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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fantasy and race

It was my friend Billy Goat who first pointed out to me the racial descriptions in The Wizard of Earthsea (a fantastic book by Ursula K. Le Guin; I will formally recommend it at some point). I must admit I'd completely overlooked the fact that the main characters were not white.

What's this? A wizards-and-dragons story populated by characters with different racial characterstics? Well, hey, great!

But I no longer can look at the covers of my copies of The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan without cringing: the characters are depicted as white as fish bellies. Did the artist not read the books, I cry silently, to no avail. Alas, but that's how it is.

Recently I spotted a movie version in a local video store, and I was curious to see how it treated the issue of race. But I haven't seen the movie, and now won't, not after reading Ms. Le Guin's scathing commentary: "On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal--a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader. I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."

So I learn from this that the movie producers made any character of significance white. I am not surprised, and I am disappointed.

But I've thought deeper about the issue, and am wondering if I may be changing my mind in some ways. I think perhaps that both I and Ms. Le Guin missed the point.

Ms. Le Guin's Earthsea novels are drawn from a particular literary tradition, what she calls "northern" European. Sparrowhawk may be red-brown, and Vetch may be black -- but look at the culture of their characters: pure northern European. Yes, there are some minor tribal differences, but fundamentally the people living all across Earthsea are remarkably culturally homogenous.

From this perspective, I would go so far as even to partly defend the movie producers. A Wizard of Earthsea is not an ethnically-inclusive story; it's a northern European story. A white European story, regardless of how Ms. Le Guin envisioned skin colours. The producers understood the story as what it is, not as what Ms. Le Guin wishes it to be.

I think the moral here is that colour-inclusivity, while still a very good thing (!), is not ethnic inclusivity. A novel with more vision would have drawn on the histories and myths of various cultures, not just Ms. Le Guin's. Rather than subtly include colour, she could have subtly included soul. Had this been the meaning behind A Wizard of Earthsea, then certainly her ire against the producers would have been well-founded.




David Anthony Durham's post inspired a number of others, including one at Neth space.

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