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?