Friday, January 4, 2013

Diversity in Fantasy: Initial Forays + Settings

Happy new year, everyone! Toward the end of last year I was striving mightily against junior year (and since school starts next week, I may find myself in the same situation...) and didn't find time to sit down and write about something I've been thinking about a lot: diversity in writing.

Clarification: I'm not talking about the underrepresentation of nonwhites in writing, I'm talking about diversity in subject matter. To keep this discussion on manageable ground, let's specify the relative dearth of non-European settings in fantasy.

For today, I want to start with the one belief I know I hold, for sure:

Because we are all human, the breadth of human culture is open to anyone who will treat it respectfully.

In other words, an author's cultural background should not bar him/her from writing stories in other settings, so long as the research is sound. For fantasy, it might be easy to handwave research, and I actually think I'm okay with a certain amount of fudging as long as the story is the kind of fantasy that doesn't claim to represent a specific time period/location.

(Example of that kind of fantasy (though not an example of shoddy research): the excellent Bayern books by Shannon Hale. Her research lists indicate that pre-Christian Germany and Zoroastrianism exist in the same series, which is kind of what I'm doing with GW. If you throw in the whole world and fantasize everything to the same degree, vale as far as I'm concerned.)

(On a mostly unrelated note, "oriental" makes me cringe when used to describe a book's setting. Eastern is kind of okay. Asian is better, and better still is a specific region that acknowledges that the largest continent in the world is more than one culture.)

--> But back to my main argument.

Anyone can write in any setting. I think it's safe to assume that most writers in fantasy today are of European descent, and perhaps out of a fear of being accused of cultural appropriation many choose to step carefully around non-European settings. Imperialism was just a century ago, and I can see the rationale behind hesitation even though I don't think it's necessary.

I realize that I'm probably less liable than a white writer to get accused of perpetuating imperalistic views, and that is not a good thing. A double standard is wrong.

If I can write a story about England (and if someone says that I can't, then I am almost certain we can reach for the "racist" labels), then a writer of English extraction can write a story about China, no matter what kind of history there was between the two nations (*Hong Kong*).

Too often it feels as though non-European settings are not fair game. Perhaps, if enough of us travel outside of the lines of Europe/generic fantasyland, we can overwhelm the border guards. If any person feels an inclination to write a story in a different setting, they should be able to follow that inclination. I'm going to stop making metaphors. Next slide.

Writers (including me) also fear misrepresenting a country or a region's mindset/worldview, and again, the simplest way out of that probably is to make a fantasy setting that borrows inspiration from a certain culture without wholesale adoption of the ethos. But a strict historical setting should reflect the prevailing views.

(Example: in Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing, set in Romania under Ottoman control, the main character Jena has a lot of issues because her male cousin doesn't think that five girls can manage the household finances.)

The solution is probably more research - more research, an open mind, and remembering that no matter how far removed a setting may seem from contemporary [insert country here], people are still people are still people, no matter how they look or from where they come.


  1. I totally see where you're coming from (Sorry I've been non-existent... Oh college), and agre with you completely. I've always wondered why most high fantasy is European, and it does make sense.

  2. Yes, if you have to set it somewhere 'real' then you can't content yourself with anything less than *incredibly extensive* background research...the inaccuracies in an otherwise fabulous story will bug many people to no end, making any story less than what it is. But then again there's another beauty of fantasy: you can create a whole new culture yourself if you have it in you!

    oh, and i like the new art on the blog banner!