Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Race in SFF

I’m always interested when a major newspaper or other media outlet talks about SFF because it just doesn’t seem to happen all that often. Today the Boston Globe ran this article by Vanessa E. Jones about race in SFF – mainly concentrating on the scarcity of black authors in the genre. It seems likely this was inspired by the monochrome appearance of the attendees at the recent Readercon.

The article itself is a pretty good one, if being rather predictable. SFF does have too few non-white authors and there are subtle race, gender, sexual orientation, and other stereotypes are too often intentionally and unintentionally perpetuated in SFF works of both the past and present. I’m not really knowledgeable enough to write in any kind of detail about this – and I’m not going to be the one to point to all the good stuff that SFF is producing in this area. Other (likely much more informed and intelligent) responses are popping up around the blogosphere (and here's an interesting entry that's a bit older but well worth reading). But, what really got to me is the focus of this article. You see apparently the race issues are limited to the black minority. There doesn’t seem to be any other racial minority worth talking about, at least the article doesn’t mention any. Anyone else a bit bothered by this bit of tunnel vision?


Carl V. said...

I see that kind of race tunnel vision that you mention in many, many discussions regarding racial issues. Not sure why that is except to show that all of us, regardless of race, have a tendency to think within our own little worldview and are all still very egocentric at times. All I want is good fiction, regardless of what race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc the person was who wrote the book or the person(s) featured in the book. To me these kind of things are non-issues. Of course my opinion would probably be discredited since I am a caucasian male. ;)

Remy said...

As long as there are no Eskimos....

zentinal said...

Since I'm mentioned in the first paragraph, I felt compelled to blog about Ms. Jones' article. Focused on the personal, and personal experience, rather than on the important global issues raised.

David Anthony Durham said...

Hey, I was very happy to be included in that article. Any press is good press, yes? I think the author of The Globe piece did a decent job with one area of what should be a much larger discussion, but it is unfortunately too limited to make this a black/white thing. As always, this has repercussions on a lot of different fronts.

Since that article came out I received a number of emails from African-American readers saying they'd be looking for my work. (I know they're black because of their bio/profile info.) That's wonderful, as I obviously wasn't on their radar screen before.

On the other hand, I didn't receive any emails from white readers (or any other group) saying they'd read that article now THEY were going to check out my work.

In a way, being included in the article also puts me into a boxed category that's only partially accurate. Am I a writer of black sci-fi/fantasy? Certainly not. The world of ACACIA is overtly and representatively multi-ethnic, like our world, and the topics it deals with have very little to do with our old racial hangups.

Am I writing blind to race? Naw, that's not possible either. Better yet, I think my work gains from the fact that I've lived with an awareness of how race effects a great many things in our lives. But what shaped me isn't black or white either. I'm of mixed Caribbean ancestry (although raised as African-American). I've always looked to a global world for culture, though, and I lived many adult years in Europe. My wife is Scottish and my kids are even more mixed - and lovely for it. They even have US and UK citizenship!

What I've tried to produce is exactly the type of work readers like Carl V say they're looking for. I hope he means it, and that he knows it's actually out there and anxiously waiting to be found.

Neth said...

Thanks for stopping by David - I just love it whenever authors comment around here (though I don't expect it since I mostly do reviews and authors always negotiate a fine line in any response to a review).

From the perspective of the typcial upper middle-class WASP, I'm interested your comments about African American readers contacting you about planning to get your book and that no white people have acted similarly. Well, I've never contacted a white author and said that I'm going to pick up their book because of their racial background. Really, I've never contacted any author to say that I'm going to get their book for any reason (I've had a few direct interactions - on-line - with authors where I have said as much, but that's a bit different). Now, I know that the perspective differs in a number of ways that makes it not really comparable. But the point is that I would guess (because it's the way I am) that most white people just don't think that way. We've never really been in a position where it's beneficial to stand and support each other the way racial minorities have - as the racial majority it's just not really necessary.

Now I do actively seek out books that are from a different perspective - whether it's a different racial, gender, nationality, language, or other perspective. With your book I was in the lucky position to receive an advance copy - so I didn't really actively seek it out, but I was very happy that I got a copy. As I've said elsewhere - I really hope that your book doesn't get type-cast as 'black SFF' or the like - the mulit-ethnic world of yours is only one of many refreshing elements, and the simple fact is that Acacia is damn fine fantasy debut by any standard.

