Does she have to be black?

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I’d been criticised for making the main character in the Magic or Madness trilogy black when the story isn’t about her being black. I said I’d write more about it and then didn’t. Mostly because there are so many disturbing assumptions in that criticism that it makes my head explode. And also because I was secretly hoping someone else would post about it.

Well, yay! Tempest did:

Why, they ask, does the character have to be non-white if the story isn’t about being non-white? Because, I say, every story of my life isn’t about my non-whiteness. Sometimes it’s about my ability to let go of a crush, or figure out what raptor birds are doing on my fire escape at night, or what I plan to do with my life after college, or why I love the view from on top of a mountain yet fear the way up. If that’s true for me, it’s true of other non-whites, too.

And, you know, there are lots of non-white people in this world. It’s all right to have a few stories where they just exist, okay?

Specifying race helps to fill a character in, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the filler is standard and clichéd. When the reader first reads that Brenna is of a specific ancestry rather than a general, unspecified one, it makes her more real. Same with Reason. That’s what it adds to the story.

Many white writers are nervous about writing characters who aren’t white and seem to think that if they do so there must be a reason for it. They fear being criticised for writing people who have a different skin colour to them, they fear getting it wrong. On the other hand they worry about being criticised for having no non-white characters. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

To which I say, well, der. Of course, you’re going to be criticised. If you write and people read the words you have written some of them will not like those words. Doesn’t matter if you’re posting on your blog, writing an email, or publishing a novel.

My trilogy has been criticised for being too Australian and for being not Australian enough, for getting the American characters completely wrong, for getting Sydney and New York City wrong, and for many other things. That’s what happens when stuff you write is out there where people who don’t know or care about you can read it.

If you’re not going to write something because you’re afraid of criticism why bother writing at all?

As for why Reason has to be black: It’s because she is black, okay?

Also, Tempest, you have raptor birds on your fire escape at night? Really? That is so cool.


  1. Coreyjf on #

    Disturbing on so many levels. Too much hate and ignorance, prejudices and prejudgments. I love you response BTW “As for why Reason has to be black: It’s because she is black, okay?” Although I would have used an ! and maybe a few expletives. I like Reason just the way she is.

  2. hillary! on #

    Before I came on this blog I always thought that Reason looked Hispanic. Then everyone kept calling her black. I was so beyond confusion I began calling my mammi blak. I knew she, Reason, had Spanish blood, but she in essence was an Aborigine. Then I read your article that said in every country there is different meaning for the racial term of ‘black’. I thought it fawesome! There really isn’t a racial boundry! EVERYBODY has a different idea about race. Which makes me happy.
    By the way, I always thought it made sense that Reason was black, I never questioned it, I questioned why Tom had to be white though. I don’t know why though…

  3. Elodie on #

    I cam here to say, I so did not know Reason was black?? And then I saw Hillary’s comment, so I understand… but I must say she’s always had a mexican/hispanic look to me, not black at all. But I guess the point here is that even though she wasn’t black to me, it made no difference to the story–her race wasn’t who she was. Actually, SO MANY authors only mention race when the story is going to be about race that I usually put back books that mention race on the dustcover summary. (I don’t really love the “my story about being black/mexican/chinese/etc!” books)

  4. hillary! on #

    One of my favorite books never mentions the race of the main character, but his father is Anansi, so I assumed that he was black, USian definition> I love that it is never mentioned. I just assumed, and I may have made ass of myself, but I assumed Reason was Hispanic do to her surname, and then I never though about. I agree with Elodie. Books that are about being black/hispanic/chinese/etc. just drive me insane. Especiallt the romance ones, the “I’m Asian, he’s black! Our Family doesn’t accept us! Oh woe is us!” WHO CARES! If you really loved eacg other race wouldn’t gat in the way. I know, my father was white and my mammi is fron El Salvador. He was a racist, her family hated his white-trashy-ness. They still got married!

  5. Justine on #

    Actually Reason isn’t Hispanic. That category doesn’t exist in Australia because there are almost no migrants from Latin America. Before Reason heard Jay-Tee use the word she had never heard of “hispanic”.

    Sarafina and Esmeralda have Spanish ancestry but neither of them speak Spanish. The last one in the family to do so was several generations earlier. (Raul Cansino—their scary ancestor—was a Spanish speaker from Salamanca in Spain.)

    Reason’s dad is an indigenous Australian which means that Reason is too. And in Australia the indigenous population is frequently referred to as black. In Australia Reason is considered black.

  6. The Bibliophile on #

    An equally valid response would be, for so many other books out there, why is the main character in XXXXX white when the story isn’t about him/her being white?

  7. Justine on #

    The Bibliophile: Exactly!

    That’s why it was lovely when Hillary! above asked why Tom is white. No one has asked me that before. Bless you, Hillary! (Though my answer’s the same as why Reason is black.)

  8. hillary! on #

    I figured as much, but I still wanted to know. You might have just wanted diversity. By the way, the reason why I thought Reason (no pun intended) was of Hispanic descent was beacuse of Cansino. I figured she was just a descendant, especially after her paternity is explained.

  9. Justine on #

    I do realise that it’s a bit of a cop out answer that my characters are black or white because they’re black or white. Obviously, at some point I made a decision about each character’s race and gender and nationality etc. etc. It’s just that I honestly don’t remember doing so. I started writing and that’s how they came out.

    I’ve been thinking about what you and Elodie were saying above about finding books about being black or Hispanic or Chinese or whatever boring. And I was wondering which books had turned you off? Which books did you try? I’ve certainly read some that were fairly dire but I’ve read lots of good ones too.

