Guest Post: Reading and Writing the Other by: Betsy Dornbusch, author of Exile

Publisher: Night Shade Books

Publication Date: February 5, 2013

Synopsis: Draken vae Khellian, bastard cousin of the Monoean King, had risen far from his ignominious origins, becoming both a Bowrank Commander and a member of the Crown’s Black Guard. But when he is falsely condemned for the grisly murder of his beloved wife, he is banished from the kingdom and cast upon the distant shore of Akrasia, at the arse-end of the world.

Compared to civilized Monoea, Akrasia is a forbidding land of Moonlings, magic, and restless spirits. It is also a realm on the brink of a bloody revolution, as a sinister conspiracy plots against Akrasia’s embattled young queen–and malevolent banes possess the bodies of the living.

Consumed by grief, and branded a murderer, Draken lives only to clear his name and avenge his wife’s murder. But the fates may have bigger plans for him. Alone in a strange land, he soon finds himself sharing the bed of an enigmatic necromancer and a half-breed servant girl, while pressed into the service of a foreign queen whose life and land may well depend on the divided loyalties of an exiled warrior . . .

Exile is the beginning of an ambitious fantasy saga by an acclaimed new author.

Guest Post: Reading and Writing the Other

(In which I indulge myself with a short discussion of my own themes and include the disclaimer that I can no way justify the complexity of this topic in a thousand words.
But here I am trying anyway.)

I find the Other an offensive but annoyingly useful term when discussing People We Perceive To Be Unike Ourselves, but the Other is what draws readers to fantasy. I’m not talking about people just yet. I’m talking about all the creative elements fantasy readers like: setting, culture, character, animals, family, weapons, politics, magic, customs, evil, heroism, expressing love, waging war.

Fantasy lovers always wanted something different—heck, we were the original hipster reader set even if the literary crowd doesn’t know it yet—until we realized our Other was actually more of the same, male-dominated, Christian-Judeo medieval cultures. If you were anything other than that as a reader, you were mostly shit-out-of-luck until not very long ago. The Other only appeared in random, infrequent stories. I think, honestly, we can say the same today, though we’re seeing slight improvement.

It is better because of courageous writers, readers eager to take a chance, and efforts like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. We’re starting to get that our genre can still have its traditional worlds (nothing against white guys with swords; I like them, too) but that lots of readers want something different, and we want more than color-washed, white, middle-class mentality or worse, a pithy representation of an Other. Every character deserves to be more than a respresentation.

We want well drawn characters, characters we can identify with, characters who represent our lives. That might be through social or economic class, gender, sexual attraction, disability, race or something else entirely. There are no limits, quite literally, even if some people thought the market couldn’t buy and sell such stories. Now it’s clear, after so many market successes, that the market not only can bear lots of kinds of characters, but that it craves them.

In Exile, I wrote a dark-skinned, bi-racial, middle-aged lead character. He spent his adulthood among the light-skinned people of the nation of his birth, his skin color only one of many of his birthright issues. Convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, he is exiled to the country of his father, a nation and people he’s been well-trained to hate. Odd thing when he arrives, though. He fits in better there than in his birth country. There, for the first time in his life, he is not the only person experiencing discrimination.

I was lucky as I wrote Exile so many years ago because I wasn’t as deeply entrenched in SFF fandom and writerhood as I am now. I just wrote what I wanted, sometimes in ignorant bliss, sometimes with prejudice, sometimes much better than that, but most of all fearlessly. Then, when themes of displacement evolved into themes of racism, my confidence flinched. It was embarrassing. I’m a white girl from Midwestern suburbia. I wasn’t qualified to write those themes, especially when it seemed I couldn’t think up a world where prejudice didn’t accompany dark skin.

Of course, by that argument, I’m not qualified to write a violent, brooding man living in a world with seven moons and magic, either.

When I run up against a wall like that in my writing, I have two choices, toss the whole thing out or plunge in headlong. Obviously I chose the latter. As I wrote, I learned everyone was racist in Draken’s world. Oh, they have their reasons: magic, religion, different customs and attire. But all that is an elaborately detailed veneer of reason slathered over ingrained wariness of Other. Differences send up warning bells even though we’re supposed to be better than that. But prejudice is dynamic and it goes against all reason. This we know. This, the people of Akrasia certainly know, even if they won’t admit it.

In Exile, that unchecked fear evolves into religious legends encouraging hatred. It creates power struggles and justifies slavery. It’s a culture with an unapologetic custom of separation and exclusion. It also creates a place where one man can upend it all with his ignorance.

And suddenly, I realized I wasn’t writing about the Other at all. I certainly wasn’t writing the sword-and-sorcery romp I thought I was—or not just that. I was writing about cultural complications and shifts. I was writing about an Issue.

And then I did more than flinch. I trunked the book.

When we take on any cultural issue, it takes more work than plunking an Other into a story and calling it good. Prejudice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Race relations are nuanced and dynamic. They’re influenced by everything I listed above: world, religion, family structure, politics, magic, and more. I knew all that and I got skeered, really skeered, of offending readers. I didn’t think I was writer enough to pull it off.

Then a couple of things occurred. A publisher I really admired wanted the book. And also, I realized I’d made an effort, and that was important. Imperfect and incomplete, perhaps, but an effort nonetheless. So had my publisher. So do my readers.

Not all efforts are “giant steps for mankind.” Sometimes change, especially the sort it takes to move the glacial publishing industry, comes in stumbles and lurches. It takes courage, and a willingness to step wrong and to learn. But when approached with care and thought, reading and writing the Other can open up whole new worlds. And that’s what fantasy is all about.

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