Why do you read fantasy? I, for one, read and write fantasy to try and understand the real world: relationships, social dynamics, and struggles for power. It’s uncharted territory with familiar landmarks. And I love it. But, what I don’t love is how minorities of all kinds don’t seem to make their way into fantasies.
Well, that’s not gonna cut it. I need some experiences different from my own here, please. Also, if I wanted to read about a recent college grad who’s feeling left out of the job sector… well… I’d probably write it as a Wizard fresh out of wizard school instead. But that’s beside the point.
Basically, why isn’t this fantasy story about you?
I’ve been delving around the internet for a hot minute trying to sort this out. And, I’m certain that I’m going to fall short in my attempt to piece this together, so bear with me and feel free to add your two cents in the comments. Basically, I wanna talk about why and how fantasy should include everyone.
Fantasy Belongs To Everyone
As if you have to be a certain type of person to truly escape the hard, cruel, realities of the world. Fantasy should be for everyone, not the select few. You shouldn’t have to be a certain kind of person to see people like you living happy lives. Why should all our protagonists follow a certain pattern? Why should they all be from a certain class, sexual-orientation, race, or anything else?
Media is beginning to address this and I love it. I love everything that is subverting norms and throwing people who’ve sat out for so long onto the center-stage of literature. There’s plenty of good conversation happening in literature and it’s wonderful.
Because, voices need to be heard.
Fantasy Gets You Where It Hurts
“Several reliable, peer-reviewed studies show that people who read fantasy fiction are better problem-solvers, more empathetic, more creative, and more adaptable than those who don’t. Reading fantasy equips you to respond to real life.”– Austin Hackney, On Desiring Dragons: Why Read Fantasy Literature?
As much as people seem to think that fantasy is “childish” and not to be taken seriously, it teaches us so much about real life. It teaches us how people see each other. To name just a few topics, we can confront issues of classism and social expectation in visceral and yet impersonal ways.
Risve faces a Pharaoh to win back her family’s honor.
It’s both interesting and safe to read. Why? This is an experience we are pretty sure we’ll never have to face. And yet, what makes it so compelling? Well, that’d be crossover.
The Crossover Between Fantasy And Reality
We know that there will be times that we have to face our economic or social superiors to get something both precious and important. So, somehow, Risve’s story touches us as we watch her struggle through the discrimination and dismissal. We get that. Those feelings are so painfully familiar that it rips us apart when done properly.
Now, Risve might be an actual character in a story somewhere—coughs nervously—but my point is… what does Risve look like? What is her sexual orientation? This isn’t ornamentation to be layered over her character, but this can be plot relevant and compelling stuff.
Do we assume Risve looks and talks a certain way? Maybe. Well, fantasy should have some people like you and so maybe Risve is like you. Maybe you imagined that Risve was like you? Did you? Or did you imagine something else?
Why can’t Risve be like you? Why can’t you be like Risve?
The Problematicness of Everything
And yet, we’re in a time of sticking to our own lane. We shouldn’t write outside our own experiences, now should we? We could never approximate or understand what it’s like to be like someone else. We cry for complexity in literature and yet undermine it simultaneously.
I’ve found a million and one articles about Amélie Wen Zhao and how she chose to pull her debut. I haven’t read the manuscript, but it sounded like a huge misunderstanding and she was nothing more than a scapegoat. Maybe I’m wrong? But… it sounded like her experience was appropriated over another, which was appropriated over another, which got turned into appropriation. It sounded awful what happened to her. For just one article on what happened to her check out this article from the NYTimes Y.A. Author Pulls Her Debut After Pre-Publication Accusations of Racism. It’s rough, and it wasn’t just her. So, what should we do?
Hire Sensitivity Readers
Now, I’m A HUGE SUPPORTER of sensitivity readers. If we’re writing outside of our own experience then it’s just gonna be a must for that book. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s becoming industry standard these days. We need eyes on what we’re saying because with 80,000 words or more we’re gonna mess up. We’re gonna say something that we didn’t mean to say or that sounds insensitive or that is just straight up wrong.
I think it is not only good, but very needed, to write outside of our own experience. Because writing outside of our experience means we need to research and understand others. We need to see beyond our own prejudices and open our eyes to a new way of seeing the world.
It’s a time for self-reflection and, in some cases, self-reflection. So let’s encourage the quiet voices without silencing our own. Because we need all the voices to be heard to fully understand each other.