A few years ago, I shared parts of my SF saga (glimpsed in Planetfall) with several dozen readers in a closed list. Their first view of the Koredháni, the major culture in the story, was the formidable Meráni Yehán:
My tehéyn’s people are lean, sharp-featured, great-eyed. Intricate jewelry circles their arms, adorns their long manes. A spiral-shaped aghír glimmers on the breastbone of one of the adult men. Two are striplings, a girl whose breasts have just budded and a boy with the roundness of childhood still on his limbs. They range loosely behind an erect, dark woman with white hair still glinting with copper threads and eyes the color of stormy seas.
Stopping two paces in front of me, she smiles calmly and briefly inclines her head. “Ánassa Tásri-é Sóran-Kerís… Meráni kóren, tanegír adhríti Yehán.”* The night-hued voice, the voice that sailed into my mind like a sleek canoe to help me reel him back from the starry void.
*”Long Shadow Tásri-é Sóran-Kerís… I am Meráni, leader of hearth Yehán.”
Right away, one reader asked: “How do you ‘see’ Meráni and her husbands?” (Yes, women lead all the households, many are polyandrous, and the co-husbands consider themselves brothers; they also have nanobiotech, star drives and both gene and planetary engineering – and have used their technology to leave practically no footprint on their adopted planet).
I replied, “Except for the seafoam eyes, she looks like Entity (Tina Turner) in Beyond Thunderdome. Her four husbands look like a Celt, a Native American, an Arab and an African. And Ánassa looks like Lao Ma (Jacqueline Kim) in The Debt.” This was so with no deliberation on my part. That’s how they looked to me from the moment I conceived them.
There was dead silence on the list for a day or so. Then I got an avalanche of private e-mails, with photos attached. Without exception, the e-mails told how they felt that the story had become truly theirs. Unbeknownst to me, and not easily discernible from the names, half my readers were non-white.
This led to another outcome: everyone stopped assuming that the characters in my story were white (in fact, none were, given the Koredháni reproductive constraints). In a tiny way, I had jogged everyone’s mindset away from instinctively following a convention. This led to an unexpected gift that has never ceased to amaze and delight me. After the photos, I also got a flood of illustrations to my saga from two readers who are artists. Their depictions were so true to my characters that I can no longer see them in any other way – and if the saga ever sees the light of day, I will try to include them in the manuscript.
I was born and raised in a country that was racially and culturally homogeneous, but had always been a migratory passage as well as the nexus of two multicultural empires – Alexandrian and Byzantine. My history courses were peopled by Persians, Egyptians, Nubians, Gauls, Huns. When I came to the US at 18, I marveled at the human colors, shapes and accents, and the individual and collective backstories that came with them. And when I started writing fiction, my characters came in all hues without any conscious effort on my part. How could it be otherwise, with the swirling kaleidoscope inside and around me?
Yet even today, the default assumption of SF/F denizens continues to be that everyone is bleach-white unless explicitly specified otherwise. This is not confined to Anglosaxon cubicleers who write faux-Victorian steampunk. The Japanese give saucer-round eyes to most of their manga characters (these, along with the breathless falsetto voices, are very disquieting on female characters with exaggerated secondary gender attributes). Manoj Nelliyattu (aka Night) Shyamalan, a Tamil who must have more than a drop of Dravidian in him, cast bleached actors in all the main roles for his disastrous Last Airbender.
I still remember starting a story by Arthur C. Clarke that postulated a long-generation starship in which the social structure was identical to fifties middle-class suburbia. Having read his “bouncing breasts of female astronauts distract men in zero-G” screed I already thought him blinkered, but this clinched it. I put the story down unfinished and never read anything by him again. How is it possible for self-defined visionaries to continue showing societies inhabited by people of a single hue in nuclear patriarchal families? Only if you build a mind cage and put yourself willingly in it can you continue extrapolating in this impoverished, impoverishing mode.
Readers want to find themselves in stories. They want protagonists who look like them, who carry at least a bit of their particular culture and history. And when enough unbleached people appear in a genre, they stop being sidekicks or tokens and become the unique, memorable persons they have the capacity to be: Ursula Le Guin’s copper-skinned, hawk-featured Ged and her Inuit-like Gethenian hero/ine Therem Harth rem ir Estraven; Poul Anderson’s half-Dutch, half-Javanese Nicholas van Rijn; Alma Alexander’s sworn women friends in alternative China; Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec priest Acatl; Xena’s rainbow of lovers; the Scorpion King and his almond-eyed sorceress partner (which put Dwayne Johnson on the snacho list).
There’s an object lesson in my experience with my readers. We don’t have to accept every culture and cultural custom as equally valid for ourselves individually. Personally, I would not be happy in any fundamentalist and/or coercive world and would be unlikely to read with pleasure a story that depicted such a culture positively (cautionary tales are a different category). But we cannot become citizens of the universe if we do not first become citizens of the world: if we do not allow ourselves to register the dizzying richness and variety that surrounds us – and use this knowledge, carefully but fearlessly, to create genuinely new worlds worthy of remembrance.
Images: Tina Turner as Entity in Beyond Thunderdome;
Ged, Wizard of Earthsea by Laurie Prindle;
Meráni, tanegír Yehán, by Heather D. Oliver.