Monday, January 20, 2014

The Question of Diversity

The NAPIRE workshop: diverse cultures, diverse minds,
diverse forests.  Photo courtesy of Lelemia Irvine.
There's a saying in Costa Rica that the first twelve days of the New Year indicate the weather patterns for the next twelve months.  I’ve always assumed that ‘weather patterns’ referred to rain, sun, wind, and so forth.  But it occurred to me, as we launched into 2014, that ‘weather patterns’ could also include emotional ups and downs, professional and leisure activities, what ideas would excite us in the New Year, and what obstacles might set us back. 

A good portion of my first twelve days was spent in a unique workshop sponsored by the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS).  I’ve been involved with NAPIRE since 2006, and have talked about it extensively on my blog for Eolyn.  NAPIRE is a very innovative program dedicated to encouraging young scientists of Native American and Pacific Islander origin to pursue careers in field ecology. 

The workshop brought together the collective experience of several participants to develop a set of best practices for mentoring undergraduate research students.  Our group was small but extraordinarily diverse, representing several Native American tribes and Pacific Islander peoples, as well as students, faculty, staff, advisers, and tribal leaders.  I’ve rarely experienced as rich, varied, and productive a discussion as I did during the few days I spent with this amazing group of people, all dedicated to the mission of increasing diversity in the sciences.

As I made my journey home in the days after the workshop, I found myself mulling over diversity, what it means and where it fits not only in the sciences, but in the broader fabric of today’s society.  Naturally I turned to the question of diversity in fantasy.

The serendipity of composing this post on the eve of Martin Luther King Day is not lost on me.  Last week I watched a documentary about the struggles of the 1960s; what it cost in time, energy, heartbreak, and lives to achieve the civil rights laws that we all take for granted today.  During the NAPIRE workshop I was reminded that despite the many achievements of recent decades, we are still unable to fully appreciate not only the strengths of both genders, but also the rich cultural diversity that characterizes the world we live in. 

TV shows are still cancelled when they have too many intelligent women; the superheroes of our movies remain monochromatic (and the superheroines virtually nonexistent); the image of epic fantasy is often pigeonholed into a fictitious medieval age untouched by non-European cultures.  The list goes on and on.

Of course, these stereotypes are being broken down, day by day, piece by piece.  But there is still a long road to be traveled before we can call the genre truly representative. 

I’m very proud of the small role Heroines of Fantasy has played in bringing attention to the question of gender in fantasy over the past two years.  The fundamental importance of what we do was reaffirmed for me during my week with NAPIRE in Las Cruces.  Now, I’d like to challenge our friends and followers to broaden our discussion going forward, so that we include not only women in genre fiction, but also cultural and ethnic diversity. 

There are a lot of ways to do this, the most obvious of which is to bring to the table authors and books that have enriched the genre along these dimensions.  We can also consider how cultural and ethnic diversity have influenced our own stories.

For example, I talk a lot about the women protagonists featured in my work.  But what about the influence of Native American spirituality on my approach to magic?  Or the connections between the real place of Latin America and the fictitious kingdom of Moisehen?  Why did I think it important to make Corey’s Circle an ethnically diverse community? What is the connection between the Guendes of Eolyn's world and the duendes of Guam?  These and other aspects of the underlying fabric of Eolyn’s world are stories that deserve to be told, and that perhaps I have not spent enough time telling.  

Instinct tells me there are a multitude of stories out there like my own, where the cultural influences cannot be pinned down to a single source, but come from a variety of traditions and peoples.

So, what do you say? Are you ready to take our discussion to the next level and give a greater voice to this topic in our forums?  How has diversity, in your experience, contributed to the great stories you’ve read and written? Why is diversity important to the genres we know and love?

Have at it, HoF friends and followers.  I look forward to seeing your comments.


Terri-Lynne said...

What a great topic!

