Stuff White People Write
Why do writers who can invent universes and entire species have so much trouble creating black characters?
Around 30 years ago, as a weird, shy kid living in a Jamaican household in Malton, Ontario, I discovered fantasy and science fiction. It started as a mild compulsion, the moment I opened the Chronicles of Narnia boxed set on Christmas morning. A couple of years later, I picked up R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard at a moving sale, and a full-blown addiction was born. My mother curated my habit carefully, and before long the WHSmith staff knew her by name. To this day, even in the age of iPads and Kindles, I walk around with a miniature stack of books in hand. I am 36 years old, and I still read Dungeons & Dragons novels late into the night, as though I have nowhere to be in the morning. I read books for adults, books for teenagers and books for children as old as I was the first time I wore an unzipped sleeping bag as a cape, searching for the entrance to Narnia in my bedroom closet.
Three decades since I began reading fantasy and sci-fi, I have come to another discovery. My bookshelf consists almost entirely of books about white heroes and their white friends, written by white authors, and I cannot ignore this anymore. Shaggy-bearded Elminster, with his meerschaum pipe and a bottomless arsenal of spells? White. Smart-mouthed Ender Wiggin, three steps ahead of every other character except the ones who really mattered? Also white. Rand al’Thor, Shea Ohmsford, Meg Wallace? White boy, white boy, white girl. Kvothe, Vin the Mistborn, Dante Galand, Harry Dresden, and so on and so on.
What strikes me, all these years later, is that the book industry has not budged in its apparent inability, or outright refusal, to publish authors or characters with whom I—and a slew of others like me—can remotely identify. In an increasingly diverse North American market, this is inexcusably bad business. And at this stage of my life, and given my personal commitment to access and equity for people of colour, I can no longer support it. A few weeks ago, I swore off reading for pleasure (my professional life as a reviewer is another matter) books that are neither by nor about people of colour. I may never know how Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe the Kingkiller became Kote the innkeeper, or how Brandon Sanderson intends to stitch together the Shattered Plains, but perhaps it was not for me to know anyway.
In genres in which authors have stretched the boundaries of human imagination—exploring the frontiers of time, space and human relations, summoning new peoples and species from the ether—it seems especially insulting that people of colour can hardly be said to exist. Relegated to occasional cameos—if that—we are rarely ever included in the main cast, and almost never the main protagonists. Across planets, galaxies, parallel worlds and dystopian futures, pale eyes and silky hair are as common as pluck, wit and magical relics. But my broad nose, mahogany skin and kinky hair are the rarest of commodities.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, when the Young Adult genre was growing at an explosive rate, its fantasy and sci-fi branches were still a niche category for geeks, which meant open-carrying my D&D books would get me pushed into a mud puddle. This was before Facebook groups and YouTube channels. Even internet chat rooms were a long way off, so being a geek meant enjoying these books on your own if you did not have a peer circle with similarly odd preferences. Where I grew up, there were no book clubs and tabletop games to be played in the basement—only the wish lists I wrote to my mother, in the hope that I’d wake up to a new book on the dresser when she worked the overnight shift. At the time, it was not in me to question why all of the heroes in the fantastical past, speculative present and distant future were white. I was well into adulthood before I discovered black writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres—Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Minister Faust and others—and understood it did not have to be this way.
I will never forget my confusion the first time I saw the cover of Salvatore’s The Halfling’s Gem, in 1990, where Drizzt Do’Urden—an ebony-skinned drow elf with a shock of white hair—was depicted as a shirtless blond man with tanned white skin. Even a black-skinned character from a made-up race could not slip into the cover artist’s imagination. Twenty-five years later, the best-selling American fantasy author Rick Riordan fumed over European publishers allowing Kane Chronicles protagonist Carter Kane, a black youth, to be whitewashed on the cover. It took an embarrassing social media backlash before Dutch and Russian publishers produced new reprint artwork, with an unmistakably black Carter.
These are not anomalies but an embarrassing status quo. Since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has tracked diversity in literature for children and young adults. Between 1994 and 2015, only ten percent of the books, on average, had multicultural content (although in 2015, there was a spike in characters written as people of colour). Five years ago, Young Adult author Kate Hart studied YA book covers, and she was given pause at the results. Ninety percent of the covers featured white characters, and less than five percent of characters across hundreds of book covers were black, Asian or of Latin descent.
