Through a research survey conducted by Marshall University, it was found that most YA literature was written for an audience of white, middle-class teens. Which is also the reason most people turn to Fantasy for escapism rather than relatability. No, teens don’t relate to fighting vampires, but they do relate to seeing themselves, and their cultures between those pages. They also relate to the family dynamics, and the fact that both themselves and the main characters are queer, or Asian, or disabled.
A lot of authors include diversity in their novels just for the sake of it. That’s honestly not how it should work. The diversity should be normal. It’s NOT normal when 95% of all the characters in your book are white, skinny, and straight, because it honestly just gets unrealistic at that point.
What I find the most disappointing, though, is that despite the potential SFF, as a genre has, and the countless chances authors have to incorporate cultural minorities, it doesn’t happen. Instead, we get racist, ableist, homophobic content in places we look for representation. For example, take a look at Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. It’s disturbing how blatantly problematic and racist it is, and even more disturbing that people choose to ignore this, and it still has a 4.03 average rating on Goodreads. The fact that Rainbow Rowell, as a white author, chose to bring down Korean culture, and be so ignorant while writing her novel is just disgusting. To make it even worse, she acts like being non-white is a reason to be ashamed of yourself.
No, Eleanor & Park isn’t a Fantasy, but that brings me to my next point. If you’re going to write about white characters, who are surrounded by white characters, and that one stereotypical character of color, please don’t set it in a country still suffering from the effects of colonialism. When it’s a fantasy, please don’t base your world on ethnic minorities and their cultures while still having a full cast of white characters.
Lets take a look at Stormdancer by J*y Kr*stoff. Stormdancer is a YA fantasy based on Japanese culture, and is also described as a ‘Japanese Steampunk’ novel by the author. This would have been perfectly fine, and the novel had SO MUCH potential, especially being described as a Japanese Steampunk, to include well-researched elements from Japanese culture, and make it an accurate historical fantasy that diaspora readers resonated with.
Instead,,,,,,,, we get a DEEPLY racist novel filled with racist themes and ideas, as well as absolutely NO background research at all. Take a look at the authors note on Goodreads describing the novel. If his note is so racist, and ignorant, then imagine the mess his book is. It’s disturbing, how he uses Japanese and Chinese culture interchangeably – because it shows how ignorant he’s being, and how he doesn’t care that all of Asia is not the same. Like I hate to break it to you, but Asia’s the largest continent in the world, and there’s a slight chance that not everyone is the same?? Because I’m not Japanese, and hence not #OwnVoices for the book, I wanted to link to Lynn’s YouTube review, Emily’s Goodreads review, and Cyna’s Goodreads review, as they all explain the issues with Stormdancer in more depth, and with a ton of details and examples.
Furthermore, Stormdancer isn’t just ignorant of ethnic minorities, but there are multiple instances of cultural appropriation in the text as well. Like both Tiffany and Ellen mentioned, there’s a long & brutal history of sexual & physical violence against Asian women, but of course – this middle-aged, white man, wants to hypersexualize his 16-year-old Asian main character, and act like it’s not a problem. There is a huge amount of fetishization towards ALL the Asian women in the novel, and they’re all supposedly hot. Even if the character is a warrior, the fact that they’re hot is stressed upon more than their experiences in battles, etc. What it even worse, is that the shooter from the AAPI hate crimes in Atlanta killed Asian women because he claimed to have a sex fetish for them. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a long & brutal history of sexual & physical violence against Asian women, which is what makes this even more of an issue.
Recently, J*y Kr*stoff also got 4 Special Edition ARCs of one of his novels, when so many BIPOC authors are being denied ARCs because of the “shipping costs”. I mean, if you can afford to make hardcovers, and paperbacks, and on top of that 4 special editions of the same book to send to the same person, then why can’t you afford to send ANY physical ARCs to BIPOC authors? Right, because your money is going towards supporting the same middle-aged, cis, white, men. To learn more, you can read the caption on Sherna’s post, or take a look at Tiffany’s thread on Twitter!
