Minorities, Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

28 Apr

I was perusing the blog over at The Speculative Salon earlier and started to write a response to Stacie Carver’s latest post, World Building Questions, in which she talks a little about “the status of women and minorities,” among other things, in speculative fiction.  As usual, my response turned out to be long.  However, this time it was exceptionally long–so much that I thought posting it on the blog would be more of a nuisance than a contribution that could be quickly read and easily digested–you know, like fast food (not).

So instead of littering the Salon with my long-winded musings, I thought I’d just go ahead and blog about it here.  Yay!  Lucky you, reader.

(Originally I wasn’t going to blog at all today because I’m down to the last wire with my uber important Senior Project, which is turning out to be great so far but is far from being finished.  I’ve got to present it next Wednesday to an actual designer–eek!–so I’ll mostly be absent from the blogging arena between now and then.

However, since I couldn’t resist reading a few blogs today and have already begun crafting a ginormous response, I figured I might as well post it here.)

So, without further ado, the following are my thoughts on minorities in the fantasy genre.

First: What I Mean by “Minority”

Obviously the first thing that comes to mind when you bring up the word “minority” is the ethnic kind–the white people vs. all the rest.  And that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about today.  However, there are many other ways to be the “minority” in a society.

I should know; I am a minority in many respects.

How to Be a Minority: Oh, Let Me Count The Ways…

First is the obvious thing, for those that know me: I’m not white, and I’m not male.

Growing up and going to school, most of the kids were white where I was, and a lot were Latino.  What made my case more unusual is that I was an honors student, so the odds of me encountering another black/African American student in class dropped significantly.  As such, I was among the “minority” in school.

In my prospective field of interior design, the black designer is fairly rare.  Out of my five years of college I think I’ve maybe encountered one other black student that was also studying interior design.  Need I say more?

But these are the obvious, boring ways of looking at the majority versus the minority, so let’s look at some other ways.

Here’s one: most people are naturally going to be right-handed.  Guess what?  I’m not.  (Now, for some reason the people I used to work with thought I was ambidextrous.  I can accomplish a lot of things with both hands, but writing isn’t one of them unless I’m really trying.  I generally view my left hand as the dominate one.  In any case, if you play piano, as I do sometimes, then you kind of have to learn how to use both hands anyway.)

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, then you’ll know that there are some personality types which are more prominent in the world than others.  The INTP personality is one of the rarest among women, according to this site–and what do you know, I just so happen to be this type.

Okay, so I think it’s obvious I made my point: I am, in every way that matters, a minority.

I have been all my life and am pretty used to it by now; the thing is I don’t get caught up on it.  I really don’t.

Great, fantastic!  What does that mean, exactly?

Nothing, really.  Basically I think it just means I see and process things differently than “the majority,” whoever they are.  And so what?  Just because I am aware of the ways I am a minority doesn’t mean I actually think of myself on daily basis as “a minority.”  In the end, I don’t think it gives me any special edge in life.  And as I continue in my journey to become a published author, I don’t ever intend to make my status as a minority a selling point, ethnic- or personality-wise.

On another note, I think there are many ways to explore the “minority” in a fantasy novel, but one of the more popular ways is probably going to be through race and/or ethnicity–if not someone with rare abilities.

If I’m a minority, does that mean my main characters should be, too?

I thought it was interesting that Stacie brought up the issue of minorities in speculative fiction.  Also being in the ethnic minority, like her, it is something I’ve taken into careful consideration.  Just because I’m black, does that mean my main characters need to be?  Will I encounter crazy people who think I’m racist if I don’t?  I’m almost certain I would.  (I’ve run into them before, unfortunately; playing fair and balanced can apparently be considered racist if you don’t freely cater to “your people”—aka the “hook me up” mentality—for the simple reason that your skin colors are basically the same.)

Ultimately, though, it’s about doing the story that’s in your heart justice.  (And I’m coming from the viewpoint of a fantasy writer here, so keep that in mind.)  Should your world dictate that the same minorities in the real world also be the minorities in your made-up one?  Are you trying to make a bold racial or political statement by choosing to do otherwise?  Personally, in my current fantasy project I’m not looking to be bold like that and tend to distance myself from ethnocentric attitudes if I can help it, so while I do have black characters and other minority races, I do not write primarily from their perspective.  (I am writing from the perspective of someone who is in some way a minority, though, as she has a condition which the vast majority of individuals do not share.)

