...I’ve been hearing these same excuses since I was a kid. There are no black people in fantasy lands of ladies, horse lords and knights–because there were no black people there. Only there are two really convenient replies. (1) Well, there were no dragons, hobbits or elves either. You made that sh*t up. That’s what fantasy is you know–sh*t we make up. So if you can toss in a talking dragon, you can toss in PoC. Easy peasy. And (2), what has become an increasingly stronger reply, “you don’t know history or geography as well as you think you do.” Turns out, none of these Euro-spaces in our reality were ever racially monolithic. The fantastic site People of Color in European Art History has been destroying this hallowed myth one painting and statue at a time. Oh, and George, that African noblewoman found in Roman-era York might just beg to differ on just who was and was not in that space.
In modern fantasy, with its fascination with medieval Europe, it seemed almost fated that acts of “othering” would take root. Some of Western Europe’s founding notions of non-Westerners trace back long before colonialism, as early as the medieval era, where xenophobic fears (rational and irrational) of Muslim, Tartar or Mongol enemies were part of popular, religious, state and academic culture. We know this in part from the literature of the time, where non-Europeans (and non-Christians) are depicted as less than human and prone to wickedness.
...Ideas of exotic and dangerous “others” that lay poised to destroy Western Christendom continued beyond the era of the Crusades. And after 1453, with the fall of Constantinople to Muslim Ottomans, notions of the “dread Turk” haunted the minds of Europeans for generations, as their Eastern enemies rolled through the Balkans and reached the outskirts of Vienna. These fears of “enemies at the gates” would finally subside with the end of the Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry in the 18th century, coinciding in the political and economic ascendency of Western Europe.
Tolkien’s Southrons and Easterlings bear some interesting similarities with such medieval xenophobia. Tolkien was, after all, a medievalist. And his fans often point out that the uncomfortable racialisms in his literature mirror the perceptions of the Europeans he studied. At least that’s the excuse. But Tolkien didn’t live in medieval Castile or 17th-century Vienna. He lived in the 20th century. By this time the non-Western world had become the domain of European colonialism, now recast as a region to be studied, analyzed and categorized: the home to crumbling tyrannical empires with outmoded ideas and exotic (though inferior) cultures. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that Tolkien was as influenced by such popular colonial notions of race and Empire as he was by WWI and industrialization. What we then see in his works are a melding of the old “threatening” East, mingled with many of the modern “othering” elements of exoticism and inferiority. It is a fetish that has become emulated in other works of modern popular fantasy, to varying degrees.
In 2012 a roundtable at the World SF blog focusing on non-Western cultures in speculative fiction asked the following question: What are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism?
One of the panelists, SFF author Joyce Chng (Singapore), spoke on these issues of “othering” and the Western gaze:
“People in the West tend to have fixed ideas of how and what we should look like or behave. The East is exotic. The East is mysterious…. The East is scary, but exhilarating….. These “Western narratives” hurt us at the end and have damaged perspectives regarding non-Western narratives. The dominance of Western narratives has silenced non-Western voices, reducing us to nothing else but something out of a travel guide.”
This is about the part where someone asks, “So are you saying that Westerners and whites can’t or shouldn’t write about non-Western/non-white cultures or people in fantasy?” And the answer is one big eye rolling, of course not. Don’t be dense. Writers and creators should explore the full breadth of human diversity in fantasy, if simply to break the Eurocentric norm. Does this come with risks? Yes. You may go out and create more diversity in your fantasy with the best of intentions, and find yourself being criticized for such things as “othering.” Yeah. Thems the breaks. About to throw up your hands and declare, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Don’t give up so easy. If Frodo could get that ring all the way through Mordor, you can survive this.Making your fantasy world more diverse doesn’t have to mean adding in PoC and distant cultures as monstrous “baddies.” They don’t have to be noble savages, become hyper-sexualized or fulfill all your exotic fantasies. They don’t have to have white heroes or heroines give us a Marco Polo type travel narrative, or play the part of civilizer and savior.
... I do not subscribe to the school of thought that it is solely up to PoC to write diverse stories. It’s certainly relevant that we “write our own stories,” yes. (Note to Michelle Rodriquez, we been doing just that for a minute—get a late pass.) But I should be able to write stories that aren’t about my particular ethnic-racial background. And so should everyone else. That argument in my opinion is a cop-out that conveniently leaves PoC holding the responsibility bag. It lets white-dominated speculative fiction in the mainstream continue on doing what they do–while PoC are relegated to smaller enclaves that get little to no popular visibility. We’re all responsible for creating not only more diverse world, but also ones that challenge our past (and modern) stereotypical tropes.