Diversity in Fantasy

Riots in Minneapolis, Dallas, and Atlanta and other parts of the country streamed across the news this weekend following the murder of George Floyd. I made a personal decision years ago to avoid politically charged discourse on my blog, so I will not be discussing the murder or its fallout. It is not because I don’t care. But if you disagree with my views on tolerance, you probably don’t want to read my books. Therefore, I’m not going to spend my valued writing time, my blog maintenance time, or my platform trying to convince you that you’re wrong. Because if you are not outraged at what happened to George Floyd and to Christian Cooper just in the last week, your privilege is showing.

These events and so many countless others like them, however, have taken a toll on what I’m looking for when I read a book. I’m looking at novels with a writer’s critical eye, not just for craft but also for content. And I must confess that I’m disappointed by the trends I’m noticing.

I started reading a new fantasy series lately, set in the modern day. The main character is a Midwestern white girl who ends up in faerie land with a bunch of fae also described as stereotypically Anglo-Saxon. Something about the naming conventions rubbed me the wrong way and I abandoned the story before I was halfway through the novel. I guess we’re all supposed to assume all fae are of British origin?

Why can’t the faerie all be as diverse as, oh, I don’t know, my neighborhood or my kid’s public school classroom? Honestly, I figure they shouldn’t even look all that human…but, as a writer, if you are determined to make your fantasy creatures pseudo-human, I think it’s a good idea to look around your neighborhood, school, or workplace.

Of course, I’ve read and loved the Rick Riordan series. He does an excellent job including diversity in his books without making you feel like he’s including a token minority. I especially appreciate how he works the diversity into the plot—I’m thinking in particular of Frank and how Greco-Roman culture spread to Asia. I thought his handling of Arab Spring and stereotypes in The Kane Chronicles may have opened his readers’ eyes to their privilege.

I’ve shared my liking for Miraculous Ladybug before, and one of the things I enjoy most about the series is that the entire classroom of characters is fundamentally diverse, which ties into the plot unobtrusively.

I also remember being thrilled to see a book cover from a romance author involving a South Asian heroine. I snapped it up immediately and abandoned anything else I was reading to consume it immediately. It’s true that representation does matter.

I’ve tried to be conscious of diversity in my own writing, particularly in the Stargazer Conservatory novels and the new story that bit me recently. It was important to me that Kai should have a diverse background, that Maryn would have a best friend (Rima) who is Indian, as well as other characters yet to come.

In my new fae novel, I’ve also tried to identify a reason to explain the character diversity and to provide it accordingly. From the names to the clothes to the culture, it was important to me to have a unique fantasy setting that reflects the diversity I want to read in other books. After all, isn’t it time to see representation in the art we consume?

The Perils of DuoLingo and FaceBook Pages

I’ve made no secret of my love for DuoLingo’s amazing language-learning application. I’ve been diligently studying Spanish, Hindi, and French, and I’ve nearly finished the Hindi course.

As part of my online presence, I have a FaceBook page for my writing. In an effort to be transparent and easy for readers to find, the handle is PreetiCSharmaAuthor.

I thought at the time I was being pretty clear about who I was and what I was doing. My “About” section clearly shows my website, my books, and indicates that I write. Many of my posts are links to blog  posts or articles I’ve written.

However, I have hundreds of followers on this page.

Wait, that’s great news, right? 

Wrong.

Given the sales of my books and the types private of messages I receive on my page, I know for a fact that almost none of my followers are readers. In fact, most of them fit into the category of bored Southasian men looking to hit on a girl.

Now I don’t know if the people messaging me missed lessons on social cues, are unable to do the most basic of research on a FaceBook profile to see who they’re messaging, or are just weird and desperate. When the conversation starts to veer into creepy or overly personal territory, I usually mention my kids or my family, but as you are about to see, it doesn’t always work.

So what does my FaceBook page have to do with the study of foreign languages?

You see, while my consistency in DuoLingo has definitely improved my conversation and grammar, it has also set me up to targeted by creepy Internet strangers. If my Hindi were truly awful, I wouldn’t have been able to respond in the right language. Presumably this might have ended the conversation much sooner.

This guy also doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Apparently this is a gap that DuoLingo needs to address: how to firmly tell a guy to leave you the hell alone.

Yes, I could have just blocked him, especially after he continued to send me messages after I expressed my disinterest in talking to him. Honestly, who chats with someone for ten minutes and then decides they should talk on the phone?

You can read our entire conversation below and tell me where it all went wrong. I’ve attached the screen shots and provided a properly punctuated transcript with my commentary.

Creepy Guy: What do you do?

[You sent an author a PM on her author page. What do you think I do?]

Me: I write books. Duh.

Creepy Guy: I work on ceilings. Where are you from?

[OK, he doesn’t do his work on the ceiling. It translates that he does ceiling or possibly roof repair work, but he used the word “ceiling.”]

Me: I live in Atlanta. And you?

Creepy Guy: I live in Uttar Pradesh, India. 

[Uttar Pradesh has one of the lowest literacy rates in India as well as some of the highest rates of female infanticide. I’m not saying the two of things are related. I know what they say about confusing correlation with causation. But these are two horrible things happening in the same place.]

Creepy Guy: I am a Desi boy.

