In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as race science blended with the new colonial imperialism, “human zoos” became all the rage in the west. Placed into “natural habitats,” adorned in “traditional dress” and sometimes behind bars, people from “exotic” lands were put on display for a gawking public. All of this to prove the racial theories of the day–that people after all were not alike all over.
Art- Poster of the “Peoples Show” (Völkerschau) in Stuttgart (Germany), 1928
A minor kerfuffle on race and representation was kicked up following last Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Most noticeably, the barely restrained tilt towards Orientalism and the “great white emancipator” finally crossed the red line with the episode “Mhysa.” By week’s end, more than a few articles appeared in criticism, most noticeably comedian Aamer Rahman who pointed out why the Khaleesi’s entire storyline has been “messed up” from the jump. The reactions to this were typical: Denials. Charges of political correctness run amok. And of course, lots’ o’ geek-splainin’. But anyone barely acquainted with modern fantasy literature knows that from black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with exotic and dangerous “others.”
HBO’s Game of Thrones has been hailed for its prominent portrayal of strong women. From Westeros to Essos, the women of GOT are strong, confident, heroines, fighters and even villains. The one thing they aren’t however, is very diverse.
Detail of statue of St. Maurice, Magdeburg, Germany, Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, choir, ca. 1240-50
The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
So I’m doing what I normally do when I should be working/writing (trying to read the entire internet) and quite by chance I find out they’re making a sequel to 300. Then I threw up in my mouth a little… because nothing makes me gag like the thought of another bit of Hollywood-formulated Occidental fantasy and Orientalist othering with a large dose of historical revisionism by that icon of multiculturalism and gender representation, Frank Miller. Re-posted below, for whoever cares, is a review and critique I wrote on 300 back in 2007. In the name of blogger honesty, I haven’t changed anything from the original post–except for a few broken links. I have a feeling the inevitable sequel won’t require me to do that much revision anyway.
“I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.”–Aliette de Bodard
French-American author Aliette de Bodard’s comment was made during a recent roundtable at The World SF Blog (TWSFB) on the issue of depictions of non-Western societies and cultures in speculative fiction. In this case, de Bodard was specifically addressing those writers in the West who take the (brave) plunge and attempt to write about cultures and societies outside of their own. I actually applaud this, and suggested in a recent blog that speculative fiction authors (of any racial/ethnic background, and specifically those in fantasy) should make this attempt more often. Yet, as I also noted in that same post, this comes with risks. As an outsider, it’s all too easy to fall back (intentionally or no) on stereotypes or exoticism as a means of depicting “difference.” So, continuing with this talk of spears, sorcery and black double-consciousness, how does a black Western writer create African fantasy that avoids (or at least tries to avoid) these pitfalls? I don’t have all the answers. Surprise. I don’t even know if anything I have to say qualify as answers. Double surprise. But here are some personal thoughts anyway, for what they’re worth…
When the inspiration first came to me, to try my hand at writing fantasy outside of the usual medieval European framework, I knew exactly where I wanted to begin. I hadn’t read Charles Saunders. I thought for certain I was doing something new–a speculative fiction Jackie Robinson. I’d read enough fantasy to know the basics. I had to create a world, a setting distinct from the Eurocentric fantasy I’d grown up with. I chose Africa with hardly a second thought. Most fantasy works by white authors were set in some version of medieval Europe. Black people were from Africa–that’s what I was going with. Besides, I was no slouch on Africa. My parents had filled our house with books on African culture, art and history. I was taken to see African theater. I’d visited Africa at least once. Being a political junkie, I even felt it my responsibility to read African newspapers to keep up with what was going on. Heck, I listened to Fela! Sure, as the child of Caribbean immigrants, I was more than a few generations removed; but in my mind Africa was something always near–in my music, in celebrations like Carnival, in my fashion, my thoughts. So when I began creating worlds out of varied kingdoms, and scoured through the folklore and myths of diverse African cultures for magic systems, gods and monsters, I never thought of it as “appropriation.” Africa was mine. Wasn’t it?