CCB Brownbag Recap: Fantasy and Race

On Thursday 11/3, I gave a Brown Bag presentation on Fantasy and Race.  This interest stems from at least two directions.  One of those is the relative lack of authors of color writing fantasy literature for youth as well as character of color represented as more than tokens in fantasy and sci fi.  A big shout-out is in order here to the ways that former students have called that syllabus out for these big gaps.

So I used the word "represented" above, and it the idea of "representation" that was key to my talk yesterday.  I take it as a given that youth advocates, librarians among them, want youth to know that they belong in all things literature, literacy, and library-related.  One way to assure this is to be sure that racially and ethnically diverse authors and characters are represented in library collections and if you're reading my blog at all you probably ascribe this notion as a fundamentally good idea in library services.  Of course there are limits of the publishing world as well as of what authors write in the first place.

But, when we're talking about fantasy, the idea of representing race takes on two intersecting dimensions.  The first is, as discussed above, representing real people in fantasy books, racial and ethnic groups that constitute lived identities, whether chosen or foisted upon us.  Renowned authors writing this type of representation of African American people are Octavia Butler (for adults), Virginia Hamilton (for children and young adults) and some works by Julius Lester (mostly for children).

The other kind of representation of race is the representation of imagined races that may or may not correlate to any lived human identities.  So good old J. R. Tolkein comes to mind, representing hobbits, dwarves, elves, and humans working together.  Although orcs and trolls are another story.  At any rate, in that kind of case, and there are many examples in children's literature of animal fantasies that work this way, race operates as an imagined aspect of a world.  Part of the narrator's world-building work is to make it clear what is going on between and among groups of people defined by characteristics that, basically, add up to various fantasy versions of what operates in our society as "race."  (Though that, too is a kind of fantasy, but one backed up by the U. S. Census, among other things).

At my talk yesterday, I tried to give some sense of the books I was presenting in terms of how they represent.  The two categories are not entirely distinct, and in some cases they overlap in ways that trouble the distinction itself.  That's okay with me, but just a heads up to readers that I know this isn't an iron clad binary.  But I do think it gets at some of what is complex about thinking about fantasy and race in the first place.  So now you enter the book-talk-like part of this blog entry, although I can't really recreate the face-to-face booktalking without making this waaaay too long.  So I'm going to be brief, and just give the salient aspects of each title in relation to representations of real or imaginary racial identities.

Books Representing Real People in Imagined Situations

  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
  • Time's Memory by Julius Lester
  • The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
  • Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

That's the quick list.  Now I'll do a little title-by-title description of who is represented and how...

Akata Witch:  Perhaps the most inventive of the real people representations.  Set in Nigeria, the four children who come together to learn magic and fight evil are, respectively: Orlu, an African boy; Chichi, an African girl; central protagonist Sunny, an Albino African girl who has lived in the United States until recently; and Sasha, an African-American boy who has been sent over to Nigeria to clean up his act.  Sunny's emotional journey is central here, and part of that journey is her frustration over how she is treated because of her lack of pigmentation.  She knows she is African, but she is constantly teased by other kids for being "white."  This is probably the most complex representation of race as a lived experience and as a range of social constructs that I've yet seen in a book of fantasy or science fiction for young people.

Skeleton Man:  The main character is a contemporary Native American girl, whose father comes from the Mohawk Reserve of Akwesasne, and the story of the "skeleton monster" features heavily in the themes of the book.  Spooky events ensue.

The House of Dies Drear:  The main character is a contemporary African-American boy whose family has just moved to Ohio to an old and mysterious house that was once a major stop on the Underground Railroad.  Creepy events ensue, with both supernatural and everyday social conflicts.

Time's Memory:  I keep describing this as Beloved for 5th Graders.  It's really for high school and up.  Lester starts from a disaffected slave ship captain's perspective, moves to an African woman that he rescues, and then follows the journeys of an African spirit who has come over to America in her belly to try to heal the wounds that slavery is creating.  Beautifully written, if requiring suspension of disbelief at a higher level than most YA books.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm:  Unlike the above authors who represent groups of which they are part, Farmer is white.  She lived in Africa and did do solid research for this futuristic Zimbabwe depiction, complete with privileged children who move outside of their comfort zone and are almost trapped in a village that tries to recreate the past.  At the talk, I described my complex sense of the importance of paying attention to who writes what by asking *how* they come to know what they write about.  I can't champion only representative authors writing about whole imagined futuristic countries any more than I can defend anybody writing about just anything.  Each situation deserves careful examination for how the author came by the cultural knowledge they represent in their fiction.

