I didn’t happen to think much of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but I did absolutely love the author’s afterward. In it, she talks about writing A Wizard of Earthsea in 1967, and how she ever-so-quietly tried to subvert convention. Her rebellion? The main character, Sparrowhawk, and the vast majority of the “good guy” supporting cast, are all non-white people. The people who are pale are seen as the dangerous outsiders.
She writes: “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly, and it went almost unnoticed.”
But LeGuin writes about how she was, is, somewhat disappointed. It seems her rebellion was a little too subtle, and didn’t attract the notice it deserved, most notably because cover artists tended to put a white person in the artwork, and apparently many readers didn’t pick up on the many small hints of the characters’ skin color. (My copy was released in 2012, and features a hawk, no people.)
She goes on to discuss the philosophical roots of her book, how the main action turns aside from battle and war, favoring instead to be a rather quiet hero’s journey of the self (which…ok. But I found it a little too detached). But I’m fixated on that concept of trying to push cultural boundaries with fiction.
The most notable and painfully glaring example is Rue from The Hunger Games. Despite many clear mentions of Rue and her companions as black characters, some movie-goers were rabidly furious when they showed up to the film and saw the (incredible, wonderful!) acting done by Amandla Stenberg. Not only were these people poor contextual readers, apparently (seeing as they missed this fact), they felt they actually had a right to be angry about a black actor being cast for a black character. It was stomach-churning.
It’s not the only example, either. Neil Gaiman makes a point of writing in non-white characters (my favorites show up in Anansi Boys) but even so, a challenge was famously issued to stop reading books by white men which prominently featured his (multicultural) book American Gods. When some readers/fans cried foul (either because they liked Mr. Gaiman or realized that the book’s character was himself nonwhite), Gaiman stepped in to say, “no, absolutely, go read those other books. Have at it.”
And if that’s not enough for you, this year’s Hugo Awards were hijacked by a group calling themselves “Sick Puppies” who felt, for whatever reason, that books featuring straight, white, men were being somehow maligned by authors who wrote other things or who themselves came from different backgrounds. They effectively rigged the awards and caused a lot of controversy. All because science fiction authors did what they are supposed to do: push cultural boundaries.
One good thing may have come from these incidents, at least: people are talking about the power of fiction in culture, the power to change culture, and the importance of inclusion. We need more stories, from more people; different stories, interesting stories. I know for my book I worked hard to create a diverse cast of background characters from different nationalities, while also working to ensure that the main character (the reader) remained gender-neutral and accessible to just about anyone who decided to pick up the book.
Do you attempt any cultural rebellions in your books or in the books you read? Do you see value in including a variety of characters of different skin colors? Or of breaking other boundaries? Let’s talk about it.