deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
[personal profile] deepad
Edited to Add (28th October, 2009): If you have been linked here and do not feel like reading an essay, listen to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 18-minute talk on 'The Danger of a Single Story' to hear the same points made clearly and movingly.

In reading and commenting on [livejournal.com profile] matociquala 's post on writing the Other, I felt a lot of personal reactive emotions boil up. The following essay (screed? thingie?) is not a direct continuation of that conversation, nor should it be taken as specific to anything she said. I have used one of her books as an example, because context foregrounded it for me, but this is more my commentary on the Western, White novels and blogs I have been reading recently, and my experience as an Indian reader.

When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern.

But there were no taverns in India. Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

There are far more eloquent writers who have pointed out how difficult it is to growing up reading books (and watching movies) about a culture alien to you, and how pernicious the influences thereof can be. I am lucky in that Indian culture is more widely represented in Western media than other colonised regions—when I talk about Bollywood in the yuletide chat room, there are people who have an idea about what I might be referring to, bastardised ideas of ‘pundit’ and ‘caste system’ and ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’ are present in the English vocabulary. Yet still, my ability to connect fannishly with people from different parts of the world is mediated through the coloniser’s language and representation. Enid Blyton, with her hideous caricatures of African tribal boys helping the intrepid British children is read from Johannesburg to Jaipur—Iktomi stories are not.

These imbalances of power are what frustrate me in several discussions regarding issues of representation and diversity in writing that I’ve seen recently. I am summarising some positions that I have heard, and my responses to them.

One of the most frustrating arguments I’ve encountered is—If you hate it so much, stop bitching and write your own.

This naive position stems from the utopian capitalist belief that all markets are equal, and individuals are free to be what they can driven only by their inner divine spark.

Yes, writers create from the richly populated inner world of the imagination, and writers have evolved said imagination in many diverse corporeal circumstances of hardship and difficulty. However—no writer, I repeat my sweeping assumption—no writer is created from a vacuum. Almost the only universal characteristic I have seen in the biographical commonalities between writers across time and space has been their pleasure in reading (or accessing stories). Certainly the writers of the present era have grown up reading.

Now let me point out that I grew up speaking Marathi with my family, and Hindi with schoolmates and neighbours, but the only children’s books I read were in English. Less than a handful were written by Indian authors about Indian characters. (There are some good Indian language children’s books. You will not find them in the average Indian bookstore.)

I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.

And also, do not imagine that making it to print is some idealistic winnowing of quality. Someone once said to me, when I told them how much smaller the publishing industry in India was compared with the American one, that they supposed that what was published then, must be of the highest quality. It is not an equal playing field. This is like assuming that the one runner in India who perseveres in the face of poverty and institutional neglect and governmental lack-of-infrastructure will by virtue of her drive and passion be as good as the team of runners culled from the tens of thousands of children sent to athletic training camps in China for the express purpose of creating Olympic medallists.

The Western publishing industry has the luxury of being able to support the base camps of crappy first novels and cliché-ridden genre fiction hacks and niche-marketed speciality books that creates the momentum for the breakout book, the genius author. If you grow up in a country where every child has held a crayon in nursery school, you are at an advantage.

And just to make it absolutely clear—the Western publishing advantage was derived from the economic wealth those nations enjoyed by virtue of stripping the resources and talents of other peoples. I do not consider it an accident of fate that it is in America that the art of children’s picture books evolved (which I consider one of America’s most exquisite cultural gifts to the world). These books, printed in China on paper from Brazil—they cost (when they are imported at all) more than a full length Penguin Classic in an Indian bookstore. The books available in one fourth grade classroom at a low-income Minneapolis charter school where I have worked outnumber the entirety of books my private primary school in Delhi made available to me (And I reiterate, I am nothing but privileged in India). Remember on whose backs the resources for your public libraries were built.


Also--this research what you write about blitheness annoys me because the costs of research are skewed towards the First World economies. It's not just a question of Neil Gaiman going to China or Naomi Novik going on a research safari to South Africa; even Harlequin romance writers can afford to go on a cruise and write about a Latin lover. There isn't even an Indian speculative fiction genre--how many of us do you think, were we to be authors who wished to world-build in an AU Brazilian setting, would be able to afford a plane ticket to visit there. And on a smaller level--try talking to the elite academic professors at Delhi University or the University of Ghana. Find out how long it takes for academic journals to reach them, or how the library at the University of Chicago is better stocked in South East Asian texts than any Indian library. Compare how many undergraduates in the US have free access to LexusNexus, with the number of elite Indian private school teachers who rely on Wikipedia because they can't afford subscriptions to academic article sites.

