Hello, Writing with Color! First of all, thank you for all you do. Second, do you have any advice for a white person retelling fairy tales, both European fairy tale and non-European fairy tales? Is it okay to retell non-European fairy tales? I would feel bad if all fairy tales I retold were European as those are over represented, but given how much white people have erased and whitewashed other culture’s fairy tales I understand if that were off-limits for a white person. Thank you!
Fairy tale retellings are my favorite thing. I love reading, rewriting and creating new fairy tale-style stories with People of Color!
As you write, keep in mind:
European does not mean white.
The possibility of PoC in European or Western historical settings tends to throw off so many.
There are plenty of European People of Color, then and today. You can have an Indian British little red riding hood and it isn’t “unrealistic.” And we wanna read about them!
Still, research the history of your settings and time period. Use multiple credible sources, as even the most well-known ones may exclude the history of People of Color or skim over it. The stories might be shoved into a corner, but we live and lived everywhere.
- How and when did they or their family get there, and why?
- Has it been centuries, decades, longer than one can remember?
- Who are the indigenous people of the region? (Because hey, places like America and Australia would love to have you believe it’s first people were white…)
- Is there a connection with the Moors, trade, political marriage; was it simply immigration?
No need to elaborate all too much. A sentence or more woven into the story in passing may do the trick to establish context, depending on your story and circumstance.
Or if you want to ignore all of that, because this is fantasy-London or whatever, by all means do. POC really don’t need a explanation to exist, but I simply like to briefly establish context for those who may struggle to “get it”, personally.
Although, if PoC existing in a fairy tale is the reader’s biggest stumbling block in a world of magic, speculation, and fantasy, that’s none of your concern.
Can you picture any of the people below, or someone with these backgrounds, the protagonist of their own fairytale? I hope so!
Above: Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1760s – 1800s), British Heiress with her cousin. Check out her history as well as the movie, Belle (2013).
Above: Abraham Janssens – The Agrippine Sibyl – Netherlands (c. 1575)
“Since ancient times Sybils were considered seers sent by god, priestesses foretelling the coming of great events. This model serves to depict the Sybil of Agrippina, one of the 12 that foretold the coming of Christ. Notice the flagellum and crown of thrones which are symbolic objects reminding the viewer of Christs suffering.” X
Above: “Major Musa Bhai, 3 November 1890. Musa Bhai travelled to England in 1888 as part of the Booth family, who founded the Salvation Army.” X
Above: Eleanor Xiniwe and Johanna Jonkers, respectively and other members of the African Choir, who all had portraits taken at the London Stereoscopic Company in 1891.
“The African Choir were a group of young South African singers that toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. They were formed to raise funds for a Christian school in their home country and performed for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, a royal residence on the Isle of Wight.” X
The examples above just scratch the surface. Luckily, more and more historians and researchers are publishing lesser known (and at times purposefully masked) PoC history.
- PoC in History (WWC Search Link)
- POC in Europe (WWC Search Link)
- The Black Victorians: astonishing portraits unseen for 120 years
- Hidden histories: the first Black people photographed in Britain – in pictures
Let’s talk about oppression and slavery
There is a hyper-focus on chattel slavery as if the times when and where it occurred is the only narrative that exists. And even when it is part of a Person of Color’s history, that is seldom all there is to say of the person or their lives. For example, Dido Elizabeth Belle.
People of Color were not all slaves, actively enslaved, or oppressed for racial reasons at all times in history! Dig deep into the research of your time period and region. Across the long, wide history of the world, People of Color are and were a norm and also NOT simply exceptions. Explore all the possibilities to discover the little known and seldom told history. Use this as inspiration for your writings.
PoC (especially Black people) were not always in chains, especially in a world of your making.
Don’t get me wrong. These stories do have a place and not even painful histories should be erased. I personally read these stories as well, if and when written by someone who from the background. Some might even combine fairy tale, fantasy, and oppression in history. However…
There are plenty of stories on oppressed PoC. How many fairy tales?
Many European tales have versions outside of Europe.
Just because a tale was popularized under a western setting doesn’t mean that it originates there. Overtime, many were rewritten and altered to fit European settings, values and themes.
Read original tales.
You might be inspired to include a story in its original setting. Even if you kept it in a western setting, why not consider a protagonist from the ethnicity of the story’s origin?
For example: the Cinderella most are familiar with was popularized by the French in 1697. However, Cinderella has Chinese and Greek versions that date back from the 9th Century CE and 6th Century BCE, respectively.
Choosing a Setting: European or Non-European?
I do not see anything wrong with either (I write tales set in western and non-western settings, all with Heroines of Color). There is great potential in both.
Non-Western Settings (pros and cons)
- Normalizes non-Western settings. Not just the “exotic” realm of the Other.
- Potential for rich, cultural elements and representation
- Requires more research and thoughtfulness (the case for any setting one is unfamiliar with, though)
European or Western Setting (pros and cons)
- Normalizes PoC as heroes, not the Other, or only fit to be side characters.
- Representation for People of Color who live in Western countries/regions
- Loss of some cultural elements (that character can still bring in that culture, though! Living in the West often means balancing 2+ cultures)
Outdated Color and Ethnic Symbolism
Many fairy tales paint blackness (and darkness, and the Other) as bad, ominous and ugly, and white as good and pure.
- Language that worships whiteness as the symbol of beauty. For example: “Fair” being synonymous with beauty. Characters like Snow White being the “fairest” of them all.
- Wicked witches with large hooked noses, often meant to be coded as ethnically Jewish people.
Don’t follow an old tale back into that same pit of dark and Other phobia. There’s many ways to change up and subvert the trope, even while still using it, if you wish. Heroines and heroes can have dark skin and large noses and still stand for good, innocence and beauty.
Non-European Fairy tales – Tips to keep in Mind:
Some stories and creatures belong to a belief system and is not just myth to alter. Before writing or changing details, read and seek the opinions of the group. You might change the whole meaning of something by tweaking details you didn’t realize were sacred and relevant.
Combine Tales Wisely:
Picking stories and beings from different cultural groups and placing them in one setting can come across as them belonging to the same group or place (Ex: A Japanese fairy tale with Chinese elements). This misrepresents and erases true origins. If you mix creatures or elements from tales, show how they all play together and try to include their origin, so it isn’t as if the elements were combined at random or without careful selection.
Balance is key:
When including creatures of myths, take care to balance your Human of Color vs. creatures ratio, as well as the nature of them both (good, evil, gray moral). EX: Creatures from Native American groups but no human Native characters from that same group (or all evil, gray, or too underdeveloped to know) is poor representation.
Changing a good or neutral cultural creature into something evil may be considered disrespectful and misappropriation.
No, seriously. Fairy tales, even those with the most somber of meanings, are meant to be intriguing little adventures. Don’t forget that as you write or get hung up on getting the “right message” out and so on. That’s what editing is for.