I am doing edits on The Forgotten Tale (The Accidental Turn Series novel #2).
These are feminist, meta-fantasy novels about what fantasy teaches its readers, and the messages that fantasy readers – men, women, readers of all faiths and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and sexualities.
And thus, these stories are set in a very stereotypical “Western Concept of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy World”. It’s meant to be Middle Earthian, and like every other white-centric fantasy realm that has been inspired by Middle Earth.
This is the point, because when my MC arrives, an Asian-Canadian from Vancouver, she looks around her and goes. “Oh FFS. Are you kidding me? You can have a half dryad in the taproom, but not a black dude? Not a brown girl? Jeeze.”
It is deliberately meant to be a commentary on white=goodness in these sorts of narratives. Which of course goes with black=badness.
It’s pointed out, it’s referred to, it’s actually discussed, within the narrative itself.
I, as a white woman, have been cautious and I have tried really, really hard to be respectful, and careful about how I construct the exposure and subversion of these tropes. I have second-guessed the crap out of every choice I’ve made, and discussed it from here to kingdom come with lots of author-types.
After getting ripped to tiny, quivering chunky bloody pieces by Requires Only That You Hate for Triptych, I can tell you I’m nervous AF about this. I want to talk about it. I want to. I want to be a good ally. I want to do this right.
So, part of the subversion is that I’m slowly populating the Hero’s Party with PoCs who are genuinely good people. The Hero, of course, is white. He’s power-fantasy jock type who sleeps with everyone he can. But by the end of the series, I’m aiming to have him outnumbered by PoC.
And it makes me squirmy-yucky cringy, but I’ve decided to make the pirates black. Because in these sorts of books and films, black=badness. I hate doing it. I hate reinforcing this stereotype, even consciously and for the exact point of inverting it. So there’s this pirate character who is a Good Guy, and that’s the point. He’s black, but he’s not evil because he’s black. He’s just a dude. Who just happens to not be white.
Speaking to my beta reader last night, she said that she didn’t understand that one of the characters, who I introduce in the middle of the first act of the book, was black. That I hadn’t been obvious enough about it and …
The thing that always bothers me is that characters are Assumed White Until Proven Otherwise. And then the PoCs are described as food-coloured which… no. PoCs are not consumables, and do not exist to be some sort of sensual sensory experience. I try very hard not to describe any character’s skin colour as a consumable, unless I’m doing it for all the characters.
So I try to avoid describing my PoC characters any differently than I would my white characters. I talk about facial structure, eye and hair colour, the tone of their skin if they’re blushing, or ill, or sunburned, etc. or the way their colouring is set off by an outfit. (Something that ROTYH missed when she lambasted me for Triptych. She said there were only two PoC characters in the book. She’s wrong. And then, in my next book, where the Book Boyfriend character was black – as they so rarely are depicted – she accused me of Exotifying The Other. Like, jeeze, lady. Make up your damn mind. Which is it? Do you want PoC leads or not?)
Only it appears that I’ve been too subtle in my description of the black fellow in The Forgotten Tale. And now I am feeling all squirmy. Because I could easily go back in and add more descriptors to make it clear that he’s black, but then … that feels like unfairly singling him out and Othering him. I don’t say, “BTW, Kintyre’s white.” Why should I have to say “BTW, Wyndam is black”?
But on the other, other hand, Representation Matters, and I want it to be clear to all readers that this character is a PoC. That, yes, there is a black guy in this epic fantasy book, and he is a thoughtful, good, intelligent young man with a big heart and good intentions. I want there to be no mistake.
And now I am sitting here, staring at the blinking cursor, feeling all kinds of uncomfortable, uncertain how to approach this. Do I leave it as is? Or do I try to find a way to indicate Wyndam’s blackness without being offensively obvious?