I’m writing this partly because I was inspired by this post at SF Signal, in which Zack Jernigan conducts the first part of a round-table interview focused on writing about race in science fiction and fantasy (SFF). I’ve also been asked about race and racial issues in my writing by some readers and thought I could shed some light on my perspective.
Unlike Zack, I don’t have a varied and accomplished panel of interviewees to make excellent points, so I’m attempting to do this myself. I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class American. I don’t have personal experience of being the outsider for racial reasons. I grew up in the Southeastern U.S., so I’m aware of all the history and baggage that can intrude into a discussion of racial issues, but I have rarely seen it openly and obviously displayed.
When I wrote The King’s Sword, I wasn’t setting out to make any kind of statement about race. In fact, I was actually intending to write Hakan’s story, a simple coming of age story from the perspective of the young man’s mentor. Instead, what unfolded was Kemen’s story, the story of a man who felt out of place in his own country, yet who loved and respected it. Initially, Kemen’s minority status was only one of many reasons why Hakan was cautious around him at first. I knew the history of Erdem (their country) and why Dari and Tuyets were cautious around each other. Dari and Tuyet history and cultures were not meant to be an analogue for black and white race relations in the U.S. – race was only one of several fractures dividing people in this world of my invention. Slavery was never a major factor in Erdemen history, and when it occurred it was unrelated to race.
However, awareness of race and the divisions it can cause was an unavoidable fact of living in Kemen’s skin. He’s not a perfect narrator, and although he’s honest and self-aware, he’s also human. He makes mistakes, he makes assumptions, and he’s sensitive about feeling like an outsider.
The fantasy setting allowed me to write without having to worry about my ability or right to write authentically about a specific real-world racial group. One of the things that I think worked especially well about writing Kemen’s story in first person is that you meet him as an individual, rather than a representative of a race. Everyone is different; everyone has different experiences that shape who they are. Part of what makes us compassionate people is caring about others as individuals, valuing them for their uniqueness rather than assuming that a group label, experience, or judgment defines them. That ability and responsibility to see others as individuals, rather than a label, is also what can help us write about race, or incorporate race as one of many threads in a story.
Kemen isn’t meant to be the “noble savage” or any other caricature or stereotype; he’s just a man, who is affected by but not defined by his race and the experiences he’s had as a result of his skin color and the world in which he lives. He’s acutely conscious of being different, but he’s not sure how much of that feeling is a result of his skin color vs. his personality, his combat experiences, and the simple fact that sometimes everyone feels like an outsider, for reasons that aren’t always easy to identify.
If there’s a message in Kemen’s story, it’s that people are individuals. We are shaped by our experiences, but we’re defined by our choices.