by Karina Jha
Diversity in the literary canon is horrifically sparse. Old white cishet men dominate the literary world, even now, as we bolster our efforts to include as many new and different voices as possible. But step by step, in popular contemporary literature, we’re starting to see more diversity in race, sexuality, and even the age of characters (especially with the new and emerging genre called New Adult!). Large publishing houses like Penguin Random House have dozens of programs that promote working with queer and underrepresented communities, as well as paying more attention to new and emerging authors, as opposed to the tired “classics.”
One area of diversity and inclusion that particularly interests me is that of mixed race and racially ambiguous characters. Though we are seeing more diversity in the inclusion of multiple races and cultures, it’s still rare to see them mixed. This lack of representation is incredibly hurtful to readers, young ones in particular. I remember reading book after book when I was younger, just waiting to find a character that looked like me. Unsurprisingly, I was disappointed. But now I’d like to share with you three books that I have read that do include mixed race and racially-ambiguous characters. Hopefully you’ll be interested enough in them to have a read!
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel follows January Scaller, a dangerously curious and adventurous young girl, as she embarks on a journey to discover the mysteries behind a strange old book, dozens of magical doors, and her own past. It’s a coming-of-age novel unlike anything you’ve read before—full of magic and history and beautifully poetic writing. But our main character January (named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, thresholds, doorways and endings—how clever!) must also deal with the prejudice that comes with living in a white household as someone with a darker complexion (with a unique red undertone that becomes relevant later…). Her father, of the same complexion as she, is away for months at a time, leaving her alone in the care of the questionable Mr. Locke, a white man that thinks of January as a “perfect specimen.” I won’t spoil the ending for you, but January finds out some shocking things about her past that explain the unique color of both her and her father’s skin. It’s a story about belonging, and finding the place that you’re meant to be, and even though January’s race is ambiguous, many readers will be able to relate to her feelings.
- Unnatural Magic by C. M. Waggoner
In this novel, we meet the tenacious and wildly intelligent Onna, a girl who (in a world where magic can be controlled through something similar to mathematics called “parameters”) can write up parameters and practice magic faster and better than anyone her age. Denied a place at the prestigious academy for magic, she sails across the sea to the island of Hexos, a place teeming with magic. Meanwhile, Tsira, a blue-gray troll, investigates the numerous murders of trolls throughout the country. Onna is described as having dark skin, but nothing more specific than that. And in all honesty, I preferred it that way. Sometimes a character’s race is critical to a story, and sometimes it isn’t at all. In this story, I could have imagined Onna as Black, desi, or indigenous, and the story would have continued just as before. It’s a beautiful and positive example of a dark-skinned character sticking to her guns, and ultimately getting what she wants—something that we don’t get a lot of even in modern literature. Not to mention Tsira, who is a different type of creature entirely, with her own troubles with others’ prejudices against her. Unnatural Magic is a fantastic read for anyone who loves magic, and loves to see characters fight with all their hearts for what is right.
- The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik
The Scholomance series consists of three books: A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, and The Golden Enclaves. The third book came out just this past September! Throughout the three books, we follow El, an Indian-English girl who has an overwhelming amount of power, as she makes her way through and out of the Scholomance, a deadly, living school for the magically inclined. El lives with her mother in a commune in Wales, as her father was killed by a horrific creature called a maw-mouth before he could ever even see El born. After El’s birth, her mother tried to reconnect with the family of El’s father, but they turned them away, telling her that El was a harbinger of destruction. So El grows up away from her Indian roots, knowing little to nothing about what the other half of her family is like. And this isn’t an uncommon experience in the real world. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a maw-mouth involved, but there are plenty of ways people can be separated from parts of their heritage. I think this was a very powerful choice on Novik’s part, as she not only wrote a mixed-race main character, but also made her cast of friends incredibly diverse. This series certainly accounts for many underrepresented groups, and for that I am especially grateful.
That concludes my short list of books with mixed race or racially ambiguous characters. I hope you’ve gained some insight into why it’s so important to have this representation, and how much it opens up the possibilities of literature. After all, with more cultures to pull from, there is no way the writing would be more dull. Keep an eye out for other books with mixed race characters and see if you can keep a count. You may have a low number at first, but I have faith that that number will keep growing.