State of Black Sci-Fi 2012:
Why it is important to show race, culture and ethnicity in Speculative Fiction

In this blog, I will be addressing authors and soon – to – be authors directly, however, as readers of Black Sci-Fi, it is good to learn the creative process, so as to become more savvy readers, better able to discern good literature from not so good – thus saving yourself valuable time and money.

How different is your speculative fiction world from the present-day “real” world?
The closer your world is to the present, “real” world, the more you can rely on the reader to make correct assumptions about racial, cultural and ethnic identity in your novel. The less it is like the present world, the less you can rely on the reader to make correct assumptions; you will have to do more work to situate the reader’s experience in this different world; particularly, writers of fantasy (e.g. Sword & Soul; Steampunk), which – in most readers’ minds – defaults to Eurocentric settings and main characters.

Every book is an experience that is shared by at least two different people: the writer and the reader. Every writer has a different perspective on how much they are willing to be influenced by readers’ expectations. Certain aspects of the story will be read differently by different readers.

You cannot guarantee that every reader will get the same thing out of your story; in fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that won’t happen. However, there are certain things that do need to be clear. Of course, the main elements of the plot need to be clear to every reader. If a character is meant to be an anti-hero, that needs to come across clearly.

When it comes to race, you have to decide if you are cool with the reader assuming that any given character might be white. If you are cool with that, then you don’t need to describe your characters’ race(s). If you are not cool with it, then you need to make their racial identity clear. Which raises the question: How do you make a character’s race clear without sounding ignorant or racist?

My writing students often debate about which words to use when describing someone’s skin tone. In an attempt to be more “marketable”, they will describe a character of African descent as “swarthy” or an Asian character as “deep olive”. I tell them that readers might believe that the character just has a tan rather than being from Nigeria or Mongol Uls (“Mongolia”).

If the character is a main or supporting character, to use “African” or “Asian” in their description is fine. However, if the character is a minor character (or “extra”, for you screenwriters) it’s not okay, unless you have written in the first person and your narrator is racist or ignorant as hell. “The Asian girl at the counter turned to look at me,” would make your character (or you) seem overly racially conscious, as the girl’s ethnicity has nothing to do with her being at the counter – unless she’s at a “White’s Only” restaurant or something.

That said, however, writers cannot be slaves to political correctness. If a word fits, use it! Yes, you have to be careful about which words to use, but you should be careful about which word to use in every line…in every sentence, if you want to write good fiction.

If your story is a set in an alternate history or world or is set far into the future, you need to think about how race is experienced in that world. Is it a multiracial world? Do people notice others’ race when they first see them? Are different races exotic or normal; friend or foe? Figuring this out will help you to describe your characters’ races and their reactions to other races. It is also important to remember that race is only superficially about skin color. It’s also about cultural practices, beliefs, rituals, food, language, etc.

Some authors believe you can signal race quickly through a character’s name. However, typical names of characters from the Diaspora (i.e. The Americas, the Caribbean and Europe) do not necessarily sound any different from Caucasian-American or European names; Willie Brown could be black or white. Now, if the name is atypical, such as “Bonquisha Tanqueray Robinson”, well…

And on that note, while giving your character an African name usually does evoke images of your character’s race, it does not denote place of birth. You might name your character Efunsegun Ige (which happens to be part of my full name), assuming your readers will quickly grasp that the character is Nigerian (thus Black). However, if they know someone like me – born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, with parents from Mississippi – your readers might not be so sure, so if you want your readers to know a character’s place of birth, be sure to reveal that at some point in your story.

Now, I’d like to touch briefly on metaphor. It is very important to remember, when writing any speculative fiction, that metaphor is powerful. Even though the world of your story may be extremely different from our “real” world, that story is being read by a reader who dwells in the “real” world, so you must be aware of how race in your speculative fiction world might be interpreted through the lens of that reader.

Be aware of the metaphor you’re broadcasting if you make all of your evil people a certain complexion, and all your heroes a certain different complexion. Be aware of the metaphor in play if a rugged, ruddy-complexioned hero saves all the sepia-toned natives – a la Tarzan.

Peter Jackson’s 2002 film “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” opens with a scene of the Uruk-Hai (“Orcs”) running toward Isengaard with the hobbits Merry and Pippin. For those of you who have seen the film, you will remember that the Uruk-Hai are tall, black, and muscular with long coarse dreadlocks – an image that evokes stereotypical portrayals of black men. The racism was such in this film that at one point, Legolas the elf comments on how quickly the Uruk-Hai move. He says: “They run as if the very whips of their masters were behind them” (P. Jackson).

Tolkien’s original language was actually much more neutral: “The Orcs have run before us, as if the very whips of Sauron were behind them” (Tolkien 35). This makes it apparent that Peter Jackson’s portrayal of the Uruk-Hai – and Legolas’ comment were meant to hammer a metaphor into the viewer. For more on “Orcs” and how they represent people of African descent, please check out my blog, “Racism in Role-Playing” at https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/racism-in-role-playing/.

Ultimately, we must be aware of the words we choose. There is no shortcut here. Do your research, and think about every word you use.

