Exploring folklore in one’s fiction is inevitably a double-bind. If you stick strictly to your own cultural heritage you are going to get called racist for it, but if you borrow from other cultures (no matter how hard you try to be respectful) you are going to get called racist for it. If you have a character of colour gain magical powers it’s the “magical native” stereotype, but if it’s a white character gaining magical powers it’s the “white people are special” stereotype, and if it’s a white character gaining magical powers from a mythology or folklore which isn’t white it’s a fucking headache. All of this means that an author can find it hard to tell if the story they have planned out is genuinely racist or culturally appropriative or if they’re just paranoid about being racist. Nowadays, the old saying of “if you have to ask if it’s racist: it’s racist” can no longer fully apply because the (much needed) coverage on the topic means that every author will worry about this (especially if not writing only their own race) eventually. Now, examining your work more carefully for unfortunate implications is not a bad thing, but if you have no one to ask you can start seeing unfortunate implications in everything and the creative process can be ground to a halt while you struggle to figure out how to have one person of each race equally on the good and bad sides so you don’t risk offending anyone.
Or, in other words, while I’m editing my writing advice book I decided to take my own advice and ask if my next project (a historical fantasy, set in interbellum/pre-WW2 London, which is chiefly drama and in which every character is a shade of grey rather than good or evil) sounds like it has any genuine and major problems with unfortunate implications and race, given that I’m borrowing from both British folklore and Perso-Arabic folklore. Below are brief character descriptions of the main (and not so main but relevant to this topic) characters.
Species: Mostly human, magically transformed into part-Ghul
Age: 3-8 over course of book
Religious Affiliation: Atheist (leaning toward)
Sexual Orientation: Unknown, currently pre-pubescent.
Personality: A highly intelligent, wild, friendly, and kind hearted child slowly growing bitter and awkward due to ostracism from her peers. Likely to be one of the kindest people anyone might meet if they’ve done nothing to hurt her, but a vindictive grudge-holder with an explosive temper when picked on unfairly (also completely incapable of letting injustice – real or perceived – slide). Very much a non-conformist and burning with insatiable curiosity, but quick to stop upsetting behaviour or questioning when made aware that it upsets people.
Ethical Questionability: Cannibalistic urges, occasional temper tantrums, one occasion of semi-premeditated killing in self-defence, multiple cases of deliberately frightening and injuring those who bully her and those she cares about (in one case causing far more serious injuries than intended). Also known to dig up neighbour’s vegetable patches in the middle of the night.
Race: ¾ Jewish, ¼ Anglo-Saxon
Age: Late twenties through early thirties.
Religious Affiliation: Atheist
Sexual Orientation: Asexual Aromantic
Personality: Cold, sarcastic, antagonistic, highly intelligent and extremely rude. She’s somewhere between a jerk with a heart of gold and a jerk with a heart of jerk. An outsider to the core, and a fierce fighter for progress, she’s only really capable of opening up to those who society has also rejected and has an unfortunate habit of putting scientific progress and experimentation before emotional considerations.
Ethical Questionability: Extremely progressive for her day – atheist, former suffragette, woman in a scientific field, and making her own financial way in life – but to the modern reader still horribly backward (can tell Hitler is getting dangerous but has staunchly imperialist opinions and believes Gandhi is absurd). She views the protagonist (a child) somewhere between a friend and a Petri dish and once (illegally) helped someone terminally ill to get euthanasia.
Age: Mid to late twenties
Religious Affiliation: Christian
Sexual Orientation: Straight
Personality: Not intentionally unkind, but extremely practical, traditional, and quick to judge. She wants to do what’s best for everyone, but is tactless and has an unfortunate habit of assuming that she knows what’s best for everyone. Shrewd by nature and determined to do what helps the most people no matter how much she has to sacrifice to do it, but inclined to hold petty grudges.
Ethical Questionability: Inclined to view people who are unusual as needing to change to be more like her or as too much effort, often more biased and unfair than she realises due to favouring those like her and holding grudges against those who are different.
Age: Mid to late thirties
Religious Affiliation: Christian
Sexual Orientation: Asexual Aromantic (but unwilling to accept it)
Personality: Sweet natured and gentle, but extremely judgemental (always wants to help those she views as wrong) and condescending. She’s very easily hurt but also extremely sensitive to the pain of others and wants to help as many people as she can. Unfortunately, she’s also zealously religious and pushy about it. She’s incapable of accepting her sexual orientation because she feels that it is abnormal and that there must be something wrong with her. Like most people of her day, she looks down on other races, but she does so with pity rather than hatred and scorn and believes it is her mission to help them.
Ethical Questionability: Condescending and judgemental, racist by modern standards but moderately open minded by the standards of her era. Suffers from internalised sexualism/homophobia but would not be viewed as homophobic by her era’s standards (she thinks non-straight people are ill and should be helped). Unwilling to help a child who she views as unholy.
Species: Fair Folk
Race: Anglo-Saxon, only whiter
Age: Several hundred
Religious Affiliation: Unknown
Sexual Orientation: Unspecified, possibly straight
Personality: Genuinely psychopathic (as in based on the actual experiences someone I know had while working with psychopaths in mental health care facilities). Fickle and cruel beneath a veneer of sweetness and light, her main positive feature is that she always keeps her word and is incapable of lying, but with hundreds of years of fucking with people under her belt, that really doesn’t mitigate anything. Her emotional maturity is not unlike that of a spoiled toddler, she’s always fair in a very twisted sort of way (“I let you keep breathing, therefore you owe me”). Routinely lures young girls and handsome men to grisly ends (suicides, working them until death, etc) and refuses to allow particularly entertaining spirits the chance to leave after death – also genuinely does not see anything wrong with this.
Ethical Questionability: See personality
Plot Instigator/One Scene Wonder:
Species: Djinn (Ghul)
Race: Implied to be Iranian
Religious Affiliation: Unspecified, implied to be Muslim
Sexual Orientation: Unknown
Personality: Kind and selfless (sacrifices her life to save a child she doesn’t know), other than that unknown as she’s only in one scene and dying at that. It’s implied that she was brought to Britain either accidentally in a jar or intentionally in human trafficking, but which is not specified.
Ethical Questionability: In order to save a toddler she doesn’t know, she kills the attacker (who had already given her a terminal injury). She refuses to give up on life until the child is safe, although she is losing control of dangerous magical abilities which she’s afraid might cause someone to get hurt. Happens to be a mythical creature typically viewed as demonic and evil due to a cannibalistic nature, and passes part of this on to the child she saves, but is never shown harming (let alone eating) anyone; in other words she almost certainly scavenged for corpses rather than hunting humans.
…Thoughts? I chiefly worry about this in terms of cultural appropriation (even though I’m trying to be as respectful of the culture as possible unlike some recent works of “art” *cough*GodsOfEgyptandThorlookingatyou*cough*) and because I don’t want to unintentionally add to the (disgusting) Islamophobia that has arisen so much in recent decades. Originally I thought the fact that the most selfless and heroic character in the book is the, possibly Muslim, Ghul and the closest to pure evil any character gets is the pearly-white Fairy was enough, but given that the Ghul’s a minor character, and the part-Ghul child is a more morally grey one, I’m not so sure anymore.