Content note: This letter and the reply refer to racist and ableist stereotypes and tropes, and themes of mass violence against marginalized people.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m about 100k words into writing my first novel. I have most of the plot figured out, but I’m struggling with a lot of culturally sensitive issues.
The story is a hard fantasy set in a world inhabited by multiple species, who are physically and physiologically different from each other. The plot is kind of a subversion of the carefree hybrid-species trope in sci-fi/fantasy (i.e. half-elves, half-Vulcans, half-orcs, half-demons, etc.) and the “evil race” trope of orcs, goblins, Romulans, etc. My premise is basically “what happens to the offspring of two species when those species are genetically incompatible? And how does society deal with entire species that are labeled ‘evil’?”
I’m running into problems because I’m dealing with thematic issues of 1) mixed-race people, 2) racial minorities, 3) social stigmatization of certain individuals (“monster” labeling), 4) disability (as being hybrid-species in this world tends to involve birth defects or other forms of disability), and 5) ethnic cleansing/eugenics/”blood purity”.
Naturally, this is a thorny subject and I want to tread lightly. Hybrids in this fantasy world are seen as monsters for their heritage and disability, but I want to avoid ~perpetuating~ the myth that disabled people, mixed-race people, or minority people are actually monstrous. However the crux of the book is the way that self-proclaimed “pure” races treat the minority, and one of the methods they use is monster-labeling.
My other problem is that it’s not a direct metaphor for real-life issues. Hybrid species are not the same as mixed-race people, even though from a social standpoint the effect is similar. There is an actual physical difference between one fantasy species and another, and between the original species and the hybrid species. Obviously, there is no biological difference between human races, which is the whole issue with white supremacy. But there’s no escaping the thematic connection between my plot and real-world issues of race.
I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but after 100k words I’m reluctant to scrap it altogether. I want to tell this story but the last thing I want to do is perpetuate toxic ideas about any marginalized group. Do you have any advice on how I can approach this? Or is it just beyond salvaging?
I’m sorry to tell you that this is beyond salvaging. You have written 100,000 words of a lesson for yourself, which is that you cannot start by taking harmful stereotypes as givens and then write a harmless book.
These are the elements that really jumped out at me:
My premise is basically “what happens to the offspring of two species when those species are genetically incompatible? And how does society deal with entire species that are labeled ‘evil’?”
These aren’t premises. They’re thought exercises that you want to work through. Many works of fiction are based on thought exercises, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I think you have worked them through to the point where you see that the answer to the first question is “I decided to link disability with racial impurity and then make them both socially stigmatized, so I have some internalized biases I need to deal with” and the second question is “bigots cause terrible harm to their victims.” Now you have answers! Now you can move on to another project.
My other problem is that it’s not a direct metaphor for real-life issues.
I’m not sure why you think difference from reality makes this not a metaphor for reality. If it depicted the real world, that would make it realistic. Since it depicts another world with thematic similarities to the real world, that makes it metaphorical. “The mechanism is different but the ways people deal with it are similar” is exactly what a literary metaphor is.
You are writing a book about race and disability, and to even try to claim that it only has a “thematic connection” to these topics is a sign that you are putting a lot of effort into deluding yourself about what’s going on here. Looking your internalized biases square in the face will be painful and hard, but you can’t write an honest book by lying to yourself.
Hybrids in this fantasy world are seen as monsters for their heritage and disability… the crux of the book is the way that self-proclaimed “pure” races treat the minority, and one of the methods they use is monster-labeling.
The shift from the passive “are seen as” to the active “treat” is a start, but the person who really needs to be referred to in the active voice is you, the author. You have set up this completely created society of nonhumans where there is such a thing as racial purity and some people have it and others don’t. You have set up this complicated genetic situation that is analogous to the white supremacist view of real-world race, and that plays directly into concepts of disability being linked with moral character and impurity. You have put your characters through a great deal of pain. You made a lot of choices to get to this point, 100,000 words into a project that from the sound of it is all about people being terrible to one another in ways that will also make many readers feel terrible.
I urge you to make different choices now.
You haven’t wasted the time and effort you’ve put into this book. It’s taught you a lot about yourself and the stereotypes you’ve internalized. It’s also taught you when to step back from something you’ve put a lot of effort into that isn’t working, to say “The sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy” and not throw good words after bad. That’s a useful skill for any writer.
If you want to write about race, first take time to study the relevant work of nonwhite authors, both fiction such as N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and nonfiction such as Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other and James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work. If you want to write about disability, the same applies: I recommend beginning your study with the forthcoming Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Most of all, think about why you want to write about it, and what you want your nonwhite and disabled readers to feel when they read it. If you’re writing about race and disability as though only abled white people will read your work, you are already rolling asphalt for the Good Intentions Paving Company, and you need to back up and start again.
I wish you the very best of luck with your future projects. You certainly aren’t the first or last writer to shove a 100,000-word learning experience into a drawer from which it will never, ever emerge, so don’t give up on yourself. Keep writing, and keep working on writing in ways that don’t just “tread lightly” over moral minefields but that unbreak the reader, to use R. Lemberg’s wonderful phrase. There are other choices you can make and other paths you can take. Do the hard work of digging around in your head and researching and listening and learning, and better writing will flow from it.