To Wakanda and Beyond

When you think about fantasy worlds, what comes to mind? For me, it’s Narnia, Middle Earth, the wizarding world, and Alagaësia. These worlds are abundant with dragons, elves, orcs, and talking animals, but they lack a major feature: people of color. Maybe some of them have a few token non-white characters, but it’s hard to believe that in an entire world full of fantastical creatures, only a handful of characters of color exist or are important enough to play a role in the story. Even books with more contemporary settings, such as the Harry Potter books, have this flaw. Fortunately, this is starting to change. Marvel’s Black Panther recently debuted, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year. Its setting, the fictional African country of Wakanda, is one of the most stunning places my imagination has ever been. Wakanda is what Africa might have been had it not been colonized, and it proves that Africa and African-inspired settings can be just as rich, if not more so, than, say, an enchanted castle in Scotland or a world that lays behind a wardrobe. I would love to see more places like Wakanda in the world of spec fic, and I’ve already found a few.

First, we have Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Akata Warrior. These books take place in Nigeria and follow Sunny Nwazue, an albino Nigerian-American, as she discovers and hones her latent magical abilities as a Leopard Person. Within the broader Nigerian setting, Sunny and her friends also spend time in Leopard Knocks, a secret magical town where one can buy insanely hot pepper soup, books about juju, and visit the four-story hut that is the Obi Library. Even the magic, or juju, the characters wield is rooted in African spiritualism. More advanced Leopard People are able to call up spirits called masquerades, who are just as likely to kill you as to help you. One major antagonist in both books is Ekwensu, a masquerade of chaos who emerges from a giant termite hill. What’s scarier than a giant, evil spirit who could literally crush you like a bug?

The Killing Moon, by N.K Jemisin, takes place in an Egyptian-inspired city-state called Gujaareh. It’s sort of a loose reimagining of Egypt, though Gujaareh is truly a world of its own. In Gujaareh are Gatherers who perform a dream-based magic to carry out the will of their goddess. Conflict arrives with a character from Kisua, a neighboring city-state with a differing belief system.

The last book I want to highlight is an alternate history. Everfair, by Nisi Shawl, offers a steampunk Congo Free State facing Belgium’s colonization. A safe haven called Everfair is created from land bought from King Leopold by the Fabian Society and African-American missionaries. What’s incredible about Everfair is the broad range of characters it contains. There are native Congolese, African-Americans, Europeans, East Asians; there are characters of differing faiths, abilities, sexual orientations, and economic standings. I’ve rarely read a fantasy novel with so many different kinds of people populating its pages.

These three books are just a few examples of fantasy that don’t adhere to the usual homogeneous structure. As much as I love Harry Potter, it’s painful to admit that there are maybe four characters I can name off the top of my head that aren’t white. The success of Black Panther shows we don’t need to model our fantasy worlds based on feudal Europe where people of color don’t exist.