    Books that try to teach lessons are often very tedious, but that doesn’t mean that all books with non-white characters who are dealing with some of the consequences of being non-white are trying to be all preachy. Have you read Tyrell by Coe Booth for instance? It’s totally awesome and honest and uses the language that her characters use (which is hilarious because I know Coe and she does not swear at all—she doesn’t even say “damn”). It’s one of my fave books of the last few years and it’s definitely about race and class as well as about figuring out who you are and love and sex and many other things. I totally recommend it.

  10. hillary! on #

    I take back what I said. I don’t always steer away from books about dealing with race. I love Alice Walker’s books. I absolutely love her! I don’t care what anyone has to say, she is FANTABULOUS! I also love Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Although the book is more, in my opinion, about letting go and moving on.
    The books I don’t like are the ones that try to remake a certain love story about two forbidden lovers by a certain VERY famous English poet/playwrite. I also very much enjoy Amy Tan’s work.
    And I like The Watson’s Go To Birmingham.
    So I was wrong, in a way.

  11. hillary! on #

    I’ll see if any of my libraries have Tyrell, it sounds good, so they might have it. But then again, They STILL don’t have Magic’s Child. Which makes me angry inside.

  12. carol cooper on #

    Hello all! Interesting thread about whether “race” should be a subject or merely an object in contemporary storytelling. Not sure the geopolitical situation of today’s shrinking world has evolved enough yet that using a character’s race as the narrative focus of a work of fiction is useless…and yet I agree that the way race is *introduced* in most works of fiction could be vastly improved. for one thing, writers/readers might examine whether “race” really differs from “culture.”

  13. ariel cooke on #

    i’m glad reason is black. it allowed me a deeper view of the aboriginals in the outback and of australian society. but i do think tom had to be white. he’s so white, he reminds me of skim milk!

    generally i don’t think there are enough people of color in sf/fantasy. a few months ago the people on the child_lit listserve at rutgers assembled a list of sf/fantasy books with non-white heroes & heroines. (of course i nominated the magic or madness trilogy.) if anyone is interested, i could dig up the list.

  14. janet on #

    To me, Reason’s race seems significant in that it tells you something about the kind of life Sarafina was living after she ran away — and her ability to move in and out of communities without ever becoming part of them. The conversation at the beginning of the second book suggests that Sarafina’s pregnancy occurred in much the same way that Reason’s did later.

  15. Justine on #

    Carol: Hey! Welcome. We must catch up.

    for one thing, writers/readers might examine whether “race” really differs from “culture.”

    Yup. And another set of curly ones that is. It’s like how—as we all know—“white” and “black” mean totally different things depending on where and when they’re being used.

    Ariel: That would be great.

    Janet: Absolutely. That’s part of why I’m so astounded every time I’m asked that question.

  16. Diana on #

    I think that reason’s race is dealt with in the book, especially in the way it colors her upbringing. Like in the second book (I think?) where she and her mother are hiding out on a reservation and I got the impression that part of the reason they were welcomed was b/c reason had been recognizably of aborigine descent. And I think it definitely colored the way reason’s magic was so rooted in nature, compared to the more metropolitan magic of jay-tee or tom.

    I bet there’s a lot of leGuin on that list, Ariel! She was always my go-to gal when it came to non-white fantasy characters. I think a lot of that can be traced back to what Scott said on insideadog about how many fantasy novels are derived from European legends. I also really liked how the characters in Speaker for the Dead were all of Brazilian descent, so were also black and speaking Portuguese, for good measure!

  17. carol cooper on #

    Hey Justine: sure…backchannel me whenever, and meanwhile congrats on all recent happenings!

    Diana: you are so right about *Speaker for the dead* I suspect Card did his missionary work as a mormon in a Brazilian favela or workingclass suburb, which is why he gets the sound, syntax and attitude of his afrobrazilian settlers so note-perfect. The mormons enter foreign countries much like the Jesuits used to—taking the time to learn and understand the local language and customs so that they can argue theology and conversion rhetoric with intelligence and sympathetic authority.

  18. carol cooper on #

    Ariel: I’d love to take a look at that list myself…..

  19. Justine on #

    Diana: I’m not saying that the race (or cultural identity or whatever you want to call it) of Reason or Tom or anyone else in the trilogy isn’t important. As you say, obviously it is. It’s just that the people who’re asking the question found it strange that I would have an indigeneous character and yet not have the book be about that. I.e. that be the main focus which as we’ve all been saying is a bizarre and annoying question from many angles.

    I’m fascianted that you see Reason’s magic as more rural than Jay-Tee or Tom. I definitely wasn’t thinking about it that way at all.

    And, yeah, that’s one of the many many many reasons I love Le Guin’s work so much!

  20. alternatefish on #

    Thank you for doing this post and discussing this topic in general. I’m a young (unpublished) writer, and the main character in my WIP is black. I’ve been conflicted about how much of a deal that needs to be; I don’t want it to be, and people have suggested I “un-black” her, but…she just is black. she is.

    so anyway–thanks. you’re helping me validate my opinions 🙂

  21. Diana on #

    Well, I’m just saying it’s not a costume, that’s all.

    And yeah, more rural. She’s always talking about nature and her magic is so rooted in that fossil, etc., whereas with Jay-tee it’s in a stereo — yes, the music could be a digeridoo, surely, but that’s not what jay-tee knows.

  22. Tempest on #

    I did wake up one morning to three ravens standing on the fire escape looking at me. It was like they were saying “hurry up and revise, we don’t want to wait forever!” Weird, but cool.

Comments are closed.