It has been ages since I’ve posted anything, and I am sorry for that. Chronic, debilitating illness has pared down my writing time to a very small window of my day, and I have wanted to use what little energy I have (that isn’t being spent on being a mom and taking care of myself) working on my stories, and a few health blogs for others who may be going through a similar mess… But I have been wanting to put into words some thoughts that have been sprouting in the cellar for some time now. Thoughts about the shades of earth and skin and the shadows our own realities cast over the realm of fantasy.
This comes about because of a review I received for my second book in the Fae of Fire and Stone series, Char. It was a review from someone who was not a fan of my story or my style of writing, but that isn’t what bothers me. Though it smarts, I always appreciate honesty and I love a review that shows that a person truly read and involved themselves in my story enough to dislike it so strongly! Actually what bothers me about this particular review is the way in which the reviewer interpreted my descriptions of my main character’s dark complexion. Among other things, the reviewer was upset that I had compared her skin to the color of dirt. It still makes me cringe to hear it stated that way, for I had never intended anything so derogatory.
If you have read my stories, you will know how deeply tied my Fae characters are to nature; their very magic is derived from the powers of animals, plants and other elements of the natural world. Soil, the earth itself, the very source of the plants and trees that are as vital to my fantasy world as it is to the world we live in, is no exception. When I first envisioned my main character, Luna, I gave her skin the shades of the blackest, richest earth, inherited from her father, a man who was a certain type of Fae that had deep connections with fire and the earth’s violent, volcanic flames. Luna was always meant to stand out in comparison to the other characters, who are of various shades, but none nearly as dark as she. Few of the type of Fae from which Luna descended were well known or well represented in the population at that time. This was, in my mind, a large part of what made her physically stunning, and even a part of what attracted her two love interests.
I think it should be stated as well that my editors and I considered the implications of skin color and the interpretations of various comments by different characters. At times I portrayed Luna’s irritation over naïve and surprised comments made about her dark complexion, simply because, like many people, she would get tired of standing out due to her physical appearance, and would rather be known for her spirit, mind and abilities. Still, her physical features are unique, and can’t be helped but to be noticed by those she encounters who rarely see skin as dark as hers. There are not, however, the same negative connotations in this fantasy world that have for centuries plagued dark skin and various ethnic traits in our reality. That’s because though she is physically modeled after the darkest of Africans, I was not writing a story of this world, of earth. Luna is not African or African American– there is no Africa or America in my series, because it is not based on actual earth, but on an earth-like fantasy world. Racism absolutely exists in my Fae of Fire and Stone series, however it is not a racism based on skin color or ethnicity; the racism in my series is one which pits humans against Fae (human-like beings with shape-shifting, earthy magic). And among these two races, humans and Fae, can be found skin colors of every shade.
All that being said, I am particularly proud to have a main character of dark skin in my fantasy series. There aren’t nearly enough African or African American characters in science fiction and fantasy novels, and that pains me. Although Luna is neither African nor any other ethnicity as we define them, it is my hope that Luna’s presence in the realm of fantasy offers one more smart, powerful, dark skinned female protagonist to a genre that has traditionally been far too colorless for far too long. Fantasy and sci-fi aside, I have been seeing more characters of color in children’s literature, graphic novels, and of course super hero movies like Black Panther, and my personal thoughts are that it’s about damn time!
I think back to the days when I was a girl and early teenager, eager to spend what little money I had on any paperback fantasy or sci-fi novel I could get my hands on. I remember that I instantly and irrevocably became every main character I read, and I have often wondered to myself– would I have done so as easily if all the main characters had worn a different shade of skin– if my own appearance never made an appearance in the books I read? How must it feel to be African American or Mexican or bi-racial, in love with fantasy or sci fi, and finding that your favorite worlds are awash in white, hardly any characters of your own coloring making an appearance, even fewer in the lead roles? So I was thrilled to have envisioned a character of color as my leading protagonist (even if her ethnicity doesn’t truly match up to a race in our world), and my amazing editor, Sarena Ulibarri, also believed this was a wonderful opportunity to offer a touch more diversity in a genre that is desperate for it. She tried very hard to find the perfect cover art based on my request to have an African American model represent Luna, however, it seemed impossible to find one that didn’t appear too modern. My series is more of a medieval fantasy, and when describing my characters, I always envision them in medieval costume, yet my editor could find nothing that mixed both African skin tones and medieval, or at least non-modern dress and makeup. That makes quite a sad statement in my mind. I do love what she pieced together though– the silhouette of a woman standing in a candle’s flame.
Luna is not the only dark skinned character in my Fae of Fire and Stone series; there is Chumana and her son Lucanus, two of the Seven vital to my retelling of Snow White in the first book, Opal. And Anna, Chumana’s granddaughter, who appears in Char, is a personal favorite of my characters– a librarian with more books than loved ones in her life. But for those secondary characters, it wasn’t so much a purposeful decision to make them dark as just something that came up organically in my writing. Luna, however, was my purposeful offering of a beautiful, dark skinned female protagonist to a world of literature that is literally starved of such. And I relished in the ideals of her appearance. I gave her the loveliness of skin the color of rich earth, hair the shade of night and wild texture of beard lichen, and a smile as stunning as a sudden shaft of moonlight; this was a part of who she was, Luna, woman of the night, of the moon. And never had it crossed my mind that anyone reading the descriptions of her would think I’d meant that she was viewed as unlovely, or as little liked as dirt. She was my muse for the story, my good and righteous witch, my strong, brilliant goddess who was meant to challenge the stereotypes of the monochromatic, long overdone, male-centric fantasy. I hope you will see that when you pick up my work, and be swept away by Luna’s lovely darkness, just as every character in my story who encounters her truly is.
And so that you can read it for yourself, here is the description called into question, found in the beginning of Char. Luna is still a child in this scene, and she is being considered by a small group of the most powerful Fae for entrance into their circle. At the moment of the description, she is being observed by a character named Ruli, a dryad whose spirit is bound to the forest and the powers of the earth. Ruli is hoping that Luna will grow to have similar earthly powers, as she intends to be Luna’s mentor, and so she views her with a pleased appraisal of her barefooted, natural appearance:
“As though in response to some unheard cheer, the girl (Luna) thrust off her brilliant cloak and rose, her naked feet indistinguishable in color from the caked-on mud that crumbled and fell from them. Ruli smiled at this, thinking she knew the child for a marl. Marls were common among Fae, their powers revolving around the rich earth and all her buried and rooted bounty…”
If mud, dirt, soil… whatever name you want to give it, means to you only something filthy and undesired, I hope this description, and moreover my portrayal of the strange and stunning powers of nature in my series, helps to change your mind. Had I, myself, been born with such a lovely, dark complexion, the color of the earth’s deepest heart, I’d be all the more thrilled to read of Luna and her mud-covered feet. As it stands, I can only watch behind Ruli’s knowing smile, and hope that others see Luna for what she was always meant to be; a woman of great power and beauty.