Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.

A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?

This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.

I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.

Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.

Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.

The Gambler’s Fortune – Livak’s back on the road with old friends and new enemies.

By the end of The Swordsman’s Oath, it was apparent that now the initial mystery of those eerie artefacts had been solved, people were going to want to know a lot more about the ancient magic, Artifice, which had created them. People meaning both readers and the characters in this unfolding narrative; the Archmage and the Tormalin nobility in particular. Livak certainly wouldn’t pass up the chance for whatever profit was to be made doing this. Ryshad on the other hand, would surely be recalled to serve his sworn master’s interests. Was there a way they could do both together? Or would it be more interesting to have them go their separate ways, not least to discover whether the lure of their former lives would be stronger than their attraction to each other? I decided that would be much more interesting, for the readers and for me as a writer.

So where would Livak find some ancient lore that learned wizards and scholars in a mighty prince’s pay would overlook? One thing that’s long interested me is the way odd fragments of knowledge are carried down through the generations in oral traditions, from Homer to English folk songs. Since I’d already mentioned Livak’s father was a travelling minstrel, that was a plausible thing for her to notice – while mages and Tormalin archivists would doubtless dismiss the idea as readily as former generations of Oxford dons. Furthermore, this would give me an opportunity to look more closely at the Forest Folk, to challenge some unrealistic conventions of epic fantasy about merry life in the greenwood, and to explore Livak’s relationship with her father’s people. Would she be accepted if she found them, or was she going to be caught between the two sides of her heritage, neither one nor the other?

Would she set out on this quest alone? Hardly. While Livak is determinedly independent, she has never been a loner, relying on a network of friends and allies across Einarinn. So who would she call on now that Halice isn’t at her side? The obvious choice was Sorgrad and his brother Sorgren (commonly called ‘Gren to avoid confusion and a lifelong lesson to authors not to give characters inconveniently similar names in a throwaway line in a debut novel). For one thing, as Mountain Men themselves, they would be the ideal people to introduce her to the upland culture. For another, exploring why the two of them had left their homeland behind would add another level to this story.

They’re also interesting characters in themselves, and yes, like Livak herself, Sorgrad and ‘Gren had been adventuring in our D&D group long before The Thief’s Gamble was written. My husband Steve played them both with a cheerful amorality which I’m thankful to say he keeps strictly for the gaming table. He and I had a good many long conversations about adapting those characters into the far more complex personalities required for a book. As we did so, I realised the brothers offered me the chance to look at male heroes from a sideways perspective, in much the same way that I was reimagining female roles in epic fantasy through Livak. They are mercenaries, so let’s look at all the implications of that lifestyle. Sorgrad enjoys making money by whatever means necessary while Gren genuinely relishes the violence that goes with robbery and dishonesty. When push comes to shove, they can both be utterly ruthless. That’s not very nice, is it? So how come they’re friends with Livak? It’s because on a personal level, they are great company, loyal allies and skilled fighters. Exploring those tensions in the notion of an epic hero (and Livak’s blind spots about her friends) offered all sorts of possibilities.

So far, so good, but I still didn’t think that would take this story far enough. What more did it need? Well, conflict is the essence of drama but setting up someone to oppose Livak’s new quest directly would essentially repeat the plot of The Thief’s Gamble. Okay, what else could I pull out of the Big Bag of Writerly Inspiration? How about the tragedy of good men in opposition? That was a useful starting point but I’d just been writing from a good man’s point of view in The Swordsman’s Oath, and I already knew I’d be doing that again in The Warrior’s Bond. Besides, looking at Sorgrad and ‘Gren got me thinking about contradictory characters. How about considering an epic fantasy hero who really had feet of clay? A man leading an unquestionably noble cause whose personal character is reprehensible? Enter Jeirran, who divides opinion among my readers more sharply than any other individual in my writing…

Weaving Livak’s quest into the inherent conflict between uplanders and lowlanders with very different aspirations gave me exactly what this story needed – especially once I’d added in this new (old) magic. I’d already established how the Archmage’s authority governs elemental magic. With this story focusing on aetheric magic’s potential, now I could explore this very different power’s potential uses, the restrictions on its use and how and why someone might be tempted to abuse such enchantments… and what happens then…

Okay, that’s about as far as I can go without risking spoilers for new readers – and it’s about as much as I can recall of my thinking back in 1999 when I was actually writing this story. Now I’m eager to learn what those coming new to the tale make of it!

