When I was growing up, if I wasn’t reading a fantasy book, then I was watching it on TV. From cartoons like the X-Men and eventually on-screen adaptations like Lord Of The Rings–they were an escape from the stresses I faced simply by existing, as a first-generation Muslim woman of colour.
And yet, even in my book and on-screen escapist fantasies, I couldn’t see myself. The main characters were almost always white, and if not, then they were some kind of exotic non-human species. In other words, it was easier to see elves, aliens or unicorns than someone who looked like me. And if I did, by some miracle, see a brown person, they were either villainous and bearded brown men or sexually fetishised Asian women. Neither bode well for my growing sense of self, and where I fit into the world.
The message I got through watching so many years of non-diverse fantasy was this: my story doesn’t matter. And that can very easily translate to – I don’t matter.
Even when I started writing my own fantasy stories, for the longest time, I kept writing from the perspective of a white character. I was fluent in white speak because that was always the centre. I was a young woman of colour growing up in a climate of anti-Asian sentiment and Islamophobia – it is hard to create freely under that kind of hostility. I hold my younger self with so much compassion.
Even when I started writing my own fantasy stories, for the longest time, I kept writing from the perspective of a white character.
As I left the tumult of high school and started university, I wrote years of fanfiction. Once again, I was writing about my imagined experience of white characters from sci-fi and fantasy shows like Battlestar Galactica. Ironically, it was my white English professor who encouraged me to write experimental poetry from my own perspective. That was the entry point into writing my own experience. After having my biracial children, I have even more reasons to write characters that look like us. The recent rise of #ownvoices books also means that there are more fantasy novels written by authors of colour, with a focus on characters of colour.
Recently, when a new fantasy series Shadow And Bone (adapted from author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse trilogy) hit Netflix, I was so excited to see the bi-racial lead actress, Jessie Li Mei, on the posters and in the trailer. It was thrilling to see a main character who looked at least a little bit like me go on grand adventures. On screen, not only did Jessie exist – the character of Alina Starkov was unapologetically human, complex, made mistakes, and was so much more relatable to me than the ethereal Arwen from Lord Of The Rings.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the screen adaptation of Shadow and Bone was deliberate in its choice of casting a biracial actress precisely because Alina was always an outsider in the books. I can understand the rationale behind this casting choice, but it still sits uncomfortably with me because my hope is for fantasy to transcend current day racism, instead of perpetuating it on screen - especially when anti-Asian sentiment in today’s world is very real.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the screen adaptation of Shadow and Bone was deliberate in its choice of casting a biracial actress precisely because Alina was always an outsider in the books.
Screen adaptations can be seamless at best, and awful at worst. When writers involved in screen adaptations aren’t from the culture, then it’s important to start by acknowledging the biases we all carry. It’s so important for me, as a fantasy writer, to question and challenge my own internalised biases about race, religion and culture before I write my own race, religion and culture, let alone anyone else’s. I don’t want to perpetuate the status quo that already harms me, and others like me.
Author N.K. Jemisin, whose Hugo-award winning Broken Earth series is currently being adapted for TV, captures this sentiment in an interview. “As a black woman,” Jemisin says, “I have no particular interest in maintaining the status quo. Why would I? The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change.” True to her words, Jesmin’s book trilogy is populated by complex people of colour who actively turn the power structures upside down.
One of the most exciting things about reading and writing fantasy is having the power to re-create the world – to dream it to be something different. I want to keep writing, reading and watching fantasy that breaks free from the systemic and endemic racism soaked into the very foundation of our everyday lives. I want black and brown children to see relatable stories of growth, love, loss and triumph centred on the screen, not just of fear and oppression.
I want black and brown children to see relatable stories of growth, love, loss and triumph centred on the screen, not just of fear and oppression.
We – readers of colour - are the majority, and yet, the bulk of power in storytelling does not belong to us. Shadow and Bone is a step in the right direction. I hope to see something better in the future — a world more like Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, where characters of colour actively upend the status quo. Most of all, I hope to see more screen adaptations of books written by authors of colour, about people of colour, starring even more actors of colour.
As for me, I have long abandoned writing in white speak and have written a fantasy novel about a 16-year-old Malay Muslim girl and her supernatural adventures, all with the love and support of her family and faith. I hope to see it in bookstores and libraries one day. Til that day comes, I’ll keep writing, telling my children stories of where they came from, and model for them what it’s like to thrive.
Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.