Representation in Fantasy: A Discussion with Author Lea Falls

Good morning everyone! I’m really excited to invite debut author, Lea Falls, onto Bookish Brews today to speak on how important representation in fantasy is to her and her new novel Goddess of Limbo. Goddess of Limbo is a brand new dark epic fantasy that explores magic, gods and goddesses, trauma, and reclaiming your autonomy. Lea is so passionate about this, she has included a whole page on trigger warnings and representation included in Goddess of Limbo on her website which you can find here.

I’ll be posting my review of Goddess of Limbo very soon, so keep your eyes open for it! In the meantime, you can check out the book on major retailer sites to see if you are interested!

*This post contains affiliate links, if you are kind enough to purchase through my links, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you*

Goddess of Limbo: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Until There Are No Others

Representation has become a buzzword in the past few years, which is great in some ways—we’re finally talking about it—but can also lead to confusion. To me, representation isn’t something we add to fiction. It’s not this new criteria artists should include in their work, or readers should consume a certain amount of. It’s something that should have been present in the first place and we’re finally starting to acknowledge how much art has neglected to reflect our society in the way it’s always claimed to.

The Power of Storytelling

I love storytelling because it allows us to connect to one another on a deeper level than regular conversation can. We understand so much of our human experience through storytelling—from playing make-believe and goodnight stories to the books and movies that shape us as an adult. History is a form of storytelling too. Yes, there’s a consensus that it should be based on facts, but the person holding the pen will always alter how history looks like. There’s not one history, but countless histories: some better, some worse for us. And just like fiction, history is in desperate need of inclusion, and storytelling makes it possible for us to grasp it. It lets us contextualize how people centuries ago might have lived and what their intentions might have been. Storytelling lets us travel back in time and forward too. It gives us the most effective warnings against what we might have to face.

So when we stock library after library with cis white straight able-bodied neurotypical people and ignore the vast majority of people who do not fit that precise mold, we are decreasing our world. We are asked to paint a picture of a palace and are merely given a photo of the lawn. Representation matters because it’s always mattered. In the oral roots of storytelling, we told tales of our community. But somewhere along the way, the heroes we’re “supposed to” tell tales of replaced that authentic mirror.

I’m overjoyed that things are changing, that queer people are starting to be included in mainstream media, and stories by BIPOC authors are finally given more attention. However, we still have a long way to go until those efforts are no longer seen as an addition,  but as an intrinsic part of the regular book and movie world. We need storytelling to actually represent our world, so it becomes the tool for connecting that it’s meant to be instead of a constant othering of people. 

If you are reflected in the traditional hero’s tales out there, everyone who doesn’t appear in them will be subconsciously registered as other. I grew up in a small German town with little openly discussed diversity. The stories I took in made no room for BIPOC people, so I didn’t learn to question the white supremacist ideas that I inherited from my ancestry. I didn’t see myself as racist. No one sees themselves as bigotted. But of course, I subconsciously othered people. Of course, I saw BIPOC as outside of the narrative. It’s a societal shortcoming as much as a personal shortcoming, and storytelling has the power to change it. In a small German town, I wasn’t going to meet people from all around the world, from hundreds of different cultures, but if our stories represented this beautiful human diversity, I could have formed a different understanding of what community meant. I also had health issues for as long as I could remember, and hence became the other just as easily as I was doing the othering. I don’t mean to compare racism and ableism here, but excluding BIPOC and disabled peoples (and other underrepresented groups) from our collective stories strengthens both the racist and ableist narrative.

As the other, both in physicality and sexuality, I learned that people often distrust your experiences and identity. It’s not part of the narrative they grew up with, so the others must have made it up. Or, if they didn’t, the experiences of the others must be squeezed within the narrative. In their eyes, you can walk through the world as a queer person, but it’s the same as the path a straight person walks. It must be. Because they can’t picture it any differently. Discrimination either gets excluded from the narrative or is presented as a straightforward issue. Homophobia always looks like “I hate you” and never like “I love all parts of you but one and somehow that still counts as love”. But complex biases are the most common. If only direct hate is displayed, it’s easy for people to absolve themselves and ignore how they are complicit in upholding harmful ideas. Few people choose to hate, so painting othering as hate is dangerous.

