Orishas and Dragons: Afrocentrism in Fantasy
So I recently picked up a copy of Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel, “Children of Blood and Bone” and I have to say- I love it. I am not the only one with accolades for the work- as of now Children is currently a New York Times Bestseller. In addition it is already under production for a feature length film through Fox 2000/Temple Hill Productions. A movie deal for a debut novel that came out earlier this year is certainly a good omen for a new series. Another feature that serves to further endear the book to me and many others, is that the setting, characters, and plot are all distinctly Afrocentric.
Now then, this is not a critical review of Children (there are already quite a few of those available for your consideration online). No, this is a think piece on Afrocentrism and the importance of representation in art and creative media. Before we begin allow me to define:
Afrocentrism (also Afrocentricity) is a cultural ideology or worldview that focuses on the history of people of African descent. It is a response to global (Eurocentric) attitudes about African people and their historical contributions; it revisits their history with an African cultural and ideological focus (Thanks wikipedia!)
Afrocentrism in Fantasy means just that- a focus on African culture, people's, ideologies or their proxies in creative media. This practice can be based on historical significance (Ie: using historical african Deities, Kingdoms, or figures as plot points). Alternatively all concepts used can be original creations that have been based on African heritage or simply feature a predominantly black culture. Whichever route has been taken in designing your Afrocentric society- a key factor is a complete independence from European or Proxy European authority.
This is not to say that all Afrocentric creations must exclusively feature POC, but that the cultures and characters exist as self contained identities, cultures, whatever- They are NOT regulated to being footnotes for King Arthur’s, Aragorn’s or even John Snow’s interests.
Representation in creative media
Folktales and legends have always been part of every human culture. Every tribe, nation, etc. has myths and legends which are the forerunners to modern movies, games, and literature. Like the entertainment media today, the old stories helped shape the culture and identity of our ancestors. With the globalization of human culture and the advent of the modern publishing (film, game, whatever) industry, a single story can now impact millions of people at once.
Such widespread accessibility is wonderful- these days (at least in the western world) there are few people who have never heard of Harry Potter, or Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Wonder Woman, Dorothy, the Pevensie’s etc. If you wanted to look exclusively at the world of high Fantasy, we have Rand Al’thor (WOT), Vin (Mistborm), Quentin Coldwater (The Magicians) and many others. However, I am sure that by now you can identify a common thread between them all- they’re all white.
This isn’t always a bad thing, but there is truly something especially immersive about having a protagonist that looks like you and stories that serve to complement and pay homage to your culture. Children does this beautify- the world of Orisha is a richly imagined landscape with a pantheon of proud gods and goddesses.
How Children of Blood and Bone gets it right
The protagonist [of children] is Zelle, a powerful warrior, loyal friend and a necromancer (badass). Her mother and all the elders of her race of Magi have been slaughtered by the fearful and tyrannical Orishan empire. The Magi like the other Orishians posses varying shades of dark skin, but are set apart by their naturally white hair. Due to unforeseen circumstances the magic that is their birthright has disappeared from the land rendering them helpless against their hateful and better equipped aggressors.
Zelle as a character is refreshingly dynamic. She has multiple layers, just like you might want in a good protag. She’s clever, but doesn’t alway think things through. She is essentially a ninja even before she unlocks her powers- but her overconfidence sometimes gets her into trouble. She is loving and will do anything to protect those she loves but, even our protag has her own traumas and demons to sort out before all is said and done.
The book does an amazing job of bringing important issues of race and oppression to the forefront by portraying fear and hatred itself as the primary force behind the evils of the world. In the land of Orisha everyone is ethnically similar but even then many of the characters believe that lighter skin as a sign of higher breeding- and of course there is a pervasive disdain for the Magi. The book alludes that, regardless of your race or geographic location, fear and ignorance make villains of everyone.
In keeping with how many High Fantasy works include figures from religion and mythology and venerated languages (King Arthur, Avalon, Asgard, Olympus etc…) Children of Blood and Bone is no exception. This story features actual Yoruba language and deities- even tying a Yoruba creation story in with a central plot point. This addition along with rich and colorful locations, multidimensional characters, and gripping action scenes, all serve to make the story truly engaging.
There was a time, not long ago where if you picked up a Fantasy novel you knew what you were getting into. You knew there was going to be some swords, maybe a dragon, a king, maybe a grail- some wizards, and castles. This is still largely the case in many areas and many of these stories are really good, but I am even more excited now that my favorite Genre has become more inclusive. It is my belief that the worlds of fiction serve as a mirror for the collective human psyche, and that the inclusion of other cultures in a respectful and majestic light signals a deepening of the bond we all share as people (and nerds) across the Earth.
Also if you haven’t read N.K Jemisin's “Broken Earth” trilogy, go ahead and do that.