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After decades of dwarfs and elves, writers of color redefine fantasy

understanding each other

Literature informs people's understanding of the world. That holds true even when the setting is a world unlike our own. Taking inspiration from places other than Europe, a diverse group of writers is finding mainstream success bringing fresh voices to the fantasy genre and offering glimpses into other cultures, histories, and perspectives. 

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Science fiction and fantasy author, N.K. Jemisin, the first black author to win a Hugo Award for best novel, is one of a growing number of writers to redefine the genre.

Courtesy of Laura Hanifin

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N.K. Jemisin, the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel, packs a powerful idea into a few lines of dialogue in “The Fifth Season,” in which an otherworldly woman’s search for her daughter resonates with the emotions of African-Americans after the Civil War desperate to reunite families ravaged by slavery.

“There’s a hole, a gap,” Ms. Jemisin writes. “In history.”

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History suffers when perspectives are left out, Jemisin points out. The same may be said of literature. After decades of dwarves, elves, and other Norse-based mythology, the world of fantasy is changing, incorporating the myths and legends of cultures around the world. 

While the field was largely dominated by white men in decades past, today diverse writers are bringing new voices to the conversation, imagining futures based on more inclusive readings of the past, and creating multiethnic worlds that can help people understand their own. Certainly, speculative fiction writers since at least Octavia Butler – the first science-fiction writer to win a MacArthur grant – have looked beyond Europe for inspiration. But no longer can they be dismissed as niche. From the $1 billion-plus box office of “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, to this spring’s breakout debut novel, “Children of Blood and Bone,” by Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyemi, audiences and readers are flocking to well-drawn worlds inspired by African and Asian countries. 

“People have been trying to do this for decades,” says Ms. Adeyemi, acknowledging those who laid the foundation. “It’s just that enough people have broken down the doors over the decades that we’re where we are now.”

Ms. Adeyemi has infused “Children of Blood and Bone,” published in March as the first of a planned trilogy, with West African mythology and culture. It reportedly sold at auction for seven figures and has already been optioned as a movie. In a fairy-tale beginning, teenage Zelie Adebola – a heroine as valiant as “Black Panther’s” General Okoye – and her protective brother Tzain, head to market to trade a fish. If Zelie doesn’t make a good bargain, she will end up a slave. 

While Adeyemi’s setting is a magical fantasy world and her touchstones are from another continent, the plot is informed by US headlines. In “Children of Blood and Bone,” boys feared because they are different are killed with impunity by security forces. Adeyemi says she wanted readers to reflect on their reactions to police brutality, for example. 

The wisest characters in “Children of Blood and Bone,” are those with the patience and the courage to see the world through others’ eyes. Adeyemi says readers can gain insight into the sense among some minorities in America that going about their daily lives can be perilous.

“I wanted to build empathy with this book,” Adeyemi says.

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'Hopeful books in very dark times'

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s fictional world is also rooted in her ancestral homeland and heritage. In the case of Ms. Khan’s “The Bloodprint,” the setting evokes northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Khan’s 2017 book reads like an Arthurian tale. Khan even makes a “Princess Bride” reference in her dedication. But her knights are women as well as men, and Islam, not Christianity, is her wellspring.

A sprawling fantasy – “The Bloodprint” is 400 pages and three more books are planned in the series – was the only way Khan, until “The Bloodprint,” known as a mystery writer, could imagine encompassing all she wanted to say about the history and possibilities of her religion. At a time when some in the West only see Muslim women as oppressed, and fundamentalists in the Middle East and elsewhere are barring Muslim girls from the classroom, Khan says she wanted to write about the strong, resourceful Muslim women she knows. Among them are her mother, who left Pakistan as a young woman and made a life alongside her husband in England and Canada.

“I write a lot about identity and belonging,” says Khan. “I try to write hopeful books in very dark times.”

For those who think the genre is all faraway galaxies or pyrotechnic wizardry, consider English writer Priya Sharma’s “Rag and Bone,” set in a not-so-distant, poignantly plausible, dystopian Liverpool. Dr. Sharma portrays a brutal city state where it’s a capital offense to agitate for minimum wages, workplace safety, and free health care. In the story included in her recently released first collection, “All the Fabulous Beasts, Sharma, who is also a family doctor, explores the distress she feels over the widening gap between haves and have-nots. The haves in “Rag and Bone” are buying body parts from the desperate poor.

“If you’re of a mind to explore really difficult political questions and social justice, there’s a lot of things you can explore through genre fiction,” Sharma says.

In “Egg,” another story by Sharma, a new mother gazes on an unexpected child and comes to a revelation about inclusiveness that goes beyond tolerance. “I’m fixed by my daughter’s gaze. She’s ferocious. Dignified. I bow my head. She doesn’t need my limited definitions. She has her own possibilities and perfections.”

Social media backlash, and support

A few years ago, a group of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans called the Sad Puppies campaigned against what they saw as political correctness and overemphasis on multicultural concerns. The backlash was testament to how much the field has changed. And their campaign didn’t stop Jemisin from winning the 2016 Hugo Award, on which fans vote, for “The Fifth Season,” a book in which one of the tactics of the oppressors is to hide parts of history. 

Kij Johnson, associate director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, sees no going back.

“We are not the field that thinks that what white men say is the only way to say things,” Professor Johnson says, adding she was inspired to work in science fiction by “people who were pushing the limits of what we should expect.”  

Sci-fi and fantasy are varied not just in voices, but in platforms. Stories are being created for graphic novels, online magazines, and video games, as well as traditional books. Authors such as National Book Award winner and MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a series of “Black Panther” comic books, are exploring the genre.

Social media has helped writers find both support and readers. Sheree Renee Thomas, who has published two collections of her own short stories and edited the “Dark Matter,” anthologies of science fiction and fantasy by fellow African-American writers, recently asked her Twitter followers for speculative fiction reading suggestions.

“I learned that people are reading more widely than we think they are,” Ms. Thomas says. She was struck by how many women authors got shout-outs, and how many of the recommended books had been published by small presses.

Writer and writing coach Nisi Shawl says she is seeing the result of concerted efforts over the years to provide funding and forums for emerging writers to connect. 

Ms. Shawl’s 2016 steampunk novel “Everfair,” imagines a history in which the murderous forces of Belgium’s King Leopold II are defeated in Congo by a multinational, multiethnic alliance. Shawl leads workshops in which she encourages writers to be inclusive in the range of characters they create.

“There’s two ways of getting representation in the field,” she says. “I’m addressing one of these, which is to be more inclusive in your writing.”

Shawl recalls going to science fiction conventions early in her career and seeing only a few other black and minority colleagues. She made a point, she says, of introducing herself to each one.

“Then one day I realized I couldn’t do that,” Shawl says. “Because there were more than 100 people of color.”