As I see it, I’ve been black all my life; why would I want to write about a black character?  I see my first novel as an opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes, see things from a different perspective.  As it stands, I’ve pretty much made the minorities and cultures in my storyworld pretty similar to those we are already used to because my goal is to use the fantasy element of magic to portray a world that is unique yet still feels somewhat familiar to potential readers.

However, in my next project I am looking forward to exploring the cultures of those “minority” parties in my storyworld because it will mostly take place in their homeland, not the (current) setting they’ve been migrating to in more recent history.  I imagine I’ll need to ask myself a few new questions such as, “How are the ‘majority’ races of my previous setting treated in a location where they are suddenly surrounded by the ‘minority?’”  Or more interesting, “Despite their racial and cultural differences, will my characters be able to come together and cooperate when it counts, now that their dire situation demands it?”

Ethnicity and race are the themes of humanity and are capable of transcending fantasy because they are based first and foremost on reality.  My goal as a fantasy writer, then, is to figure out a way to use fantastical elements to represent these themes in an entertaining, larger-than-life manner.  (That’s what people look for in fantasy, right?  Entertainment and the larger-than-life.  No mundane fluff-stuff here.)

How about you?

We could talk about how minorities, race and ethnicity are treated in existing works of fantasy and speculative fiction in general, but I’m more interested in how other aspiring writers are handling these issues in their projects.  Are any of these things important in your current WIP?  If so, could you say why?  Does it come from a personal place?

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28 Responses to “Minorities, Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy”

  1. Mark Andrew Edwards April 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM #

    Race is a non-issue to me as a writer and as much as possible in life as well. My first novel had a protagonist who was 1/4 white, 1/4 black, 1/4 asian and 1/4 hispanic. An all-American mutt.

    The dominant ethnic groups in my second novel are Mediterranean Greeks and Coptic and Black Egyptians(though the main characters are not of that group and I’m simplifying a bit.)

    It’s all about what the setting and story demands, to me. If I write a story about Vikings, it’s going to be full of very pale folks. People are people.

    Like

    • Tiyana April 29, 2011 at 2:03 PM #

      Yup, it all depends on the kind of story you are telling. 🙂

      Like

  2. Stephen A. Watkins April 29, 2011 at 6:26 AM #

    Good post. Personally, I don’t really like the terms “minority” and “majority” as they’re used with respect to race. For one… minority is sort of demeaning. But for another – and more importantly – the terms are couched in very ethno-geocentric views. I mean… minority as compared to what? In the grander scheme of things, on this real-world planet of ours, whites are in the minority. Yet here in the US, they’re not (only by a thin and shrinking edge).

    (Disclosure here, as is clear from my profile pic, I’m a white male – the American definition of “the majority” – though I have experience with “minority” status in a sense: raised Catholic, an honor student, and an avowed Geek. It’s the last two that got me closest to experiencing the difficulties other minorities – middle school kids can be mean and they really hate geeks and honor students – though it’s a very pale and poor reflection of the worst experiences of minorities in this country.)

    But especially with regards to a fantasy setting – really, really what is a minority? Sure, again, if we go with the ethno-geocentric view of a predominantly European-medieval inspired setting, yes non-white characters are going to be a minority. But more and more these days fantasy is trending away from that archetypal setting. (I mean, I love that setting… but I love a lot of the new stuff that’s coming about these days too.) Fantasy gives us the opportunity to explore so many different worlds and places and peoples… And that’s a big, big part of what makes fantasy what it is. As you say: the larger than life, and also the exotic, the sense-of-wonder, the feeling of seeing and doing things that you can never see or do in real life – and by extension of being and meeting people you can never be or meet in real life.

    Like

    • Tiyana April 29, 2011 at 2:37 PM #

      I don’t necessarily like the term, either, but it’s one that’s constantly been in my life. The thing is anyone can be considered a “minority” under the right conditions, and not necessarily in a racial or ethnic way. It really all depends on the context of the setting or, in the case of fiction, your story.