The other argument that causes me to flinch reactively is the one which talks about writing the Other just like you would write any character—with respect for their individuality and uniqueness.

You know why I flinch? It’s because the assumptions flatten the problem. A poorly written book has cardboard cut-out characters, and a well-written book has thoughtful, nuanced characterisation. But I have spent a lifetime reading well-written books with nuanced characters that hurt me by erasing or misrepresenting me. Sara Crewe gets sent to boarding school because my home had a bad climate for her to grow up in. Libba Bray can in 2003 write about a lesbian schoolgirl in Victorian England, but posit that Indians sell snakes to eat in a Bombay marketplace. And the White characters in Gone With the Wind, and Atlas Shrugged—two books I idolised and reread voraciously as a teenager—are iconoclastic in their individuality.

Asking an author to write the Other with respect and assuming it to be sufficient, is like telling a person that being polite to everyone is sufficient in their goal of being an anti-racist ally. This is crap. Your definition of individuality, just like your definition of politeness is culture-specific. And just like I do not want to see yet another Indian princess or lascar stereotype, I do not want to see a White American with brown skin and kohl and an elephant sidekick.

I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you. And I do not want that.
White people decrying their race and culture baffles me, because it is a lie. Your alienation from your own mainstream does not equate with your fundamental similarity to my differences with your culture. Even when we feel or are called 'White' or 'Western', we cannot shrug off our identity; we become the vanguard of its complexity. And we are far, far more immersed in your culture, than most of you could ever be in ours.

What I resent is the implication of accessibility. That it is as easy to understand people of different ethnicities and cultures as it is to understand the diverse experiences within the identities you share with people. Yes, writing about Indian-Americans or Korean-Canadians or Sengalese-Britishers implies a certain shared national experience. But hyphenated identities are not the only manifestations of a culture, and as someone who identifies as Indian, I want to say--No. It is not that easy to understand me, or my experience, or to accurately represent it. You don't see Native Americans writers going around claiming familiarity with Australian aboriginals on the basis of some shared philosophies, or Chinua Achebe writing about Afro-Caribbeans like an extension of his own world. 

And finally, I would like to say that this well-intentioned championing of diversity is specific to countries that are trying to celebrate their appropriation of other cultures. All this write the Other talk—you never hear someone saying that to or within an Indian authorial context. Nobody seems to complain that R. K. Narayan or Anita Desai or Ruskin Bond don’t feature Black or White characters. And I haven’t heard anyone criticise Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth for their inaccurate or stereotypical portrayal of the White characters they write. Because when they write about White people, it is not appropriative. No one that I know of has borrowed Arthur and Lancelot to turn them into part of the army that helps Rama defeat Ravan.

On the other hand, there is a disturbing trend of Euro-centric mythology crossing the water to the US, and then appropriating the other cultures present in its service. For instance, I read Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron with a great deal of pleasure—the writing was strong, the characters compelling, and the plot complex. And there were two major Black characters—one of whom was a Merlin (an important figure in the war between the Faerie and the Promethean men), and one of whom was a kelpie. But why? Why would an African-American woman have to participate in an Arthurian narrative, and why must Caribbean orisha spirits be subsumed into a Celtic myth in order to serve the conceit of something so specifically White European as a Seelie and an Unseelie Faerie court? (And Avalon's Willow pointed out; the character at first terrifies and attempts to capture one White Woman and then is bridled and made a servant/unwilling sidekick of another.) I do not want rakshasas and apsaras to be part of a fairy court, or an Indian-American to do a havan that permits the heroine to sanctify the sword that will kill the dragon.

Dragons are not universal. If I am defensive, it is because I have had to learn how to love Tolkein while trying to find myself in the unmapped lands in the East where the Green and Blue wizards disappeared to.

Edited to add some links and a few paragraphs I thought of in hindsight.
ETA 2: Feel free to link, however I would prefer that discussions regarding White Ally responses happen here, or at least after reading that post, which is a cumulative response to some of the comments made in this one.
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(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 03:44 am (UTC)
ext_872: eye with red flower petals as eyelashes (Default)
From: [identity profile] bossymarmalade.livejournal.com
No one that I know of has borrowed Arthur and Lancelot to turn them into part of the army that helps Rama defeat Ravan.

... but now I really want to. *g*

More seriously, I am kind of sitting her stunned right now at how much of this I read and thought, yes, oh my god, YES. Growing up in Trinidad reading British stories and worldviews affected my own abilities and language profoundly; when I wrote stories as a girl, all of my characters were white. I would have thought it ludicrous to do anything else.

