Finding a Fantasy World (by turning ours upside down): An Uncomfortably Personal Look Back on the Creation of Duna

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 American in me was looking for a form self-flagellation. Probably a not-so-healthy 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 sympathized with minorities uninterested in explaining their experiences to the majority, and I think it’s wonderful that more and more work written for minority identities by minority authors is getting visibility. 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 research that went into the Yammankalu and Duna’s other powerful nations took up much of the next ten years of my life. (You can find some of my sources listed here).

Theonite: Planet Adyn & Orbit with some of the Mande culture sources that inspired the world of Duna.⁣

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 (back in high school, when I was just getting started) were the dark brown band-aids, which are made to match a black person’s skin tone but 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. Oppression asks minorities to remodel and reframe themselves according an arbitrary cultural standard.

I took the parts of whiteness that I think people treasure the most–the sense of belonging to a great tradition of scholars, innovators, and heroes–and degraded them the way minority identities are wrongfully degraded in our world. This was the only way I could think of, in my teenage frustration, to get a white reader to understand the experience of being a minority in a world of Western neocolonialism. 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:

Empathy.

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