Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther

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I, like much of movie-going America right now, want to move to Wakanda.

By this I both mean the specific Wakanda imagined into being by the box-office busting cultural sensation Black Panther, and the Wakanda-as-idea that to me represents a time, space and place where brown, Black, and other historically marginalized heroes don’t just survive, but thrive.

Growing up as a daughter of Indian immigrants to the U.S., I didn’t know such places existed. More to the point, I didn’t know such a place could be permitted by mainstream America to exist. A place where someone like me could be magical, powerful, brave – a place where someone like me could save the universe.

There are two reasons for this. One of them is that when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

If it wasn’t for my long summer vacation trips back to my grandparents’ homes in West Bengal, India, I might have continued on my quest to erase myself from my own story. It was during those trips that I could see people who looked like me, and sounded like me, and celebrated me. Through them I learned to celebrate myself. What also helped were the stories of my own cultural Wakanda — my grandmothers’ folktales that transported me to a magical place called ‘the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers.’ These were fantastic stories of flesh eating rakkhosh demons, evil serpent kings, brave princes and princess, and wise talking birds. I loved these stories so much, I first translated a number of them into a volume called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (Interlink, 1995) and later used them to inspire my debut middle grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic 2018), which is the first in the middle grade fantasy series, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond. 

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In addition to the neglect afforded by cultural invisibility was the experience of venomous, purposeful, cultural erasure. From almost daily racist microaggressions – like kids in the schoolyard who rubbed at my skin to see if my ‘tan’ would come off — to macroaggressions like tar in our family mailbox, when I was a child, I got the message loud and clear that I – who had been born in the U.S. – would always be a perpetual foreigner, that my family and my community had no place in the xenophobic, racist, homogenized story mainstream America insisted on telling about itself. Luckily, I had a model of resistance at home, activist parents who helped me name my demons. While my character Kiranmala fights multiple long-toothed, sharp clawed, carnivorous rakkhosh, my personal rakkhosh was racism. It wasn’t until I learned to recognize this monster as something systemic, and not something that was inherently wrong with me or my community, that I could defeat its hold over me.

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Art by Vivienne To.

When my own children, who are now teenagers, were middle grade readers, the cultural representations available to them were a bit better than during my childhood. But it wasn’t true across all genres. Middle grade (and YA) fantasy in particular has been far slower than other genres to make space for Indigenous and LGBTQIA heroes, heroes of color and heroes with disabilities. And yet, middle grade fantasy is the genre which is all about radical imagination — in which children can fly, and do magic, and save the universe. And so, I wrote The Serpent’s Secret as much for my children as for myself, in answer to Toni Morrison’s famous call, “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That said, I would add an addendum to Morrison’s call – if there is a book you want to read, and need to write, you must also ask yourself whether you are the right person for the job, and why you want to write it. What I’ve outlined above is my own self-examination in regard to this question. All I ask is that my fellow authors of all backgrounds do the same.

In my ‘day job,’ I work in the field of Narrative Medicine, also known as the Health Humanities, an interdisciplinary field dedicated to honoring the role of story in healing. In my teaching, I urge my students to ask questions like “Who speaks?” and “Who is spoken for?” as well as “Whose stories count?” and “Whose stories are discounted?” We discuss the potential violence of more socioculturally powerful tellers speaking for less socioculturally powerful communities. In her essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff has suggested that, “the act of more privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.”

The truth of the matter is, my personal Wakanda – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers — was decades in the making. It does not come from me thinking that diversity is a trend or that it might be interesting to explore an Indian American character. It comes from my own many experiences – with invisibility and visibility, with racism and anti-racist activism, with stories and with silence. In the same way, the magic of the Black Panther film is born from its nearly all-Black cast and African American director. It might be considered, if it were a novel, consistent with the notion of #ownvoices, or, as the phrase goes in disability activism, “nothing about us without us.”

This doesn’t of course mean that all writers shouldn’t populate their worlds diversely – reflecting the real world around them. But it does mean that they should think about their own power, and their own reasons for telling any particular story. It means that all us writers must work collaboratively, giving and receiving input, to get our stories ‘right’ – particularly when we are seeking to tell stories of those communities whose stories have been erased or willfully silenced.

We are living in a time where, more than ever, we need cultural spaces like Wakanda, and cultural stories like those imagined into existence by #ownvoices fantasists. We need the warriors of Black Panther, immigrant daughters who are superheroes and little girls of color who travel through time and space, like Meg Murry in Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time. We need to recognize that these stories are paralleled in real life by the heroic teen survivors of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, who are speaking out and telling their story because it is their story to tell, and they refuse to let anyone else write their lives out of existence.

Wakanda is a fictional place, but Wakanda is also an idea. It is an idea about liberation, and fantasy, and who among us gets to imagine themselves into the future. Indeed, #representationmatters, not only because it heals traditionally marginalized people, but because the healing of our hurting world is going require as many superheroes of as many backgrounds as we can get.

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Sayantani DasGupta grew up hearing stories about brave princesses, bloodthirsty rakkhosh and flying pakkhiraj horses. She is a pediatrician by training but now teaches at Columbia University. When she’s not writing or reading, Sayantani spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador Retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. She is a team member of We Need Diverse books and can be found on Twitter at @sayantani16 or at www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer.

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