Change is the nature of our society. Nothing stays the same. New combinations of things under the sun are broken down and reformed every day, only to be remade the next day.
In genre fiction, more stories featuring diverse characters and cultural elements are finding their way into the mainstream. Old and worn are the traditional European-based sword and sorcery tales. Diverse readers crave to see characters that reflect their appearance, mores, and culture.
As far as fantasy is concerned, change is coming in YA fantasy, because I think younger people are more willing to entertain change. They’re growing up in a more diverse culture and open to seeing that diversity reflected in their media.
A major problem is that years ago, children were not usually taught history from the person of color’s point of view. I was grown before I knew about Alessandro de’Medici, the Duke of Florence; Saint Maurice of Switzerland; or Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. By the time yesteryear’s kids grew up, they believed they knew exactly what shaped Western culture, and when they found out that yes, Blacks and Asians and women and others besides white males also played prominent roles in history, it upset their world view. And people are loathe to change. They don’t like it.
I think that diverse books will allow readers with different abilities, backgrounds, and cultures, to see themselves reflected in the books they read. And diverse authors may encourage readers to aspire to become writers of diverse books themselves. I know some writers may be hesitant to write about other cultures for fear of offending someone, but if they intend to become serious writers, they will have to learn how to research other cultures and incorporate that knowledge, in some way, into their writing. For example, don’t assume that the same standards of beauty cut across all cultures. I have a cousin who’s 6’3” and model thin, and felt she was discriminated against in the Bahamas because she was not overweight. I watched a documentary of an African man who wanted his wife to weigh 200 pounds for their wedding, so she sat in a hut and drank goat’s milk for weeks.
The incorporation of research makes for richer prose. If you’re worried about offending someone of a particular group, get on the Internet and ask someone to read some of your work and offer advice. Read the works of other writers of color, or women, or those who are differently abled to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Also, read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.
I know it’s all about money in the world of publishing. But a recent Pew study showed that the most likely reader was a college-educated Black woman. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift across the industry, from the CEO, to the acquisitions editor, to the copy editor, to the book store owner. New audiences may require new marketing methods, but as I said before, change is the nature of our society.
One way to help bring about positive change surrounding diversity in fantasy is for editors of anthologies and magazines to solicit stories from diverse authors to let readers know about the existence of writers from different cultures and backgrounds. I think the traditional publishers aren’t taking risks as they would during flush economic times, so people looking for something different are starting to turn to small, independent, and self-publishers.
And if you want some recommendations, try Abengoni: First Calling, by Charles Saunders, who has been writing diverse fantasy since the seventies. There’s also The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, Changa’s Safari by Milton Davis, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers, Taurus Moon: Magic and Mayhem by D. K. Gaston, Ghosts of Koa by Colby R. Rice, Sacrifices by Alan D. Jones, the Scythe by Balogun Ojetade, Sineaters by Kai Leakes, the Seedbearing Prince by Davaun Sanders, and The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan by Zig Zag Claybourne.
Publishers need encouragement to develop and distribute diverse books. If you find a diverse book you like, call or write the publisher and let them know you appreciate their efforts, and tell them you’ll purchase more books like that.
And even though more diverse characters and cultural aspects may populate speculative fiction books, the important elements of keeping the reader engaged and delivering on expectations will remain constant. As Barbara Deming once said, “The longer we listen to one another—with real attention—the more commonality we will find in all our lives.”