On Diversity in Speculative Fiction

So nowadays the speculative fiction community is echoing with calls for greater diversity. Let me see if I can insert my $0.02 into this topic…

Despite coming from an “ordinary” middle-class Anglo-American background, I have to say I never cared for the pseudo-medieval European setting that stereotypically pervades the fantasy genre. My interests have always gravitated towards more “exotic” cultures, especially those situated in warm regions like jungles or deserts. It must have started in second grade when our class did a unit on ancient Egypt. Since almost all these civilizations were populated by non-European people with various shades of brown skin (or what social justice activists are calling “people of color”), the stories I like to write would probably pass most racial diversity tests since their characters and settings are based on these cultures.

Furthermore, I like writing female protagonists, especially action heroines who can kick butt. Maybe that would win me diversity points from the feminists too. And since these action heroines are almost all non-European (aka “women of color”), I’ll take some points from the race/gender intersectionality crew too.

However, I don’t tend to write homosexual or transgender characters. I might try writing them if I ever felt inspired to do so, but that almost never happens. Don’t misunderstand me, I support gay and transgender rights as much as anyone else, but I can’t say gay and transgender issues are my specialty. Besides, as a straight cis-gendered guy, I can’t exactly relate to experiences like homosexual attraction or gender identity confusion.

And then there are all the other minorities out there in the world that I haven’t even heard of.

Let’s face it, so long as we humans have possessed the ability to divide and categorize ourselves, we’ve created all manner of groups that could be considered marginalized or minorities. It would be practically impossible to stuff in every single (and socially constructed) division of humankind into one story, at least not without it sounding forced in the name of political correctness. Variations from the stereotypical straight-white-male narratives are always welcome in my opinion. At the same time, I don’t believe anyone should be pressured into squeezing in this or that minority group if it goes against their literary or artistic vision.

Back before Disney’s Frozen came out last winter, I remember that the social justice bloggers were complaining about the Northern European setting, and the absence of non-European characters. Never mind that the story was based on a European fairy tale. While I don’t doubt that adventurous people of all colors may always have ventured to far-off parts of the world, they wouldn’t have been everywhere in most places. You wouldn’t have more than a handful of African people throughout medieval Europe, except perhaps in Moorish Spain or certain cosmopolitan ports. Even if you disregard that caveat on realism, the whole ruckus was a textbook example of how overbearing some of these diversity activists have grown.

To wrap up this little rambling, I’ll say that writers shouldn’t have to kowtow to political correctness regardless of their personal feelings. There’s nothing wrong with making your characters diverse or non-standard if that’s what you want to do, but neither are you obligated to distort your vision just because someone else with a political agenda demands you to do so.

They can always write their own stories anyway.


3 thoughts on “On Diversity in Speculative Fiction

  1. I think a middle class white woman writing “Precious,” for example, would be in poor taste. Any book that’s primarily about the *experience* of being marginalized ought to be written by that marginalized group. Otherwise, you highly risk writing something offensive, stereotypical, and inaccurate.

    But I think it’s good to be diverse too, in order to represent the world accurately (in Frozen’s case, I think an all-white cast is a fair enough representation. But if you’re presenting New York City in the year 2010, you probably shouldn’t have an all-white all-straight cast). One must still tread carefully and know the limits of their abilities, but in some stories people are just people. Not all stories about or involving minorities are about “the minority experience”.

    1. I agree that the diversity of a story should reflect its setting. If your story takes place deep in the African interior during pre-colonial times, for instance, then you’re probably going to work with predominantly African characters. A cosmopolitan modern city like New York on the other hand would have a more heterogeneous population like you said.

      At least we who write speculative fiction can create our own worlds and so don’t have to worry about accurately representing real-world cultural groups. I for one would never attempt to write about poor lower-class African-Americans since such stories would be better told by those people themselves.

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