When I wrote Finder, I must admit that I deliberately set it outside of that European-esque setting. It's what was calling to me at that time, having spent years "practicing" within the usual parameters of the fantasy genre.
Don't get me wrong--I LOVE that more traditional setting, but it wasn't right for the story I wanted to tell.
Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, Guy Gavriel Kay's Last Light of the Sun, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, Octavia Butler's Kindred, and Fledgeling both feature black female protagonists--and one a vampire! Robert Holdstock Mythago books are set in England, but dip back into the paleolithic. And then there's CC Finlay's foray into the American Revolution.

I could go on, and it makes me wonder WHY that pseudo-European is so often sited as "the norm" when there is really such diversity in fantasy fiction--not just new, but most of the books I sited are quite old. Is it because of LOTR? All the stuff that came out of the 80's? What IS the ratio, I wonder...I betcha David could shed some light on that. :)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks, Terri. To add to your list, I just started N.K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms". The story features a Mulatto woman protagonist, though the culture is clearly stratified along racial lines, and deeply feudalistic. It is essentially a medieval power struggle, painted with very different brush strokes.

The great thing about fantasy is that you can mix so many pots and come up with something entirely new, even though at first glance it might look like the "same old same old". All assumptions are suspended, making it that much more of an adventure for both authors and readers.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--precisely. Eolyn is one of those books. On the surface, there is that European flavor, but once you're in, there is all that Native American/Central American influence that is completely unmistakeable.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

There may be some diversity in fantasy but consider that Martin and Rowling, who pretty much outsell everyone else combined, have squarely European-based settings. Granted they may dabble at times outside pseudo-Europe but fantasy has always done that, I suspect Conan was as often outside his 'Europe' as within it.

In fact here are the bestselling fantasy series of all time:

The Lord of the Rings (not a series of course)
Harry Potter (series)
A Song of Ice and Fire (series)
Chronicles of Narnia (series)
The Wheel of Time (series)

All these have essentially European-based characters and cultures. You have to go a hell of a long way down the list to find ones that have the central focus outwith a pseudo-Europe and with a main character who is not essentially European).

So European-based is the norm and has always been the norm. mainly I think because writers were (probably still are, actually) overwhelmingly from European backgrounds (essentially the US and Canada count as such, like it or not) and so were (and probably are to a pretty wide extent) the readership.

There is indeed a fair amount of non-European based fantasy out there of course, if we speak in absolute terms, but in proportional terms, especially in terms of sales, it's marginal.

For whatever reason it has been, and continues to be, successful in a limited way (hence, partly, why you don't find Charles Saunders' Imaro on Kindle) but has never gripped the public enough to become grand-scale bestselling. There's a certain amount of Japanese-based fantasy kicking about, which one might have though would have wider appeal than it seems to given that samurai culture is quite popular in the west.

That's not to say things can't change. But I suspect that as in most things fantasy readers are pretty conservative and like what they like (until something that's novel comes along that's powerful enough to change things).

However, I would hazard there is equally little real diversity in comparable historical fiction also (remember I'm talking here about series that sell lots and lots of books over time, not a one-off success) and that there too European-based settings are the norm.

Partly too in fantasy I think it's so useful to have 'shorthand' cultures (so Rohirrim = Saxons, middle Westeros = late medieval England, etc) and/or to latch onto mythic things the reader will be familiar with (fauns, centaurs, dragons) that it's always going to be a lot harder to do something outwith that because much may need explained.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I should add that above when I said you'd need to go 'a hell of a long way down the list', I couldn't actually find any on it.

It's possible that what's termed 'urban fantasy' (also termed, amusingly to me, 'horror-lite') has a greater diversity of characters at least but that's in part due to its modern setting, though in fairness many ancient and (some) medieval cities were quite cosmopolitan places, whereas fantasy tends to like more monolithic cultures.

Terri-Lynne said...

David! I knew you would have something fabulous to say. You're right, of course--the biggest sellers are those with that European flavor. And having that familiarity to latch onto without a whole lot of backstory and worldbuilding is key. With few words, you can give the feel of Scotland or England or Germany and your reader is instantly on the moors, in "London", or in the Black Forest.

I think I've--consciously or not--chosen books outside of that "norm." In looking at my shelves right now, a good 1/3 of my fantasy library is outside of that norm. That is NOT the same ratio as out in the wild.

