Sherwood and I were invited to write a short story for the anthology Kaleidoscope, which is having a kickstarter. It will be an anthology of fantasy stories with diverse protagonists - fun ones, not Very Special Episodes solely about how much it sucks to be oppressed.

Here's the kickstarter!

We were also invited to write a post on an issue of diversity in fiction. Here it is! I have reprinted it below. Please comment here or there.

If you recall my post on genre novels with Jewish protagonists which are in some sense escapist or fun, and not about being oppressed, it got a large number of comments. However, most comments either recced the same books over and over, or else recced works which did not meet the qualifications I originally set out. The number of fun books with Jewish protagonists is, in fact, extremely small. That and related issues inspired our post below.

Who Gets To Escape?

by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

J. R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” from The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966.

Escapist storytelling has been with us even before Homer and his audience sat around the fire spinning tales. The human soul needs both serious works and books that are purely intended to entertain. But even nowadays, escapism is allowed only to certain groups.

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape. (This essay focuses primarily on American books because that is what we’re most familiar with.)

Serious literature focusing on social and individual problems is good and necessary. But it should not be the only type of reading that’s available.

* * *

Rachel: I’m Jewish. It is almost impossible to find Jewish protagonists in my favorite escapist genres. I can literally name to you the titles of every book ever published by a major publisher in America, with a Jewish protagonist, in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and romance. Those are all genres which are commonly considered escapist. In young adult, children’s, and adult mainstream fiction—all genres which are not inherently “escapist”—there are far more Jews, but, almost inevitably, they only inhabit novels on serious subjects like anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

When the only fiction you can read about people like yourself is exclusively concerned with how hard it is to be an oppressed minority, it sends a number of subtly toxic messages: you don’t belong here; people like you are not allowed to have fun; if you want to escape, you can only do it by imagining yourself into a gentile identity.

Sherwood: When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, it was very difficult to find stories whose kid heroes did not reinforce the majority status quo. I didn’t think about that. I just accepted that adventuring kids were pretty much like me. The first heroine not like me that I recollect loving passionately was Mara in Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Now there was a heroine to root for! She didn’t look like me, but I wanted to be like her.

The only way to find stories about people who were not me was in travel books or historical novels, like Mara. But when it came to cool adventures and magic, everybody was literally, or at least implied, a WASP. People who didn’t fit that mold were either caricatures, or singled out to stand on the sidelines cheering. Sometimes both.

Now, there are wonderful choices to be found for young readers, which please the kid in me, but you know what I can’t find? Escapism for old women. When they show up in stories, they are figures of derision, helpless, boring, unsexed.

* * *

Now that both of us have discussed our individual identities, we’d like to talk about one we have in common. We are both women. There have been many arguments about the tendency of women in epic fantasy novels to be portrayed solely as powerless victims, to be raped and sometimes murdered to motivate the hero or demonstrate to the reader that the world of the book is gritty and “real.” Those in favor of such portrayals argue that such portrayals are realistic—in medieval times, the average woman was powerless and often raped and murdered—and that realism is a literary virtue.

Leaving aside the dubious historicity of such arguments, it is only female characters whose portrayals must be “realistic” and must reflect the experiences of an average woman. The average man in a medieval setting would have been a powerless peasant or craftsman who never left his village or had adventures.

But the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination. They have special powers, secret royal heritage, astounding fighting skills, or magical talent. If they truly are ordinary in themselves, they are thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rise to the occasion.

Aragorn, Kvothe, and Jon Snow are not representative of the average straight white man. They are intended as fantasy figures. But in countries where straight white men hold the power, only their fantasy figures are common, respected, and hold iconic status.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.
marycontrary: (Default)

From: [personal profile] marycontrary

Have you read Paladin of Souls? This fantasy story starts with the 40+ main character hosting her mother's funeral while her adult daughter rules the country. It's the first book to jump to mind for older female heroes.
lenora_rose: (Default)

From: [personal profile] lenora_rose

Which is part of the issue. It IS the first book to jump to mind. And often there's no second.

(It is an EXCELLENT book, a favourite of mine, and well worth recommending for many reasons. It's just...)

From: [identity profile]

I'm hoping that at least one of the protagonists is short.

Also, there isn't much diversity in travelers to the far future. I realize that the far future is unlikely to show up in this collection, but I think it matters to have all sorts of people travelling there-- it's a way of saying that one has the right to imagine oneself in all possible places. Perhaps as part of a different project?

I was going to say a science fiction project, but there's damned little far future fantasy, and I wouldn't mind if there were more of it.

From: [identity profile]

I don't think we state the heights of any of the short story characters. Two of the protagonists in Stranger are short.