      I can relate to you with being an honors student; I think it’s very valid experience! There was one class I took in 9th grade that wasn’t honors, and boy, did some folks love giving me a hard time. It was an entirely different environment.

      As for fantasy, I think you said it: “Fantasy gives us the opportunity to explore so many different worlds and places and peoples… And that’s a big, big part of what makes fantasy what it is.” And maybe the minority status might better translate as “otherness” in fantasy. This could be a mage or magician or someone with special abilities, or perhaps a king who is in a difficult position, dealing with dark forces that threaten his kingdom, or whatever.

      I think it’s those kinds of characters who aren’t your average Joe that are often the most interesting to read about. Though, when you do read about an Average Joe in fantasy the interest comes in the form of some extraordinary event they experience. So if it’s not the character that possesses the qualities of otherness, then it’s whatever happens to him in the plot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. T. S. Bazelli April 30, 2011 at 12:06 PM #

    My novel is a portal story, so a girl crosses over to another world. However, I wanted to create a fantasy world where anyone from this earth could exist. Given the distribution of the earth’s population it did not make sense that a fantasy world would only evolve in parallel to European society/demographics.

    I spend very little of my time thinking that I’m different than anyone else. I usually only think about it when it’s pointed out to me… like when traveling, and having people stare, or having people expect you can’t speak english. Yeah uncomfortable!

    So, my characters come from different ethnic backgrounds, and the world is a multicultural one, because this one is. Race/culture is not something they wrestle with, it’s just who they are.

    Like

    • Tiyana April 30, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

      Haha! That imagine that would be uncomfortable.

      I suppose it’s just that I find race, ethnicity, culture, etc. to be areas which are natural sources of potential conflict and tension in fiction, so I’ve currently chosen to use them in this way. But generally, as you point out, they could be used to create a sense of verisimilitude, as it would mirror our own reality—which seems is how you, and others here, use these things.

      I guess I just can’t imagine a world where there isn’t racial or cultural tensions, heh. Though, it does really depend on the scope of your story and what you are trying to accomplish.

      Like

      • T. S. Bazelli April 30, 2011 at 2:20 PM #

        Oh there are racial and cultural tensions in the story, though it’s minor compared to the human/nonhuman conflict going on. I don’t expect people from this world to suddenly act different, they’d bring whatever prejudices they have before over with them. These tensions are not the focus of the story, but are part of the world. It’s something that fantasy tends to gloss over with generalizations for the most part.

        Like

  4. E.J. Apostrophe April 30, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

    *cracks knuckles*

    Oh, man. What a topic, Yoyo!

    And if you were ever curious, I am Black as well…actually I’m a mutt: Black, Cherokee Indian, and White.

    In fact, I was discussing this very issue with a fellow writer today at the library. As a writer of Christian Speculative Fiction and Superhero Fiction, I started out not having my main character Black. Then I was sharing with my wife that there are NOT a lot of strong Black characters in Superhero Fiction (Exception is Marvel Comic’s Black Panther yet if you look at today’s post entitled “Marvel Comic’s David Liss Needs To Be Fired”, this character is also being mishandled).

    In the fantasy realm, I like the idea of multicultural exchanges even ones that are created. I think this will offer fascinating dialogue and tension at times. The real meat of the story still boils down to relationships and conflict. Without these, the story falls flat.

    Like

    • Tiyana April 30, 2011 at 3:58 PM #

      Haha, who isn’t a mutt, right? 😛

      What’s funny is when I began writing my novel I didn’t really realize that I wasn’t writing about many black characters until I started showing inspiration photos to my parents depicting what I thought my characters would look like. My dad asked jokingly, “So, where are all the black people?” (He always asks this about everything, haha. And we like to joke about black people always getting killed off or injured and movies, too, but that’s something else.)

      Anyways, it was an interesting realization for me, and I guess it happened because I’m normally not surrounded by a lot of folks who share my ethnic background, actually (aside from the family).

      And I’d agree about relationships and conflict in stories. That is where you’ll grab your readers and make them care. (Oh, and btw, thanks for the Tweet!)

