Race in The Children of the Desert books

One of my self-challenges in recent years has been to update my writing to match my growing awareness of racism. I routinely pull up old, unpublished work for an overhaul and cringe at the assumptions I didn’t even know I was making at the time.

By way of example, I’m going to start out by talking about Kingdom of Salt, the as yet unpublished story that actually launched the entire Children of the Desert series (I’ve told that story elsewhere, but I’m unable to find it; the digital goblins have made off with it for their own obscure purposes. I’ll recreate that as soon as possible). That book has been through ten years of steady upgrades at this point, and I’m still finding issues I missed. I’m happy with the changes; it’s definitely a stronger story, more complex and nuanced compared to its origins as a white Euro-medieval pastiche.

Tank, the redheaded mercenary (and deliberate Kane homage), started out as a relatively carefree, if intense, kind of guy who basically liked to fight and fuck. Readers of the series to date already know that’s gotten way more involved: Tank now has a Tragic Backstory involving heavy childhood abuse; being “rescued” by folks who wanted to use him for their own, less sexual but considerably more dangerous agenda; and a proven ability to use his enormous anger as a psychic weapon.

He’s half-southern. He considers himself to be southern, but with his red hair and freckled skin he can pass for northern anytime he likes. His father is a northern sailor with a lady in every port, his mother was a drug-addicted southerner who genuinely loved Tank’s father–as much as she was capable of loving anyone, at least. (That part, by the way, is a cynical nod to one of my guilty-favorite songs, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl“.) Tank’s never met either of his parents; his mother died when he was a baby, and he hasn’t gotten around to searching out his newly discovered father yet. He tends to view the concept of “family” with intense distrust, in any case, so he’s in no hurry to hunt down blood relatives.

In the initial versions of the story, Tank was completely northern–which I now realize I was using as a synonym for “white”. It logically followed (in those versions) that southerners were “black”. I had a number of problematic structures in place, just based on that division alone. All of my Admirable Heroes were white, for one thing. I didn’t even realize that until I went back and took a hard look at particulars.

I’ll pause here and suggest anyone rolling their eyes at the word “problematic” take a few moments to read this Storify of a series of hard-hitting tweets by Elexus Jionde.

I actually started reshaping that part of the narrative long before I started educating myself about racism*, because the implied timeline of genetic drift didn’t make sense. Humanity started in the south; there was a catastrophe/diaspora, and a large portion of the population moved to less dangerous lands in the north. Fast forward oh, somewhere between five hundred and eight hundred years later, and the population in the north is white but folks in the south are black.

I remember sitting back to look at that for a while, scratching my head and going, uh…. no. That’s just…not possible. I came up with a behind-the-scenes, as-yet-unrevealed reason for some of the physical changes, but for the most part I started making sure the characters showed a wider array of appearances and backgrounds. So Alyea, in Secrets of the Sands, developed into a young woman caught between the pressures of her mother’s northern ideals and her father’s southern heritage. The conflict between north and south came to life as a heavily political situation: heritage (not genetics–here’s a breakdown of the difference) became a prejudicial factor, and religions split along various schism lines.

The slave trade, as it developed in our real world, never happened in Children of the Desert. The folks in the south are heavily distrusted and looked down on as “barbaric” by folks in the north, but that’s grounded in political, religious, and superstitious reasoning. Folks in the south, in turn, consider themselves stronger, smarter, and more tapped into reality than “ignorant” northerners.

Slavery does exist in this setting, but in two distinct forms: honorable and dishonorable (the latter being the katha villages where Tank grew up). Honorable slavery involves a limited-time punishment of working off a criminal offense (what we would call indentured servitude). The south, by and large, doesn’t bother with jails: either you work off your misdeed, or you’re executed. Minor northern criminals are often sold off to southern slavers (called machagos)–not a legal transaction, these days, since the north does have jails, and is developing a reasonably balanced legal code under the current king. But that option, whether legal or not, is an ingrained custom, so it isn’t going away any time soon. Besides, honorable machagos make sure their slaves have actual crimes to work off. (On the other hand, unscrupulous ones . . . don’t.)

There is no explicit history, in this series, of one set of humans seeing another set of humans as subhuman based on appearance or heritage.

On the other hand, the remnants of the ha’reye–a very, very long-lived species who existed long before humanity evolved–do see humans as, well, subhuman. Lesser. Inherently inferior, regardless of heritage or appearance. Useful for specific purposes and completely disposable outside of those instances. There are as-yet-unrevealed (but heavily implied in the series to date) human political structures keeping that hierarchy in place.

This all developed before I started paying attention to racism. Which means I’m still picking bits of grit and shit out of what I’ve written. At the end of the day, I think the series is okay as a beginning. I can do better, and I will do better. I still have too many “northern-passing” characters like Tank as Heroes who save southern (darker-skinned) folks. That’s a real issue (take a look at children’s literature for a few examples of that) and I can’t just plop darker skin on a main character by way of fixing it.

Pausing again here. Have you seen the SyFy adaptation of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books? Did you realize that while the characters in her books are explicitly dark skinned, the TV series had almost entirely white actors? Here’s what LeGuin had to say about that.

Stop and think. If Hollywood is willing to do that to a multiple award winning, white author like LeGuin, how much influence are black creators trying to tell their stories going to think they have? Tell you what, you don’t even have to think too hard about that question. Here are some hard numbers.

Coming back to my own writing, in the series to date, the interactions have all happened within a sharply defined geographical area: south of the complicatedly dangerous Hackerwood**, below the line of which north and south heritage is, for all practical purposes, heavily intermixed. In Kingdom of Salt, though, the action moves north of the Hackerwood, and into more “purely northern” territory. While technically part of the northern kingdom, the people here are politically far more independent–-and much more distrustful of southerners (read: anyone with southern features). This is the area where racism might logically start rearing its ugly head. This is the story where I apply what I’ve been learning, modified for the world I’ve built.

This is also the story where I absolutely must hire a sensitivity reader. I should have done it long ago. I’m absolutely positive I’m going to screw up dozens of small things I didn’t even consider. I’m positive I already did, in the existing series. All I can do there is offer a sincere apology, and all I can do for the future is commit to doing better.

Much like my hopes for 2017: may everyone out there “do better”! Hold on to whatever you have, folks, and keep on trying. We’re all making mistakes and finding out about our flaws, every day of our lives. Keep writing, keep singing, keep dancing, keep working–and keep challenging yourself. Always, always challenge yourself.

It only hurts when you land….


First and foremost, please do comment on this post. Tell me if I’m getting something wrong, or right, or if you’re just confused on a point. I know I’m going to screw stuff up, as I said. I want to know about it asap and fix it.

Now, about those asterisks:

*That does not mean I’m doing it right. I’m not saying this as a “pat me on the back and gimme a cookie” moment. I developed a world without our version of racism; well, there’s also no King Arthur, no Jesus Christ, no Zeus; Sophocles probably would have loved arguing with the teyanain, but on the other hand they’d likely get bored and kill him sooner than later. The closest version to Christopher Columbus, Cortez, or Da Gama is a madman who found a path through a forest filled with horribly dangerous creatures**.

** The Hackerwood is a gigantic belt of dense forest filled with horribly dangerous creatures. It’s a three day trip (at best) to get from one side to the other, and there’s only one road. Creating that road, and the way stops for travelers, took a lot of work and–-let’s call it bilateral cooperation. 🙂 Another road isn’t gonna happen any time soon, since the alliances that allowed for that initial attempt have fallen apart.