Magic or Madness:  This one is possibly the most problematic of the bunch, but an interesting problem.  Reason's father is characterized only by his absence and his Australian Aboriginal origins.  Reason's biracial identity is not deeply developed, and the significance of her father's ancestry is, in great part, that it is from outside her mother's family's realm of magical control.  Reason's "otherness" becomes vital when she learns that her mother's family is magic, but in a way that can lead to madness, and provides symbolic hope that she may escape the family curse.  This race-as-other trope appears in lots of cheesy ways in fiction for young people, and while this is less cheesy than some I've seen, it's still worth thinking about critically.

Books Representing Imagined Races (that may function as metaphors for real people or the power relations they inhabit)

  • Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott
  • Black & White (previously published as Naughts and Crosses) by Malorie Blackman
  • City of Fire by Laurence Yep
  • Dust City by Robert Weston
  • Voices by Ursula Le Guin

Watersmeet:  this has become my favorite of the imagined-race-society books, simply because it tackles both human skin-color-based racism *and* races of dwarves and centaurs too.  Abisina's mother is a healer in a Vranian village, Vranians being obsessed with light skin and light eyes.  Abisina herself is biracial, and has only survived to her teens because of her mother's local power and outsider nature as a healer.  When racial violence comes to the village yet again, Abisina barely escapes.  She is grudgingly  rescued by a Dwarf, who hates humans generally but listens to his grandmother's more accepting views.  They travel together to Watersmeet, where Abisina finds that her darker-skinned father is a leader of this place where the barriers between all the races have been overcome and led to a place of refuge and peace.  However, Abisina, who was attacked by Centaurs on her journey, is utterly overcome by the idea that Centaurs roam free here, and has to overcome internalized racism.  Especially when her father turns out to be a Centaur in disguise.  This book may be overly simplistic in its good-versus-evil battle at the end, but the emotional world that Abisina inhabits is convincing.

Black and White:  Imagine a world in which black-skinned people ruled over white-skinned slaves for hundreds of years, and the white-skinned people are only now beginning to achieve the right to schooling.  This is the world in which wealthy black-skinned Sephy falls in love with white-skinned Callum, the son of her family's maid.  This simple reversal does amazing things in making the reader have to rethink again and again the tropes of racism in our contemporary society.  It's an effective reversal for disrupting the usual metaphors that operate around "black" and "white."

City of Fire:  Main character Scirye comes from "an area where many cultures and people had mingled," and her ancestry is defined by a tradition of fierce women warriors, one of whom Scirye is in training to become.  Yep sets this in a steam-punk-like imagined 1941, and dragons and other mythical creatures appear throughout the story, making references to Norse, Hawaiian, and other mythologies.  Although he borrows from real people, Yep is creating a fusion fantasy that draws from too many different traditions to map into any one group of real people.

Dust City:  The characters here are wolves, foxes, ravens, and hominids, and it hasn't escaped the notice of the animalia that the hominids always have all the good luck.  Henry is a wolf, the son of the famous Big Bad Wolf, and his life in the Home for Wayward Wolves is really little better than being in prison.  When he begins to investigate the real story behind his father's arrest, he stumbles across a murder victim, and flees rather than stay and explain that he didn't do it.  When he does, he runs into the city's seamy underbelly of Dust dealers, and slowly uncovers the truth about fairydust.  This is a lot darker than initial perusal might suggest, with plenty of gore and violence and even one tragic genocide at the frightening resolution of the many mysteries introduced here.  Being a "wolf" operates as a loose but compelling metaphor for race, and in particular for the kinds of prejudices and judicial-and-prison system injustices faced by generations of African-American young men in the United States.

Voices:  One culture has conquered another, and now the dark-skinned Alds rule over the city of Ansul.  Memer is the product of both, as the child of a previous wave of conquering Alds and her own Ansul mother, making her visibly bi-racial in a world defined by tensions between these two imagined races.  

The discussion afterwards was great and wide-ranging, as we talked further about the complexities of representation, including the fact that young people struggling with racism in their lives may not want to read about it in their fantasies.  Then again, maybe they will.  The way that fantasy represents real and imagined races to young readers is certainly an area and an issue that is ripe for more debate, and I can only hope that these descriptions of books are thought provoking and, perhaps, reading-provoking.

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