Thursday, June 2, 2011
The Brown Skin of Fantasy
I just read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by author N.K. Jemisin. I have long had a love for mythology and fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit & the Lord of the Rings trilogy; C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series... I loved them! I still love them. I always wanted to write in this genre. I still do.
I once told a friend, a well read friend, that I wanted to write fantasy. He thought I meant erotica. It occurred to me from that episode that perhaps it wasn’t as obvious a genre for the likes of me to be interested in. The likes of me: a black woman. When I think of black female writers I think of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, even Zane pops into my head (who at the time was quite popular and featured heavily in my school bookstore making me think maybe that’s why my friend thought I meant that kind of fantasy).
I started to look out for something, anything African/Black in fantasy fiction. I would walk through the fantasy/science fiction aisle in Barnes & Noble and look at covers, names, anything that can draw me in, hook me, something I can identify with. So many books with beautiful covers. No people of color on the covers though. So many names. I couldn’t see anything indicating African heritage. Eventually I did see something I recognized, identified with. I saw Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. First thing I did was flip to the back to see the author’s picture – a white man. That didn’t sit too well with me. I fully expected to see a writer of African descent writing about this African folk character. Went back to the same friend and complained. My friend shrugged and effectively said you snooze you lose.
A different friend, who has loads of books in the fantasy genre, lent me Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. I liked it. Then I read the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. I enjoyed it. Later I borrow and devour the Night Angel series by Brent Weeks. Loads of fun. But there was still something missing. Most recently I start watching Game of Thrones, an HBO series based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and I, like so many, thoroughly enjoy it. One time, I commented to my brother that, as usual, there were no black protagonists. In answer he handed me N.K. Jemisin's debut novel. And I loved it. It is a fantastic story, not because the writer is a woman of color, but because she’s a colorful storyteller. I hold that the quality of a work, not the artist, is the important thing in art. And the quality of this story is art, it’s beautiful, captivating, fun, well paced, intriguing. I loved it!
But I must admit, that little kernel in me, that little emotional need toward kinship, is leaping for joy at the fact that the writer is a black woman, young, beautiful, smart, a counseling psychologist from New York. Her skin is undoubtedly brown, like mine. The protagonist’s skin is brown, like mine. It is a little thing, but it fills me with… something. Jubilance, relief, the knowledge that even in the world of epic fantasy I have a role-model, maybe more than one.
Psychologist Albert Bandura noted that the most effective models are those that the learner most identifies with. We can’t help it. When we gaze over a vast unknown frightening territory we can’t help but look for someone who looks like us. We can’t help but rejoice when we find that, even here, we can fit in. This is why it was such a big thing among African Americans, and African diaspora worldwide to see Barack Obama become President in the U.S.A. This is why I’m happy about fantasy fiction writer N.K. Jemisin. I probably doesn’t do me any immediate good that Obama is U.S. president or Jemisin is an exceptional fantasy fiction writer. But I’m glad all the same. Really glad. And I thank them.