For a taste of Japan in Fantasy, there is Alison Goodman's Eon/Eona series. She's an Australian author.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

The other thing that I think sometimes happens is you get a 'other culture' (I'd say generally Japanese or sub-Saharan African) hero plopped down in an essentially western setting and at least part of the story is then about them fighting for acceptance. That gets round the 'entirely different culture' barrier problem quite nicely but to my mind rather reinforces the mindset that 'foreign' heroes are 'not normal'.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks, Dave, for joining the conversation with your typically sharp and thought-provoking insights.

I don't think anyone can argue that the most famous works of fantasy to date(Tolkien likely towering above all the rest) tend to be Western European based. But where we were is often different from where we are going, and I'd like to see a future that breaks open the full potential of the genre.

It's risky to assume fantasy readers, by nature, are conservative in their tastes. Maybe there's data out there that shores up this idea, but in my experience, many readers of fantasy like to see new and different things, alongside the traditional.

Just because the five most famous works of the last century conform to a certain model doesn't mean the genre has to freeze right there. No one can ever take away Tolkien's legacy, but what if we were to entertain the thought that the greatest work of fantasy is yet to be discovered? Or even better, yet to be written?

What if that aspiring author is South American, Asian, Native American, African, from the Pacific Islands, or elsewhere? What if that person's imagination is brewing something so incredible none of us can even fathom what it might look like?

Who are we to tell that person, "this is the model you must follow, because that's the only thing fantasy readers are capable of recognizing"?

As much as I love European-based fantasies (after all, I wrote one too), I refuse to believe a story has to be European-based to be famous. Someday, a non-traditional author will establish his or her place in the top five. It may not happen in my life time, but it will happen.

And when it does, I'd like to think that his or her journey started with conversations like this one, that question the status quo.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Sure, it's not the case that things have to stay the same.

However it's not just the top five series, it's more like the top 100.

That's pretty staggering really, especially as the likes of Leiber is nowhere to be found and Elric scrapes in in the 90s. The list is very much dominated by authors of the 80s, 90s and 2000s (Eddings, Cook, Lynch, Hobb, Weis/Hickman, Erikson, etc. Even Tanith Lee, who wrote a fair number of well-received books with a sort of pseudo-Arabian/Near East setting with nary a European in sight, is nowhere to be found (albeit this may in part be due to its strangeness, although the Arabian Nights theme is fairly well established fantasy, Lee's style is on the face of it old-fashioned).

If anything fantasy (beyond possibly that with an exclusively modern setting) seems to have, somewhere in the late 70s or 80s), more conservative rather than less (it's slightly peculiar that the fantasy that is out of print and unavailable on Kindle seem to be products of the 70s where there does seem to have been at least one decently successful series - Sanders' Imaro - with wholly non-European characters in entirely non-European settings).

So I'm not saying things can't or shouldn't change, only that whilst the opportunity is certainly available there is considerable historical baggage.

It's perhaps rather disturbing that the most successful character in fantasy who is dark-skinned is not only from a non-human race devoted utterly to evil, but he's the only member of the race who isn't evil (I'm pretty sure there's no racism intended in that character, and after all Moorcock for one had a white race that was portrayed in much the same way, but I think it will need a series of the stature of ASoIaF or Harry Potter to drag fantasy kickcing and screaming into multi-culturalism.

Terri-Lynne said...

I often wished there was a character of color or two in Harry Potter. We are talking modern day England, after all. I know there were a few minor characters giving some diversity to the color pallette, but other than Kingsley Shacklebolt (who couldn't really be counted as a main character, but as something more than a minor one) I can't off the top of my head think of others.
Oh...Padma and Pavarti Patil. But you get my point. The mains were all white as white as white.

Then one must sadly wonder if the books would have been as popular if Harry had been African, or Indian. Is white "generic?" A sort of default? Is the assumption that white folk are the ones reading these books and thus want to see themselves? And if that's the case, would non-white-folk be more apt to read such tales if they were better represented?

