It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Beware: this is a rant, inspired, at least partially, by a recent review I read of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti.
The reviewer liked the story and waxed poetic about the heroine, especially because she was black. Then he branched out and started talking about speculative fiction in general, and how it needs more black heroes, more Asian heroes, more Latin American heroes, and so on. (I’m using the word ‘hero’ for simplicity, not to indicate gender. It could be ‘heroine’ as well.) More racial diversity, the reviewer cried.
I’ve heard this refrain before, and so have you, no doubt, but I wonder. Why nobody ever demands more Bulgarian heroes. Or Finnish? Or freckled red heads, for that matter? Why do they fixate on dark skin and dark hair? It feels like some sort of perverse racism, when the authors of such appeals count the percentage of colored people in America and announce that the percentage of colored heroes in speculative fiction should relate.
I disagree. Conforming to percentages is a dangerous direction, and it leads to some ugly places. I grew up in Soviet Russia, where anti-Semitism was subtle and sanctioned by the government. There were certain prestigious universities, like Moscow University, which didn’t, as a rule, accept Jewish students. I’m a Jew and I knew it. Every other Jewish boy and girl I met at school knew it too. We didn’t apply to Moscow University. We applied to the institutions known to ‘take’ Jews. But there was an exception to this unspoken rule. The percentage of Jews in Russia at the time amounted to a certain small number (I don’t remember the exact digits), and the Moscow University was obliged to ‘take’ a few token Jews as students, so their ethnic student distribution looked the same as the country at large. Is that what we want happening in speculative fiction? The racism in this notion is camouflaged, true, but it’s no less real.
I think that the only reasons for a fictional hero to be black or white or blue with tentacles should be creative, organic to the story, not political or inspired by a popular hashtag. Such choices should have nothing to do with the racial demographics in the US. Besides, the percentages are different in different countries. So do we need more black fantasy heroes in America than we do in Canada? How about the racial statistics by state or province? More Chinese heroes in British Columbia and fewer in Ontario? It gets ridiculous pretty fast.
If your story wants a black hero, like Binti – wonderful. If it wants a white hero – equally good. Neither is better than the other, and the writers shouldn’t go out of their way to comply with the false demands for diversity. Only your muse knows what makes your writing alive. Artificiality never improved any story.
Most of my protagonists are white young women. That’s how I see them, although I’ve stopped describing my heroines several years ago. But the protagonist of my latest speculative fiction story is a colored girl. That’s how I saw her even before I started writing her story. It had nothing to do with the absurd concept of racial diversity in fiction. It was just how the story unfolded in my head: her father is an African American human; her mother is a white elf. That’s what the story whispered in my mind, and I followed its tune.
Am I wrong in my musing?