A lot of weird things happen to a story when you work on it from age twelve to twenty-six. The Theonite Series has gone with me through puberty, my first crushes, my Harry Potter phase, my Batman phase, my Star Wars phase, my Shounen anime phase, changing shape with each one. That much thematic confusion ought to pull a universe apart at the seams. However, the force that has kept the Theonite universe on track through all its permutations is that it stuck to what I consider the most important function of stories: to give us empathy for someone else’s experience.
As a gender-confused biracial kid–not quite white-passing, not quite Chinese-passing–a lot of my high school angst unsurprisingly came from identity issues. It was a mixture of that angst and a love for history that led to my morbid fascination with European colonialism and the mechanisms of oppression that drove it. This fixation on racial tensions snuck its way into my writing, as these things do, and at some point, during high school, I realized that that ninety percent of Theonite’s main arcs and subplots shared an underlying trajectory of prejudice-to-understanding. Soon after, I realized that I wanted to restructure the world of the series to facilitate that narrative.
At the time, the setting of Theonite was a poorly mapped-out parallel dimension peopled with various magical ethnicities based loosely on ethnicities from Earth. The most interesting way I could think of to remodel that world was to turn our own upside down. This marked the birth of Duna, a parallel Earth dominated by a West African superpower. Instead of holding a mirror up to the oppression I saw around me, I wanted to get a different angle on it.
Why did I need to do this? Maybe I hoped that a new vantage would help me understand the history I found so disturbing. Maybe I thought that reclaiming something lost to colonialism would have a magical healing effect on me. Maybe the vindictive minority in me wanted an outlet to vent my rage at Western powers. Maybe the white colonizer in me was looking for a form self-flagellation. Probably a bit of all those things. But over anything else, Duna was born of my desire for white people to understand–really understand–what it meant to be a minority.
I think it bears saying here that I have always understood and sympathized with minorities uninterested in explaining their experiences to the majority. However, as a biracial person, I have always been very invested in explaining my experience to white people. Because if I can’t, then my own people don’t understand me. And in a broader sense, if experiences can’t be understood across racial lines, then I am just alone… which is a terrifying thought now, to say nothing of when I was a teenager.
This fear of being alone in one’s experience embedded itself deep in the arc of my protagonist, Joan Messi. The earliest chapters of Theonite center on how even the most powerful, intelligent, self-assured, Super Special person doesn’t want to be that alone. Even that person needs empathy.
In my teenage mind, the most effective way to get white people to understand racism was to construct a society that treated white people and European cultures the way that white Europeans have historically treated people of color. On Duna, this society took the form of the Yammankalu, a people based on the Mande of West Africa (I did a guest post over at Every Day Should be Tuesday explaining in more detail how I selected the Mande to be the basis for Duna’s dominant culture).
The most challenging and enlightening part of this years-long world-building endeavor has been discovering the African superpower of Yamma. I say ‘discovering’ rather than ‘creating’ because Yamma has as much to do with the forgotten achievements of actual colonized Africans as it does my own imagination. The idea for Duna may have spawned from my selfish need to make white people understand oppression and to reclaim an intangible something lost to colonialism, but in building on that idea, I became jarringly aware of how little I understood oppression and colonialism.
During college, I studied abroad with a Mande oral traditionalist (called a ‘griot’ in French, a ‘jeli’ in his native Bambara, and probably a ‘bard’ in D&D terms), a Malian, who had the distinction of having trained as a journalist in France. I came to him to learn the bygone history of an empire my world had forgotten, but what I found instead was a living, thriving tradition with as much to add to the modern world as any Western academic discipline. In short, a lot of my work was done for me. I didn’t have to imagine what this ‘ancient’ African society would do with radios, TVs, phones, tablets, and the ability to dominate others. I just had to do what any sci-fi writer does and imagine them beyond the bounds of our reality, with superpowers and space travel in the mix. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard. And the tragedy, I think, was in the surprise.
The true colonialism was in my assumption that I had to invent an African superpower, that existing African cultures did not provide sufficient groundwork. Fortunately, I’ve always been slightly addicted to that sort of Holy Hell, world-breaking, I-want-to-slap-myself-now form of surprise. My precise feelings on this made their way into Misaki’s dialogue in The Sword of Kaigen: “You learn over time that the world isn’t broken. It’s just… got more pieces to it than you thought. They all fit together, just maybe not the way you pictured when you were small.”
My fascination with those pieces and all the ways they might be arranged and rearranged drove my research through high school and college. And the more I learned and reflected, the more I realized that many of the signifiers of power we take for granted aren’t inherently human but products of Western culture. These revelations manifest in Duna’s details.
The very first of those details I added to Duna were the dark brown band-aids, which are made to match a black person’s skin tone but just look dumb on our white protagonist, Joan. As I built, these details became more numerous and nuanced. Obsidian is the material of choice for classical statue instead of marble. Elizabethan-sounding English is a particularly low-class dialect. Dance is considered a more intellectual pastime than reading, which barely factors into most education.
There is nothing illogical about these cultural norms. They simply aren’t the ones we are used to. I hope that what I have done with Duna is give readers a chance to take a second look at norms they never thought to question. I’ve tried to write a believable world that just happens to value a type of culture we don’t, to the exclusion of the culture we do.
In my opinion, good literature gets you to ask questions about yourself and great literature gives you the tools to answer them. I’m certainly not on the level to be offering answers, but I hope that the African-dominated world of Duna prompts a few key questions about our own history:
Does white make right?
Does might make right?
Or is humanity worth a deeper look than that?
If I can get readers somewhere in the vicinity of that third question, I’ve done what I set out to do.
Our Earthborn protagonist, Joan, takes pride in her knowledge of Western literature like Shakespeare, her mastery of European languages, and her blue eyes–all things that mark her as underclass in the world of Duna. This, to me, gets to the heart of oppression that a lot of people miss; her identity is inseparable from the mechanisms of her oppression. In order to improve her treatment, she would need to sacrifice critical parts of herself to an arbitrary cultural standard.
I took the parts of my whiteness that I treasured the most–the sense of belonging to a great tradition of scholars, innovators, and heroes–and stomped on them the way minority identities are stomped on in our world. In Joan, and in all my characters of different ethnicities and insecurities, I wanted to give readers the chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I wanted to give others what I needed so badly and lacked so profoundly as a young person: