Sisters of the Spear is an anthology of “seventeen original and exciting” fantasy tales featuring heroines of color, set in realms of magic, monsters and myth outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yes Virginia, there is life–and fantastic stories to be told–beyond Westeros.
“Ayen and Bull”- art by Jason Reeves. Story by “moi”
As a PoC growing up, I often struggled to find myself within the genre’s tomes. For the most part, I made it in as some antisocial Haradrim driving my Mumakil at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, (“out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.”) Or perhaps I was the only decent “ebon-skinned” darkelf in the Underdark (one of the good ones). That was pretty much my choices. Either I was some “othered” being that would make Edward Said side-eye (*cough* Orientalism), or I did not exist at all.
Over the years, demands for more meaningful diversity in our fantasy realms have grown increasingly louder–a clarion call that echoes from the mundane world to haunt our usual lands of elves, dragons, orcs and what-not. When local New Zealanders were told they were “too dark to be a Hobbit” (no one’s ever too dark to be an Orc i it seems) it caused a stir, highlighting the at times “unbearable whiteness” of the heroes of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Both Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Frozen were criticized for their similar ode to all things vanilla, without even attempting a hint at color.
The issue was once more thrown into view as the diversity kerfufle hit George RR Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been adapted as the mega-hit HBO Game of Thrones. On GRRM’s blog, a commenter who described herself as “an african-american female” and “a devoted fan of GOT,” noted that “the lack of diversity in both the show and books” had become “troubling.” While there were a few PoC sprinkled here and there, she noticed none of them held prominent roles. “Must all black people in the series be servants, guards, or charlatans?” she asks, her frustration obvious. Even before this, a commenter described as an “Asian fan” wanted to know why there were no Asians in GRRM’s world? It “would be awesome,” the fan said, “to meet a character who would inspire Asians as much as Daenerys or John Snow.”
Known for his interaction with his fan base, GRRM actually gave responses to both queries–though they left more frustration than resolution. In one reply he began with what appeared to be a history lesson: “Westeros around 300 AC is nowhere near as diverse as 21st century America, of course….” In another he seems to give a geography lesson: “Well, Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.”
Of course, I’ve been hearing these same excuses Martin trotted out since I was a kid. Of course there are no black people in my land of ladies, horse lords and knights–because there were no black people there. Only there are two really convenient replies. (1) Well there were no dragons, hobbits or elves either. You made that sh*t up. That’s what fantasy is you know–sh*t we make up. So if you can toss in a talking dragon, you can toss in a PoC. Easy-peasy. And (2), what has become an increasingly stronger reply: “you don’t know history or geography as well as you think you do.” Turns out, none of these Euro-spaces in our reality were ever lily-white. The fantastic site People of Color in European Art History (medievalpoc) has been destroying this hallowed myth one painting and statue at a time. Oh, and George, that African noblewoman found in Roman era York might just beg to differ on just who was and was not in that space. IJS.
But this blog isn’t really about GRRM or the whiteness of mainstream fantasy. To be clear, I think these are important discussions to have. I wholly support the calls for greater inclusion and diversity in fantasy from EVERYONE–and believe scrutiny should be placed on the more popular fantasy books and films that are becoming commonplace in our media. Nobody gets off the hook…George.
At the same time however, it’s important to remember that lands of fantasy exist beyond Westeros. Beyond Middle Earth, or the usual Eurocentric fantasy worlds that fill our bookshelves, there are other imagined realms by artists, authors and other creators–just waiting to be explored.
One of these appeared earlier this year and goes by the name Griots: Sisters of the Spear. The book is an anthology of fantasy edited by indie author Milton J. Davis and the legendary Charles R. Saunders. Where it breaks from the traditional fare however, is that the heroes are first of all actually all heroines and WoC–black women to be exact. It is the latest addition to a genre of fantasy pioneered by Charles Saunders in the 1970s, with his breakthrough Imaro stories–which follow the adventures of a hero out of African legend in the mythical fantasy land of Nyumbani. Saunders, who had also grown up reading fantasy, says he created the stories to fill the void in the usual all-white genre. He would dub this alternative style, Sword & Soul:
Fantasy fiction with an African connection in either the characters or the setting…or both. The setting can be the historical Africa of the world we know, or the Africa of an alternate world, dimension or universe. But that’s not a restriction, because a sword-and-soul story can feature a black character in a non-black setting, or a non-black character in a black setting. Caveat: Tarzan of the Apes need not apply.
