What do you do when you are a person of colour (POC) planning an anthology inspired by the work of not one, but two racist writers? That’s my situation right now. I say you talk about it!
No, don’t try to debate that point. Robert E. Howard is the man who wrote in a letter to Lovecraft “I don’t know whether an Oriental smells any different than a nigger when he’s roasting” and then went on to pen “Red Nails” an adventure in a quasi-Prehispanic setting. Here’s a description of one of the Prehispanic bad guys named Olmec:
“That smile [Olmec's] contained all the cruel cynicism that seethes below the surface of a sophisticated and degenerate race, and for the first time in her life Valeria experienced fear of a man.”
Lovecraft, for his part, wrote “The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government.”
He also wrote a poem which went:
When, long ago, the gods created Earth,
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind,
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceived a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a NIGGER.
There you have it. Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft were racists. Yet often when I say this, people will start protesting. It is understandable. We don’t want to be told that people we admire as artists had displeasing traits.
Lovecraft and Howard could be witty, smart and engaging men. They also had major racial issues. Don’t try to justify it with talks of these were them days of racists and wine and roses. People are not divided as villains and heroes. Lovecraft and Howard were not villains or heroes. They were men. Just as they could be very fun to hang out with, they also had their unpleasant side. We must accept this, and accept them as human beings with their quirks and their failings.
As a POC writer, editor and publisher, I have two choices: to completely ignore writers like Lovecraft and Howard, and the sub-genres they helped shape, or to engage them. Neither choice is worthier than the other. There are plenty of writers who may not see the point in penning Mythos stories or writing sword and sorcery adventures. They may choose instead to write magic realism, surrealism, science fiction, literary fiction or a bunch of other things.
However, I prefer to engage them. I think that if we don’t go into these spaces that have long been closed to us, where we have often been viewed as the alien or the exotic element, we will never be represented there. I also think that just because a space was originally designed with no room for us, it doesn’t mean that’s still the case. Women, for example, did not have a great space in sword and sorcery until the 60s and the 70s, but then we had anthologies like Sword and Sorceress. That doesn’t mean representation of women or of female writers in these sub-genres is perfect, but the emergence of heroines in the sword and sorcery arena proves that things can change.
Things must, in fact, change. For a sub-genre, any sub-genre, to remain important and vital, there must be new voices, new readers, new perspectives. Otherwise what you get are a repetition of cliches.
I live in Vancouver, a city where visible minorities account for 41.7 percent of Metro Vancouver’s population. Some 381,500 of Metro Vancouver’s 2.1 million residents (or 18.2 percent) call themselves Chinese. Canada’s Aboriginal population is growing faster than the general population, increasing by 20.1% from 2001 to 2006. In the United States, the Census Bureau projects that by 2050 one-quarter of the population will be Hispanic or Latino.
These are the readers of tomorrow. These are the people who will continue to buy – or not buy – sword and sorcery and Mythos stories. We can’t possibly give them the same mythologies, storylines and characters that were appearing in Weird Tales in 1935. Yet we have often done just that, happy to take readers to MacEurope or Exotica.
As the writers of the sword and soul movement have proven, our speculative fiction is changing and will continue to change. Embracing this idea, encouraging diverse writers and stories, sampling a variety of authors and expanding our frontiers, are ways to maintain these sub-genres alive. Otherwise we might as well re-read all the original stories of Howard and Lovecraft and call it quits.
I think modern fiction inspired by the pulps can be smart, can be diverse, can be thrilling, all at the same time.
We are trying to raise money to pay pro rates for the Sword and Mythos anthology. Please spread the word.