In 1996, I was twelve years old and a newly arrived migrant in Sydney. Fresh off the aeroplane, I felt very out of place at my new school. In my pungent school gymnasium, one of the most popular girls in my class, a gorgeous Australian-born girl of Lebanese heritage, asked me if I liked cricket. I blinked in confusion, and that sealed my fate.
“You don’t know what cricket is?,” she asked me in disbelief, “don’t you have a television?”
Soccer, swimming and taekwondo were the sports I grew up playing.
“I – I do have a television, but I don’t watch cricket,” I said, confirming the fact that I was that weird Malay kid with a funny accent, in a predominantly Arab school in South Western Sydney. My non-Arab friends and I sat quietly in the front row. Their families came from Fiji, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia. Even within marginalised communities, majority rules. We were the bullied minority.
Even then, books made more sense to me than people.
I sought refuge in my school library. Even then, books made more sense to me than people. I picked up Wild Magic, by Tamora Pierce, and immediately fell in love. Daine - the thirteen year old protagonist - fled from her home under mysterious circumstances. She was, like me, a traveller. Unlike me, she had wild magic, soft brown hair and blue-gray eyes. Her parentage was mysterious, and a critical part of the novel’s plot, but for the most part, she was at least half-white. Despite that, Daine and her adventures helped to inspire and comfort me during a difficult time. Adolescence is hard. Migration is hard. Fantasy books provided not only an escape for me, but a wellspring of inspiration. The complex female characters in loved to read about in fantasy novels were, to an extent, relatable. They were human, made mistakes, but always picked themselves up and kept going, no matter how impossible the odds.
And yet, no matter how many fantasy books I read, I never truly saw myself in any of them. The heroes and heroines were almost exclusively white. Or at best, maybe half-elf/exotic humanoid creature. Basically, no brown Muslim girls could ride on dragons and slay evil. Tolkien made sure of that.
Adolescence is hard. Migration is hard. Fantasy books provided not only an escape for me, but a wellspring of inspiration.
Although I enjoyed reading Lord of The Rings, the movies troubled me. The human allies of Sauron looked like my people – brown, bearded and wielding curved swords. The heroes, like the Riders of Rohan, were utterly gorgeous, incredibly blonde, and very white. In other words, they looked nothing like me. They were something I could never be, no matter how hard I tried.
And then I found Ursula Le Guin’s books, starting with the Wizard of Earthsea. Even though she herself was white, she fought to have a people of colour in her books. There weren’t strong women of colour, but her work was still ground-breaking. I marvelled at the fact that the wizard Ged was brown.
And then, over the years, something shifted in the landscape of epic fantasy. More and more authors of colour started to write their versions of fantasy that were not Euro-centric. One of my favourite fantasy trilogies is N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-award Broken Earth trilogy, as well as Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orïsha. Reading these books excited me because I could read stories from actual authors of colour, who captured the nuances of their characters in a way only #ownvoices authors can.
More and more authors of colour started to write their versions of fantasy that were not Euro-centric.
Even though S.A. Chakraborty herself is white, she wrote the incredible Daevabad trilogy. It thrilled me to read about one especially unapologetic Muslim character who kept getting himself into ridiculous trouble, and who drew strength from his spiritual heritage.
As my daughters and my son get older, I would love to write my own versions of South East Asian heroes and heroines embarking upon epic quests. I want them to read about boys and girls just like them – Muslim, mixed race – who dug deep and overcame impossible odds. I want them to read about characters who draw strength and hope from their familial, cultural and spiritual traditions.
Representation matters. Good representation matter even more. I absolutely do not want to read fantasy (or any other genre) novels which make brown Muslim girls passive, victims or exotic objects of desire. Those tropes are disrespectful, untrue, and done to death. Give me complexity. Give me nuance. And if I can’t find enough of it, I’ll write it myself.
Well. Once my kids are asleep.
Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.