LaShawn Wanak

The Danger of the False Narrative – LaShawn Wanak

Welcome to the second round of guest posts about representation in SFF.

One of the common refrains in these conversations is, “If you want to see people like you in stories, why don’t you just write them yourself?” There are a number of problems with that statement, one of which author LaShawn Wanak talks about here. How do you create those stories when you’ve grown up being told people like you don’t belong in them?

Stories are powerful. Sometimes we don’t even realize how they’ve shaped our thinking…


Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve known I was a writer. My earliest memories were making up stories about my sisters and cousins. I told of secret tunnels under our neighborhood that took us to crystal-laden caverns. Or our dogs sprouting wings and bearing us off to a land where all animals could talk and fly.

When I was twelve, my grandmother got me a typewriter, and I began to write my stories. By then, I was trying to imitate all the books I read: Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Katherine Kurtz, Stephen R. Donaldson, and of course C. S. Lewis. I stopped making up stories of my sisters and cousins, and added my own original characters.

Every single one was white.

It never entered my mind that black people like myself could exist in fantasy novels.

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Back then, I thought blacks didn’t do epic fantasy. I only saw them confined to dramas dealing with drugs, gangs, prostitution, crime, slavery, segregation, or something dealing with race. If there were black people outside those genres, it was science fiction, like Octavia Butler or Samuel Delany (both of which I did not know about until I entered college). But epic fantasy? No such thing. The closest thing to it would be “magic realism” or stories involving voodoo, because that’s the only way blacks interacted with magic. No elves. No dragons. No swords or sorcery.

Heck, I myself was an anomaly. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was picked on by kids around me because I loved to read epic fantasy. Shonnie’s reading the weird books again. Why you reading that junk? It’s just make believe.

I didn’t know any other black kids who loved fantasy as much as I did, so I resigned myself to thinking that I was just that: a weirdo. I never questioned it.

It was a narrative I grew up with most of my life.

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The Innkeeper's SongThis all changed when I came across Peter S. Beagle’s “The InnKeeper’s Song.” On the cover were three women: a pale woman, a tan woman…and a black woman. With hair. Like mine. I don’t think I even read the book right away. I just stared at the cover for a long time because look there’s a black woman on the cover of a fantasy novel.

When I finally I opened the book, I learned her name was Lal. She wasn’t a slave or a hooker. She didn’t have man troubles or drug problems. She was simply searching for her wizard teacher so she could save him, and the world, from destruction.

That book blew my mind. But it didn’t change it.

Not yet.

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In college, I started writing an epic fantasy novel that had magic, prophesy, political intrigue–and one black female assassin. Although she was a main character, she was seen mostly through the eyes of the main white male character.

Then, I stumbled onto the LiveJournal community, right around the time of RaceFail, and found myself reading NK Jemisen’s essay, “We Worry About it Too“. Here was another black fantasy writer, telling of her struggles of writing people of color in fantasy, and how some things she got right, but others had fallen back on stereotypes that even she didn’t realize was there.

It challenged me enough to look at my unfinished novel and think, what if I told this story from the point of view of the black assassin?

Instantly, I became scared.

Because to write fantasy from a black perspective, I’d have to ignore the narrative that dictated to me for so long that black people don’t read epic fantasy. Black people don’t belong in epic fantasy. They can’t be in fantasy lands riding horses with swords and having adventures. They need to stay in cities and deal with gangs and drugs.

But this is a false narrative.

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A few weeks ago I had the unfortunate pleasure of hearing a pastor say something problematic about black women. I was hurt and, of course, outraged. Didn’t he think before he said it? How could he say such a thing?

A few days after, I saw someone post on Facebook a tweet from a woman named “Luwanda” who wrote: “Yes u should get vaccines. And so what if that makes your kid artistic. That don’t always mean he’s gay.” Immediately I reposted it, because I thought it was so mind-blowingly ignorant and hilarious.

Then I actually looked up Luwanda’s Twitter feed. She’s a pretty savvy satirist who knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote that tweet. But I only saw the tweet (ghetto language), saw her name (ghetto name) and instantly thought she wasn’t someone to take seriously. It was a knee-jerk reaction—I’ve seen enough news stories, sitcoms, movies that portray the poor black ignorant woman that even though I know it’s a stereotype, there’s still a part of me that thinks it’s true.

And that needs to change.

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I’m not good at speeches. I don’t like debating people. I’m pretty passive aggressive when it comes to conflict. But I can write stories. Fantasy stories. Epic fantasy stories about black people. Good black people. Bad black people. Magicians. Warriors. Adventurers. People.

The only way to overcome the false narrative is to change it.

Every short story, every novel, every poem, every blog post, can be used to counteract the stereotypes that we as a black people live with daily. And it’s hard, because there are so many naysayers, both from outside and within, who say you can’t do that.

But I know it’s not true, because there’s me, and there are so many other black authors of fantasy. N. K. Jemisen. Nnedi Okorafor. Alaya Dawn Johnson. The more stories people read of us, the more the narrative changes into one that reflects truth:

that we are many, diverse, widespread and utterly,

utterly,

normal.


LaShawn M. Wanak‘s work can be found in Strange HorizonsIdeomancer, and Daily Science Fiction. She is a 2011 graduate of Viable Paradise and lives in Wisconsin with her husband and son. Writing stories keeps her sane. Also, pie.