In other creative industries, notably film and television, better representation seems to be on the increase. It is profitable business, after all. The most diverse movies and TV shows are consistently the most successful in box office returns and viewer ratings. (Consider summer blockbusters such as The Avengers, or TV shows such as Black-ish and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.) Casting film and television productions is difficult work; there is writing a character, and then weeks, or more, to get the right actor for the part. Literature, on the other hand, is born entirely out of the imagination of authors. For the author to imagine a believable non-white character only takes time and research—and an inkling of interest.
When I spoke with my friend Septembre Anderson, a Toronto-based writer and critic, she voiced a familiar frustration about the reading options available to her son. “He hasn’t actually read a novel with a non-white protagonist. He’s read books with protagonists who were men, women and queer protagonists, but never with anybody who wasn’t white,” she told me. She also noted that the challenge is graver in Canada—that despite what we may think of ourselves, “we aren’t that diverse.”
When the diversity question occasionally does bubble to the surface in the mainstream literary world, it is swiftly mishandled. Enter Lionel Shriver, known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, who recently rankled the audience at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and sparked a subsequent social media firestorm. Wearing a sombrero, Shriver began her keynote speech, “Fiction and Identity Politics,” by mocking the fecklessness of Bowdoin College administrators (two students at the college were disciplined for throwing a “tequila party,” after a string of racist incidents—including the sailing team’s 2015 “gangster party” and the lacrosse team’s 2014 Native-themed “Cracksgiving party”—had strained campus relations). “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear,” Shriver said. “You’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
But cultures are not hats to be worn, and one would think that a writer, of all people, would be more interested in the minds and bodies underneath those hats. There has never been a call for white authors to seek consent before writing characters of colour. What we want—and it is surprising this has to be spelled out—is for writers to write believable characters: characters of various backgrounds, with their own wants, needs and motivations, characters who reflect the diverse and polyphonic world in which the authors themselves live.
Writers step out of their personal experience as a matter of necessity. An author with no background in policing who wanted to write a detective story would do some research. That author might consult with current and retired police officers to learn the finer details. Anyone who failed to do this legwork would be criticized for gross inaccuracies, and would look rather silly lashing out at police officers for curtailing a novelist’s artistic vision. But Shriver somehow felt justified showing up to a writer’s festival with a sombrero and claims of persecution. Given the sharp criticism she took for her recent novel, The Mandibles (which, now famously, featured a demented, incontinent black woman being led on a leash by a white family), this speech comes across less as controversial truth than special pleading.
For readers of colour, the choice should not be between seeing ourselves represented as crude facsimiles, or not at all. That is why I left behind Stephen King after the Dark Tower series concluded—because as much as King’s style and pacing have evolved over the decades, his handling of black characters has not. I have read most of Brandon Sanderson’s books (as well as listened to his brilliant podcast, Writing Excuses), but after realizing I could only name one black character in his inhumanly expansive and well-written bibliography, I had to give up his books too.
I spoke with the Brooklyn-based urban fantasy author Daniel José Older about Shriver’s speech and her follow-up interview with Time magazine. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” she told Time. “There’s not a law that says there are only a hundred books a year that are going to be published, and we’re going to publish white people first, and—oops!—we ran out of slots, we’re not going to publish you because you’re from the wrong group.”
Older was having none of it. “Every writer of colour I know has had that rejection that says ‘We already have the Asian book for this season, or this year,’” he said. Half the time, though not always, it is written by a white person, he notes. “I’ve had the same experience that most nerds of colour have had, which is to realize the deep betrayal that your home genre has perpetrated against you. And to recognize that you’re either a devil, or a clown, or nonexistent in the books you love the best.”
If the moral argument holds no weight, perhaps the market argument will. According to research from the Pew Foundation, in 2013 college-educated black women were determined the most likely to read a book. Across other platforms—theatre attendance, television watching, video game consumption—black people are in fact over-indexed. Yet somehow, in a cultural landscape that produces massive social as well as financial rewards for diversity, writers and publishers cannot seem to expand their imagination enough to include the rest of us.