I grew up reading classic literature, contemporary literature, philosophy, scientific books, and fantasy. A lot of fantasy. I must have read a thousand fantasy novels in my days, if not more. For the most part they all ignored my existence, or rather, represented only the existence of one culture: Western Europe, so much to the point that it was a running gag among my friends.
I remember saying, “So you’re telling me in a world of ogres, orcs, dragons, and hobbits, there’s no black people?”
To this day, the only people of color I’ve seen in a fantasy – taking place on a secondary world – is the Dragonlance series, and frankly, only one or two characters make appearances if I remember correctly. Neither of the characters could be considered the protagonist.
I have a major issue with this. Why? Because, when I read, and more importantly, write, I like to feel this magical, wondrous sense called “reality”. This is of the utmost importance, despite the notion of “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to enjoying the fantasy genre; I have to somehow identify with it.
While writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff, my debut novel about the relationship between racism and a myriad of people – black and white – I faced a lot of criticism, rather, warnings from beta readers when I explained I was writing from the perspective of an African-American character. Ironically, the only people who objected were white people. However, it made me wonder if their protests were me writing about black characters, or from that point of view. Basically, having a minority/person of color protagonist was their issue.
On one level I can appreciate the trepidation some white or non-minority authors might feel, but to give in to that worry is to commit robbery. You rob the readers of a chance to see a fantasy novel based in reality where not only white characters are presented as heroes. You rob people of the chance to read about someone “who looks like them.”
I’ll repeat that: who looks like them. I’ve heard those words said a lot when it comes to the fantasy genre. A number of friends, who happen to people of color, have often said as a child they wondered why there were no heroes who looked like them. The appearance is less the issue, and more the feeling of being ignored. That’s a horrible feeling.
Why exactly are people of color so underrepresented in fantasy? There’s this concept of the Other, a prominent notion in continental philosophy, which is the idea that something unfamiliar to us, something outside our “known world” is different. By nature, humankind fears what is different – at best, misunderstands what is different.
Psychologically, this affects every interaction we have, or even think, in relation to the Other. So, it’s safe to say for white writers who may have limited experiences or relationships with those outside their race might consider writing from a minority perspective the Other.
The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff relies heavily on the idea of the Other. Ku Klux Klan characters hate, attempt to enslave, and even murder African-American characters because, at its base, they are the Other. Narce, the most hateful and morally despicable character in my novel, is fuelled by hatred based on fear and ignorance. Sure, he’s evil, but despite his horribleness he’s still a human who functions as defined by human psychology.
So, it feels like white authors have an easier time, or are more comfortable, writing from the perspective of dragons, ghosts, elves, Minotaurs, and other non-humans than another human being. Seems ironically odd, don’t you think? And the writing suffers for it, as does the cause.
Stories, even fantasy stories and those that require the suspension of disbelief, need to be grounded in reality. What’s interesting in the real world is the myriad of human cultures, not ogres or hobbits or lizard people. Not to say lizard people should be compared with a real world culture, and frankly, I am not a fan of how many authors base a non-human race on a real world culture. That’s the definition of a culture thief.
Writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff was invigorating and refreshing as a fantasy reader, because the genre had started to frustrate me. How many times can you read about dwarves, ghosts, fairys, and the like, without having them converge into this amorphous blob? Sure, one author’s vampire is different than another’s, but vampires are vampires.
As a reader I wanted something different and as a writer I needed something different. At the time I began The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff I was enrolled in an African-American Literature class. It inspired me, and I ran with the story of Jeb – a former slave and freedman, and his brother-in-law Crispus who must defend their town from the Klan.
As soon as I put my finger to the keyboard I knew where I was going. Magic? Of course, it’s a fantasy, but like in all good stories, the system of magic needs to be consistent and make sense. I chose Voodoo magic because it’s one of the most defined systems, since it’s a religion interlaced with real laws of magic. It works if you believe it.
So my plea with authors is to provide us with more minority protagonists—strong, honourable, realistic characters and there will be no issue. Overcome your anxiety of offending people by writing from a place of honesty and most importantly, respect.
Lane Heymont was born in Pennsylvania. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts with a focus on literature and history. He also holds a double minor in psychology and business. After college, Lane turned his focus back to writing. He has several short stories published, one of which was recommended for a 2012 Bram Stoker Award. The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s staff is his debut novel from Sunbury Press.