d like to start by thanking you Jalisa for giving me this great and honored opportunity! Thanks so much! So, here we go.
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?
I think there are very few minority or mixed race characters in the fantasy genre compared to white or non-minority ones, and this really is a problem. The word “race” itself can be confusing, because when we say “race” as it pertains to the fantasy genre, we most often think of elves, dwarves, hobbits, ogres and the like. I think a lot of authors focus more on these “races” in order to enliven their world-building. So, the different real-world ethnicities are left behind in favor of the fantastic. What’s more fantastic, a lumbering ogre, or a Hispanic man? It bothers me though, because it’s taking our covert or maybe overt racism into literature. As someone who’s Jewish, I know the power of hatred in something so simple as a word, let alone the written word. Our stories should reflect the real world, even in the fantasy genre. The suspension of disbelief shouldn’t give us the free reign to discount whole groups of people. In the myriad of countries in all these fantastic worlds, you’re telling me all the gods or whatever creation mythos you use, all humanoids are created white?
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?
This is a great question and is really the rub of the issue. Since we as authors and people exist in the real world, our attitudes come from real world history. Even though we’re writing about worlds and places that have nothing to do with ours (not counting Urban/Historical/Contemporary fantasies), we bring our experiences into our stories. This includes prejudices and the residual effects of slavery. They’re still here, seeping down the generations into our attitudes. Scores of research has shown that minorities or non-whites earn less money in the workforce, suffer from higher unemployment, and are at an overall disadvantage. An author who is black or Hispanic is classified as a black author and is more likely to end up in the African-American section of bookstores—I’ve seen fiction books there, instead of an author who is black. So, it feels like society wants minority authors to write specifically for minorities. The same goes for Jewish authors—people expect them to write for Jews.
I have a feeling some white authors may feel it’s taboo to write about other ethnicities in fear of being criticized for portraying them a certain way. This past semester I took a novel writing course where we work shopped each others works-in-progress. It was really disturbing in some aspects. In the WIP I work shopped one of my main characters is a Roma or Romany (commonly known by the slur “gypsy”) and I did extensive research to make the character as real as possible. His dress, language, customs, and even colloquialisms. It was interesting that I was accused of being racist against Romany (actual term is anti-ziganist), because I used Romany in a fantasy novel! A woman explained it denoted that Romany were a fantastic or magical people instead of a true culture. I thought, so white people are allowed but not minorities or less understood cultures? Ironically, this came from a woman who wrote characters known as “Hispanic guy” or “black guy” or “slow Asian lady.” I thought, “Really????” So, I think they may keep authors from using people of other cultures as main characters.
(That whole experience is silly. While I understand why white authors may feel uncomfortable portraying characters of a different race, if a white author chooses to do so and does research and is comfortable doing it, I say more power to them. Bring on the diversity and the challenge. It’s harder to write something different from you, but as Holly said, it is all of our responsibility to make sure that people have somewhere to find themselves. And I really don’t think it’s fair that I’m comfortable writing any race whatsoever, but it’s a spot of discomfort for white authors because they’re white.)
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?
The current trend is in no way an accurate depiction of the audience of fantasy books, in all genres! People read what interests them. The idea minorities read less fantasy is absurd. Look at how popular fantasy novels are around the globe. If you check out any best-selling or not, fantasy authors’ Facebook page you’ll see comments from so many people different cultures and countries. I’ve seen people from Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, South Africa, and more comment on Margaret Weis’s page. Most authors just write for the American audience. It’s sad too, because people other countries don’t get to see characters that reflect them and their particular culture, besides the basic human emotions that we all experience.
I don’t anything can really be done. The problem lies in the author’s hands and imagination. Workshops to discuss other cultures and minorities in fiction would be a good start, and I’d like to they’re out there! As authors we need to expand our thinking and demolish pre-conceived notions about minority characters. Look at any movie with a black, or Hispanic, or Jewish, or Iranian actor. They are portrayed as their race/ethnicity, not as a person who happens to be black, Jewish, Hispanic, etc. When they are it’s seen as a deviation. Point and case, Nick Fury from the Avengers. In the original comics he was white, but is portrayed by Samuel Jackson in the movies. I read a number of articles and blog posts about how “interesting” it was or how much of a deviation from the “true” story. Nick Fury is a character, not a skin color.
(Just wanted to say eff ya on that last point!)
4. How do you decide what race your characters will be? Does it just come to you or do you purposefully choose certain races?
Another great question, Jalisa, and I’m glad you asked it! Usually, characters just come to me—most often their overall concept and last their physical appearance. I always try to make interesting characters appropriate for the setting. Thinking about it, in my three novels the main characters are all minorities. In my first book, a Civil War fantasy the majority of characters are black. It delves into race relations and Reconstruction. In my second book the main character is a Roman. In my current work-in-progress the MC suffers from a disease akin to leprosy, which carries along with it common prejudices. In the real world various ethnicities are everywhere and I try to reflect that in my writing.
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 find it frustrating sometimes, so I hope the reader writes their own story with mixed race/ethnic characters and help change the trend for the better.
6. If you could make one statement about the frequency/popularity of minority/mixed race characters in speculative fiction, what would it be?
I think we need more diverse characters, which in a way would change our attitudes towards their presence in fantasy. We need to reflect a real world audience.
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’m not sure I’d ask that question, but rather suggest they purchase manuscripts with more diversity. The real world is so fascinating because of our diversity and the issues that come with it. Having the same scenarios in fantasy would be great for world-building, and bring more people into a great genre!
I completely agree. And the level of inclusion in your work is admirable.
And though I think much of this, if not all of it, applies to all genres, I think SFF is such a great place for diversity, because of the content! Werewolves, vampires, witches, demons, time-travelers…all of these different people/creatures would have to come from diverse backgrounds, so it only seem natural to integrate that.
Again, thank you, Lane for taking the time to do this and for giving such thoughtful answers! I can’t wait to get a hold of your Civil War fantasy! Next time Tuesday’s “Minority Report” will feature Cecy Robson’s agency sister Jasmine Walker!