Friday, June 15, 2007

Cultural Appropriation in Fantasy Writing: Learning to Laugh with Each Other

Within western fiction written by whites, there is always the problem of writing about other cultures. I don't mean writing about people not of one's own race, although that sort of diversity poses its own problems.

I mean, writing about other people's cultures and not falling into the many, many traps that await the unwary writer. These problems are especially acute in science fiction and fantasy, where most writers trade in describing places distant in time and space. Some of the goals of the informed writer should include:

  • Not sucking

  • Not including incorrect information

  • Not reducing incredibly complex cultural formations to bite-sized, simplified versions that have no resemblance to the original except that they include whatever Westerners find sensationalistic

  • Not sucking

  • Not being racist

  • Not exacerbating colonial power structures any more than is inherently unavoidable in the process of a privileged person making money off of a non-dominant culture

  • Not making your characters into marionettes that wander around reciting a westernized understanding of their cultural values (e.g. a Chinese character who enjoys proclaiming, "I care a lot about family and duty, more than I do about my own individual identity!")

  • Not lazily playing into historically damaging stereotypes, such as portraying African women as not caring about their children

  • Generally not reducing the other culture (or its people) to a westernized caricature

  • Not sucking

That's not a complete list.

My own preference as a reader often leans toward the slow and imagistic. I like things with careful, precise language, things that feel beautiful. However, I've recently begun editing for a podcast (see adendum). This has shifted the way that I'm reading stories. I've found myself yearning for things that are more fun -- things that grab me and make me laugh.

I also hope to find and publish a good number of stories that are set in times and places other than the generic European setting filled with generic European characters that The Angry Black Woman aptly titles Blandy McWhite.

My slush pile has thus far included a few fun medieval stories, in which Whitey McBread characters duke it out with swords, while Whitey McPeasants and Whitey McMilkmaids go for a tumble in the totally-not-English pastures. These stories are great. I've put a few of them on hold, and we inherited a few from Escape Pod's stock.

My slush pile has also so far included several beautiful, carefully detailed stories that take place in non-western settings, stories that are written with a respectful, perhaps even reverent gravity.

But so far, I've seen very litte funny work that takes place outside of the default fantasy setting.

Now, I don't want to criticize the stories in my slush pile. I have lovely slush. I'm mostly looking at reprints, so the stories I get have already been deemed excellent by more experienced editors than I. I'm also getting subs from some of my favorite writers, from established masters like Peter Beagle to newer writers whose fiction is funny, moving, and startling in turns. My slush is less like dirty snow than it is like a bed of pearls. In any case, the problem is with no one individual story, but with the overall pattern. The problem isn't the excellent stories that are present; it's the stories that are missing.

The near absence of comedic non-western stories is not a unique feature of my slush pile. It's also a pattern that I've observed in many different kinds of media. Fantasy novels, especially, but also television shows and mainstream books.

When I went to the Book Expo in San Jose last weekend, I heard a variety of writers whose books were set "against the tapestry of war-strewn foreign lands." I am sure these books contain moments of humor, but the framing is about the seriousness of life outside the west. This emphasis on understanding the social and economic problems of third world nations is a first step toward anti-racism. However, it's also a variety of orientalism, exoticism, and/or romanticism.

Binyavanga Wainaina describes this effect in an essay that was published in Granta, "How to Write About Africa."

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.


Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

I've often framed the debate about cultural appropriation in terms of respect and knowledge. A writer must have respect and knowledge of the culture sie's writing about. These things are not sufficient, but they are certainly necessary.

I think many white, western writers have learned how to write respectful, knowledgeable pieces. Not all writers. Not all their work. But I think this is a step that the science fiction community, and the community of writers in general, is aware needs to be taken. The definitions of "knowledge" and "respect" vary from writer to writer, of course, and even stories that are respectful and knowledgeable have their problems. But I think we acknowledge the necessity for these two traits. (Or damn, at least I hope we do.)

But most westerners seem to be so nervous when they treat other cultures that they put on kid gloves before entering them. We render other cultures grave, and somber, and beautiful.

The mood of these stories is so similar that they often seem to blend into each other, one into the next, even though the characters, plots, and settings differ. The tone with which they are told has the same cast. A lovely cast, frequently, but the same cast. Individually, the stories are respectful and knowledgeable and frequently excellent. Taken together, though, the trend of them feels orientalist and appropriationist -- because, as a mass, they present such a one-dimensional and skewed version of an amalgam of non-western cultures.

