NaNoWriMo and the Diversity in SFF Debate

In the last week since the NaNoWriMo site has been revamped, I’ve been spending some (probably more than is wise) time poking around in the forums, especially the fantasy forums, because, hey, that’s my thing. I’ve been keeping an eye on one thread in particular called ‘What do you want to see more of in fantasy?’. Someone mentioned that they’d like to see more diversity in SFF, especially in regards to characters of different ethnicities being represented more, and, as things do on the internet, the conversation quickly erupted into missed points, hyperbole, and defensiveness. There were cries of ‘we shouldn’t include demographics simply to include them because, tokenism’ and then, somehow, everything derailed into a discussion of demographics of medieval Europe. Below are my thoughts, and my response to the discussion:

I don’t understand how the conversation went from ‘I’d like to see more diversity in SFF’ to ‘but, no, because I don’t want to have forced diversity’. I don’t really think anyone advocating for diversity said that they wanted diversity just for diversity’s sake, and I think everyone pretty much agrees tokenism is not a good thing. If someone wants to write a story closely based off medieval Europe, there would probably be less diversity in it (but not ‘no diversity’), especially if the story isn’t taking place in a city. Although, I have read a series of historical fiction novels about a medieval woman from one of the Italian city-states that traveled to England with her assistant/bodyguard who was a Moor; they eventually settled in a village, so it’s not like that’s an unattainable thing to write about (Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series if anyone is interested).

But then, who said that most of fantasy has to take place in medieval Europe? If the story is set somewhere different, certainly the demographics would be different as well. I like using Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon as an example of great fantasy fiction that takes place in a setting that has a sort of medieval feel to it but is not based off of Europe. Also, if someone’s writing contemporary fantasy, or urban fantasy, there’s plenty of opportunity to have a diverse cast, if one wanted to. And even if a fantasy setting were based loosely off of Europe, who’s to say that it can’t be some sort of alternate version of Europe? Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series is an excellent example of just that. Furthermore, even if a story does take place in a medieval-esque setting, does it really have to be in any way related to the demographics of medieval Europe? It is fantasy, as was pointed out, and the opportunities to build a world, including the peoples that live there, are endless. To just assume that because a world has medieval type towns and villages, it must reflect European demographics in some way, is a little silly. Secondary worlds do not have to be Earth, after all. For a genre in which the opportunities are endless, there just seems to be such a narrow scope of the kinds of settings and stories that are presented to us.

I feel like the discussion on the forums really derailed, and that people just picked apart tiny statements of each other’s arguments and made it personal to what they have been writing. But I find this is often the case when encountering these types of discussions, especially on the internet, people tend to become defensive and miss each other’s points completely. No one is saying what one is writing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for including or not including diversity in their novels. I feel like all anyone is trying to convey is that they’d like to see more variety than what is currently in the market, with more (and better) representations of all the different kinds of people and places that are out there in this world. If a person doesn’t want to read that, or write it, then one doesn’t have to, no one is forcing them to do so. But don’t so easily dismiss other’s that do. Thanks, have a nice day, and ‘can’t we all just get along?’.

EDIT: Our friend Davide Mana from Karavansara has posted his own thoughts on diversity in fantasy. He’s presented some very good points, please take a moment to read his post.

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5 Responses to NaNoWriMo and the Diversity in SFF Debate

  1. unicornblues says:

    Reblogged this on The Unicorn Blues and commented:

    I wrote a thing. ‘Nuff said.

  2. Davide Mana says:

    I wrote a long-winded comment, but then I decided to use it as a post for my blog (you’ll probably get a pingback in a few hours).
    In a nutshell – I agree with your observations, and I think diversity is (or should be!) part of the fantasy genre:
    . historically, our past was much more multi-cultural than we are normally led to believe.
    . traditionally, fantasy (and sword & sorcery in particular) has used very mixed settings, culture-wise throughout its history (The Hyborian world? Nehwon? The Young Kingdoms?).
    . and in terms of writing tools and tricks, working on a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world solves a number of problems, and provides depth and texture for my narrative.
    It’s not a matter of tokens (or it should not be).

    • unicornblues says:

      Much of this post was originally a long-winded comment in the NaNoWriMo forums. 🙂

      Yes, I totally agree, our history was much more multi-cultural than we are led to believe. That was a point my fellow editor brought up in when I showed him what I was going to post. I didn’t want to get in to that too much though, in this particular post, since the original statement in the forums about diversity applied to all fantasy in general, and fantasy can be so much more than just stories that are based in historical settings. (I have a feeling he will be writing his own post on this in the near future.)

      And you’re absolutely right, it should never be about tokens. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Diversity in fantasy stories | Karavansara

  4. Pingback: The Detective with a Funny Hat | Stark Writing Crazy

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