Reimagining Tolkien

from the article:

“The strange thing about some of [the most popular epic] fantasy worlds,” Durham said, “is that it does seem that the entire world is northern Europe. That’s all there is. It’s always easy for me to engage with that, but then a part of my mind is also wondering, ‘What happened if you spin the globe?’ What are the people doing there? How is their history been shaped by the magic of that world? There’s something exciting about acknowledging that everybody is not the same and that affects their struggles.”

Jemisin finds deeper problems in “certain expectations of the genre that are rooted in Western cultural assumptions that are not necessarily true. For example: the whole good-versus-evil focus, the binary. You see that in so much of epic fantasy. The Dark Lord is really bad, we know this. Because he’s dark. Well, did you do something to him? Doesn’t matter, he’s dark. That’s why he’s bad and that’s why you’ve got to go kill him. That kind of thinking I inherently do not trust.”

If these writers can bring fresh perspectives to the genre, the genre reciprocates by bringing them new and more varied readers. Durham’s second book, a literary novel titled “Walk Through Darkness,” about an escaped slave and the man tracking him, “never made it to the front of the store, really, because it was immediately shelved as an ‘African-American novel.’” Now, “my stuff is being read by more and a wider range of people than it was in the early days.”

Jemisin has been annoyed to learn that her first novel sometimes gets shelved in the same section, which means that readers searching the science fiction and fantasy area can’t find it. “The inherent danger of that section,” she said, “are the ideas that, a) only African-Americans would be interested in it, and b) African-Americans are interested solely because there is something African-American associated with it — usually the writer. I don’t see the novels of white authors who write black characters getting shoved into that section.” This is all the more irksome when, as was the case with her first novel, people assume her narrator is black; Jemisin envisioned the character and her people as similar to the Incas. “Just because I am black,” she said, “does not mean I am always going to write about black characters.”

As much as I appreciate the author pointing out Jemisin and Durham as a face of POC fantasy and the authors of new narratives, epic fantasy and speculative fiction by POC authors isn’t a new thing. However, the sudden mainstream realization that POC actually do write and enjoy things other than EJD and Dirty Red is. Like so many other POC art forms, (and, tbh, many POC issues in general) the sudden surge in interest for a more authentic narrative is looked at through a very narrow lens that puts race before substance, even in something as trivial as shelving/categorizing a book. That’s one of the major reasons why many POC are reticent to even engage the casual “geek” in meaningful discourse about the issue of the preexisting fantasy paradigm. Either someone feels unduly challenged, somebody ends up feeling marginalized, or somebody’s feelings end up well and truly hurt.

POC read fantasy for the same reason non-POC do. Because we want to indulge in escapist nonrealities and imagine that we are heroes and that we have more power than we do in real life. This is especially important for POC because a lot of us don’t have power in real life. All the more reason to increase the exposure of authors like Jemisin and Durham, and shed light on the fact that there were and are authors that existed before these two, and who produce exceptional works of fantasy and science fiction. Due, Hopkinson, Mosley, Okorafor, Whitehead, Davis, Jeffers, McDonnell and too many more to name, with more and more upcoming POC authors realizing that we don’t necessarily have to fit our stories into the same old dusty Fantasy box.

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