      Like

  5. E.J. Apostrophe April 30, 2011 at 6:11 PM #

    Yoyo, don’t get me started about black folks getting killed in television and movies. I was even joking with JP Corder of Four Quarters Writing that I will show everyone…I’ll kill all of my black characters in my comic book in the first issue. LOL

    Like

    • Stephen A. Watkins May 2, 2011 at 11:53 AM #

      A guilty pleasure, perhaps, but I enjoyed how “Deep Blue Sea”* played with that trope for laughs – and have the black guy live to the end, and be one of the best and most interesting characters in the movie, despite not being the protag.

      *(Not sure if I’m remembering the right movie title, but it was a movie about super-sharks or something like that.)

      Like

  6. Abigail Nussey May 10, 2011 at 4:46 AM #

    I write sci fi, so maybe it’s a little different than the fantasy approach, I’m not sure.

    My current WiP has a lot of racial tension. Some of the defining characteristics of each race are visible, like skin markings (though not necessarily tone) and body type. Like humans here, most of my humans are some shade of brown, averaging out to the medium shade between very dark and very light.

    But it’s not something that’s focused on, mainly because the definitive characteristics of different races are skin markings like freckling, hair texture, and body type. I have ethnic groups within each racial category as well, with local variations of types. There’s internal tension within racial categories between ethnicities that plays a key role in the story.

    One of my personal defining characteristics that I would say has minority status in literature, even though it doesn’t really have minority status in RL, is a larger body size whilst female. I find that cropping up in my writing here and there, or rather, I find myself writing a much more diverse range of body types for my characters than I’m used to seeing in practically all sci fi. I’m kind of the anti-gun-bunny writer.

    Considering I have a running “person of size” listing for sci fi books and have yet to find a female hero that deviates much from thin and tall, I consider it somewhat gutsy to write larger characters as heroes and allies. Also, while not making size an issue at all; not focusing on it, just making it a trait and that’s that!

    Like

    • Tiyana May 10, 2011 at 8:38 AM #

      Interesting! Body size is not something I’ve deeply considered before. And you’re right about heroines who are “persons of size”: I don’t think I can recall any examples of this in any of the books I’ve come across so far.

      Such a unique perspective. Thank you for sharing! (It’ll be interesting to read your story, too, once it’s done, I think. Which project is that, btw?)

      Like

      • Abigail Nussey May 10, 2011 at 12:00 PM #

        Yeah, it’s amazing; before I started getting into size activism I didn’t notice how invisible people of size were in fiction (and lots of other media, too). I mean, I guess I noticed, but it didn’t stink as much like purposeful exclusion as it does to me, now.

        Oh, I’d be happy for you to be in on the beta read of the book, if you’d like. My current project is the rewrite of a sci fi novel I’ve been overhauling since a little over a year ago. I got a professional critique and now I’m incorporating those points as well as the good deal I’ve learned these past eighteen months of daily writing and writer/agent-blog-reading. I’ll be doing two rounds of beta-reads with two different groups before sending it to agents, and will let you know (I’m sure I’ll be updating on my blog, too) when that time comes around. I’d be glad to read something of yours as well, just let me know.

        I have a couple future projects which weave in size-related issues, both novels: one is a “Clockwork Orange”-y dystopia, and another is a Crichton-esqe near-future piece. But I likely won’t get to them until the fall, at the earliest.

        Like

        • Tiyana May 10, 2011 at 12:35 PM #

          Awesome! I’ll be looking forward to that. 🙂

          Yeah…I’m really trying to get through this round of editing with my WIP, but it’s been taking a while with school, heh. Hopefully I can get into the whole beta reader process within the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to let you know!

          Like

          • Abigail Nussey May 10, 2011 at 1:21 PM #

            Great, looking forward to it. I know how editing can feel like slogging through temporal mud, sometimes. Amazing how long it takes, always worth it, but not a quick process to be sure.

