I’d seen David Perry’s byline once or twice as a freelance journalist writing about disability rights and his experiences raising a child with Down’s Syndrome.
And it wasn’t until August, just before the Hugo Awards, that I managed to get the chance to sit down with him and talk about the issues of diversity and racial representation that have been roiling the geek community recently.
As a dabbler in history who holds a bachelor’s degree on the subject I’ve always strongly disagreed with people who use “historical accuracy” as an excuse to oppose diversity, but I lack the background to talk about it from a scholarly perspective, so I was hoping David could provide some of that background for me.
Below is an edited transcript of our chat, about the choices authors make when they construct fantasy worlds and why they matter.
The #GamesSoWhite hashtag and the opposition to it are the clearest examples in my recent memory, but there’s been a lot of buzz about the “diversity push” in TV this past year and other examples of backlash to whitewashed casting in historical settings like Exodus: Gods and Kings. There was even some buzz about attempts to add ethnic diversity to the Hobbit trilogy with the denizens of Lake-town.
As a scholar of medieval history, where do you fall on this kind of debate?
DP: First of all, in terms of history I’d like to say the vast majority of the medieval world as we think of it was all kinds of people with various shades of brown skin moving back and forth across borders. Yes, there were people in remote little areas who might have never encountered anyone who looked any different than themselves, but overall there was a lot of movement and a lot of contact and a lot of exchange of ideas, crossing transcultural, trans-religious, trans-ethnic zones.
There are a lot of people with different ideas about races, throughout the history of the Middle Ages, that talk about things like skin color — not in the same terms we do now, but thinking about the different ways we look and what that might mean. And so there’s entirely different ways of constructing “race” as well.
If all you care about is historical accuracy, it is certainly possible in any historical period to find a remote spot where everyone there looks completely homogeneous. But that is not, I would say, what medieval history looked like, in which people directly encountered and were highly aware of different parts of the world and what was going on.
In any society there are people who appear more physically similar to each other than not. But within that society you have gender diversity, sexual diversity, [and] religious diversity. David Perry
And certainly the most prosperous and culturally vibrant parts really depended on this. As soon as you move past the year 1000, you have Vikings — these northern European, classically blond blue-eyed men, who are traveling to Spain, who are traveling to the Byzantine Empire, who are traveling far into the Slavic world, who are encountering Muslims, if we can believe the accounts of ibn Fadlan, played famously by Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior.
So, this is a world that people moved–and then shared ideas and depicted what people looked like from different parts of the world in their art. There is no moment in medieval history in which Western culture was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.
The question for us is, does it matter? And there’s certainly people who talk about what it means to see characters more closely representing yourself, or different types of people. But I would say in general that homogeneity is a myth.
In any society there are people who appear more physically similar to each other than not. But within that society you have gender diversity, sexual diversity, [and] religious diversity. Whether or not you find racial diversity might depend on where you’re looking But diversity is the whole point of a city, of an urban community, of a larger organized society. People from the Middle Ages thought about this all the time. To what extent it was explicitly articulated in a given time period may vary, but homogeneity itself is a myth.
AC: So how would you respond to people who claim that an all-white cast in a film or a game is a way for them to express their own European identity?
DP: I like to say that in making that argument, or in making a game like that, you have a made a choice to make homogeneity–a mythic version of homogeneity–central to your identity. That’s not an unusual choice, historically–lots of people have done that, lots of cultures have done that–but it’s always a myth, it’s always trying to obscure differences, and then use realism as a way to justify obscuring those differences.
AC: So you’d respond to CD Projekt Red calling The Witcher 3 an attempt to represent Polish heritage —
DP: Well, let’s talk about 14th-century Poland. This is an area which has had incursions with the Mongols, long connections along the Slavic borders, connections up into the northern Scandinavian regions, which we know had deep connections to the Islamic world through trade. One of my mentors studied Islamic silver coins buried in Scandinavia. Poland, often to its detriment, is at a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe.
Would there have been a black-skinned person in 14th century Poland? I can’t answer that question. But would a 14th-century person in Poland be able to conceive of a person radically different than themselves? Absolutely.
AC: Do you see a contradiction between the decision to exclude non-white humans from an onstage presence in the fantasy world but the decision to have non-human races like elves and dwarves?
DP: It depends on what you’re talking about. Tolkien, for example, writes a very white fantasy world, even with the different races. I don’t know that Tolkien is thinking about nationalism; I think Tolkien is operating from a kind of ignorance that there might be another way to depict a world.
But when you start to create fantasy races and then you make the argument “Oh no people of color, we have to be realistic,” you’ve revealed your cards. You’ve shown that you just don’t want to have a diverse world, that you want to promote this myth of homogeneity, that you want to use historical reality to justify making a choice that makes other people upset.
AC: That’s interesting, because it seems we’re in an upsurge of interest in sword-and-sorcery fantasy–
DP: We sure are, it’s great!
AC: And it seems recently we have this appetite for “old-fashioned” narratives that center the West and reduce the rest of the world to antagonists or scary foreigners, even if it’s in a winking, ironic way. You’ve got the Lord of the Rings films that started the revival of high fantasy in film hewing close to Tolkien’s depictions of the Southrons and the Easterlings as sort of flat enemy races, and then you’ve got Game of Thrones using the Dothraki to bring back the trope of the barbaric Mongols. What do you think is driving this trend of the past ten years or so?
DP: Oh, to me it’s a much longer trend than that. Orientalism is built into 800 years of Western narrative production about the East. That the East is simultaneously more advanced and more decadent and more barbaric and more civilized all at the same time. And I think that the Orientalism of Game of Thrones is the perfect embodiment.
