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!

11 September 2014

Proust Your Protagonist with novelist Lawrence C. Connolly

Meet 27-year-old Samuelle Calder, a protagonist in
Lawrence C. Connolly's masterful novel, Vipers.


Samuelle Calder

Kristina: What do you picture when you think of West Virginia? There's the state slogan "Wild and Wonderful," which in three words aptly describes the state that represents Appalachia for many. 

When I ran into Sam in Coalwood, I couldn't help but remember my times in West Virginia when I was a little girl visiting my aunt and uncle. The state defines the great outdoors for me... and honestly, Sam does, too. Talking to her was like going home, in a way. You'll see what I mean in our interview. 

Thank you, Sam, for answering these probing questions. 

Samuelle: Yeah, no problem. I don't really talk to a lot of people, but you seem all right enough.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Dependency. A lot of people today think they’re free, but they’re not. So many are tied down in ways they don’t even realize. I mean, there are the obvious ties of family and work. But there are also the deeper, more pervasive ones that come from being on-grid, using (I would say misusing) technology in ways that put you on everyone’s radar. Cell phones that broadcast your location, scan cards that track your buying habits, zip codes that allow government and corporations to determine everything about you—race, income, political affiliations. I have no time for such miseries. I believe in living free, off the grid, completely self-reliant. 

Where would you like to live?

Right where I do now, in a 300 square-foot cabin deep in the woods of West Virginia, off-grid and over a mile from the nearest paved road. There’s a stream for washing, a well for drinking, and a patch of cleared forest where I grow all the vegetables I need to get me through the year. And of course there’s the deep forest full of rabbit, turkey, pheasant, and deer. 

The cabin is powered by a waterwheel built by an Austrian company that specializes in off-grid hardware. It generates enough juice to run a pair of LED lamps, a laptop computer, and a few low-energy appliances. In winter, a wood stove gives me all the heat I need, and a bank of batteries ensures a reliable power reserve when the stream freezes over. All my stuff is top-of-the-line. That takes money, which I have. I don’t work often, but when I do the pay is good. 

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Living off-grid, hidden like a viper under a rock. You’ll never know I’m there unless I come for you, and then you’ll never know what hit you.

Your favorite occupation?

The one I have now, I suppose. I’m a professional shooter, specializing in long distance. My marks never see me. They don’t even know I exist, but they know my work, all right. Most of what I do is what my employer calls “sending a message” or “message shots”—a bullet through a window, surgically placed near someone’s elbow or just to the left of the gilded frame of an antique mirror. I never really find out what the shots are for, or what agreements or concessions my messages help along. Those things aren’t my business. And I mind my business.

What is your principle defect?

I don’t usually talk about this, but you’re catching me at a vulnerable time. See, things have been happening. Bad things. 

I guess you want me to be specific, right? So here it is. My mother used to have visions. She spoke in tongues, communed with angels, wrestled devils. Sometimes she would rave for hours . . . and other times she would sit stone still for days at a time, staring into space, talking to spirits. 

I couldn’t wait to get away from her and escape the madness. But it’s followed me. Lately I’ve been having visions, hearing angels.

You asked about my principle defect. It’s madness. It’s in my genes, and it’s the one thing I can’t hide from.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

Ending up like my mother. 

What would you like to be?

Left alone. Completely alone. Away from people. Away from angels.

What is it you most dislike?

People who make assumptions. 

A few years ago, before I went off-grid, I signed up for survival training in Colorado. It turned out to be a kind of weekend warrior thing. I was the only woman, and everyone there made assumptions about who I was, what I was, what I could and couldn’t do. 

I showed them. That’s all. Let your imagination take it where you want. But I showed them.

Who are your favorite heroines?

Kentucky Grace. That’s her real name, but she goes by Tucky. She was a farm child from southern West Virginia who struck out for San Francisco during the Summer of Love, hitchhiking west. She got as far as far as Nashville. That’s where she hooked up with a rock band in a VW microbus that was heading the other direction. They hit it off, and by the fall of 1967 she was living in a farmhouse commune on the western edge of Pennsylvania, 2,500 miles from Haight-Ashbury. She bloomed there, put down roots, never left.

I met her while on the run from the crap that went down in Colorado. I was in a pretty low place, and she took me in, taught me self-reliance, got me off the grid.

She’s the mother I should have had.

Who are your heroes in real life?

My mother used to take me to hear travelling preachers, guys who would blow into town, rent a fire hall, preach the Word, and leave with a trunkful of donations. 

One was different from the others. He wore a tailored suit and hand-tooled boots, more like a country singer than a preacher, the kind that sings songs about forbidden things. 

I remember imagining he might come down off the riser and ask me to be his apostle. You know, ask me to be his Peter, or maybe his Thomas—though I would never doubt or deny him. And I wouldn’t need the light of the Holy Spirit to make me a true believer any more than I would need to be a man to be counted among his closest followers. 

Crazy stuff, right? But here’s something crazier. I was maybe twelve when my mom took me to hear him preach. Haven’t seen him since. Haven’t even thought about him for a long, long time. But lately I get the feeling that he’s somewhere close. Not standing behind me or anything like that, but somewhere in the next county, or maybe the next state. And I feel like he’s getting closer. Maybe it’s just my mother’s madness taking hold, but I’m telling you . . . I think he’s coming for me.  

Your favorite virtue?


What natural gift would you most like to possess?


How would you like to die?

Alone . . . and sane.

What is your motto?

One’s company. Two’s a crowd.


Image (c) Lawrence C. Connolly
Samuelle Calder is the one of the central characters in Lawrence C. Connolly‘s contemporary fantasy novel Vipers: Book Two of the Veins Cycle. The other books in the series are Veins and the forthcoming Vortex (debuting November 4). She appears in both of those books as well.

Want to get to know another protagonist in the Veins Cycle? Meet Axle!

This week (September 5-10), the ebook edition of Veins is on sale for 99 cents at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Fantasist Enterprises

Fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ride!