Obviously, Stormdancer isn’t the only problematic YA fantasy, and Eleanor & Park isn’t the only problematic YA contemporary. Like Vicky mentioned, there are also books like Cinder, which may not mean to be racist, but because of not enough research still have some racist aspects. There’s also the books set in The Grishaverse (yes, I’m a SoC and CK stan), BUT it still has bad Shu (East Asian) rep and magic yellowface, which is something to keep in mind before supporting Leigh Bardugo.
I would also like to link to Ellen’s tweet – where she eloquently describes everything I couldn’t – and as an #OwnVoices, calmly explains ALL the issues with books such as Stormdancer and Eleanor & Park. Blake also talks about white authors profiting off Asian stories, but yet staying silent about Asian racism and all the AAPI hate crimes in his YouTube video. Last but not least, Chloe talks about Techno-Orientalism in Science Fiction in her article.
** NOTE: I realize that in this post I talk about racism towards mostly Asians, and not other ethnic minorities, but that’s only because I identify as an Asian, and am #OwnVoices for Asian books, so I would be able to have accurate information about it. I did think about including other communities in more detail, but I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I have only gone over them in brief. **
13 Recommendations for #OwnVoices, and Diverse SFF ~
For this list, I’m trying to avoid some of the more popular fantasy series (The Poppy War Trilogy and These Violent Delights, since most people have read those, and I wanted to give some other recs for books that haven’t received as much attention!! No hate to those two though, because I ADORE These Violent Delights with all my heart, and I’ve heard The Poppy War is groundbreaking so…)
Legendborn ~ A modern-day King Arthur re-telling that played with my heartstrings, and was also filled with an intriguing magic system, as well as thrilling mystery! Definitely one of my favourite reads of 2021. Read my quick thoughts and screams on Goodreads here.
The Gilded Wolves ~ I JUST started reading this book, and though I haven’t gotten very far into the story, the writing is SO gorgeous and illustrative. I’m also loving all the characters and theme of the story!!
The Gilded Ones ~ Full of feminism, an intriguing magic system, and supportive friendships, The Gilded Ones is a book that left me wanting more!! Cherelle’s review also perfectly described how I felt while reading it, and you can check out my review over here!
The Sword of Kaigen ~ This book was recommended to me by Maja!! I also wanted to include recs from others, so that we would have a variety in story types. The Sword of Kaigen is an East-Asian inspired military fantasy ft. lots of action-packed sword fighting, so I already know it’s something I would adore.
Yesterday is History ~ This book was recommended by May (@princekiem)!! It’s an emotional, moving (and most importantly – diverse!!) read, centered around the theme of time travel!! The synopsis sounds amazing, and I think I would love it.
The House in the Cerulean Sea ~ This book was recommended by Ursa!! I’ve heard it’s a heartwarming, diverse read that also features the found family trope, and honestly that’s reason enough for me to pick up this book!!
The Fever King ~ This book was recommended by Koh!! I literally know nothing about it (except it’s a diverse SFF), and it’s heartbreaking, but I love books that break my heart, and give me all the FEELS so I want to read it 😌✌🏼
Scythe ~ This book was recommended to me by Ash (@smokedshelves on IG)!! Described as a well-thought out story, with a twisty plot, I know it’s something I would love. I also read Sofi’s review a while ago, and I loved it, so if you want, you could check it out here!
Blazewrath Games ~ This book was recommended to me by Bella!! It’s pitched as a diverse fantasy (written by an #OwnVoices author) about a competition ft. lots of dragons, and it sounds absolutely perfect, so now I just need to get myself a copy.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin ~ This book was recommended to me by Dezzy!! It’s a fantasy inspired by West African Folklore, and the synopsis sounds so?? good?? I will also read anything Dezzy recommends because her taste is ~immaculate~ (and pretty much the same as mine lol).
Children of Blood and Bone ~ This book was recommended to me by Jenn!! It was a DNF for me, but I was feeling a bit slumpy then, so I think I’ll do a re-read!! I was invested in the story, but I was unmotivated to continue + my loan on libby got over, but I’m thinking of trying again in a while!!
Black Sun ~ This book was recommended to me by Esor!! I’ve heard it has natural diversity, lots of queer characters, immersive worldbuilding, and complex relationships!! Which is ALL I need in a book so the vibes I’m getting are ✨ immaculate ✨ also can we talk about how much I love the colors on the cover??