Thursday, July 5, 2007

More on Writing About Other Cultures

Rachel asked, did her post come across as being against writing about other cultures?

No, not a bit. Quite the contrary. But thinking about the issue, I ended up thinking about the problems of writing about other people and cultures.

For example, my response to the question, how does one write about other people is, write them as people. Focus on their humanity. But what is meant by their humanity? Are you going to end by writing all characters as if they are the kind of people you know? I know mostly white Midwesterners; and it seems to me there is a very real danger that I will write all characters as if they are white Midwesterners, even if I give them different skin colors and non western last names.

In my Lydia Duluth stories, most people are black, because they need the protection against the radiation of many different suns. But they aren't (most of them) African-Americans or Africans. They are genetically modified humans from all kinds of different backgrounds. I have introduced black people into my stories, but avoided the problem of writing about existing human cultures I don't know especially well.

Because the Lydia Duluth stories are (to an extent) parodies of space opera, the dominent human culture is a space opera culture, which means Hollywood American.

What I keep wondering is -- to what extent do I come to grips with writing about other cultures, and to what extent do I slip away from the problem, finding some way to use other cultures that will make it difficult for critics to nail me?

I go ahead and create characters from all kinds of different backgrounds, because I think that's more realistic than imagining any era of human history -- past, present or future -- as all white and European. But I don't feel sure that I'm doing a good job. In the end, what I really know is being Eleanor Arnason.

It's absolutely necessary that there be people writing SF from all kinds of backgrounds, because we need the depth of experience that comes from living in a culture.

It's also necessary, I think, that people like me push ourselves and write outside our experience, because the future does not belong to one kind of human. The next 100 years looks like one crisis after another, and we are going to have to work together to get through.

I'm talking about my work, because I know it and because the last time I talked about possible unconscious racism in another SF writer's work, I ended in trouble.

3 comments:

Laura MacDonald said...

This article seems very biased to me as and indeed female chauvinist in its denial that male genital cutting is comparable to female cutting.

It fails to mention for example that a common female circumcision (particularly in Egypt) is the removal of a woman's foreskin (sometimes with part of her labia).
Clearly this is directly comparable with male circumcision and yet it is entirely banned in many countries. In Egypt it has often been carried out on consenting, educated adult women - none of the newspaper reports told us that, did they?

It is known that increasing numbers of American women now choosing to undergo this type of circumcision. This is because they've absorbed all the male circumcision propaganda that says loose skin on the genitals is smegma-ridden and disgusting to a sexual partner.

Although on one level i have no problem with consensual female (or male) cutting, it is disturbing when a society creates this degree of body dysmorphia in its citizens.

The foreskin contains a huge number of nerve endings (around 3 times as many as the tip of the clitoris). We should be celebrating it, and thanking God/mother nature for the joy it brings both men and women.

One final point of clarification -
NO WOMAN HAS EVER HAD HER ENTIRE CLITORIS REMOVED. The clitoris is a mainly internal organ that is around six inches long. 'Clitorectomy' removes the visible tip of it.

Rachel Swirsky said...

"In Egypt it has often been carried out on consenting, educated adult women - none of the newspaper reports told us that, did they?"

Not usually. I'm talking about anthropological papers primarily, though. And I was aware of that, yes. I fail to see the relevance.

There are places where effort is made to kill or remove the internal clitoris.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Heh, I got rather confused here for a second.

1) Laura, you meant to comment on my post, not Eleanor's.

2) If you want to prove that it's common to remove the clitoral prepuce without removing the glans, then you'll need to back yourself up with an appropriate scholarly source. I've studied this extensively, and as far as I know, your claim is false.

3) To the extent it's useful to post this here, the comments section for my article is not an appropriate place to discuss the link or lack thereof between female genital surgeries and male circumcision. There are many other places on the internet for that, such as threads at Alas a Blog, Feministe, and Pandagon. Many thanks.