(This sparks a whole new subject for me! I might just riff off this for my own post in a few weeks, because I could go on and on and on...but I won't.)

The one venue that utilizes race the best, IMO, is comics. Not saying it's complete diversity, but more diversity.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I was actually quite surprised that there wasn't one principle character in Harry Potter who was not white. However part of the appeal of HP is, I think, a sort of nostalgic fusion of Famous Five and Narnia and other middle-class boarding school children stories. And those stories of course were tremendously popular with children who'd never been to private schools, let alone boarding ones.

Books stuffed full of nice upper middle class children were (and remain) popular with children from less privileged backgrounds (even Lyra is essentially a middle class boarding school brat, albeit a somewhat rebellious one) and while more streetwise urchins have intruded (the Borribles being not the best known but the best example in fantasy, and proving you don't need vampires to make top notch urban fantasy either - Wombles are more terrifying villains by a long yard).

I read an article recently, by a black author, that supposed one reason white authors might not tend to give non-NW European cultures or characters a fair crack as central settings or characters is that they may (subconsciously) fear backlash if they somehow get it wrong. What was quite interesting was that she (the author) quite liked even fairly token attempts at incorporating other cultures and races because it at least showed awareness.

I'm rather more cynical than Rita in that I'm not at all convinced that discussing the issue actually is likely to begin or change anything (though it's worth discussing anyway). I think what changes things is an event. In this case it'd be a super-bestselling series based largely or entirely around a non-NW European culture with central characters largely or exclusively from that culture.

Women were central characters in (some) fantasy virtually from its inception as a genre (from the 30s anyway) yet it was a long old time before female characters gained a central role in a successful series (Mists of Avalon, and that's Arthurian which is on the borders of fantasy really).

I suppose, thinking about it, Earthsea managed it in the 60s. It's number 34 on the bestselling fantasy series list, which is pretty respectable, and has a non-NW European setting with largely non-white characters.

Yet its success didn't exactly open the floodgates, it stands in splendid isolation amidst a veritable sea of (white) knights . . .

Heroines of Fantasy said...

(Posting for Mark Nelson)


One of the reasons LeGuin's Earthsea tales continue to fly under the
radar stems from the complete miscomprehension of the works by the
publishing industry, her early readers and the film industry. No one
picked up on the fact until much later that the bulk of Earthsea
culture consists of what pundits would call people of color. In fact,
the only NW European associations were the pale skinned "barbarians"
from the Kargad Empire.

Ursula's language is so subtle in her descriptions that ideas of color
quickly become secondary or unimportant to the beauty of the tale and
the rich cultural experience she showed.

Her comments on this quite a few times in interviews which have been
collected on her official site. She always found it a little humorous
that people "missed" the point. And then folks tried to film it, and
she got depressed and angry.

In Lin Carter's 70's anthology series The Year's Best Fantasy 197--,
stories featuring characters of color and non NW European culture
appear quite frequently.


writerknv said...

Great post, and excellent comments for discussion!

I agree that much of epic fantasy is Euro-centric; however, I do think this partly occurs because its expected. When I was a young adult, I read a FABULOUS series that was set in a middle-eastern inspired world... and those books, which presumably didn't sell well, have been out of print ever since. The author has faded into obscurity. Why didn't those books sell?

Some of it is promotion as well. Much of the "big" fantasies are all European based: Jordan/Sanderson, Martin, Goodkind. The same publishers who decry the ho-hum, "derivative" European fantasy are the same who not only pump them out on a regular basis, but view and promote those series as their main cash cows.

In addition to N.K. Jemisin (have we had Nora here yet? We should!), Ken Scholes writes a fantastic world that, while it draws some elements from European fantasy, is more wholly original than much of the fantasy out there.

As for myself, I write medieval fantasy because it's what I know. My Master's is in Medieval lit. However, I also blend in other influences, one of which is also Native American, due to my upbringing in Arizona and, via my aunt, ties to the Navajo reservation. Not just the rich cultures of indigenous peoples, but also the way they have been tormented, undermined, looked down upon, marginalized are all of interest to me and inform my writing. Perhaps not in major ways just yet, but it's all there, underpinning my worldbuilding and informing how my characters act and react to other cultures.