On a slightly related note - have you read any of Tobias Buckell's work. His first novel is Crystal Rain and he just followed it up with Ragamuffin. I mention his name because his roots are also in the Caribbean (Grenada and US Virgin Islands). He recently ranted a bit about his background and people (apparent idiots) questioning his 'credentials' as a person with a multi-ethnic background. You may appreciate it.

And congrats on the sale in the UK.

Neth said...

Oh and for anyone curious, I saw this today (via Larry/Dylanfantic at wotmania).

International Blog Against Racism Week.

There are a lot of interesting looking links there.

Carl V. said...

I appreciate your thoughts, Mr. Durham, and I do sincerely mean that. I certainly feel that way because I truly am just looking for a good story, but I also have to admit that I often don't notice race in books unless it is portrayed in a negative light. And, like I suspect others do, I often see things through my own personal experience and don't pick up on racial cues in books. For example, in my favorite Neil Gaiman novel, Neverwhere, and in his latest, Anansi Boys, I frequently forget which characters are black and which are white. I always find myself surprised that I forgot about it. To me, their race just isn't an issue. I like the characters for their storylines, not their race.

Again, to me it is the quality of story and how engaged I can become in it that matters to me.

David Anthony Durham said...


Interesting point about black readers maybe being a bit more pro-actively supportive. It didn't surprise me when I got those emails. I just took them as their way of saying, "Hey, I didn't know about your book before, but I'm glad I do now, and as a black reader I want to let you know that I'll be heading out to get a copy."

That seemed pretty natural, but you're right, without that connection of some sort of feeling of camaraderie shaped by race it might seem a strange thing to do. Normally, I would expect people to write me AFTER they've read the book, and hopefully after they've decided they like it. I welcome both approaches. Unfortunately, though, those African-American readers are still a small bunch. Not exactly enough to build a whole career on. I think that also is part of why they choose to write - wanting a bit of connection with someone that's both an African-American and into fantasy - which is rare combination in general.

Carl, thanks. I hear your perspective, and it's one I've heard before, too. A white student of mine had read Pride of Carthage and admitted that over and over again she was surprised when she remembered Hannibal and family weren't quite the white guys she kept drifting into imagining. She didn't mean any slight by it, I know, but it is a bit of luxury that white Western readers have. White is kind of default.

As a reader with a bit of color stirred in to my life and experiences I would never imagine characters in a book to look like me by default. Never. That would, for me, be a very strange way of imagining the world.

Instead, I do pay a good deal of attention to just how someone is described, how their history indicates ethnicity, etc. Not saying I get hung up on either, but those "cues" - as you pointed out - are rather significant things for me. When I read Ursula Leguin's Earthsea books again recently I noticed each and every time Ged was described as "brown", "dark", "coopered", and I noticed how she makes a point of singling out "white" characters as minorities in her imagined world. Frankly, she makes it plain as day that Earthsea is a brown world, and that the white characters occupy the fringes of things.

But I know that many white readers fail to notice this. This fact clearly sticks in Ms. LeGuin's craw, and she's not shy about complaining about it.

As for Neil Gaiman, I think he's great. Part of what I like about him is that he's a rare in seeing the entirety of the American experience. I do notice and don't forget his characters ethnicity, and I can only imagine that Gaiman does also. I do think that's part of why it's important to him, and I think noting the racial complexity of his stories weaves an even greater substance into his work.

Anyway, I respect your focus on a character's story and on the quality of the story. That has to be in place. I'd just offer that race is often a factor in that story and can be factor in tuning the quality of the story. Thing is, I'm all for race not just being "negative" in some way or another. Sometimes I think we have to face the unpleasant because it does effect our lives daily - but also I'm all for race playing a role in more uplifting or inclusive ways.

Neth said...


thanks for another good response.

I'm glad that you've found Tobias Buckell - I really enjoyed Crystal Rain and I imagine you'll be interested by the Caribbean influences in his writing - apparently there's a lot of stuff in there that people from Caribbean can appreciate - much more that the obvious that someone like me will pick up on.


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