Kristin Iris is a Fiction Writer and Mindset Mentor helping writers, creatives, & entrepreneurs who are tired of sitting in their bullshit use their fears to move out of stuckness, take action on their projects, and THRIVE in their writing, business, and life. To learn more, go to IgniteThriveCreative.com.
I was an avid reader as a child. The value of reading and story was something instilled in me by both my mother and older sister. It helped that I was a very shy child. Diving into books allowed me to explore different worlds and live different lives.
The stories that I sought out the most, and still do today, were fantasy and science fiction. I love fantasy and science fiction stories! The impact of these books and the unique ways these genres examine and reflect our own world and society fed a love of storytelling and world-creation that drove me to become a fantasy and science fiction writer myself.
I remember walking a mile to the library alone on a hot summer day and borrowing so many books that they filled my backpack and my arms until both ached by the time I made it the mile back home. What a curious thing it is to carry twenty pounds of different worlds and different lives on my back.
What an even more curious thing it is to realize as an adult what I didn’t fully see as a child: I was carrying twenty pounds of white worlds and white lives on my back. twenty pounds of people who looked nothing like me—a skinny Black, Puerto Rican girl from Chicago.
Brown skin. Frizzy, kinky hair. With a mom with a skin tone between my own and the characters I loved, and a dad with skin darker than mine and hair even kinkier.
Not one person that I read on the page looked like me. Not one person that I read, specifically in fantasy or science fiction, looked anything like me. Not unless they were a stereotyped or flat side character. That is not to say books featuring people of color didn’t exist at the time but if they did they were so rare that I never saw them.
I never came across a fantasy story where the main character was Black, or a sci-fi adventure where the main character was Black. I never even came across a regular coming-of-age story about a character who was anything other than white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able without their “otherness” being the primary focus. They couldn’t just be people with different experiences like we are in real life.
What do white-washed stories tell a child who looks like me?
That whiteness is the norm. Whiteness is the mainstream. Whiteness is the accepted default and expectation in the world. The white spectrum of experience was all that mattered.
I was not the norm. I was not allowed the full spectrum of experience on the page. I was . . . something else. Something less. Something unwelcome. I learned that my being Black was what mattered most when people saw me, and not my being human.
This was largely subconscious. Much like how growing up reading beauty magazines that only had hair and makeup tips and products for white women taught me that I couldn’t possibly be considered beautiful because I wasn’t that. I didn’t understand until later the deep-rooted messages these things sent me or how vastly that played out in my life.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized the full impact a life of white-dominated books had had on me as a person, a woman of color, and a writer.
The author that changed it all: Octavia Butler
The Fledgling was the first book I ever read by Octavia Butler. It was a different take on the vampire story about a girl named Shori who appears to be a Black child but is actually a decades-old member of the Ina—a vampire-like race.
The Fledgling was the first time I read a Black main character in a fantasy/science fiction novel who could have been me! It was the first time I saw myself on the page. A character with my skin and my hair, who spoke just like I did in regular, every day, American English.
Was Shori’s blackness important to the story? Yes. But Butler wove in the exploration of racial bias by putting it in a different context—a context of Ina-human power dynamics, cultural norms, and relations.
Shori wasn’t a stereotype. She wasn’t a slave. She wasn’t incapable. She was powerful, clever, and unique. In fact, she was more powerful than other Ina. She was a whole person.
Following The Fledgling, I read more books by Octavia Butler with Black characters and I was fascinated.
It was like Butler had cracked open the doors of possibility for me. See, up until then, every story I’d written starred white people. Why? I wasn’t white at all but my experience as a reader had taught me that the kinds of stories I wanted to write were only acceptable if told through the eyes of a white person.
No. Not according to Octavia Butler. According to her, main characters could be Black. Main characters could be women of color. They could be powerful, intelligent, whole, and human. The differences in how we show up in the world and are perceived by it could be honored on the page, without being the only thing shown of us.
If you grew up white, you probably didn’t notice the lack of representation in the books you read. You probably didn’t notice the impact it had on you to always see your face in books. You probably don’t understand how disempowering it is to never see yourself in the stories you love or how deep that impact weaves itself into your life and psyche.
Octavia Butler gave me a voice on the page. She gave women of color a voice and space to exist in genres dominated by white voices, white lives, and white male authors. She made me feel powerful. She showed me that my voice matters. She taught me that as a writer I have the power to continue giving a voice to others like myself. I have the power to empower women and women of color writers and readers alike—to show them their lives, their voices, and their stories matter.
Whatever skin color or group you represent, you have this power too.
As writers and storytellers, we have a unique opportunity to impact the world by impacting our readers. That comes with responsibility. Giving a human voice and showing the variety of experiences of people from different groups without minimizing them to stereotypes has a powerful impact.
For one, it shows people in those groups that they are seen as human where they are often portrayed as less. Second, it builds more understanding and compassion from people outside those groups helping to break down misconceptions and the dehumanization of others.
Representation in books matters. Honor and respect the voices and experiences of others. Do your research if you are writing someone different from yourself. Get to know people who are not like you. Read books by authors from diverse backgrounds. Recognize that not every story is yours to tell just because you want to tell it.
Never forget the power you wield with your pen.
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