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Mother of Souls: Representation and Intersection

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 - 08:08

There's a lively conversation online these days about representation of non-default characters, the intersection of identities, and the importance of representation that comes from authors' "own voices" (Twitter hashtag #ownvoices). That is, understanding the distinction between authors who are writing from within their own cultures, their own histories, their own identities, and authors who are writing those things as an outsider but who may have more access to publishing and publicity support, and who thus may become the "face" of those identities in preference to #ownvoices authors.

When writing historical or SFF fiction, there are additional complexities to the concept of #ownvoices. Who best represents the voice of a historic culture? Anyone descended from the people of that culture? People living in the same geographic area? What does it mean to write a marginalized culture in a secondary world? Are invented marginalized cultures a way of respecting real-world marginalizations by not appropriating them, or a lazy dodge to avoid having to engage with how readers are identifying with the characters?

When I...realized? decided?...that Serafina Talarico in the Alpennia series had an Ethiopian heritage, I knew I was going to have to do serious work to place her in the context of this conversation about representation. It would be entirely too lazy to say, "Well, I don't really represent any of the various intersectional identities in the Alpennia books--not really even their sexuality, because 19th century understandings of sexuality are very different from modern ones. So there's nothing special about Serafina in that respect." There is something special, because where the world is full of historic fiction and historic fantasy about early 19th century white Europeans, and it is definitely not full of fiction about early 19th century Ethiopians (fantasy setting or no). So I have to accept that there will be readers for whom Serafina may be their most memorable representative of that set.

Given that, what is my responsibility? Firstly, to write a complex, three-dimensional character who is true to her cultural and historic setting to the best of my ability. Secondly, to not promote her as an authentic representative of that culture. This may seem contradictory, but consider: if I were writing a generic heterosexual Regency romance full of improbably young and handsome single Earls and clever but impoverished gentlewomen, would they be "authentic representatives" of early 19th century England? No, absolutely not. And anyone who gave five seconds' thought to the question would know that. That's the sense in which I mean "not an authentic representative".

My third responsibility is still under construction because it involves research and fact-checking: to identify and promote books that share Serafina's characteristics that are #ownvoices stories with regard to culture and ethnicity. I doubt I'm going to find any #ownvoices books about an early 19th century bisexual Ethiopian immigrant to Europe, never mind the fantasy setting. But I can find some of those intersections. And thanks to the wonders of Goodreads thematic lists, I have a list of titles to look into further. (I've also identified some websites and blogs that may be useful for vetting the results of my initial lists, if they are willing to help.)

The message I want to send my potential readers is: don't read Mother of Souls instead of #ownvoices books, read it instead of the books I chose not to write that didn't include marginalized identities at all. That was the choice it was within my power to make.

And with that, here's the next teaser for Mother of Souls: a bit of Serafina reminiscing about her childhood in Rome.

* * *

It hadn’t felt like this when she was a girl. Visions had been a joy, a gift, a promise. A tiny white-walled room, with the blazing Roman sun slanting through the shutter slats to form stripes on the carpet. She sat cross-legged on a cushion, practicing her letters on a slate. Her mother sang as her dark hands lifted up another sheet of injera from the griddle. Serafina knew it was a charm-song, even without understanding the words, by the way the light danced in harmony. In memory, the visions mixed with the aroma of the spices and the sharp scent of clove and sandalwood in the oil Mama used to dress her hair. The magic seemed to dance in time with the swaying of her gauzy white shawl that somehow never slipped from her shoulders or fell into her work.

And when the dancing sun-stripes slanted just so, Papa would come through the door, looking all important in his dark suit just like the Roman men in the world outside, with her brother Michele trailing after him, carrying his books and writing case. Papa and Mama would say the prayers together in the tongue she’d never learned, and she and Michele would repeat the Pater in Latin and the everyday prayers in Romanesco—there was no Coptic church here and she and Michele had been baptized by the Catholic priests. Then there would be the sharp sour taste of injera and the rich spiciness of the stew wrapped within it. Papa would sigh and say he could almost think himself back in Mekelle at their wedding feast. He and Mama would be sad together for a time, remembering, but it was their sadness, not hers.


In time, the magic faded from her mother’s work. She stopped singing the old songs. Serafina hadn’t noticed, for the visions still came in church. They would stand together in the back and Mama would say her own prayers quietly, but Serafina would drink in the way the lights of the candles and the colored windows rose up in a great symphony of movement, answering the priests as they celebrated the Mass, or flowing throughout the crowd of worshippers during the special holidays. When she gasped and exclaimed at the sight, Mama would grasp her hand and murmur, “My little angel!” and Papa would smile with pride and say, “You will become a learned woman!”