Progress Through Representation

Our stories need to weave in the others until they are no longer considered others. Until we’re all part of the narrative. Until a small-town German kid no longer tries to understand a Black person’s struggles through a white perspective but through the perspectives of the many Black writers and educators that have become part of our collective narrative. Until a sick child is no longer a lazy one, but an understood experience that we can empathize with.

My debut novel is a fantasy book, and I love the genre for the ways it lets us both escape and return deeper to our world. Many fantasy stories deal with oppression, unjust systems, violence, and power imbalances. By separating those hardships from our known world, these lived experiences become cathartic. Those stories are also incredibly empowering—corrupt rulers can be overthrown, even the foulest of magic can be defeated. It teaches us about solidarity, about picking up the fight when all seems lost, about believing that a better world is always possible. And while the genre certainly works with metaphor, a lot of the common tropes—an uncertain hero rising to a challenge they seemed too small for at the beginning, a band of misfits coming together to find a new home—are strongly reflected in our reality.

Strategies for Inclusion in Writing

Diverse representation in fantasy can follow two approaches—Queernorm or the reflection of real-life discrimination—and I think both are equally valuable. In the first option, characters that were formerly others are at home and accepted in this world, showing us what’s possible, providing comfort for those tired of their constant othering. Queernorm has received a lot of support lately and I love the occasional story with it too. It’s great to watch love and identities blossom freely. I don’t, however, think it should be the only stories we tell. 

Fantasy, among other genres, lets us explore identity-based oppression in the same way classicism and other injustices are explored. By doing so, the others become part of the fight for good. Their struggles are weaved into tales of rebelling against magic rulers, and suddenly, those who fit into the traditional hero narrative will be exposed to the perspective of the others, not just to their presence. For example, Tracy Deonn’s LEGENDBORN did this amazingly with racial oppression and the connected intergenerational trauma. I don’t think the story would have made as much of an impact had Bree’s journey been the same as those of her white peers.

Once again, I’m not saying Queernorm, or normalizing any kind of diversity, is a lesser form of storytelling, but I think the combination of both changes our restrictive narrative the most.

Approach in Goddess of Limbo

In my novel, GODDESS OF LIMBO, I wanted to explore, among other things, how religious trauma impacts a lot of queer folks. My world gets corrupted from the original focus on love and freedom to the fear-based worship of monsters that are made gods, simply for the power they hold. I couldn’t have told a story like that in a contemporary setting. I’m not intending to call out any religion. There is a lot of wonderful community to be found in faith. But what I am exploring is the idea that justifying oppression with belief systems is inherently destructive. Fantasy allows for ideas like that to be discussed, and seeing as this type of hate is often aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, I chose to center queer struggles in it.

I’m very excited to watch our storytelling world grow so that everyone can find themselves reflected and so our collective perspective of humanity widens until there is no more othering of other people. We learn from stories, so let’s stop limiting our lesson plan. Let’s explore the endless ways life can be lived, loved, and cherished. 

About Lea Falls

Lea Falls is a writer, actor, and passionate lover of stories. Equally drawn to page and stage, she’s written plays, screenplays, poetry, short stories, and two novels, and has acted in numerous short films, plays, and improv shows. She earned her BFA in Acting at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and attended the Yale Writers Workshop. After a brief call and response with Londontown, she now lives in NYC with her wife, two cats, and a slither of skyline that never fails to inspire her. There, she spends her days murmuring lines over a keyboard or a script. She’s recently learned the meaning of “free time” and has since acquired a taste for annihilating virtual aliens with her wife, steering her coffee robot through D&D battles, and getting hopelessly lost in cities.

Don’t forget to check out Goddess of Limbo

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

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Representation in literature means something different to everyone, what does it mean to you?

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Love this post with Lea Falls about representation in epic fantasy!