            Like

  7. Paul November 7, 2011 at 6:28 PM #

    Hi Tiyana,

    Very insightful article and comments. I am a “minority” of sorts too. Actually, I am considered white in the country I came from but here in the US, sometimes I am white sometimes I am not. It depends. Also my religion makes me another minority. So, coming from a place were I was the majority and learning to view the world through a minority point-of-view was very different indeed, but made me understand those people who are minorities were I grew up.
    On writing (and reading), I had asked the same questions asked in this forum. Because, when we write (well at least when I do) or read, we see a movie playing in our head, sometimes we have to view the world as the character. Is it okay or healthy, for example, a minority kid to imagine himself or herself as something their are not, like in the case of Lord of Rings. Or an Arab kid seeing himself as the hero of the story that is actually fighting against the Easterlings.
    It is hard, and I am sure that Tolkien, in this example, did not intent his characters to be heroes or examples just to a kind of people. He did intent to be an European story, but with universal character traits. Since some of you are younger than me, is it weird in any way to place/view yourselves, specially if you are a minority, as a “majority” character? What are your feelings?

    Regards,
    Paul

    Like

    • Tiyana November 8, 2011 at 12:05 PM #

      Hi, Paul! Thanks for stopping by.

      “Is it okay or healthy, for example, a minority kid to imagine himself or herself as something their are not, like in the case of Lord of Rings.”

      I think it’s healthy to be able to identify with other people’s situations and place yourself in their shoes. Empathy is a basic human ability, and it’s the reason authors, for one, can write about characters who are nothing like them. It’s also why various readers are able to identify with their characters.

      Personally, I wouldn’t say it’s “weird” to place myself in the shoes of the majority, whoever they may be in any given situation, because I’ve had to do it quite often. (You’ve been talking about minority status as it pertains to race, so I’ll stick with this for now.) For example, for the first seven years of my life I grew up mostly around other blacks, but then my dad got a new job and we moved to a place where there were considerably less blacks–not too much different from your situation, in a way. The religious mix was all different in the new setting, as well. Lots more Mormons, which I’d never come across before.

      It felt really strange and I was always aware of this at first, but eventually it became my new norm. Now, it’s actually stranger for me to be surrounded by other blacks than it is to be in a more heterogeneous crowd. (Before I moved, the street I lived on was actually fairly diverse and I played with a lot of different kids, so I guess the shock wasn’t as huge as it could have been.)

      As far as reading books with non-black characters goes, well, it’s a bit of the same, really. Most protagonists in the books I’ve chosen or been assigned to read haven’t been black, but that’s never really been weird to me because it’s pretty much always been that way.

      Like

  8. Rachel January 21, 2013 at 5:00 PM #

    I agree with your points — while I definitely want more minorities represented in all types of mainstream entertainment (in non-discriminatory ways) — there’s no point in forcing it.

    But I do think that the archetypes of fantasy (and sci-fi) make having a white protagonist feel “right.” Just as having the protagonist be an orphan feels right — because it’s a trope.

    I think more authors should carefully examine why they feel like they need to tell a story from the lens of a white character. (Or a straight character. Or a non-disabled character.) Perhaps some, like you, are doing it out of a genuine interest in exploration. Others, I’d guess, do it because it’s merely the default option, and it just feels “right.”

    I actually stumbled across this post because I’m doing research for a project called The Next Frontier (the-next-frontier.tumblr.com) — if you feel so inclined to promote it, that’d be great.

    Regardless, thanks for the interesting post!

    -Rachel

    Like

    • Tiyana January 22, 2013 at 12:25 PM #

      Hi, Rachel. Thanks for stopping by!

      I know what you mean about fantasy feeling “right” when it has a white protagonist; for some reason it just does, lol. Nothing wrong with tropes and conventions, though it’s nice to see authors mixing things up every now and then.

      Glad you “stumbled across” my blog, as you say. 🙂 Definitely gonna check out your project. Sounds interesting!

      Like

  9. Quinn January 30, 2013 at 2:12 PM #

    Hey, I just stumbled across this blog because I was researching world building and how other people deal with having multiple ethnicities in their story. I find the points you made very interesting. As a white woman in Canada with a French/Irish background I’m bored to tears with Tolkien-esque fantasy. I tend to enjoy writing from the perspective of others in fantasy settings that deviate from the norm. Because I grew up on a native reserve with a Mi’kmaq grandmother and many Mi’kmaw friends I tend to enjoy putting elements of that culture into my stories. I also have a thing for the east and middle east and I enjoy constructing ethnicity and cultures that may have no counterparts in the real world.

