March 14th, 2008


Building the Internal World

Much as I've enjoyed the recent posts on fangs_fur_fey about picking your monster, the discussion that got my brain working this week centered on diversity.  Fantasy worlds, even the worlds of urban fantasy, generally resemble the world of 1930s movies.  All the people who matter are white, pretty and disabled only by their own preconceptions.  
I can see points on both sides of the issue.  When you're building detail into a world not your own, you have to cut corners or you wind up pulling a Proust.  And frankly, there are too many other white, middle class writers working on the same kinds of things to expect a publisher--even one who's done well by your work in the past--to pry the manuscript from your clutching fingers or hack it from your computer.
But if you create a world that ignores what's happening around you without establishing a good reason for the divergence you will ultimately alienate readers.  It happened to me, and I'm usually the dimmest reading bulb in the box.
A few years before the current fashion in shifters got hot, I read two volumes in an intense, sexy werewolf saga.  I liked it a lot, but one thing really bothered me.  All the werewolves were white supermodels--men and women--complete with the cheekbones and piercing gray eyes.  When I had the chance to interview the writer, I asked her if she planned to set future novels in other parts of the world where the shifters would, presumably, display different physical characteristics.  She said, no.  They all looked like that.
Somehow I wasn't surprised book number two turned out to be the last in that series.  Nobody ever raised the race issue in their reviews, but...
But how do you get into the head of someone of a different race?  How does someone with a disability cope?  Sociology and medical texts don't cut it for me.  Too clinical.  They don't tell you how it feels.  But nosy as I am, I have a hard time getting too personal with people I don't know, especially when the questions involve delicate, often painful issues.
Which is why "The Vision Thing" by Stephen Kuusisto in today's New York Times feels like such a gift.  There's a reason to read Op/Ed pages after all.  Who knew?