14 September 2014

I write fantasy and I'm worried white privilege will infiltrate my books. Part One.

When you think of characters in the fantasy genre,
is this what you see?

From The Lord of the Rings,
The Fellowship of the Ring
2019 Update: I wrote this post back in 2014 about my book The Name and the Key. After much consideration and conversations with other writers and PoC, I decided that despite my efforts, the book appropriates from Roma culture and that I cannot submit to agents or for publication in its current form. I am currently in the process of rewriting it from scratch. You can read my post about the decision here: "Game Over, Would You Like to Restart?"

This is a two-part post my brain's been struggling to put together for a while, because it's tricky subject matter and I have no easy answers for any of it.  You see, I write fantasy: the genre of the impossible, where there is potentially o limit for what the author can create and what the reader can envision.

I am a world-builder. I like to create characters and nations and cultures and throw them into a universe where magic is real, and the tangible and intangible coexist. The worlds I create, however, are simply variants of our own.

I use Earth-like worlds because my own imagination is limited when it comes to innovative world creation. I just don't have the capability to build a Middle Earth or an Arrakis. I grew up with stories that took place "Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom" or "Once upon a time, long ago." The world of fairy tales and myth didn't need to be more complicated than that. It was always easier for me to insert myself into the realm of "once upon a time" because it was familiar enough that I didn't feel unwelcome or uncomfortable with being a part of it. I still operate with this idea in mind as I write my own fantasy.

At its core, I am "writing what I know." But there are issues even with this. You see, I don't want to contribute to the line of fantasy authors who also wrote what they knew, which ended up being worlds with predominantly white characters based on European, feudalistic history. I don't want a world where non-white characters are packaged as stereotypes, or thrown in to add an "exotic" flavor to the otherwise same-old, same-old. But it's been like this in fantasy for a long time, even when there are exceptions to this rule.

I have to be honest and acknowledge this: I come from white privilege:
White privilege [...] is a term for societal privileges, [...] that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white[s...] in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. [note 1] The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.[1] These include cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely.[2] The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.[3][4
(Source: Wikipedia)
I emphasized in bold the sections of Wikipedia's definition that I think applies to not only real-life situations, but what also filters into fiction. This doesn't speak for all works of fiction, nor all authors, but I think it's safe to assume that even well-meaning white authors fall into the trap of "marking others as different or exceptional" when they write from their own "normal" worldviews. I personally make the mistake of assuming the universality of my experiences; I also am sometimes oblivious to the advantages I have, even when I try to be socially conscious.

I am worried that writing what I know--a world lived through the lens of white advantages--will negatively affect my writing. I want to write fantasy that includes major characters who are outside of my own personal experience and cultural history. I'm also worried when I create such characters, I'll unintentionally resort to cultural appropriation and stereotyping (which I think is another consequence of writing from privilege).

This has been on my mind since I started writing my thesis novel, The Name and the Key, in 2010. What started initially as a single-volume fantasy has morphed into a trilogy I've continued to work on when I've had the chance. This trilogy, The Worldwalker Chronicles, features main characters who are based off of the culture of the Romani, which are perhaps more famously (and pejoratively) known as gypsies.

Every time I've worked on the series I've had to pause and consider that I'm writing as both a gadje and a person of white privilege. How do I do justice to culture well outside my own experience, but also do justice to my own story?

This is a larger issue that I'll go into when I discuss Part Two. To tide you over until then, here are some great articles I recommend that defines these issues better than I've been able to:

Please feel free to leave comments; however, I reserve the right to delete anything I deem offensive or unproductive to the conversation. Thanks for reading!

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