{108} Racism, fantasy, and transformative works

If your defense of a fantasy story’s whiteness is “historical accuracy”, you are already wrong.

The current wank about Tim Burton’s flat-out racist commentary on why he was “unable” to have a more diversified cast in the Miss Peregrine movie highlights how ingrained racism is in our cultural DNA.

People are arguing that well, the book is set in Wales, after all. So you know, white people! Facts, yo’.

Here’s the thing, though: black people/people of color have been in Wales for, well, ever. Certainly they have been there for the last 1,000 years. Sure, they are a really small percentage, and always have been, but it is also stated often that Wales is home to one of the oldest Afro communities in Britain.

And EVEN IF none of that were true, we are directly back to the classic “Why are there no black elves in fantasy?” question. For decades high fantasy writers have defended their all-white characters because mumbly something medieval mumbly something. History! Facts!

They are fucking elves, dude, YOU MADE THAT SHIT UP.

Miss Peregrine is not a history novel. None of it’s plot points are dependent on the race of the characters — look, I’m working with a fellow author on a follow up (actually, a prequel) to Wolves of Harmony Heights called Wolves of New Orleans. Race is a significant factor in this story, as there are black werewolves and black witches and white witches. The lead characters are a black witch and a white witch, and it is set in 1924. Issues of racism and sexism (and, uh, lycanthropy…FOR REASONS) are very important. In such a setting the race of the characters, their culture, background, and their damn hair are all significant. It would be derelict of us, as white authors, to not do our research and to not have a highly diversified cast of characters; but yes, there will be no black men in positions of political power in this story because New Orleans did not get a black mayor until 1978. The actual, factual history of New Orleans in the 1920s — jazz, racism, sexism, prohibition and all — is important to this story. We will be limited by that in some ways, or more accurately, our characters will.

Such is NOT the case with Miss Peregrine, the book or the movie. I have not read the book, it might be great (so I hear), but nothing I’ve read about it suggests that the orphanage in question could not have had black children there, at any point in its history, despite the earnest defense of the opposite by the author.

Being honest, I have to say that yes, for years I totally bought into the old racist argument that fantasy books in vaguely European medieval-like settings didn’t have people of color as characters (unless they were exotic former slaves, or something) because hey, medieval Europe! So you know, white people! Facts, yo’.

But that’s all a lie. Black people have been a part of European history since forever. (If you don’t agree or cannot believe such outrageousness, I direct your attention to the magnificent tumblr, Medieval POC, which constantly breaks up racist historical assumptions with facts.)

Ransom Riggs made up a world vaguely based on the real world around us, and it’s easy to say “well an orphanage in Wales both a century ago and today is mostly going to have white kids in it.” That is absolutely arguable fact. But again, this is not a historical novel. Facts about the demographics of Wales are pretty much irrelevant. He could have put some black kids in the orphanage, then and now, and just…not explained it. Just had black kids there. Like it’s a normal thing. Black people! Existing in a story! Wow, crazy talk.

And, quite frankly, it seems race is only an issue when it comes to keeping characters white. I mean, how many times have black, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern characters been played by white people? Where was the outrage over “SUPER ACCURATE FACTS ONLY IN OUR TOTALLY MADE UP FANTASY WORLDS PLS OKY” then?

Hmmm. Thought not.

The whole point of “transformative work” is to transform it. That is both the verb and the noun. The act of taking a book and making into a movie, or movie into a book, or a piece of music into a ballet, or a play into an opera, or photograph into a painting…etc. is to change it fundamentally. There are no rules to that, it is entirely up to the artist’s discretion about what to stay faithful to and what to change/toss. Burton decided to change a hell of a lot about the story, except the total lack of diversity in the characters, and then defended his choice with the same racist garbage-mouth shit we’ve heard about fantasy stories for decades.

He could have absolutely made any of the characters black, even the lead (the horror!!!…not). He could have turned Jacob Portman into Jennifer Portman. He could have changed the grandfather into a grandmother. He could have cast Miss Peregrine herself with, say, Lupita Nyong’o.


Originally published at ::::KimBoo York.