    My current story takes place in a location similar to the Mediterranean or to Southwest Asia so there is a lot of cultures and ethnicity coming together. One prominent character is of the majority in society but he’s a homosexual man who would have a Persian appearance and an adventurous and carefree personality. He’s not stereotypically girly. He’s the second born son of a king running away from the responsibility of an arranged marriage to his dead brother’s betrothed. Another main character is a tall plain faced female character from the north who ethnically resembles an Inuit woman and loves inventions and working with her hands despite her culture insisting that a woman’s place is married and in the home. She’s got a slightly shy, gentle, feminine personality despite her more masculine physique. The god of knowledge is depicted as left handed. My main protagonist is a male who also has a bit of a Persian appearance but he’s an ethnic minority with blue eyes.

    While tension in this world may exist based on physical features between some groups (such as the flat-faced Inuit looking north and the more Persian looking south although this is simplifying it), my main protagonist, despite not being a visible minority, is ethnically and culturally different and this is where conflict lies for him. What makes things worse is he was taken out of that culture at a young age and doesn’t self-identify with anything in particular so there is a bit of an identity crisis. I like making people different in subtle ways and I like the conflict that can ensue between the character’s self and between the larger society.

    I also believe one should write what is in their hearts, what feels right to them. If your character feels white, write them as such. I find that a lot of people are afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ and therefore avoid writing people of other ethnicities. But in fantasy where Earth doesn’t exist, ethnicity is what you make it no matter how shallowly a fantasy group seems to to be a filler for a real culture.

    Like

    • Tiyana January 30, 2013 at 5:33 PM #

      Hi, Quinn. Thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve never heard of the Mi’kmaq people; this is interesting. (Learning something new every day!) Your story sounds interesting, as well. Wish I could follow your progress on a blog or something. 🙂

      I agree: writers should first and foremost write what’s in their hearts. And I imagine that with secondary world fantasy or science fiction writing about a character with a different ethnic and cultural background than yours would be less pressure than, say, if the story were set in the real world. In the latter case it’d be easier to have that character say or do something that wouldn’t “seem” natural or likely to most natives of their culture or ethnic background, but with the former it’s like you say: ethnicity (and culture) is what you make of it. (Perhaps one reason I prefer writing secondary world fantasy over, say, alternate history-fantasy, lol.)

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

      Like

      • Quinn January 30, 2013 at 10:28 PM #

        Thank you!

        I just realized how long my post was this morning! Sorry for making you read all of that! I’ve never been much of a blogger and I’m still trying to smooth out the mechanisms of this second-world story so it’s pretty shabby at the moment. But I have been reading other blog posts of yours and I’m glad I’ve stumbled upon you. It’s nice to read about the progress of another aspiring author.

        Cheers and have a good night.

        Like

        • Tiyana January 31, 2013 at 6:37 PM #

          No worries! I tend to write long-ish posts myself. XD

          Happy writing and good luck with your story!

          Like

  10. Mimi Natabona June 23, 2015 at 5:14 AM #

    I come from a cosmopolitan community_Mombasa, Kenya. We have Indeginous Africans, Indian and Arabic descent Africans. Nd i’d like to write in the POV of the latter two so tht wud mean learning their culture. Its nice ’cause it fosters peace nd tolerance in a time when even smaller divisions like tribe matter alot. Am hoping to bridge that gap if i can via writing.

    Like

  11. prittyspeshul August 1, 2015 at 10:41 PM #

    First of all, I think it says something about the state of the fantasy genre in general that this post from 4 years ago is still relevant now.

    Second, the point you made about wanting to write from a different perspective is super interesting. It actually made me question a lot of things about my main character and why I’m writing her the way I am.

    Third, writing a nonwhite character (I’ve got 3 mains as of right now, one North African, one Indian/Chinese, and one Serbian) is a really interesting challenge as a white writer because to you, you’re like oh, well of course she’s not white, I described her as specifically not white, and then you have the movie version come out and the audience is freaking out because “RUE IS BLACK?!?!?!?!” (I’m not Suzanne Collins. I wish). But unfortunately, when you write well-developed character and don’t consistently remind the audience of their non-whiteness you get that. And it’s annoying.

    Like

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