Dear White Authors: Our Fantasy Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum
Other than retweeting and link-sharing, I’ve been mostly quiet through the backlash against J.K. Rowling for her offensive approach to #MagicInNorthAmerica. I’ve read threads from Native activists and articles by Native writers, and during it all, I’ve also been reading the last installment in The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love these books — funny, fast-paced, wildly imaginative and tongue-in-cheek, not to mention surprisingly tender at times. Not crazy about the new TV show, I admit, but the books have had me in their snare from the beginning, even if Book 2, The Magician King, was a little wobbly.
Which is why I hope this criticism will not sound too harsh, as it’s coming from a fan: but these books made me realize more than ever that white authors have a long way to go when it comes to perfecting our craft. Because as far as I can tell, our craft spends a lot of time falling back on our positions of privilege, and the (rightful) criticism of Rowling brought it all into focus for me.
I’m not just talking about the ease of which we find a path to publication compared to authors of color — Lee & Low’s Diversity in Publishing 2015 baseline survey was as predictable as it was depressing — but about the content of our character(s) and the worlds that we build as well. I had a professor in college who said that the best writers keep craft in one pocket and self-awareness in the other, and while many white authors have a pocket full of the first, that second pocket either has a hole at the bottom of never contained anything to begin with.
You see, our fantasies don’t exist in a vacuum. Every character we create, every world we imagine, every king we conjure, and every centaur or alien or whatever we weave together with our words comes from somewhere. Writers, I know: we like to imagine our stories as apparitions that arise from magic or stardust; a miraculous creation that channeled through us from a mystic source. But that’s untrue: our stories come from us, and “us” is often problematic.
Most white writers operate from a place of self-centeredness, a consequence of white supremacy. It might explain why Grossman’s world is overwhelmingly white, or why four white kids from Earth are deposited on a throne in a land not their own, and why those white kids are the ones who must save it. Or why when then the trilogy finally gets a black character with what might have been some substance, his dialogue is disappointingly limited to one or two pages. Why the only other person of color is not only killed, but their death happens as an aside. Why the only other real reference to people of color is when a white female character invades a neighboring people’s land, and after her attempts at appropriating their magic are shot down, she attacks and humiliates their leader, forcibly taking his magic tools. She even sleeps with the “exotic Other.” What may have been intended as a feminist scene — especially after Grossman was criticized for his female characters going through the meat-grinder to further male characters’ story arcs — falls stone dead in the context of its violent colonialism.
But honestly, the worst part for me isn’t even the absence of people of color: it’s the ways in which they are present. In the case of the black botanist, who had such promise and is then relegated to a plot device, he is as quickly forgotten as he was introduced, then mentioned in a single sentence a hundred pages later as an afterthought. The neighboring tribe of brown skinned desert magicians, and how their story isn’t even told in real-time but as the subject of a multiple-page monologue by the white woman who relays her colonial abuse of them in purposefully flippant terms. And then, of course, there is the jokey appropriation of African-American vernacular English. Lines like “Shit was getting geological, yo” are cringe-worthy every single time, and the fact that lines like these are delivered in each of the three books indicates Grossman has yet to reach as deeply as he could into that aforementioned second pocket. Grossman has an imagination that is as wide as it is deep: at one point he puts the reader inside the consciousness of a whale and we believe every breath. I am confident that he can do better than appropriating black language for the sake of some lazy hipster humor.
I say all this because the knee-jerk reactions white authors — and white readers defending white authors — often have when faced with this kind of criticism is “It’s just a story!” J.K. Rowling fans have shown up in droves to shout: “It’s fiction! Anything goes!” But this defense is a cop out and denies the very real and very important truth that led many of us to become readers and writers in the first place: words have power. They mean things. And the worlds we create mean things too.
White authors, we are present in every word and every comma of our work. Our stories are not just stories — they’re not — but reflections of us, our worlds, our flaws. Our fantasies do not exist in a vacuum; they are pulled not only by gravity but the weight of reality. And reality includes racism. It includes colonialism. It includes a system we were raised by in which we imagine ourselves as the heroic savior at the center of the universe. Whether we’re writing about New York or a magical land where centaurs roam, our whiteness is present. Take it out of your pocket and stare at it for awhile. Doing so might make a better world, and it might make a better book.