*disclaimer: I have never tried recreational drugs. My grasp on reality is fragile enough. My friends probably wouldn’t let me try them even if I wanted to.*
I grew up as a Wonder Bread white girl in “The South” in the 1970’s and ’80’s. My family home was on the bay in Hampton, Virginia—a place where, occasionally, you would still find ancient Native American arrowheads on the beach. Streets and schools were given Native American names: Kecoughtan High School, Powhatan Parkway, Pocahontas Place. But of course the actual indigenous people were either long-dead, of European disease or war, or so very assimilated into white mainstream culture you wouldn’t know their heritage unless they told you.*
In Williamsburg, Virginia, folks tell a ghost story about a little native boy from the 17th Century who’d been forced to assimilate into an English colonial school and died of smallpox. Supposedly his spirit runs nude through the few remaining woods in the area, as a protest against European hegemony in general and clothes in particular. That was my background: a place where the spirits of the indigenous people are always present, just outside the perceptions of the white majority.
When I was in grad school in the ’90’s, I spent a weekend hanging out with friends and watching, amongst other oddities, the trippy 1978 animated version of Lord of the Rings produced by Ralph Bakshi. Definitely a psychedelic production, with many flaws (why no pants, Boromir?)—but we were all rather intrigued that the artistic staff on that film decided to interpret the term Dunedain, “Man of the West” as Native American and draw Aragorn accordingly (still without pants?). Around that time I was studying large amounts of world folklore. I came across the theory that the European folk traditions of “the little people” might have originated with cultural memories of conflict between Iron Age peoples and their less-technologically advanced predecessors. This theory may or may not have any historical merit, but it resonated with me, and my memories of arrowheads in the sand, relics of a culture wiped out by Europeans with swords and guns.
So when I started building an original fantasy world, using the world around me as a template, it only made sense that the elves of that place wouldn’t be tall and blonde and proud (besides, every other fantasy writer in the world has done that trope to death). They were small, dark-skinned . . . and marginalized. Shoved to the periphery of the land that had once been theirs, by pale-skinned aliens out of the east. In my first novel (which stank way out loud, don’t ask to see it), the elves were barely present, a curiosity even, to the white-skinned protagonists (I did say it stank, yes?). But when I wrote my first Edward Red Mage novel (which took over ten years to edit into a form that didn’t stink—writing is work!), an elf became a central character. We still saw the elves through Eddie’s very privileged, very white perspective. Eddie’s a decent enough fellow, though, when he stops drinking long enough to pull his head out of his ass. As the story (and those that follow) progresses, we see him beginning to question the assumptions about race (and class, and gender) he’s held all his life. As I write, I find myself questioning, too. Maybe I’ll even learn something.
*Race relations have evolved (somewhat) in my hometown since my childhood, so it is no longer uncommon for people to celebrate their Native American heritage. Thankfully.