Remember, February 6th is the date of our first Blacktastic Giveaways! Here is a link to what I am giving to a few lucky winners for being so Blacknificent: https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/the-state-of-black-science-fiction-2012/

Also, please check out my friends and what they have to say on their blogs. Oh yeah, and they are giving away a lot of cool stuff too!! Here are their links:

Winston Blakely, Artist/Writer– is a Fine Arts/Comic Book artist, having a career spanning 20 years, whose achievements have included working for Valiant Comics and Rich Buckler’s Visage Studios. He is also the creator of Little Miss Strange, the world’s first black alien sorceress and the all- genre anthology entitled – Immortal Fantasy. Both graphic albums are available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other online book store outlets. Visit him: http://blakelyworks.blogspot.com/ or http://blakelyworkstudio.weebly.com/

L. M. Davis, Author–began her love affair with fantasy in the second grade. Her first novel, Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, was released in 2010, and the follow-up Posers: A Shifters Novel will be released this spring. For more information visit her blog http://shiftersseries.wordpress.com/ or her website http://www.shiftersnovelseries.com.

Milton Davis, Author – Milton Davis is owner/publisher of MVmedia, LLC . As an author he specializes in science fiction and fantasy and is the author of Meji Book One, Meji Book Two and Changa’s Safari. Visit him: http://www.mvmediaatl.com and http://www.wagadu.ning.com.

Margaret Fieland, Author– lives and writes in the suburbs west of Boston, MA
with her partner and five dogs. She is one of the Poetic Muselings. Their poetry anthology, Lifelines http://tinyurl.com/LifelinesPoetry/ is available from Amazon.com Her book, “Relocated,” will be available from MuseItUp Publishing in July, 2012. The Angry Little Boy,” will be published by 4RV publishing in early 2013. You may visit her website, http://www.margaretfieland.com.

Valjeanne Jeffers, Author – is an editor and the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend and Immortal III: Stealer of Souls. Her fourth and fifth novels: Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch: Clockwork will be released this spring. Visit her at: http://valjeanne.wordpress.com and http://qandvaffordableediting.blogspot.com/

Thaddeus Howze, Author– is a veteran of the Information Technology and Communications industry with over twenty-six years of experience. His expertise is in re-engineering IT environments using process-oriented management techniques. In English, that means he studies the needs of his clients and configures their offices to optimize the use of information technology in their environment. Visit him: http://ebonstorm.wordpress.com or http://ebonstorm.weebly.com

Alicia McCalla, Author—writes for both young adults and adults with her brand of multicultural science fiction, urban fantasy, and futurism. Her debut novel, Breaking Free will be available February 1, 2012. The Breaking Free theme song created by Asante McCalla is available for immediate download on itunes and Amazon. Visit her at: http://www.aliciamccalla.com

Carole McDonnell, Author–She writes Christian, speculative fiction, and multicultural stories. Her first novel is Wind Follower. Her short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and have been collected in an eBook, Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction. Visit Carole: http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/ or http://writersofcolorblogtour.blogspot.com/

Rasheedah Phillips, Author–is the creator of The AfroFuturist Affair in Philly. She plans to debut her first spec/sci-fi novel Recurrence Plot in Spring 2012. You may catch her ruminating from time to time on her blog, AstroMythoLosophy.com.

Nicole Sconiers, Author-is also a screenwriter living in the sunny jungle of L.A. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and she recently published Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage. Visit her: http://nicolesconiers.com/index.html

Jarvis Sheffield, M.Ed. is owner & operator of TheDigitalBrothers.com, BlackScienceFictionSociety.com & BlackCommunityEntertainment.com. Visit him: http://www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com/profiles/blog/list?user=2stjwb1h216fd

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

9 responses »

  1. Didn’t realize you were from Chicago. South Side! Great post that get’s very clearly and concisely to the point of what is at stake; this notion of the default presumptions that are particularly prevalent in fantasy.

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks, L.M.!
      Yep, from Chi-town. Home Run Inn & Uno’s Pizza…the Field Museum of Natural History…Whitney M. Young Academic Center AND High School…yep. 🙂

  2. Margaret says:

    Great post, and timely, too, as I’m trying to figure out how to describe some of the characters in the book I’m working on {grimace}, especially as most of the main characters are very Black aliens — if one of the non-alien (aka human) characters is speaking of another human to an alien — physical description is going to have to do it, as far as I can see right now, but if y’all are inspired, do please tell me.

  3. Balogun, you are a master teacher. I’m loving this. I’d like to share this on my blog. Writers need to read this. BTW, I didn’t realize that about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting that George Lucas actually made a point of telling peple about Jar-Jar binks and what his intentions were in regards to race. It didn’t go over well.

    I’ll be referring back to this blog post again. Thanks!

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks, Alicia! Please, do share this on your blog!
      Yeah, Peter Jackson is typical of the good ol’ boys from down under. New Zealand (and Australia) is notoriously racist…just ask any Maori.

  4. Milton says:

    Great teaching blog, Balogun. I learned a few things. Thanks for good words.

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