I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

This is absolutely it. The "we're all people!" cry looks innocuous or even admirable at first glance, but the way it's distilled in practise is more like "even foreigners can act like ordinary Americans!" -- with 'white' standing in for 'ordinary', of course.

I'm glad you wrote out your feelings about this. I found so much here to identify with, and considering how complex and painful it's been for me to pinpoint and deal with my postcolonial legacy, I appreciate that's you've laid it all out so eloquently.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
I am so over Arthur that if I saw him show up in non-Eurocentric anything I would probably have to kill somebody. :)

Growing up in Trinidad reading British stories and worldviews affected my own abilities and language profoundly

I know, right? And it is very much a problem of the privileged, but going to an English medium school and being upper class means that I am not fluent enough to be able to write fiction in my mother tongues. I certainly lay firm claim to Indian English, but I struggle with representing the multi-lingual part of my world.

I'm glad this made sense to you. I hate being emotional. :)

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Date: 14/1/09 03:50 am (UTC)
ext_6385: (Default)
From: [identity profile] shewhohashope.livejournal.com
This is wonderful. All of it.

I grew up on and loved Enid Blyton (I still do, in a weird way), and while I probably found it more immediately problematic than most white, British kids, it took a while before I realised all the stories I wrote had white characters. Not that I wrote much, then or now.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
I consider myself lucky that my mom brought me up to think of Enid Blyton as trash, so I was biased towards critiquing her, but guess what the odds are of finding her in an Indian bookstore vs, say, Octavian Nothing?

Completely off-topic

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Date: 14/1/09 04:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emily-shore.livejournal.com
Really, really insightful post. Thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
You're welcome.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:29 am (UTC)
ext_2721: original art by james jean (jamesjean.com) (Default)
From: [identity profile] skywardprodigal.livejournal.com
I do not have enough yes in me, and my mother tongue is broken. So even oui is borrowed and reclaimed from successful attempts at erasure.

So much of this is so very true. I love all of it. Every word, every comma, every period. YES.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
and my mother tongue is broken

Ohhoney. At least there is this legacy, that we can find strangers all over the world who have survived this together, and can understand.

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Date: 14/1/09 04:36 am (UTC)
ext_2208: image of romaine brooks self-portrait, text "Lila Futuransky" (Default)
From: [identity profile] heyiya.livejournal.com
You just pinned down exactly (albeit from a perspective I was more educated than born to) the whole meme of 'writing the Other' that goes around bothers me. It's precisely multiculturalism, where the 'multi' always modifies a hegemonic model of culture that here is precisely the idea of the 'unique individual.' Which doesn't get less culturally specific because it's the stock in trade of the novelist, given that the history of the novel and the history of colonialism are not exactly separable.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:38 am (UTC)
ext_2208: image of romaine brooks self-portrait, text "Lila Futuransky" (Default)
From: [identity profile] heyiya.livejournal.com
I feel like a bit of a dick, gendered choice of noun quite purposeful, for responding to this with theorywords. But, um, I don't know how else?

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Date: 14/1/09 05:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] avalon&apos;s willow (from livejournal.com)
Linked to you here:
http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/2009/01/open-letter-to-elizabeth-bear.html

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] minim-calibre.livejournal.com
Thank you, for trusting us with your words, which are much-needed ones in this sort of conversation.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 05:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mildmannered.livejournal.com
You know what would be really fucking amazing? would be a book about those blue and green wizards, in those lands to the East. Which were certainly mapped, if not by anyone in Gondor.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
I used to imagine what might happen over there. But since Gandalf and Elbereth and Eru never seemed to care about us over there, I stopped too.

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Date: 14/1/09 05:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparkymonster.livejournal.com
I'm not coherent yet, but oh god this is an AMAZING post/screed/story. Just amazing. I need to come back to this tomorrow and think more.

Seriously. Thank you for sharing

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Date: 14/1/09 04:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Thank you for listening. :)

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Date: 14/1/09 05:59 am (UTC)
ext_808: (Default)
From: [identity profile] yasaman.livejournal.com
Great post, and thanks for the food for thought. And word on trying to find oneself in the unmapped lands of the East. And more word on growing up with half a tongue. I'm just now trying to reclaim mine, and oh my God, it is way more of an uphill struggle than I ever expected with my mother tongue, but that's beside the point.