Anyway... so much more I could say! Great topic and discussion!

Kim :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--This is something I've been thinking of since yesterday, and have since written a post for a future HoF Monday.

LeGuinn is so subtle in the facts you cite, and I think that lends to readers putting their OWN experience, their own sense of the world, onto the pages. If a character isn't blatantly white, will a white person assume it is? What about a black person? Will the assumption be made because that's how the genre goes? Or will they, like the white folk, be able to put their own skin onto the character without blatant designators??

Is it true that fantasy readers are predominantly white? Or is that an assumption that keeps getting perpetuated? IS it perpetuated.

My brain is buzzing...

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim--"The same publishers who decry the ho-hum, "derivative" European fantasy are the same who not only pump them out on a regular basis, but view and promote those series as their main cash cows."

Spot. Freaking. On.

(No, we've not had Nora in yet. Your season is coming up--ask her!)

David Hunter said...

If a character isn't blatantly white, will a white person assume it is?

In the case of NW-European style fantasies, I'd say the answer would be overwhelmingly yes because the culture leads to natural presumptions about race.

But set a story in pseudo-Nippon or pseudo-Songhai and the presumption will very likely be otherwise.

For me the question's really why there aren't more non-NW European derived cultures that have a central role in the great fantasy epics (they get in but as 'abroad' not as 'home'). And I think it essentially comes down to authors and readership and their background and culture.

Same with historical fiction really, especially pre-gunpowder. Almost all the really successful stuff is western-based (eg Wolf Hall). But when you get back to BC it's even more marked. Loads of Roman series ('cos they was just like us . . . or it's easy to imagine so), damn few Carthaginian ones (why when large-scale baby-cooking is such an endearing cultural trait?), a couple of Hannibal stories and that's it I think. Not much Persian-based either despite the fact that their despotic empire was pretty tolerant as such things go, unlike the 'democratic' Greeks who were pretty good examples of ancient 'rogue states'. But I think it's a lot easier for most readers to take a chance on a Roman detective series (Falco was pretty good for 3-4 books) rather than an Egyptian one (I read the first couple of such a series in the 90s and it seemed to sink without trace, though I freely confess i found it a bit too authentic to be appealing - the Egyptians state tended to be viler than even that of the Athenians or Carthaginians . . .)

Terri-Lynne said...

As always, David, great insight. I would love to live in your brain for just a little while, but not too long. I think it gets crowded in there. ;)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Everyone,

Thanks so much for all your wonderful and insightful comments. I had to check out for about 24 hours because I was in transit (again), so it was great to come back and see all this discussion.

Kim, am I to understand you are on a first name basis with N.K. Jemisin??? If you know her, then yes you MUST get her onto HoF. That would be fantastic. I am so psyched to be reading her work; really great stuff.

Terri, be careful what you wish for. Dave's brain is a dangerous place. ;)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

(Posting for Mark)

I think fantasy as a genre is particularly marketed to a white
audience. Even though the Museum of Science Fiction here in Seattle is
not a great venue, it does do a nice job showing some of the early
book covers and a plethora of the early mags, and the trend is
strikingly obvious.

With each passing decade, however, the genre has undergone changes IN
SPITE of the tendency for the big publishing houses to try and dictate
taste, tone and tenor. Look at where those houses are located, their
origins, and the amount of energy they put into sales in certain
demographics. I suppose one could argue that the publishing industry
is just another reflection of the slow dying-but-gathering-pace 'west
is best' attitude that has perplexed human politics for centuries.

It is almost as if it is easier to publish something when the
characters are green or purple than to cast them in shades of brown or


Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark--sad, but true. Very.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Great points, Mark. I do think a lot of what readers choose to read is determined by what publishers decide to market. I don't think I appreciated that half as much five years ago as I do now. But you're right that the genre is changing, in spite of some cultural inertia.

Again, not to bring down where we've been, because the old stories are truly marvelous, but I like to get excited about where we are going, too.