From: [identity profile]

I self-pubbed a short story for the hell of it where the love interest was short. I enjoyed it way more than I should have.

From: [identity profile]

Oh, yay, I am writing a story to submit to that! It is terrible. I hope it is less terrible by the time I submit it. I haven't written a short story in five years; I'm rusty.
Edited Date: 2013-10-18 02:43 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]

That would be AWESOME. It would also be my first publication. My story's in really rough shape right now, so I don't feel very confident about its chances. But I have some time.

From: [identity profile]

Would you mind helping me with the mythology? I kind of bullshitted my way through the worldbuilding in the first draft, but I think you are more well versed in Hindu mythology than I am and would be able to identify points where I could make my ideas fit within the established framework.

From: [identity profile]

Of course! But I don't know how helpful I'd be. I know a lot in certain areas, but there are huge gaps. What myths are you working with?

Do you know Shveta Thakrar? She would also be a good person to ask.

From: [identity profile]

I do! Sort of. I was thinking of asking her too.

I'm mostly working with Ravana and demons in general, but I've also got what are essentially witches, and I don't know whether there's a good analogue/explanation for magical ladies, and I also have some stuff about art linking fantasy and reality that sort of works through Saraswati and it's kind of a mess. I know some of it will be my own invention, but the more I can make it work with the mythology, the better, I think.

From: [identity profile]

1) I'm even more determined to get my Jewish YA mainstream fantasy series written

2) Yes to everything you guys said

3) I keep seeing this linked by people on Twitter and I'm like YAY I KNOW HER :D

From: [identity profile]

If you feel like smiting people with contemporary medieval examples of women who had adventures:

"Rose the Red and White Lily" -

- two sisters run away from an unhappy home with a wicked stepmother and disguise themselves as men. One becomes a knight's squire, one lives in the greenwood with cheerful outlaws. There is sisterly affection and honour, a pregnancy, and a whole bunch of smiting.

"The Decameron, Day 2, Tale 9"

- a virtuous wife is framed by a malicious outsider into suggestions of infidelity. After she is put aside, she disguises herself as a young man and takes service with a sultan, and prospers exceedingly. Eventually proves her innocence, saves the hubby, and goes back to wifing.

"The Finest Flower of Servingmen"
[can't find an on-line link to the ballad right now, but Delia Sherman did an interesting novelisation - - explores some transgender issues that the ballad didn't touch on. Also, an entertaining read.]

- after a woman's mother kills her husband and child (they were unworthy of her, or something), she disguises herself as a man and becomes the favourite squire of a local king. She develops feelings for the guy, also has horrible nightmares of the slaughter of her family. Eventually, her dead husband's ghost intervenes in the form of a white bird which spills the beans, the king says - oh! my favourite squire is a woman and thus someone I can marry! Yayy! Some sort of happy ending.

"The Tale of Cuchulain"

- Cuchulain gets much of his warrior training from the female trainer Scathach

"Saint Margaret of Antioch"

- Explodes dragons from the inside and smites demons...

Catherine of Siena

- Mystic and politician

Catherine the Great of Russia

- Bad ass queen

Eleanor d'Aquitaine

- Another bad ass queen. Occasionally went on Crusades or raised troops in rebellion against her husband. Royal married life seems to have been a bit awkward.

From: [identity profile]

Good essay. And I went and backed the project. Getting anything shipped from Australia is pricey (not their fault, of course), but hey, it's a good cause.

From: [identity profile]

You might find Poul Anderson's Maurai stories worth a look.

The Maurai series was a series of short stories and a novel by Poul Anderson set in a resource depleted, post-apocalyptic earth several centuries in the future. The series is named after its most frequent protagonists, citizens of the Maurai Federation. The Maurai (originally descended from Māori and other Polynesians, but including a diverse array of ethnic and racial groups) dominate the Pacific and Indian Oceans. (from the wikipedia entry)

First story, "The Sky People", was written in 1958

Come to think of it, his Time Patrol stories usually had a fair amount of ethnic and gender diversity.
Edited Date: 2013-10-19 02:41 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]

Thanks! But it's a bit telling that the work that comes to mind was written fifty years ago, isn't it?

From: [identity profile]

Perhaps. Phillip Mann did some SF set in New Zealand with at least a nod to cultural issues (it's been a while since I read any), but I dislike his writing style.

Oh, have you read any Sam Delany? Also kind of old, but a lot of flair in the writing, and a colourful cultural palette.

From: [identity profile]

Woo hoo!! This is awesome news! :) I'm hoping one of the protagonists have a mental illness. And yay for short protagonists in Stranger!

From: [identity profile]

I'm hoping one of the protagonists have a mental illness.

Not in this one, but yes in Stranger.

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