So head on over to Wizard’s Tower Books to buy it in your preferred format, DRM-free Purchasing for Kindle, Nook etc will come online in a few days.

GF-ecover

Here’s what I have to say on Twitter Silence Day- and look how many places I have to say it!

Here we are, on Twitter Silence Day. And that’s a significant part of the point, as far as I am concerned. Yesterday I saw a lot of opposition to this idea on the grounds that it was letting the trolls win by default, with people being silenced. Er, no, see here, this piece you’re reading, this is me being not in the least silenced. Because Twitter is by no means the only place on the Net to share opinions and enthusiasms, discuss differing points of view and generally communicate in a civilised and enjoyable fashion.

So that’s something Twitter might like to bear in mind. If enough people decide that Twitter’s particular corner of the Net is becoming a place it’s no longer fun to be, on account of the trolls, then Twitter is finished. So they might like to take some action – some more effective action than a ‘Report Abuse’ button which is itself open to all manner of abuse and in any case leads to a form for the target to fill in, for each and every vile tweet. How practical is that for an answer, when those who are targets of what increasingly seem to be co-ordinated attacks are getting threats and insults on a minute by minute basis?

What else will Twitter Silence achieve? I’ve also seen it dismissed as a ‘pointless gesture’. It’s certainly a gesture but I don’t see that it’s pointless. When you are the target of an unjustified and unpleasant online attack, no amount of other people muttering between themselves about how it’s appalling is worth anything at all to you unless those people also make some public show of professional respect and/or personal sympathy and solidarity. Otherwise the tacit statement is ‘well, since it’s actually not my problem, you’re on your own and it’s up to you to deal with it as best you can’. And yes, I am talking from personal experience here. So as far as I am concerned, joining Twitter Silence to make that statement to those who’ve been abused is very well worth doing.

But isn’t it just some ego-trip? That was another of the accusations being levelled at people when I signed out of Twitter last night. Oh, right, you think that you’re so important people’s lives will be empty if they can’t read about what you had for breakfast? Er, once again, no. There are certainly some people whose absence will be noted and noteworthy – and I was very heartened to see the likes of Val McDermid, Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Balding, to mention only a few, signing off around the same time as me last night. People with that level of public profile making a stand does send a message.

For the rest of us, this is about collective action and that’s what makes Twitter Silence not in the least about individuals being silenced or the trolls winning or anything of the kind. Collective action works in ways that individuals trying to fight back on their own does not. Ask Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Look at the effectiveness of shunning in pacifist communities. One person making a stand by staying away from Twitter as a means of saying online misogyny is not acceptable can easily be ignored. Hundreds, hopefully thousands, ideally hundreds of thousands are much less easy to dismiss.

Maybe that will encourage people to be bolder in shutting down trolls online and demanding properly moderated websites rather than simply muttering about how it’s appalling but hey, what can you do? Maybe it will give someone pause for thought before they launch into posting about how something or someone is WRONG and being sucked into the online equivalent of shouting the same thing over and over again because they’ve come to believe the way to WIN at THE INTERNET is having everyone saying they are RIGHT. The road to trolldom is paved with such knee-jerk reactions.

And lastly, no, this isn’t about blaming Twitter alone for all the online misogyny there is out there. It’s about using Twitter to make a stand against online abuse, whatever its target, wherever it can be found. Because Twitter is supposed to be about communication, isn’t it?