If we’re fans of Harry Potter, we remember the names of the spells and curses: avada kedavra, alohomora, lumos. Fans of Lord of the Rings, go to painstaking lengths to name the Dunedain as the descendants of the Numenorians, and to keep track of all of all of Aragorn’s names. It’s what we do. In fantasy (as well as science fiction) it’s our job as readers to know and remember to the best of our ability the terminology of the world we’ve been placed in. I have to consistently research how to spell places in Middle Earth for instance, but I will take that extra step because I believe Tolkien’s world deserves that level of my attention.
So, why do we not apply the same level of respect when discussing “non-white” names in fiction? I’m currently reading Nadifa Mohamed’s novel The Orchard of Lost Souls — about three women surviving the Somalian Civil War in the late 1980s (check out the NY Times book review for more information on the plot). When talking about the novel to a friend, I couldn’t remember Mohamed’s name. It felt like such a huge inconvenience to go to my bookshelf and look it up. But if she were a white author, I would not have had that same hesitance. If this were a name in Middle Earth or a spell in Harry Potter, I would not have had the same hesitance. Even when reading books by people of color, it is too easy to still erase them and the narratives they tell.
Think of the #SayHerName campaign for Sandra Bland and all the black women who are killed by police, when you read work by people of color and featuring protagonists of color. Say her name. Say the name of the author and the protagonists in order to take a stand that their lives–even their fictitious lives–matter. We will not erase these characters or authors.
For fantasy and science fiction, do the same: learn the names of the world. Respect the world. Respect the characters. Respect the author. It’s more than world building; it’s claiming the story of another person matters.