For The Culture

Fantasy as a Vehicle for Social Change

Sci-fi and dystopian and fantasy fiction has always been the medium for rebellion. We’ve seen it with The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s tale. This genre often manages to tackle human rights issues better than social commentary, or literary Fiction, who usually discuss it rather than tackles.

The symbolism that sci-fi, dystopian and fantasy fiction have such as amulets, witches, elves, wizards and mythical names or creatures are always ladled with meaning. And symbolism very often can tell us that words cannot.

In the BBC program, The Age of Images,  presenter, James Fox, says that images bypass our consciousness and go straight to our subconsciousness to form a deeper and more lasting impact on our way we think and our ideologies, in a way that words cannot do. Even though the imagery in literature is conveyed to us through words, it still paints a picture in our minds. Rather than saying ‘such and such is a bad person’ it is so much more powerful to give a character all of the paraphernalia of malevolence and allow our minds to colour them in with all attributes of evil, giving us a more lasting impression of what evil really is.

Because of this, the messages and ideas in sci-fi, dystopian and fantasy fiction are can sometimes be embedded within us better than ideas that are given to us in preachy or dialogues or heavy literary fiction. Our brains respond better to depictions of human rights issues and good and evil when they do not have all of the trappings that come with living in the real world, particularly in the west.

We can recognise what right and wrong is better when we see it’s being played out in realms that we can never be a part of being played out between characters that we identify with, but at the same time who we could never be. They react in ways that we never could, and overcome the obstacles that our world won’t allow us to.  The grey areas of our realities make virtue and wickedness hard to distinguish sometimes, but in fantasy worlds, those areas can be refined into simple black and white, which makes the wrong easy to identify. This is why a lot of children’s fiction contains the themes of good and evil. It is so much easier to give children’s fantasy stories the ideas that should be present in the real world, but which adults are often blind to, being too caught up with the intricacies of manoeuvring adulthood.

Movies and books, such as Alice in Wonderland, Zootropolis and, for slightly older kids, the BBC adaptation of Noughts and Crosses, all have apparent ideologies embedded throughout.

In Zootopia/ Zootropolis, the idea of xenophobia and prejudice against someone for things that they can’t help. Like their race, or in the case of Zootopia, their species, and Disney make it very clear that judging individuals based on the harmful stereotypes perpetuated by the government is wrong. Many may find it easier to understand this concept through the characters of Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde. And people who feel sorry for Nick probably wouldn’t immediately feel the same way if the characters were black and white humans.

Noughts and Crosses was one of my favourite novels as a child, I read and re-read it regularly. But when the BBC adaptation came out, I was so hesitant to watch it. I may be wrong, I read it years ago, but when I don’t remember it being such a dystopian and the BBC made it out to be. I remember the setting being very much like today’s society with today’s rules only flipped with black people at the top and white people at the bottom. BBC decided to go all out and make their adaptation entirely otherworldly and more disturbing than Malorie Blackman had initially written it – if I’m remembering correctly. This could be because of two things. 1) In this day and age,  the idea of black people being on top is so ridiculous that it has to be made as fantastical as possible – which is problematic in and of itself. 2) Or because the BBC knows that ideas of racism and racial prejudices are not easily understood by certain audiences. So, while Malorie Blackman was brave enough to broach the subject by simply flipping the roles, BBC decided to take that same idea of right and wrong and strip it of all it’s convoluted trappings of reality an make an entirely new world where anything goes. This way, the same basic ideas can be relayed to those who would never have dreamt of picking up Blackman’s books in the first place.  

But whether BBC thought that all- black leadership was fantastical, or whether they were using fantasy as a device,  they did show one thing: as there are no rules in the fantasy/dystopian genre. You can represent your characters in any way you choose. A lot of black authors, females in particular, myself included, can often feel driven to tell their stories in some form of literary fiction. And if that’s you – then great, go for it. But the publishing world, as much as it claims to be inclusive and diverse, really only wants a specific type of black voice. They want something that shows struggle and strife: a homosexual Muslim black girl kicked out of her home, a black boy in a gang trying to get out – these are the types of stories they favour. And I am not saying that these stories shouldn’t be told- but they are not the only types of stories worth telling, and those are not the only experience that we as black people have to offer up. Publishers are less likely to jump on a manuscript that is simply about being a black woman and navigating life and finding love- I’m not saying it can never happen-  but they don’t tend to gravitate to those sorts of narratives from black women. So if literary fiction, with or without the struggle, is your genre then by all means continue. I really hope you get your break and I hope more black female lead publishing houses open up to give us all a voice, no matter what we have to say. But if you want to write, and literary fiction isn’t necessarily your thing or your only thing, but you still have something to say – fantasy and sci-fi are genres that are wide open for interpretation. No one can argue with you and say that you know nothing about your own world (because no one knows anything about how it is to live as an elf) and its an area that we are massively underrepresented in.

And with all that is going on in the world at the moment, social commentary fiction such as The Hate You Give, as vital as it is,  is a reflection of ourselves and all of our ugliness. While it is absolutely necessary, sometimes it can deter people from picking these books up because they know these stories will be painful, or that these stories will piss them off. Fantasy is free from all of those ideas of political correctness because there is no politically correct way to treat a Troll, or a Werewolf or a Nazgul.

Fantasy won’t necessarily make people want to protest or sign petitions. Still, it can get across the idea of fundamental human rights, and how to treat your fellow being, out to those who would normally be too difficult to talk to. I am not so fully immersed in the publishing world to be able to predict what will happen or dictate what should happen in the print culture to come. But I do think that black authors should utilise the fantasy medium much more than they do. The publishing world is very biased when it comes to black voices. If it doesn’t fit in with their stereotype, they don’t want it. But they can’t dispute whether your fantasy is ‘realistic’ or not. And I don’t necessarily think we are about to see a surge in Fantasy or dystopian literature. However, for those who are less inclined to pick up, or write these sorts of books, but who still want the ideas which they contain, fantasy is not an avenue that should be ignored. That goes for both for readers who want substance without the harsh reality, and for black writers who want to get their messages to get out there, but keep hitting the wall that publishers put up for them. Because they only want your voice when it’s singing to their tune. But with Fantasy, you can make your own, and tackle the issues you wish to address.

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