Orientalism is built into 800 years of Western narrative production about the East. That the East is simultaneously more advanced and more decadent and more barbaric and more civilized all at the same time. David Perry
We have the Dothraki, we have these big rich slaver cities, but these cities are slaver cities so they’re morally corrupt even though they’re richer and more powerful. And all it takes a white woman to come in and say “Slavery is bad, justice is good!” And that was a huge part of Season 5 of Game of Thrones, a white person telling the brown people “Slavery is bad, justice is good!” and that’s all that needs to happen. Daenerys’ character arc is all about this.
I’m a historian, I take the long view. The concept of Orientalism covers all of these trends. There is an appetite right now. I suppose if we dug in we might find this decade has a little more than the 1990s, the 1990s a little less than the 1970s, and you could talk about the Iraq War or the Vietnam War, or the rise of China, or whatever micro-factors. And I think those microfactors are real.
But I think the macro-factor is that in the West we have always liked to depict the East as barbaric and civilized, as decadent and wise, in this way, and that gets replicated in the culture we produce today.
AC: Have you seen Marco Polo?
DP: I did, I did. I wrote a piece on that for Vice. It is the perfect Orientalist fantasy. And the fact that it’s seen through the perspective of this really boring white male character, not very well written, not very interesting, as he learns kung fu from a blind kung fu master, and as he sort of sees both the power of the Mongol army but also their brutish savagery, and as he takes drugs from the assassins and has an imagined drug-induced orgy — these are all of the classic Orientalist fantasies playing out in 60-minute increments across the season.
AC: Well, if these tropes are so powerful and so popular in fiction, what would you say to someone embarking on writing a fantasy novel or a fantasy screenplay about getting past this stuff?
DP: I would say a couple of things. I would remind them that any community that’s more than two people, there’s gonna be diversity within that community. And as a creator you can choose ways to highlight that diversity and to make it clear that’s what you’re doing.
I think the only way we’re going to get past it is to point out that when people display a homogeneous world they are doing this by choice, not because it is the only historical option, and to empower more creators from different backgrounds: to empower more women; more people of color; more people who are non-American; more people for whom English is not their first language to create and then share those creations so that we are breaking those norms.
We may be doing a better job with this in the indie game world, which I’m not terribly familiar with, than the mega-game world. I’d say we’re definitely doing a better job in genre fiction, where bit by bit — it’s not that we’re anywhere near parity — but bit by bit there are more creators from diverse backgrounds, who are getting published, who are becoming well known, whose work is getting shared, who are getting recognized with awards, and I think that does begin to change the equation.
I think we’re further away on games, certainly with the big popular games. Probably becasue it matters less if it’s one book than if it’s a $30 million game.
And it’s wrong. It’s gonna be interesting to see if The Three-Body Problem, the Chinese novel, wins the Hugo for Best Novel of the year. (Ed: It did!) Especially in this very politicized Hugo context, to give the award to this translated Chinese novel, which is interesting, very much not written according to the narrative norms of contemporary Western science-fiction novels.
Bit by bit there are more creators from diverse backgrounds, who are getting published, who are becoming well known, whose work is getting shared, who are getting recognized with awards, and I think that does begin to change the equation. David Perry
AC: It’s interesting because, as a lover of the science fiction and fantasy genres, I’m also pretty familiar with how those genres have been co-opted to support xenophobic or racist ideologies–Norman Spinrad points out in The Iron Dream that Hitler’s ideology fits disturbingly well with the classic pulps.
I talk to people on social media who are really upset about traditional Scandinavian religion being associated with 20th-century white supremacism and are upset with the whole neopagan project because of that.
How do you find value in this stuff–as I do–while acknowledging the harmful side of it?
DP: Well, you can’t stop people from co-opting it. But when I hear people talk about Nordic fantasy as white supremacist, I like talking about the diverse ways the Vikings interacted with people around the world. They often intermarried local populations, they very quickly adopted local religions when it was useful. The Viking experience in Russia is really not the story they want to tell. You can try to make it that way, but the story in Russia is really state-building, collaboration with Slavic peoples, connections to the Eastern Mediterranean, both the Islamic and the Greek Orthodox world–and quite a diverse Islamic world at that. The story to me is that the greatest Nordic civilization is this wonderful Kievan polyglot, polyethnic society.
That’s not the story that the racists want to tell and they’re not gonna listen, but people asking “Is this true? Is their way the only way to do it?”, you can really work with that.
You can also tell the story of medieval democracy in Iceland, for instance, with a very non-authoritarian, collaborative element–within a where violence still played a very prominent role. I try to complicate this vision of Vikings as all about dominance and conquest.
AC: It seems that we’re drawn to idealized versions of medieval times one way or another–some forms of fantasy that depict those times as a romantic ideal, a “simpler time” filled with pageantry and honor, and then Game of Thrones subversions that focus on rape and mutilation and horrible suffering, but rarely anything in between.
DP: These are all things that tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Middle Ages. Not that rape and torture didn’t happen in the Middle Ages, it certainly did, and not that it wasn’t responded to in ways that are different than ways we would respond to it today.
But, you know, we pick and choose, the creators pick and choose, they want to show something that will be disturbing or controversial or will be a political tool and they try to say history supports us in this. And then they throw in dragons and zombies and then they say that’s unrealistic but that’s okay, that’s just storytelling.
That comes back to what I try to say–it’s okay to draw from history, but history does not wholeheartedly support any one of these fictional depictions. These come from creators making choices. And the choices they make have consequences.