Sunday, February 2, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: The LadySmiths

It’s February which is traditionally Black History Month in the US. In the past I have made special series of posts commemorating authors of color in fantasy including some of close friends.

This year I thought it would be poignant to post a series celebrating authors who have taken an active approach to include diversity in their fantasy writing. I’ll be focusing on authors currently working on their projects for two reasons: 1) So that the rest of us can see, firsthand, how writers are incorporating more diverse settings, people, and themes into works they are presently writing and revising and 2) So that the authors interviewed can take a moment to take an analytical look at their stories regarding diverse motifs.

First is Ms. Chelle Rhys and her Novel in Progress, The LadySmiths.

Your work in progress is titled The LadySmiths. What was your primary inspiration for this story?

The current title and the original first glimmerings of an idea came from the name of a band I used to like when I was younger. Ladysmith Black Mombaza. 'Ladysmith', I thought one day. 'I wonder what that might be.' And some magic that only worked for female blacksmiths came sneaking into my mind.

The setting of your story is an atypical one for most fantasy and is reminiscent of some older era of Africa. What pulled you to this setting? Did you draw from any actual places to create this world?

To be honest, my original intention was to be different from the standard medieval European fantasy setting by moving to the Renaissance era. But a friend of mine was heading to Ethiopia to teach, and the more I read about the history there, the more fascinating I found it. And, of course, Ladysmith Black Mombaza was an African band.  So I moved the novel, lock, stock and barrel, before I'd even started writing it. And I'm really glad I did. Ancient Ethiopian history (what we know of it) is fascinating.

My physical setting was also inspired by Africa, though it's not identical to it. I liked the idea of there being a sea, but not a wide one, between my people and another nation; and I liked the thought of a higher, cooler land butting up against a desert. I invented a miles-long cliff dividing the two. The Ladysmith School is dug wholesale out of rock. There are many examples of this in our world in different places around the globe - Italy, Myanmar, India, Turkey, Jordan, Bali and Ethiopia. I saw a picture of a temple once, where they explained how it was excavated down from the top rather than being built from the bottom up, or even carved out of the face of a rock, and so I incorporated that idea, too.

Your people are also not your standard fantasy fare. I’ve personally noticed a rich cultural heritage for every main person in your story. Did you draw on any real world cultures when you were developing your people?

To some extent. The cultures are an amalgamation of my own imagination, what little is known about ancient Ethiopia, and some real-world African traditions. I am trying to keep a flavor of Africa, while still making it clear that it's my own world, and not ours. But I did use some African folk-lore and traditions as springboards for my own; for instance, the idea of blacksmiths in general holding a prominent and powerful position in their town or village is a wide-spread one among African tribes. And I borrowed fairly freely from African languages for names, though I generally try to change them a little along the way.

Can you tell us a bit more about your main person, who she is, what she wants, what she must do, some of her obstacles in the story?

Shennafi d'Ab'hoi is a young woman who has wanted to be one of the fabled Ladysmiths and learn to wield their magic since she was a child. Her father, who is the blacksmith of Ab'hoi, wanted her to stay home and eventually become his successor, and was initially unwilling to let her go to Ladysmith School. One of her main motivations throughout is to make him proud of her.

She intends to come home when she is finished with her schooling and work with her father. But she is also living in a time when her country is torn by internal conflicts and facing external enemies. The king is making unpopular policies, including selling some of his subjects as slaves to pay for soldiers to bolster his own army.  Shennafi finds herself caught up in both the more minor war at home, between those who support the king and those who think he has gone too far, and the major war when her country is invaded. She faces obstacles that range from people in her village, to her own conflicting desires and loyalties, to the king, to the gods themselves.  In the end, she discovers for herself what things in her life are worth the price required to gain them.

The roles that women play in the society you have created seems to be a significant theme in your story. Would you care to elaborate on that?

It sort of came about organically. I didn't decide one day that I was going to write a novel about the roles of women in society. But if you have a group of magical blacksmiths who can only be women, you end up writing a lot about women. I chose not to turn things entirely around and make women take the place that men tend to have in many of our world's cultures and putting men into the subservient role instead; but I did want to show women taking positions of strength and power, and to write about a world where a girl can grow up and not feel that many dreams she might have are barred to her simply because she is female.

Of course, the people in Shennafi's world are a varied lot, just as we are, and there are those who think women shouldn't do anything but take care of the men and the babies and the fields, but I have tried to portray a culture where generally speaking, men and women are seen as equal citizens. I have a feeling that somewhere out there is a male-only Ladysmith equivalent; I just haven't run into it yet.

For those of us who have already fallen in love with your tale and those who haven’t had the privilege of reading it so far, would you share what you hope your readers will ultimately take away from your story?

That's a good question. Every time I read it, I came up with a different answer. I certainly hope people will enjoy a setting filled with different traditions and myths than the traditional European fantasy arena, and that some of them might be inspired to learn more about different cultures from their own. Perhaps especially Africa, which in my history classes was shown mostly from the angle of the European nations who colonized it.  And I'd like it if people who read it felt empowered to reach for their own dreams, whether in a traditional area or a nontraditional one.

But mostly, for me, it's a story about choices. What's important to me, and what am I willing to do in order to achieve my goals? Does the end justify the means? Can I find a way to be true to myself, and still fulfill my responsibilities to those around me? You know - minor questions like that. Smile

Thank you very much, Chelle, for a fascinating interview.

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