Friday, May 4, 2012

Magically Diverse, Humanly Erased

'Multicultural Mural' photo (c) 2011, Michael Coghlan - license:

One thing we love in most Urban Fantasy is a rich world. I have to say that they’re my favourite kind - maybe I’m jaded, maybe I’m greedy, but vampires alone just don’t do it for me any more. I love A world that has a vast range of creatures in it - it has vampires, it has fae, it has magic, it has werecreatures, it has demons and angels and all variety of things that go bump in the night. We have different realms, we have creatures drawn from every corner of the world’s mythology - and it makes for truly excellent worlds and stories. These diverse worlds are great to read, great to watch and among some of our favourite Urban Fantasy products.

Unfortunately, it does make something glaring - we have these worlds with this vast diversity of monsters, but the humans within these stories are anything but diverse. We have these homogeneous worlds lacking in more than a token appearance of POC or GBLT people or other marginalised people. We can have this vast portrayal of every kind of creature imaginable - but only ever one or two kind of people

We see several extremely rich worlds that have, at best, only the slightest of minor tokens. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files has an amazingly diverse world. We have three vast and very different courts of vampires, we have several variations on werewolves. We have the warring Summer and Winter courts of the fae and the vast diversity within each. We have wizards, we have demons (several kinds again) we have an incredibly rich world here. And we have, at best, token, brief appearances of POC and no GBLT characters at all. This Chicago is magically diverse yet incredibly homogeneous.

Speaking of Chicago - Chloe Neill’s
Chicagoland Vampires also have a growing diversity of creatures - vampires, wizards, river nymphs, sirens, wereanimals - it’s all there, each more fascinating then the last. The people, however? As straight and white as they possibly can be.

I absolutely loved the succubus series by Richelle Mead.  I loved that it had a large world that included many supernatural creatures but it did not escape my notice that Mead could not be arsed to even attempt inclusion.  All the characters were White, straight, cis gendered and able bodied.  So much imagination had to go into writing lines for a succubus who was friends with demons, vampires and an imp.  At times it felt like the large supernatural cast was meant to cover for the lack of diversity in the series itself.  

Last year we coined the term the Marginalised Maris. One of the ways in which authors attempt to allude to diversity is by talking about a marginalized character without ever really introducing the character to the audience.  A perfect example of this is the Anna Strong Series by Jeanne C. Stein.  Stein went to great care to create an extremely diverse word which includes, several forms of shape shifters, vampires, witches etc., but manages to do in an all straight, white, cis world. In, The Becoming, we are told about Michael, Anna’s gay best friend.  The only thing we learn about him is that he has been gay bashed. He never becomes a part of the story, he exists solely as a cheap reference for some quick GLBT inclusion.  Stein was far more interested in creating a diverse cast o supernatural creatures than having a diverse cast of marginalized human beings. 

What makes this even more galling is that in their quest for fantastic diversity, authors increasingly raid cultures all over the world. And this is wonderful to see - it’s nice to get beyond the same old western-centric myths and legends and expand into the whole world’s amazing, diverse stock of stories. And it can be done extremely well, drawing on the fullness of the story, culture and people behind it (Kevin Hearne’s Tricked and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series both do a wonderful job of including Native American mythology and Kate Elliot’s Cold Fire incorporates Caribbean mythology excellently). But so many authors get it wrong - they raid other cultures for myths and legends but make no attempt to include the culture or the people behind them. They appropriate the stories but not the people or culture behind them

From the very beginning of the Mercy Thompson series we are aware that the protagonist Mercy is half Native American and a skinwalker. Throughout the first five books we learn absolutely nothing about Mercy’s cultural background.  Though we are constantly reminded of in the text that she is Native American and on the book covers which feature Mercy with dream catchers and feather earrings. It isn’t until River Marked, the sixth book in the series, that we kind any kind of culture for Mercy.  Don’t be quick to hand out cookies, because the entire book reads like a crash course from Wikipedia.  

In fact, Skinwalkers seem to be in right now (replacing Wendigo with both Supernatural and Charmed were quick to take from Native American legends without the people or culture). Harry faced a skinwalker in the Dresden Files, and Kitty faces one in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville Series. Skinwalkers are fashionable, but even they are left in the wake of the ever-useful villain Voodoo (and related and often used interchangeably: Santeria, Palo Mayombe etc) always there to be a dark, foreign threat - Blood Ties, Charmed, Secret Circle, and so many more are always ready to pull out the dark and scary Voodoo when they need a villain.

It is galling to realise that suspension of disbelief can include 10 kinds vampries, demons and Were-Animal Planet but draws the line at including minorities. The readers can identify with vampires and fae and demons - but identifying with an actual real world minority is often considered a leap too far. Your reader is happy to read about a werewolf, but only if said werewolf is white? Vampires are deeply compelling characters guaranteed to keep fans in thrall - but only if said vampire is cis and straight

Erasure is, as we’ve said before, never good and always problematic. But it becomes all the more glaring when we reside in these worlds where rich diversity abounds - and we still don’t have a place in this most varied of casts.