I’m coming a bit late to this particular topic–it raged around the blogosphere about a year ago, when Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR, a book about a young black female lead, was set to be published with a young white female on its cover. You can go read all about that http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/07/23/aint-that-a-shame/ over here if you like, but I’m going to talk a bit about my own experience with the same scenario here today.
My Negotiator Trilogy is about Margrit Knight, a New York City lawyer who falls in love with Alban Korund, a four hundred year old gargoyle. She’s also a black woman.
Now, I am none of those things: not black, not from NYC, not a lawyer, not in love with a 400 year old anything, much less gargoyle. Margrit is black not because I thought “Oh hey, I should create a character of color,” but because as a character she leapt fully-formed into my head one morning as a black woman lawyer who ran through Central Park at night as a way of releasing herself from the strictures of her daily life.
This created more controversy than I expected. My publisher was concerned about me writing a black character. I said, “Look, Margrit is Halle Berry colored. She’s from a wealthy family, she grew up in a
wealthy neighborhood, went to private schools–there are people who would call her an Oreo. I’m not trying to write somebody from the ‘hood, which I will grant you I would probably do badly without a
whole lot of research.” (But then, I couldn’t write a white girl from the ‘hood well without a whole lot of research, either, so.)
The bit they focused on was “a Halle Berry type”, and when I turned the manuscript in with Margrit still defining herself as a black woman, they said, “I thought we agreed she would have one white parent.”
I said, “Um, no, and even if she did, Margrit self-identifies as black. She can’t pass, nor would she want or try to.” As far as I can tell, one white parent meant a white woman writer couldn’t “get it wrong” in terms of authenticity. Presumably this is the same logic behind it being okay for me to have written Joanne Walker, who is a half Irish, half Cherokee shaman, two-thirds of which is as far outside my purview as Margrit’s heritage and job are.
When it became clear I wasn’t going to budge on Margrit’s parents both being black–and come on, we’re talking about America here: a huge percentage of black Americans have white blood, and it’s hardly a stretch for two people who self-identify as black to have a daughter who’s Halle-Berry-colored–when I wasn’t going to budge, they said to me, “Maybe you could write a “Dear Reader” letter that says one of the themes of these books is racism.”
I said, “…don’t you think the readers are going to figure that out for themselves?” Nevermind Margrit’s ethnic heritage: this is a series which is nicknamed “The Old Races”. It is literally about racism, not ethnicities or cultures, because there are gargoyles, dragons, djinn, vampires and selkie in it. Margrit doesn’t have to be black for one of the themes to be racism, for pity’s sake.
I didn’t write that “Dear Reader” letter, either, and I knew perfectly well I was facing an uphill battle on the topic of cover art. I let the art department know Margrit was black. I referred to Halle Berry, to Kerry Washington, and I sat back and held my breath.
Here are the covers for the Negotiator Trilogy:
Don’t get me wrong. I love my covers. I really do. They’re sexy and alluring and sell books. But when I got the first one, my reaction was: Well, she isn’t blonde. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a win.
Was that callow of me? Almost certainly. Did I cringe when a reviewer referred to the first direct mention of Margrit’s ethnicity as “a bombshell”? Like you wouldn’t believe. Did I think it was a fight I could win?
Not even for a moment.
So tell me, readers: would a black protagonist on the cover of an urban fantasy novel stop you from buying the book? Would you think about it much? Would a black heroine seem any more or less relatable
than the hot-bodied babes featured on most UF covers? Share your thoughts on the whole topic here. I’d like to hear what you have to say.
I’ll also be giving away 3 complete sets of the Negotiator Trilogy to random commenters; I’ll draw names from a hat on October 18th, a week after this blog is posted. Open to readers worldwide. And in the meantime, if you want to follow
me elsewhere, these are the places you can find me at on the web:
Newsletter : http://groups.google.com/group/cemurphy-announcements
Blog : http://mizkit.com/ or http://mizkit.livejournal.com/
Website : http://cemurphy.net
Twitter : http://twitter.com/ce_murphy
Facebook : http://www.facebook.com/pages/CE-Murphy/46086704983