Sisters of the Spear does exactly that, featuring seventeen tales by diverse authors of fantasy (some established, some new) with all the heroic deeds, myth, monsters and magic for which a more diverse audience has been clamoring. Included in its pages is a story by Charles Saunders himself, a tale of his recurring warrior heroine Dossouye. Alongside this are stories of women battling succubus-spirits and were-rhinos, women who sail alongside pirates and become embroiled in political intrigue, women who sing magic and travel to islands of winged-men, and so much more.
Kpendu- art by Stanley Weaver- a Dossouye tale
And it’s got me.
Yep, in a shameless self plug, I’m included among the writers in this groundbreaking anthology, a tale called Ghost Marriage. What’s it about? I’ll let Fletcher Vredenburgh’s review over at Black Gate give you a peek:
Ayen is a young widow who is haunted by the destructive spirit of her husband. She has ventured deep into the wasteland in search of a wise-woman who can sever her dead spouse’s hold on her. Clark…has written a powerful story of sorrow, remorse, and giant world-shattering monsters.
Piqued your interest? Intrigued? Of course you are! There are black women in here doing awesome fantastic things and being fantastically awesome while doing it! You want to read this anthology! You have to read this anthology! This is what we’ve all been asking for isn’t it?
Strong Complex women characters? Settings outside of Europe? Enough with the elves and dwarves already? DiversityinSFF? Well here it is. Specially made just for you. ALL of you. ALL of us. Because while I enjoy stories of Daenerys, White Walkers and Red Weddings as much as the next fantasy geek, we ALL need to move BEYOND WESTEROS.
Get Griots on Amazon in ebook ($4.99) and paperback ($20) formats. You can also get it in paperback directly from the publisher, Milton Davis.
thanks for the plug and thanks for the story. Milton D. and Charles S and the authors in both Griots collection are doing tremendous work to enliven/revivify a genre in need of both those things.
thanks so much for the review!
That does sound good. Got to check if my bookstore can order it for me. Damn, that list of books to read is getting longer by the minute…
that’s a good thing! 🙂
As a white male Australian who grew up with a lot of friends from Africa I was often asked by them why there didn’t seem to be any black people in the fantasy stories I loved as a kid. I usually gave the feeble excuse that the predominantly white writers were just too unfamiliar with black culture. As I got older I realized that mostly they were too lazy to do any research or to look beyond the Eurocentric world view that most white people buy into and never question. Lately I’ve noticed that some white fantasy authors are including more dark-skinned main characters, so maybe things are changing. The picture of your character Ayen (which looks awesome by the way) reminded me straight away of South Sudanese cultures which is a pretty fascinating source for a fantasy story (we have a lot of Dinka refugees living in Australia now). Anyway I just wanted to say that I think that the more diverse fantasy becomes the better it will be and I really admire what you are doing. Also my sister has often observed in the past that female characters in fantasy are portrayed in boring or non-important ways, so I guess you get even more points for pushing boundaries in that direction too. Respect to all of you for being willing to do something different from most of the other fantasy writers out there.
Thanks for the comments! Much appreciated. You picked up quite well on the South Sudanese (Dinka) inspiration for the image “Ayen and Bull.” Didn’t realize there was a significant Dinka population in Australia; likely emigrated due to the upheavals in South Sudan in the past few decades. Interesting! Hope you get a chance to check out the book. Because fantasy can be based anywhere!
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“Ayen and Bull” is a powerful piece of art, I love it 🙂 Thought-provoking article. I know next to nothing of African cultures and stories. While I do understand the “whiteness” of Tolkien masterpieces and GOT, I agree that it would be more interesting (and easily possible) to have other cultures and colors incorporated. I’m intrigued by the concept of fantasy fiction in an African setting 🙂