On Race and Genre Fiction


Fen of Color United is a project created in the aftermath of RaceFail 09 [I’ll point you again to Ramblingperfectionist‘s post as a starting point if you missed it.] It’s there to show that there are actually readers of colour and that they’re not only some freakish occurrence every 7th year, when the 7th daughter of a 7th son is born with 7 fingers. Or something.

Anyway, I usually miss these kinds of things, but this time I promised myself I’d make it. So, here I am.

Full disclosure: I’m not a POC. I’m a white European woman who wholeheartedly supports this project. But this also means that I might stumble over my own privileged blindness. If RaceFail 09 has taught us anything, then that nobody’s safe from that, even (or maybe especially) if the intentions are good. In any case, if that happens, please let me know in the comments. I welcome the opportunity to learn. I just ask that you tell me friendly and not rip my head off. :)

If you’re scratching your head and wondering about why I post this post like this, with no actual argument that starts at the beginning and stops at the end, with no coherent story or anything coherent, actually, it’s because I’m trying to show my support, but I don’t experience racism geared towards me, usually. So I can only draw analogies and hope that the point I’m trying to make is getting across. And I wanted you to be part of my thought process because I do think that this helps understand no matter what.

I have thought a lot about what I can say regarding this topic that hasn’t been said by other people a million times and a million times better. I’m not very experienced in the racial discourse, though I do think that I’m more aware of it than most people in my environment. I came to the conclusion that my only option was to make this really personal.

But then – what personal story should I tell?

When I talk about the year I lived in Africa and actually noticed for the first time that I was white (yeah, I know that sounds stupid. But talk about awareness of privilege) and was confronted with racism that targeted me for the first time, I’m afraid that it sounds like whining from the poor privileged bitch who can’t stand to experience what the POC in Austria must experience every day, only a hundred times worse. [Yeah, Boo-Hoo.]

When I talk about how I grew up in the Croatian-German part of Austria, as part of the – in this case – minority of only German speaking people and how that meant that I was completely excluded from basically anything, I fail to make this issue about race – because no matter who the minority was in this case, we were all white.

I could talk about the problems the Roma and Sinti face in exactly that part of Austria, but with that I’d leave my personal experience again.

And anyways, what’s all of that to do with fiction?

I thought about writing about the predominance of German culture in Austria, how for example all the TV shows (that are not American) are German, and if there are Austrian shows, they’re usually rip-offs of German ones, specifically designed to be Austrian and completely unwatchable. But while this topic might have similar issues like when POC always have to take on the role of white people in fiction, it again fails to be about race.

The same can be said for the fact that even as a woman, I automatically assign the straight male gender to the characters I’m reading about and the characters I’m writing about unless specified otherwise.

So, here’s what I finally came up with. I decided to crunch some numbers, just to point things out. These are the books I read this year:

  1. The Magical Christmas Cat (Nalini Singh, Erin McCarthy, Lora Leigh, Linda Winstead Jones)
  2. Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)
  3. The Gathering (Anne Enright)
  4. The Ranger’s Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan (John Flanagan)
  5. Before They Are Hanged (Joe Abercrombie)
  6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Two Other Short Stories (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  7. The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Last Battle (C. S. Lewis)
  8. Last Argument of Kings (Joe Abercrombie)
  9. Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett)
  10. The Game (Neil Strauss)
  11. A Girl’s Guide to Vampires (Katie MacAlister)
  12. Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman)
  13. Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons)
  14. Sex and the Single Vampire (Katie MacAlister)
  15. A Comedian Grows Up (Jonas Gardell)
  16. Red Magician (Lisa Goldstein)
  17. The Human Beast (Thomas Müller)
  18. Vampire Diaries: The Awakening, The Struggle, The Fury, The Dark Reunion (L. J. Smith)
  19. Mansfield Park (Jane Austen)
  20. Angels’ Blood (Nalini Singh)
  21. Big Fish (Daniel Wallace)
  22. Inkspell (Cornelia Funke) – not finished yet
  23. The Portable Door (Tom Holt)
  24. I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal) – not finished yet
  25. The Basic Forms of Fear (Fritz Riemann)
  26. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith) [review follows]

That’s more than 30 books (counting the books of a series as one each). And do you know…

…how many of these have POC in them (not talking protagonists, just appearing)?
6 [if you count very liberally]
…how many of these 6 have a POC protagonist or antagonist, who plays a bigger role than Henchman #3?
3 [and two of them are from one series] 
…how many of these 3 further the south = dark people = bad guys stereotype (albeit set in a completely fictional world)?

That leaves one. One book (Angels’ Blood), where the protagonist has olive skin. [I’m pretty sure that’s the actual description, I don’t have the book with me right now to check. Anyways, I know that this is a pretty wide definition of POC I’m using. But indulge me.] But don’t worry, she has completely blond to the point of white hair, just to balance things. And let’s not forget that the cover makes sure to show a white woman. Or you might have scared some white customers away.

Okay, I think this post is long enough and tells us a lot of things most of us probably already know. There’s just one last thing I’d like to add: I don’t think that people wouldn’t read a book because there’s a POC in it. But I do think that you lose readership if you always have the same looking characters, if you never include “the other”.

Please comment and participate in the discussion. I think that that’s the most important thing we can do.


3 thoughts on “On Race and Genre Fiction

  1. My situation was similar, but I’ve been reading more indian fiction now-ironically, the most recent is by a white Australian, although its very much “indian” in theme- so I think slightly better. But not by much :( .

    • It’s really sad how completely invisible POC are made.
      But it just goes to show how deeply ingrained these things are in ourselves.
      What did you read? Any special recommendations?

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