And wow, your points about Blood and Iron bring up some things I had never thought of. You're right, it is problematic. I confess, I saw the Promethean Age series world as more of an American Gods type of world, so the potential appropriation issues did not at all occur to me.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Sisters in solidarity, yo! :)

I have different problems with American Gods (and Neil Gaiman in general) than I do with Blood and Iron. I still plan to read the full Promethian Age series because I enjoyed the writing quite a bit, but I'll try to do a separate post sometime on the issues that bother me.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 06:56 am (UTC)
ardhra: Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes, with a feather fascinator in her hair and a colourful drape (Default)
From: [personal profile] ardhra
This is fantastic.

Part of the reason I stopped reading fantasy novels is because of their endless repetition of social structures from mediaeval Europe (or highly exoticised versions of social structures of the Middle East and Asia), with contemporary morality superimposed on them. After some teenage enthusiasm, I found they just weren't speaking to me.

Fantasy seems like the construct of a highly privileged society, able to contemplate poverty and a lack of technology from a distance. It seems based on a very Orientalist division of time into dichotomies of civilisation/barbarism, and a projection of the timelessness and traditionalism that tinted the lens of the Orientalist gaze.

I figured out that I, and people like me and my family, figure in these stories exactly as Orientalism imagines us to be, while white people figure as heroes supported by the myths of white pioneering individualism and tinged with the traditionalism and timelessness of exotified societies only to the extent that it's a romantic patina on an otherwise Western trope. They're a bit exotic, but not really like the rest of them, which is why they're interesting (as Middle Earth declines, our heroes are the only ones who can pave the way for a new age).

Can there ever be such a thing as a postcolonial high fantasy? I'm not sure.

As you say, it takes more than putting brown skin on an American youth and pushing them through a quest. There was a time when I wanted to write something like this, but I realised too late that writing fiction is not something I'm suited to, so my ideas will just have to find some other ground to settle in.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 04:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Ok, this. YES.

I don't think I've specifically made the leap from Orientalism to European fantasy, but you are abolutely right re: the patina of timelessness aspect, and how the heroes then become the Honkies of the Day to save the world.

I had actually made this connection in regards to classical ballet's treatment of women, which is a paper I might throw up here later, if only to show how insidicous and pervasive cultural appropriation has been.

Can there ever be such a thing as a postcolonial high fantasy? I'm not sure.

Such a good question. I can't see myself ever thinking of writing a Save the World book, because my ego just cannot extend so far as to imagine that any one group or person could ever encompass everybody. I mean, there will always be lands and peoples beyond, right?

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Trawling from metafandom

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/covers face with hands

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Date: 14/1/09 08:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] yeloson.livejournal.com
I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

This. It's never been about us being us, it's about us not being them. (http://yeloson.livejournal.com/#post-yeloson-528532)

And yes on the way in which mythology is also made eurocentric, and we're supposed to do cartwheels on being included.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as I've been trying for the life of me to brainstorm a people of color focal urban fantasy setting, and thinking about how broken our language of mythology is in the face of cultural genocide.

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Date: 14/1/09 09:46 am (UTC)
ext_6366: Red haired, dark skinned, lollipop girl (Default)
From: [identity profile] the-willow.insanejournal.com (from livejournal.com)
As I've been trying for the life of me to brainstorm a people of color focal urban fantasy setting

Gah, you too? I'm currently confronting an internal bias that says the Caribbean simply cannot be the center of the world (in that whole, saving the world from evil sense).

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Lightnote:

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Date: 14/1/09 12:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] artaxastra.livejournal.com
Which I think brings me to my quandary -- is it better to try to write Indian characters, knowing that as a white American I will be de facto presenting a false or incomplete picture, or to not write them at all? My editor, who is an Indian woman, says it's better to go ahead and write them, and that even with some flaws that it's a vast improvement to have strong and sympathetic Indian characters than have India vanish off the map. (In my latest book, the one that comes out next year, the hero's dead first wife was Indian, and she appears in several flashback sequences.) Her take on it is that I also write ancient Persians, when I am not myself Iranian, Egyptians when I am not Egyptian, Greeks when I am not Greek, Turks when I am not Turkish, etc, and that writing a sympathetic character who is Indian isn't nearly as problematic as it would be to make her white instead to avoid having her be Indian.

Which I think leads to the other problem -- people being afraid to write characters from a culture other than their own, or especially from a background that's controversial. In PotC fandom this usually takes the form of the Caribbean being entirely populated by white people. Fans are scared to write black characters for fear of offending, so all the black characters simply disappear. "I can't write Tia Dalma," they say. Which means that the black characters in canon vanish. I guess my take on it is that it's better to go ahead and write the black characters in canon and do the best I can with it rather than to have them disappear. I think Tia Dalma is a terribly interesting character, and I rather ship her and Jack. So is there something inherently wrong about me writing that? It kind of makes me nervous to say I shouldn't ship an interracial relationship because I'm not qualified to write about it, something that interestingly enough I've heard from white fans but not from black.

