A few months ago, the lovely Julia Ember organised Queer YA Scrabble in which I took part and it was a fantastic online event showcasing some of the best LGBTQIA+ YA books out there. I’m thrilled to welcome her to the blog today to talk about writing diverse worlds and characters and about her book, Unicorn Tracks, which will be out in April 2016 and which I can’t wait to read!
After a savage attack drives her from her home, sixteen-year-old Mnemba finds a place in her cousin Tumelo’s successful safari business, where she quickly excels as a guide. Surrounding herself with nature and the mystical animals inhabiting the savannah not only allows Mnemba’s tracking skills to shine, it helps her to hide from the terrible memories that haunt her.
Mnemba is employed to guide Mr. Harving and his daughter, Kara, through the wilderness as they study Unicorns. The young women are drawn to each other, despite that fact that Kara is betrothed. During their research, they discover a conspiracy by a group of poachers to capture the Unicorns and exploit their supernatural strength to build a railway. Together, they must find a way to protect the creatures Kara adores while resisting the love they know they can never indulge.
Writing Diverse Worlds and Characters
by Julia Ember
Sometimes I feel like a bit of a hack as a fantasy writer. I read the amazingly vivid worlds that people have created, and when I listen to other authors speak about their process in panels, many of them talk about spontaneous idea genesis or how they thought up electric flying octopi while standing in the shower. In Fantasy, the idea of organic creation is very prominent – especially in books that deviate from the Medieval Western European backdrop.
My own world building follows a slightly different trajectory and my own process isn’t completely organic. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to more than sixty different countries. The seeds for my worlds come as a direct result of my own travels. Our own planet is amazing! I’ve travelled pretty extensively in Africa, which is where the ideas for Unicorn Tracks originated. I wanted to write a Safari story, because those trips were such a magical part of my own childhood/teenage years. I wanted to translate that magic to readers through fantasy.
I also wanted to write a book that really highlighted a clash of cultures, but outside of a conflict setting. Kara and Mnemba come from fundamentally different backgrounds and cultures. But they aren’t meeting on a battlefield or as enemies, they’re meeting in a space of exploration – on Safari, tracking creatures that hold wonder for both of them, but that react to in very different ways.
When we first started travelling abroad, I was a very young child and wasn’t so critically aware of subtleties in cultural conflict. You can have cultural collision that is unspoken and passes in a moment, but is still profound. I have a very vivid childhood memory of having dinner on a trip to Botswana:
We had invited our guide, whose name was Oliver, to have dinner with us. My Dad loved talking to our guides about their families and their experiences, so it gave him a chance to ask Oliver everything he wanted to know without having to badger him in the safari truck. We got onto the subject of pets. My Dad was quick to point out that I had a horse called Africa. Africa was, and still is, a treasured member of my family. He was named because he is a skewbald with a white patch in the exact shape of the continent of Africa. My Dad meant this as a compliment – she loves that horse, that horse has the name of your continent, how could there be offense? But for Oliver, there was a totally different subtext. In Botswana, horses are not members of your family. They are very much beasts of burden, and to him, that was the meaning of the name. He didn’t protest much, but afterwards he was very quiet, and even though my Dad was very quick to try and explain the love we all felt towards Africa the horse … He didn’t understand. To me that is the kind of subtle cultural collisions the media misses and people tend to ignore, but I think are important to acknowledge and discuss.
Despite openly dating women, I very rarely feel marginalised. I live in Edinburgh, which is a diverse and pretty open city where I’ve never felt uncomfortable kissing my partner or holding hands on the street. I’ve had a privileged life with a supportive upbringing with my parents. Choosing to write a f/f romance featuring a bisexual character was never really a choice for me once I thought up the character of Mnemba. Unicorn Tracks is essentially a book about a girl in recovery, who is taking charge of her life while running away at the same time. Kara is so opposite to Mnemba. Mnemba has this quite strength, but she’s also carrying a lot of emotion and pain she struggles to express. Kara wears her thoughts on her sleeves. I saw them as having this instant ‘opposites attract’ kind of romance, and I also knew that I wanted Mnemba to heal throughout the story.
However, since the only place I’ve ever felt marginalised is close to home, among some of my extended family, I think that comes across in the book. While her sexuality isn’t the focus of her exclusion, Mnemba flees her home in order to escape the pressure (don’t want to give spoilers!). I think I can kind of relate to that type of running. A lot of the prejudice Mnemba feels come from almost invisible acts of micro-aggression from the people around her. I guess one of the core messages I hope comes across in the book is just how affecting those subtle aggressions and collisions can be.