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Fantasy by People of Color: What is Different?

September 23, 2012

Fantasy by People of Color

For A More Diverse Universe organized by Aarti @ Booklust

Links are to my reviews of books.

I have been reading fantasy by people of color all this year and read even more since I saw Aarti’s lists of possibilities.  As I read, I have wondered if or how these are different from more mainstream fantasy.  Not all people of color or Indigenous people have written differently, and they shouldn’t be expected, too.  For example, N. K. Jemisin, an African American woman, writes excellent fantasy.  In Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, her heroine looks like someone of African descent, while the story resembles the fantasies of others.

Sometime, however, fantasies by people of color are unusual in their plots, their settings, and their magical or god-like characters.  They offer alternatives to the quest plot that is often used in fantasy.  Iranian novelist, Shahrnush  Parsipur explicitly points out that her writing is not rooted in Latin American magical realism, but in the fantasies of Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights.  In her book, Women without Men, magic allows women a temporary retreat from their usual male-controlled lives and a chance to start again with or without male company.  The book feels like it is set in ancient Persia where magical intervention is an everyday occurrence.

Several Caribbean authors include Caribbean gods in their stories.  Helen Oyeyemi ‘s Opposite House, is a probing story about an African Cuban woman and her family in London.  Interspersed with the families’ stories are those of the traditional Cuban Santeria deities and other magical beings.  The mother of the family is a devotee of these deities, but there is no actual interaction between the magical and human beings.  Nalo Hopkinson uses Santeria deities more playfully in her stories.  I have reviewed her The New Moon’s Arms.  I liked her Brown Girl in the Ring even better.  In both stories are set in communities of people in or from the Caribbean and the gods are directly involved in the lives of the individual humans.

In contrast, Redemption in Indigo by African Caribbean Karen Lord is not set in any particular time or place.  Events take place somewhere in Africa or the African diaspora where black people live in small traditional villages.  Humans and “the undying ones” each have their own interactions but their stories intersect when Paama is given the powerful Chaos Stick.  Then she and its magical previous owner interact in their eventual “redemption.”  It is a story both haunting and thought-provoking.  Here the non-humans are not gods, but simply various other kinds of beings which have extra powers and can interact with humans.

Thomas King’s Grass Growing,Water Running is a story about contemporary Native American people interacting with each other and with Anglos in a small town just across the US border in Alberta, Canada.  These are Native Americans who embody an important, but changing tradition.  King tells their story along with that of “the four old Indians” who are not Native American but four literary characters: Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye.  They tell and recreate Native American creation stories and try to “fix the world in small ways” to “help” the humans.  Coyote also intervenes when he sings and dances.  This is a delightful book, full of the sly humor that the oppressed often use to survive.

Australian Aboriginal Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is different.  Wright tells us about the Aboriginal peoples who live on either side of a small white town on the northern Australian coast.  The story has characters who can do magic, but more important are the supernatural forces like the Great Serpent and the Sea shaping their lives.  Readers are also swept up in the swirling movements.

I have enjoyed all of these books and find them an interesting variation from other fantasy and a valuable glimpse into other cultures.

Thanks, Aarti, for your More Diverse Universe Blog Tour about fantasy by people of color.  You have helped me find some more books in this great group of publications and prodded me to consider what makes these books different from other fantasies.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2012 8:43 am

    Wow, what a great post! You have me adding two new-to-me author’s books to my growing TBR list.

  2. September 27, 2012 11:15 am

    Thanks. I hope you enjoy them.

  3. September 29, 2012 7:47 am

    Thanks for this post and fantastic list. Thomas King’s Grass Growing, Water Running is definitely being added to my wish list, sounds like one I should read, especially as it is set in Canada!

  4. October 16, 2012 10:51 am

    So I was thinking about putting together a ‘literary’ fantasy list w an emphasis on POC authors, but you’ve done it for me! I’ve read almost every single title you’ve mentioned (except Brown Girl in the Ring, because I’m spacing out my Hopkinson reads) and loved them all. :DDD

  5. maamej permalink
    March 2, 2015 4:01 am

    Thanks for the list, I’ll be adding Alexis Wright to my own list for my Indigenous reading challenge.

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