Representation in Fantasy: Panel at the MCM London Comic Con 2019 – with Zen Cho, Tasha Suri and RJ Barker!

It’s Saturday afternoon at the MCM Comic Con in the Representation in Fantasy panel. Zen Cho (author of the Sorcerer Royal books) is moderating and she’s with Tasha Suri (the Books of Ambha) and RJ Barker (The Wounded Kingdom).

Representation is of course very much the subject of the moment yet, as they tell us, both Zen and Tasha have been on double digits of panels on the topic.

So the air is light and the more informal with a sense of yes it’s important and we’re pleased to be here but we’re just going to enjoy it rather than have the same conversations again.

Zen is Malaysian, as is the protagonist in her second book. The titular sorcerer of her first is Zacharias Wythe, a black man arrived in London where she now lives, in the 1800s. Tasha toured India as a child, the setting of her books being inspired by India’s medieval period. The protagonist of RJ’s Wounded Kingdom Trilogy is disabled and RJ explains that he’s chronically ill suffering from Crohn’s disease which affects his joints, his own experiences informing those of his characters. Tasha, clearly a fan, notes there are comparatively few assassinations in Age of Assassins and RJ shares how he loves a 1-star Amazon review he received, the reader saying they ‘bought a book about assassins and all they do is talk about their feelings’.

Much laughter.

Tasha expresses that writing – and the discussion of it – becomes very limited when it’s just about diversity. She mentions how the distinguishing thing about Seth Dickson’s female protagonist in The Traitor – beyond not being straight – is that she uses economics to manipulate an empire’s destiny through its fiscal supply chains. It’s a case of accountant as hero.

The panel share what their day jobs are, speculating what a fantasy equivalent might do with similar expertise. Zen’s a product lawyer, Tasha’s a librarian (and yes, there are a few fantasy librarians out there)… RJ half-jokes he’d love to write of a fantasy tax inspector, his job before becoming ill.

SF and Fantasy, as Tasha notes, have always been doing progressive things and while this panel is the more whimsical, it’s highlighting how from a considered intention for representation, characters have  emerged who are innovative and interesting beyond their non-heterogenous identity. Still in recent years there’s been a lot of dragons (I remember chatting with Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn who predicted the phenomenon, noting them as the new vampires). Tasha, it’s clear, isn’t keen on dragons. RJ is at least ‘dragon ambivalent’.

The panel do seem to be enjoying themselves and, before we get too deep into dragon over-representation, Zen reminds the panel that they were going to talk about toilets. Well why not? Fantasy draws to some degree or other from history and, as Tasha raises, do you know how many people died of dysentery? RJ notes how his series begins in a toilet: ‘They start in the shit and end up as kings’.

Zen raises how readers expect certain things in fantasy novels, and are okay with some but not others. People seem happy with violence. Even, Tasha notes, violent sex – but not swearing.

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‘People did know how to swear,’ she goes on. But is this prudishness on a reader’s part, or more to do with fantasy’s historical grounding and contemporary expletives challenging the willing suspension of disbelief? One for another panel maybe.

The floor is opened to the audience, and the panel receive a question on antagonists. Tasha responds emphasising that ‘if you have an evil lesbian you have to have a nice lesbian’ – or at least a differently representative protagonist.

They move on to the pitfalls of representation. RJ relates how a fan was disappointed there weren’t more difficulties faced by his character, though of course his work is about how they get over and around their disability. As Tasha points out you can build a world that reflects the injustices of ours where you can actually perpetuate those injustices. And dystopic elements of fiction can be overplayed where more subtle prejudice regarding day to day interaction can be the more powerful, like a loving gay couple being unable to hold hands in public.

This segues into how outsider protagonists aid the reading experience in terms of communicating the setting, whether unfamiliar or outrightly fantastical. Zen’s protagonists travel to less familiar cultures and, as they discuss, readers identify with the character’s journey in experiencing a different place. ‘It’s a film technique,’ RJ says, ‘close shot to wide shot: start on the main character and pull out to the world.’

Of course the author is the expert on their setting, by background, research or invention. Tasha tells us how her editor observed a character motive that doesn’t exist outside of India so she had to build in an explanation. Editors, RJ says, are unsung heroes.

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And perhaps that’s a useful ending point. Representation, like the saturation of dragons, might ironically have become almost over-represented in an authors’ panel itinerary, but because of a previous dearth that required correction. Either way it’s an ongoing cultural conversation between the authors who creatively represent, editors who contextualise for best effect, and readers seeking new novelistic realities. Oh, and convention-goers who get to enjoy a very different kind of panel on the subject of representation.

As long as things are moving forward.

Tim Bayley

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Check out more Panel coverage on Carabas here!

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