Incorporating minorities in fiction (even if you’re not from that minority group)

This is done very badly most of the time.

One thing I’ve noticed while reading project Gutenberg books– the books that stood the test of time are more likely to not have minorities (including Jewish — you would know who early mystery writer Anna Katharine Green was as well as Doyle or Christie if she wasn’t so anti-Semitic) than to have them.  That’s because books by the same authors that have minorities often include extremely offensive stereotypes, and somehow those books haven’t gotten reprinted.  Rare is the 100-200 year old book that can have a minority and treat said minority with respect.  (Though some much earlier literature seems to do a better job for some racial minorities.)  This existence of offensive stereotypes is even true for early feminists who get the gender thing right– they can’t make the jump to nonwhites.

But the world isn’t white.  As fiction reflects reality, fiction should reflect that fact.  Even in historical fiction.

#2 and I have had several discussions about Loretta Chase, who is a great author *except* when she includes Egyptians or Indians or, presumably other British colonial subjects (just like Mary Balogh is great except in her early books where the hero doesn’t take no for an answer).  She’s got the woman are not chattel thing down, but her view of Indians and Egyptians comes straight out of British Imperial literature.  She’s got the White Man’s burden and every single stereotype from 19th century British imperialism.  She’s obviously done extensive reading of white authors of the time period.  So have I, for that matter.  But it grates.

(And it is embarrassing that we haven’t always noticed these trite stereotypes– the superstitious lazy Egyptians, the Indian servant willing to give up all for his/her mem-sahib, savages burning widows on the funeral pyre.  We don’t think we can go back and reread Elizabeth Peters because we’re pretty sure she uses a number of these tropes.)

I recently re-read the wonderful Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect (seriously, buy this entire series) the same day as I failed to be able to stomach Chase’s Sandalwood Princess.  Chase read imperial white authors for her inspiration.  Her minorities are not real– they are figments of racist 19th century imaginations.  The same kinds of books that are not standing the test of time today and will be even more likely to die off in the future as more people cringe while reading them.

Milan, instead, read autobiographies of Indian lawyers in England during the 19th century.  Her characters ring true.  Real historical research means reading about people in their own words in their own time periods, not white people’s perceptions.  Especially when white people writing in that time have every reason to justify subjugation of entire bodies of people.

So if you’re an author and you want to include minorities in your historical fiction, and you should, find people from that time period– they exist.  Listen to what they say, and not what white people who want to keep them subjugated say about them.  Because what white people in the time period say only tells you about white people in the time period, no matter who they are talking about.

Do you have any recommendations about authors who do it right?  How about for under-represented people in their own words?

11 Responses to “Incorporating minorities in fiction (even if you’re not from that minority group)”

  1. chacha1 Says:

    Since history is my thing, I’ve read a lot of it – but my focus in school was on England and France, and what I read was 100% the work of white people, so there were big chunks of the story that got left out. There is a lot of great non-Imperial stuff available now, thanks to e-books, that simply wasn’t available in 1990 (especially in the library of a Southern public university).

    I am working on a book set in Ceylon circa 1794, and very grateful for newly-available primary sources.

    fwiw books by white authors can also be quite illuminating and shouldn’t be completely disregarded; they are not ipso facto racist. I read “The Black Count” by Tom Reiss last year, and I would consider that an excellent starting point for looking into the real story of the Caribbean in the 18th and early 19th century, not to mention a completely new (to me at least, and I’ve read a lot about it) view of the Napoleonic wars.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Of course books by white authors aren’t automatically racist (that’s kind of the point of the post– how to write not-racist historical fiction). However, books by 19th century white British Imperialists generally are pretty racist if they include native people from colonized countries, especially if they touch on the above-mentioned tropes about superstition, laziness, and servitude. Presumably, like Milan, Reiss read more than just white colonists accounts of the 18th and 19th century Caribbean!

  2. Cloud Says:

    This has been a problem for me as I’ve been reading old public doman stories for my taster flights. I have found and discarded A LOT of racist stories. Also, what has been digitized slants towards white authors. Eventually, I’d like to go hunting for old stories that aren’t yet available digitally, but that’s beyond my reach right now.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Even L.M. Montgomery has some absolutely dreadful short stories including horrific slurs against the Native Canadians. (But she doesn’t mention them at all in her Anne series, so… Anne stays while the racist short stories get relegated to obscurity.)

      • Cloud Says:

        Yes, she has some great short stories. But also some not so great ones. I’ve put one in each of my two collections so far, because when her short stories are good, her keen eye for character is so much fun.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Have you noticed that she recycles a bunch of plots (especially with her feel-good Christmas stories)? It’s hilarious. But you gotta make a buck somehow and it isn’t *exactly* self-plagiarism. I mean, she changes names…

  3. Kellen Says:

    So if I wanted to write a book but I’m *not* a historian, how would a beginning researcher go about finding primary sources based on the race / ethnicity of the person who wrote it? (Maybe that’s what librarians are for? Although I doubt the local library folks will help much with that.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You might be surprised at what local librarians can do!

    • Sarabeth Says:

      I am a historian, who works on the history of non-white people. I agree that local libraries might be surprisingly helpful – if you are in a bigger city, try the main branch, which is more likely to have a reference division. If you have public university near your, their libraries are also often open to the public (you generally can’t check out books, but you can come browse the stacks and consult with the librarians).

      Secondary sources are also helpful – both in their own right, and as a pointer to interesting primary sources. You can just search google scholar, but if you want some quality control, you can search the book reviews of the American Historical Review (despite the title, they review books on all parts of the world) for the time/place/subject matter that you are interested in. Your library can track down the actual books for you. For a section of the book that is interesting to you, look through the footnotes for their sources. Lots will be archives, which are harder to access, but most regions/eras have printed primary sources of some kind.

      If you are interested in the 1800ish-1927 era, a surprising amount is available on google books. You might be surprised how far you get just searching for ‘autobiography indian lawyer,’ for example.


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