LaShawn Wanak

Q&A with LaShawn M. Wanak

Guest post time!

Please welcome author LaShawn Wanak, one of the contributors to the What Fates Impose anthology/kickstarter, being edited by Nayad Monroe. The anthology’s subtitle is “Tales of Divination,” and I was particularly curious about LaShawn’s thoughts on divination/prophesy and how that intersects with her faith.

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1. What’s interesting to you about divination?

Growing up as a church girl, it’s been emphasized over and over to me that any type of divination was of the devil. Ouija boards, tarot cards, astrology, all of that was demonic and thus, I was to keep far away from those as possible. But I’m learning that Christianity itself has a fascinating history of divination.  King Saul visiting a fortune teller to talk to Samuel’s ghost.  Sailors caught in the storm casting lots to see who was responsible, and the lots pointed to Jonah. Jesus’s disciples cast lots to find out Judas’s replacement. I grew up in a church where people spoke in tongues and gave prophetic words. I never considered it weird. In fact, I go to a church now that doesn’t do any of those things, and I miss it. To me, it’s an important component of how God works today.

2. Have you ever had a reading (Tarot, palm, runes, or whatever)? If so, what did you think of the experience? Was it accurate, or at least useful?

A couple of years ago, I had my palm read at a Renaissance Faire. It was purely out of curiosity; I didn’t expect to learn anything useful. A lot of what the reader told me was general statements — you like to read, you have a kind and gentle spirit, you’ll will have moderate success in your job. It felt like more of a personality assessment than a fortune reading.

3. If you are against the idea of getting your fortune told, what are your reasons for that?

Trying to divine the future is a dangerous thing, especially if you don’t have the gift for it. Even in the church — no, especially in the church — it’s something to tread with care. When I was a kid, a minister who had a ‘prophetic word’ told my mother that when I marry, my husband would eventually become a deacon at whatever church we’re in. Well, I’m married, and my husband has absolutely zero interest in becoming a deacon. (No one asked me if I wanted to become a deacon, but for the record: no.) That’s just one of the tamer prophetic words I’ve received.

At the same time, though, I do believe in having the gift of foresight, which is very different from seeing the future. When I did research for my story in the What Fates Impose Anthology, I looked into fortune tellers, which is one of those taboo things at my church. I was surprised to see that many people who went to fortune tellers didn’t go to have their futures spelled out for them. Many just wanted advice, or they needed encouragement, or wanted to get a sense of themselves from an outsider’s point of view. Very similar to how prophetic ministry is used in most churches.

So I’m not against it. I’m just saying it needs to be done with care, because it can be easily, easily abused.

4. How did you get started on developing the idea for your story in What Fates Impose?

As Christians, man, do we love our personality tests. My friends pored over their Myers/Briggs results in the same way people pored over their horoscopes, which got me to thinking: how are the two related? What if you could predict the future using personality assessment? Then, last year, I took the StrengthFinders test, a Love Language quiz and a Spiritual Gifts questionnaire all in one month. All those questions I took gave me the idea for the format of the story, and it went on from there.

Also, some friends of mine just got the sweetest, the most adorable chocolate labrador ever. Once I saw Marti and her gorgeous golden eyes, I knew I had to have her in my story.

5. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Stretch yourself. Write about things you normally wouldn’t. When I was in college, I got an image in my head of walking down a hotel hallway and realizing that the patterns on the carpet were really the backs of playing cards. I tried to write a story around it, but it didn’t work out. I thought about changing the cards to tarot cards, but at the time, I wasn’t ready, because tarot cards = evil, etc, and so forth. When Nayad approached me about the anthology, that scene popped in my head. I decided I would use tarot cards. I did my research and talked to friends who showed me their decks. It demystified them enough that I was able to use them to flesh out my story better. I can now look at tarot decks and appreciate them for their beautiful art.  Which is more than I can say for the stack of Chick Tracts I have stashed in a locked box up in the furthest corner of my closet. Perhaps I’ll write a story about them…someday…when I’m sure they won’t give me horrible, apocalyptic nightmares…

6. Which subjects and themes do you write about often, and why?

Well, obviously, my faith plays a big role in the stories I write, but it’s not all happy yay-Jesus parables. Most of my stories deal with struggling with a lot of questions I have about my faith: is there a God, why do I believe there is a God, why doesn’t he make himself more visible…that sort of thing. Writing allows me to explore those questions. Sometimes, some pretty dark stuff come out, but I try to balance those out with stories that are more fun.

7. Where can people find other published work of yours?

You can find me in the anthology Dark Faith Invocations, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon. I also have stories at EscapePod, Ideomancer, StoneTelling, and Expanded Horizons. You can find links to these stories and more at my blog, The Café in the Woods.

8. What else would you like to tell people about any subject?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the What Fates Impose Kickstarter, which is happening right now. One of the rewards is a 4X6 card from me with your personality type of your choice (Myers/Briggs or StrengthFinders) and its description written in calligraphy.  Also check out Nayad Monroe’s blog, where she has more interviews of contributors to the What Fates Impose anthology, such as Alasdair Stuart, Ferret Steinmetz, and Wendy Wagner, among others.

Jim C. Hines