[Yes, you being from UP, India was a dead giveaway that you might be desi. Please also note his capitalization of “desi”.]

Creepy Guy: Where is your village?

[Not kidding: “gaon” is a village. Not a city, not a town. Of course, the “town” where my mom is from has roughly the same population as Atlanta, so you can draw your own conclusions about his word choice. I guess he was determined to uncover what part of India my family is from, but this is stuff I don’t usually share with internet strangers.]

Me: Atlanta? USA? 

[Didn’t I already tell you this? Before you ask why I shared even this much information with an internet stranger, it can be found in any of my books or on any of my online profiles.]

Creepy Guy: Is this place outside of India?

[Amusingly, this person, who doesn’t appear to know that Atlanta is a major city in the United States despite it having been the site for the Olympics once upon a time, also doesn’t appear to know the acronym USA references America.*

*Aside, in a stage whisper: Yes, I know that “America” is not actually a place unless you’re referring to the whole of two continents. I have accepted the colloquial use, especially by relatives in other countries, of “America” as a synonym for the United States.]

Me: Yes, in America

[Did I mention the literacy rate of UP yet? I’m sure this carries over to geography.]

Creepy Guy: You speak Hindi very well

[Actually, I don’t. I’m much more confident in my Hindi grammar when it’s written and I can think about it than I am when speaking.

However, I’ll take the compliment graciously, all thanks to DuoLingo and my parents’ best efforts.

But then I feel damned by faint praise. It’s possible for people outside of India to speak Hindi fluently. Most of the Hindi speakers I know live outside of India and are very patient with my lack of fluency.]

Me: Thank you

Creepy Guy: *Thumbs up emoji*

[Not to be confused with the Coke-like beverage “Thums Up”]

Creepy Guy: How is the corona virus [sic] over there? Is America in lock down [sic]?

[So he’s not totally illiterate and is apparently up-to-date on certain current events.]

Me: Yes. Lots of people are sick. A lot of other people want to end the lockdown.

[I struggled to type this out with my limited vocabulary and my own political views. I tried to be uncontroversial, but I probably didn’t succeed.]

Creepy Guy: Here India is also in lockdown and lots of people are sick. Is it day or night there?

Me: It’s morning

Creepy Guy: *Thumbs up emoji* It’s night here. 6:55PM Will you talk to me?

[Um, no. Definitely not. A brief exchange about current events and our relative location is not enough to warrant a phone call from an INTERNET STRANGER. Still, as a woman, it’s been ingrained in me to be polite. And DuoLingo didn’t teach me the vocabulary to be rude.]

Me: Now I have to [homeschool] my daughter. Good night

[OK, so DuoLingo offers the word for “teach,” which I used here and apparently misspelled. However, the mention of my child and my effort to end the conversation with a polite sign off totally failed.]

Creepy Guy: Are you married? [The actual words translate to “Has your wedding happened?”]

Me: Many years ago

[Oh, no, does this sound like an invitation that I might be tempted to stray? Because I’m not interested. I really meant to make the point that I’m likely a lot older (groan) than he thinks I am.]

Creepy Guy: Will you talk to me?

Me: No. Sorry.

[#sorrynotsorry]

Creepy Guy: Why? I haven’t said anything wrong to you. Just like that why won’t you talk to me?

Me: I have work to do.

Creepy Guy: Ok. 

Creepy Guy: 10 PM. 

Creepy Guy: You’ll talk? 

[7 minutes later]

Creepy Guy: Now you can [homeschool] your daughter and we’ll talk later, ok?

Creepy Guy: Please don’t block me.

Creepy Guy: We’ll talk later.

Creepy Guy: At least answer me.

[Again, why do I feel an obligation to be polite to someone clearly disrespecting my boundaries and my time? Also, here is where he starts becoming informal. Up until now, he was using the most polite pronouns to talk to me, but now he shifts to something less respectful.]

Me: I don’t want to talk on the phone to anyone. Sorry.

[I was so annoyed by this time that I misspelled “phone”]

Creepy Guy: Why are you saying something like that?

Creepy Guy: I didn’t say anything improper to you, so why are you talking like that?

[Then I decided to ignore him and got a bunch more of the “Hi/Hello/*emoji*/*emoji*” nonsense. OVER. THE. COURSE. OF. THE. NEXT. TWO. DAYS.]

Then my husband decided this was all hilarious and decided to message this guy himself, as himself, so not on my page at all. I didn’t feel too good about the possibility of this guy getting into my husband’s profile and finding my personal profile, but he thought this whole situation was hilarious. And I’ll note that Creepy Guy didn’t respond to my husband’s messages.

But when Creepy Guy continued messaging me through the weekend despite not getting a response, I got fed up, created a canned message, and banned him from my page. While he’s not the first creep to send me messages, he’s been the most persistent.

Even though he’s supposedly a couple oceans away, his messages made me increasingly uncomfortable. There’s nothing harmless about this behavior. He demonstrated that he didn’t care for my feelings and that I wasn’t worthy of respect. Like any other emotional manipulator, he flipped the script and made me the bad guy and even sent me virtual flowers. All after I said no.

So now, if you message my page, you receive a canned response before I can reply. You can thank Creepy Guy.