We need diverse fantasy…

Picture me, one year ago, sat in my local Waterstones waiting for one of the biggest names in fantasy to start his book reading. In my head, I’m rehearsing the question I’ve been practicing for days: “Mr Author, do you think that using the word ‘cripple’ in your latest book might affect some of your readers with disabilities?” I’ve twisted this round in my head for so long that the words have lost all meaning but I’m still burning to know why he chose to include that word.

Picture me, later that night, as Mr Author says this: “I started thinking about what it would be like to live with severe pain. It would turn you into some kind of bitter, sadistic person who was capable of anything. That’s what inspired me to write that character.”

Picture me, swallowing my question down, trying not to choke on the lump left in my throat. I’ve lived with chronic pain for thirteen years, finally getting my diagnoses like badges of honour over the last 18 months. Lupus. Fibromyalgia. Sjögrens Syndrome. Have I descended into bitter sadism? (Mostly) no.

In 2014, the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks started trending as Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo vented their frustration about the lack of diversity in kidlit. The statistics they quote still make me shiver: for example, only 10.6% of the children’s books published in 2013 had characters of colour. Their campaign promotes diversity in kidlit, supporting stories with a wide definition of diversity.

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” – Mission Statement, weneeddiversebooks.org

I got home from Mr Author’s talk, and I stared at my bookshelves. Three floor to ceiling stacks, and where was the diversity? Maybe a third had female main characters. Less than a quarter had people of colour in starring roles. Precisely three had LGBT+ characters in the spotlight. Mr Author’s “cripple” was the only disabled character on the shelves. My own reading habits had to change.

The benefits of diverse reading aren’t just for kids. Our writing should reflect the people who exist in our world. Stories give us a window into the lives of others, and there’s no good reason that shouldn’t extend to the fantasy genre as well. There are plenty of grown-ups who need to learn to value all the ways people differ, and see past these differences to our common hopes, dreams and motivations.

There are better blogs than mine that explain that NO – “historical accuracy” isn’t a valid excuse for whitewashing (check out http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/ ). That talk about how to write different race sensitively and avoid harmful tropes (the mods at http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/ do a fantastic job!). That describe why LGBT readers deserve more than coming out stories (http://lgbtqreads.tumblr.com/ ). This blog just adds my voice to the story, to join in the battle-cry “we need diverse books!”

After all, if you can believe in dragons, then a diverse cast should be a snap!

5 thoughts on “We need diverse fantasy…

    • Thanks Ellie! I really truly believe that writers (and particularly published writers) should be more open to portraying different viewpoints that we normally get to hear. Where are the women of colour? The disabled people? People who fall outside the gender binary? I want to hear their stories. I want to WRITE them!

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  1. I am so sorry you had to sit through that awful experience with an author.

    And I’d like to challenge you to expand your reading even further – read more books BY DIVERSE AUTHORS, not just with diverse characters. That’s going to be my big personal challenge in 2018 too 🙂

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    • That’s a great point Dianna – that was my first step in the journey – reading authors from different walks of life to me. I’ve discovered some truly amazing authors that way, and I’m always up for more! Any recommendations?

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      • Ooh recommendations! Anything by NK Jemisin is my first recommendation.

        And I might be biased but I would honestly recommend anything published by my publisher, The Book Smugglers, who are incredibly dedicated to publishing diverse authors and bringing light to new voices. The only ones I’ve actually read so far are The Convergence of Fairy Tales and Bearly A Lady, both of which are amazing… For very, very different reasons. http://thebooksmugglers.com/

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