Exoticism is not just fetishizing and commodifying cultures. Its treating them as sacred, incomprehensible objects. Its handling them as if they might break.

It's easy to see why western writers frequently handle stories of non-western cultures in this way. We're afraid. As Nisi Shawl writes in Writing the Other, the most penetrating fear of many white liberals is to be called racist. Similarly, most westerners, white or non-white, don't want to be called appropriationist. In our fear*, we become overcautious. And most Americans, white and non-white, have been exposed to a steady stream of exoticism throughout our lives, which we internalize, and which ends up in our writing unless we are very careful (and likely, to some degree, even then).**

In contrast, one may look at Nalo Hopkinson's adaptations of Carribean legends. They are fun and playful. The people are real and loud and messy. There's no sense that the author is treating them delicately, or that she fears her characters may break. The author trusts herself to be fun and funny.

Of course, Nalo's working within a culture with which she is intimately familiar. But still, I think authors who don't have that luxury have to turst ourselves to be funny and playful.

Certainly, there are stories in western settings that are grave and reverent. Grave and reverent stories are necessary. I favor them, personally. As a writer, I will write many grave and reverent stories; as an editor, I will certainly buy many grave and reverent stories, about both western and non-western cultures.***

But grave and reverent stories, wonderful as they are, represent only a fraction of the range of possible stories. When worrying about representation, it's not enough just to get other cultures on the page. The other cultures have to breathe. They have to be not just sad, but happy; not just rendered beautifully, but full of chaos and motion; not just careful and lovely, but messy and playful. We don't just need to see non-westerners on the page. We need to see non-westerners having fun.


*The appropriateness, or inappropriateness, of this fear is a topic for another post.

**Western writers of color may be less likely to exoticize non-western cultures, but it certainly seems to happen.

***Rephrased: Please keep sending me grave, reverent stories!



The Podcast I'm editing is called PodCastle. We're the fantasy imprint of Escape Pod. We publish mostly reprints, but we'l look at original fiction. Our pay rate is $100 for fiction from 2-6,000 words, and $20 for fiction under 2k. We're not yet officially open for business, so we don't have a website, but you can read some extremely basic information at our Podcastle livejournal.


Timmi Duchamp said...

I'm on my way out the door to the Locus Awards, so this has to be quick. Humor arguably stands as a sort of limit case for culture-- that is, people outside a culture will often not get it, even when they can speak & have a rudimentary understanding of the culture's language. (Hell, people in the US often don't get various forms of British humor, especially if they are provincial or working class.) Chances are, Rachel, if you got a story in your slush pile written from inside another culture, you might not even notice what was funny. Conversely, what an outsider writing about another culture might imagine is likely to hinge on a stereotype that is foreign to the culture being written about. (Humor, like narrative, often depends on cliches & stereotypes for its intelligibility.) It's a dicey situation, all around.

Rachel Swirsky said...

I hear you, Timmi.

It's interesting to contemplate the ramifications of that -- the idea that we are bonded more by our reactions to the negative than to the positive.

Still, I'm thinking about myths and things I've read from other cultures that are hilarious. There's perhaps some mental stretching to be done, and it may not always be compatible, but I don't think there's a total disconnect.

Nora said...

Agreement with Timmi -- humor is especially tough cross-culturally. But a big part of your problem is convention of the fantasy genre. Humorous fantasy seems to be rare, and it's not usually the stuff that makes the bestseller or award lists. Stuff that's set against war-torn backdrops does. So most fantasy writers focus on a) what they've read, and b) what they think fantasy fans want to read. Tolkien set this pattern, reinforced by Jordan and Brooks and all the other doorstop-writers... and also reinforced by the recent trend towards modern literary fantasy seen in places like ALCHEMY and the New Weird movement. If it's not four charas on a quest to find the McGuffin of power, it's something stunningly original but sometimes barely comprehensible and so very, very serious, because everyone knows True Art Is Serious.

Still, by publicizing the fact that you want humorous stuff in Podcastle, that should help you pull in more of the kind of stuff you want. =)

When does Podcastle launch? I need to set up downloads on iTunes!

Rachel Swirsky said...

I'm not sure when we launch yet, Nora, but I'll be sure to post it when I know more!