There are a lot of paranormal romances and urban fantasies on the market, and certain mythological creatures–vampires and werewolves, for example–tend to be used a lot. For that reason, I can understand why writers look a little farther for inspiration, and hunt for mythologies that haven’t been used as much in the romance genre.
However, often, to me, the borrowing feels like stealing. I’m particularly thinking of occasions when an author uses mythology or folktales from, say, Central America or China or India or Africa, and uses that research in tandem with characters who are all white. Why should, say, shapechanging jaguars change into white men, when jaguars are native to the Americas and white people are not? Wouldn’t the jaguars change into Native Americans, or mixed-race people who are part Native American? If not, why not? If it’s presented to the reader with no explanation, has the writer thought through the implications of choosing to make a jaguar shapechanger white? How will readers respond to the choice, consciously or perhaps more importantly, unconsciously? What is the meaning of that choice for the excluded people? And if non-white people are not present as the hero or heroine, are they included in the story in other roles? Are they characterized with the same depth as the white characters?
It’s not as if it’s forbidden to have a non-white hero or heroine. In fact, the urban fantasy I’ve read (I have by no means read it all) is more racially diverse than straightforward romance. (Some of this might be due to self-selection.) Paranormal romance is a little less diverse than urban fantasy, based on my extremely unscientific sampling, but still it’s rare to find either a hero or heroine who is non-white.
White were-jaguars bother me because it feels as if the non-white people don’t exist, and worse, as if they’ve been deliberately excluded. Excised. Edited out. Sometimes the non-white characters are there, but in a subservient role, and that, too, is disturbing in the way it mirrors real-world racial and class issues without attempting to subvert or confront or even mention them.
It feels to me, true or not, that this exclusion and suppression has been done for the author’s comfort and convenience, as if they don’t want to bother researching the mythology in depth, and don’t want to learn about the other culture; the author may not have “intended” to do so, but by not thinking about the issue, the result is exactly the same. I’m left with the impression that an author has absconded with the “cool parts” and used them however they liked, at the same time giving their hero or heroine an “exotic” cachet which they have not earned and which they might even be exhibiting in an insulting manner. I can only imagine this feeling is much worse if you see your own culture being taken.
There are examples that I find hopeful. I love that in Marjorie Liu’s Dirk and Steele series, the shapechanging cheetah from my favorite of her books, Shadow Touch is African, and gets his own story told in The Last Twilight. An African man can change into an African animal, and he is one of the main characters with an active role in the story. It seems logical, but how often does that happen in paranormal romance novels? Nalini Singh and Eileen Wilks are also among those writers who have included non-white characters.
As a side note, how often do writers treat other cultures as if they are dead and in the past, when they are not? I don’t think anyone today worships the Ancient Egyptian gods, but plenty of Egyptians are still around. The descendants of Aztecs and Mayans and Incans live everywhere, even though their empires are fallen. Native Americans have living cultures. They aren’t figures in historical dioramas, to be played with like dolls. They are people.
I’m grossly oversimplifying many issues here. There’s no way to reduce cultural appropriation, cultural imperialism, and racism down to one blog post. I still think it’s important to think and speak about these issues, in genre and otherwise. Writers, I think, have a responsibility to think about the implications of their writing, and how their writing about these issues will come across to readers.
My voice, though, isn’t the important one here. Here is some further reading that I found helpful.
Here are two essays by author Vandana Singh, Some Thoughts on Writing (Or Not Writing) The Other and As Others See Us.
Shame by Pam Noles.
Describing Characters of Color in Writing by N.K. Jemisin.
Race and Science Fiction at Ramblings of An African Geek.
A humorous article on How To Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina.
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.