Quite by chance, last year, I read several books in a row that featured mixed race protagonists. I didn’t read any of them because of this; in every case I only found out after I started reading them.
I see this coincidence as a promising indication that the diversity of western societies is at last getting represented in imaginative fiction. More stories are being told, more realities mirrored, more complexities explored.
I’ve already written about Malla Nunn’s detective novel A Beautiful Place to Die, set in the early years of apartheid in South Africa. As well as being a whodunnit, the novel explores the dangerous territory of mixed race relationships, which were of course illegal under apartheid.
Nunn herself is mixed, or ‘coloured’ as mixed people are known in Africa, so is able to bring some special insights to the novel. Towards the end of A Beautiful Place to Die, she springs the surprise that the detective himself is mixed (although the mix is Asian/white not African/white), which opens up even more possibilities for complicating the plot development in this and future novels in the detective Emmanuel Cooper series.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, at around the same time, another author with links to Africa invented another mixed race detective … well, aspiring detective … well, aspiring wizard detective: Constable Peter Grant, in the urban fantasy Rivers of London.
Rivers of London is the sort of book that people like to compare to the Harry Potter series, but is in fact far more innovative, not least because unlike J.K Rowling, author Ben Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from the reality that England is a multicultural society, and that it’s completely reasonable, in a 21st century novel, to have a protagonist whose father is white and whose mother is from Sierra Leone. (And yes I know Harry Potter has some token black and Asian characters, but they are all pretty peripheral and become less and less significant as the series progresses).
Rivers of London is written in the first person, from Peter’s perspective, but Aaronovitch himself is not mixed race, he’s white. Does this affect the authenticity of Peter Grant’s voice? I don’t know. I think you do have to be a bit cautious about the unaware assumptions that can creep into a story told by ‘stepping into someone else’s shoes’, especially when the person doing the stepping is white and the shoes belong to someone who’s black.
However, from my perspective as the white parent of a mixed race teen, I am just grateful that such a book (now a series) has been written at all. Even though AM told me that he didn’t pay much attention to the fact that Peter Grant was mixed, there can’t be many books he would pick up, especially in the fantasy genre, where he could read a line that resonates so fully with his own experience as ‘Indian cooking has no terrors for a boy raised on groundnut chicken and jelof [jollof] rice’.
When I read that line (which still makes me laugh) I thought that the author must have some personal connection with African / mixed race families, it was so accurate a description of AM’s upbringing. So I did my own bit of sleuthing and found that all the evidence does indeed point to him being a white Dad in a mixed Anglo/Sierra Leonean family. I won’t reveal my deductive methods as it feels a bit stalkery, particularly as Aaronovitch doesn’t exactly disclose this himself anywhere that I could find. He doesn’t even mention it when he explains why he made Peter Grant a mixed character:
‘Peter just arrived. I didn’t think to myself I was going to write a mixed race character. Originally … he was a woman, he was a Jamaican woman’
Perhaps he feels this personal connection would distract readers from the point he wants to make about representing multiculturalism. In the same interview, asked about his multicultural cast of characters, he says:
‘… you set it in London, that’s who you’re going to end up with! The idea that you could set it in London and everyone would be white is just so weird.’
I could say the same about most Australian television (at least the shows with urban locations), but who would listen?
Apparently Aaronovitch has long been a champion of anti-racism and multiculturalism in fiction. He wrote black characters into some 1980s Doctor Who episodes, as well as a later spin-off. Perhaps it’s time they brought him back.
I’m starting to feel like he’s a kindred spirit.
His personal connections and his commitment to anti-racism also explain one of the things that I like about the books – that they are not specifically about being mixed race. They’re urban crime fantasy; police procedurals with water spirits (the rivers of the title), ghosts, vampires, evil magicians, and a special police unit set up to deal with the supernatural. They’re fast paced, fun, and original — and the main character just happens to be mixed race, because that’s nothing out of the ordinary, in multicultural London. It’s normal.
This means that — just leaving aside the magic for a moment — when the ordinary details of Peter Grant’s normal private life are shared, they are often those of a mixed West African English person: groundnut (peanut) soup, issues with hair, poor relatives in Africa, the pentecostal church, experiences of racism and stereotyping. Details that rang true for me as a member of a mixed African Australian family. Details that are part of AM’s life, that his white friends are not necessarily aware of. (He is like them in so many ways, so some of them assume he is the same as them … but he has life experiences that they just don’t.) Details that don’t define him, or dominate his life, but are part of who he is. And perhaps this is why AM didn’t pay much attention to Peter being mixed — because it just felt normal.
I can forgive the books a lot for that. And they are flawed. The plotlines are a bit over-complicated, even at times confused, and the violence is definitely not for younger readers (vagina dentata, anyone?). The humour — which I mostly loved –sometimes feels too obvious. The obsession with architecture’s perhaps a bit overdone. But I can forgive all this for the rare treat of what reads, to me at least, as a real, not a whitewashed mixed race lead character.
On TV and in movies, I find that black/Asian people often seem to be portrayed as identical to white people except for their physical characteristics (unless they are being completely stereotyped). I think this is an attempt to not be racist, to say ‘we are all the same’, but it seems to me that the template remains white, and as a result the diversity of people’s experiences becomes invisible.
Fiction would be a whole lot richer if it wasn’t restricted to the white template; if books and shows included as motley a crew of people as I encounter every day on the bus, at the gym, the doctor’s surgery, the supermarket, the bank; if peanut soup and African church matrons got a few more mentions; if authors and screenwriters dared to explore what might happen when people’s diversity is taken into consideration. Where could J.K Rowling have taken her plots if Harry had stayed in love with Cho Chan? Somewhere a whole lot more interesting is my guess, because relationships across cultural difference bring challenges, surprises and insights. But no, she had to play safe.
Aaronovitch, on the other hand, shows that it’s possible to write an entertaining, gripping fantasy without compromising on, well, reality. Bring it on.
P.S. I know I said at the beginning that I read ‘several’ books with mixed race lead characters – stay tuned, I’ll be back with more thoughts on the third of the books that I read.