So what's your take on it? You know me and my writing. Is it better, in this upcoming book, to have one of the hero's primary love interests be an Indian woman, or is that problematic? Or is that a question you can't answer without reading it? (And if you'd like to read it, I'd be grateful for your thoughts....)

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Date: 14/1/09 12:26 pm (UTC)
ext_939: Sheep wearing an eyepatch (Default)
From: [identity profile] spiralsheep.livejournal.com
Fans are scared to write black characters for fear of offending, so all the black characters simply disappear.

I don't believe that's the primary reason why many white writers choose (consciously or not) to preferentially write white chracters. I also think "fear of offending" is a way of white people blaming their actual "fear of being critiqued on race issues" onto non-white people, i.e. shifting the blame for the lack of non-white representation away from the (majority of) white writers (in PotC fandom in your example) who're responsible for what they write and onto the (minority of) non-white readers.

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:-)

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Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Re: Part 1

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Part 2

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Re: Part 2

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Date: 14/1/09 12:19 pm (UTC)
ext_939: Sheep wearing an eyepatch (Default)
From: [identity profile] spiralsheep.livejournal.com
Great post. Thank you.

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Date: 14/1/09 01:09 pm (UTC)
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)
From: [personal profile] oyceter
Yes, yes, yes, and thank you.

And even when we do have genres that have a ton of "appropriation" of white culture like my most beloved manga, it doesn't feel like appropriation, it feels like assimilation, because right now, hundreds of manga series can be written about the Christian notion of heaven and hell or include Norse mythology and such, but they aren't being consumed to the point in which they are creating the norm instead of reacting to it.

(Also, do not mean to nitpick, but I learned last year that there actually is a Bengalese SF tradition. But of course, because of the way the flow of cultures work and the resources necessary for the promotion and maintenance of a publishing community, it's very buried.)

Mostly though: thank you.

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Date: 14/1/09 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Yes, I think there are really interesting things to be said about media produced that uses White culture, like manga, and how it is different (although I am sure it would be useful to us as POC writers to critique its problems as well). Not knowing anything about it, I will wait to read the thoughts of my betters on it (hint hint)

Bengali SF... d'oh. Hello India is a vast country with so many languages that I am more familiar with French phrases than some of yours. :)

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Date: 14/1/09 01:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] veejane.livejournal.com
I'm pleased to see you put this out (unlocked, etc.). This is great! The details of "where my memes come from" are vivid, and make your point very well. I hope a great many people read it, and are convinced.

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Date: 14/1/09 05:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
I... was a little too reactive to give in to my normal tendency to lock stuff. Glad it made sense to you.

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Date: 14/1/09 01:44 pm (UTC)
ext_6428: (Default)
From: [identity profile] coffeeandink.livejournal.com
This is terrific. Thank you for putting it up.

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Date: 14/1/09 01:52 pm (UTC)
ext_2511: (Default)
From: [identity profile] cryptoxin.livejournal.com
This is such a powerful post; thank you for writing it.

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Date: 14/1/09 01:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] daegaer.livejournal.com
This is really brilliant, thank you!

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Date: 14/1/09 02:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] matociquala.livejournal.com
I followed you home.

I think this is an excellent essay.

One of the things I was trying to do with Kelpie, the Merlin, and Kadiska in particular, was talk about cultural appropriation and cultural interchange. The Merlin, coopted into this mythology, winds up rather upsetting the apple cart at the end of the second book. Part of what I wanted to talk about was how cultural preconceptions of How Things Are aren't necessarily so--the idea that the stories we tell ourselves become true is also a horrible trap, and sometimes we need to step outside those stories.

It's becoming evident to me that I didn't do a good enough job on that, however. Maybe next time.

I very much would like, eventually, to write some books set in other parts of that world, showing other aspects of its magic and culture. (A friend of mine wants to bring me to Bangalore to meet her family and possibly write a book set there. If I can ever afford it, I would love to do that.)

The problem being of course that there's a very fine line of cultural appropriation: the last thing I want to do is write a Rudyard Kipling story. Or a story about how what these people need is a honky.

The second PA book includes more African and Australian stories, and throughout the writing I was aware of a constant tension between what I wanted to do, artistically--widen the scope of the world, and make it evident that there was Stuff going on out there that might not enter into the self-absorbed little world of the Celtic and American characters, and the fact that I am a trespasser in those lands. And then there's the issue of bringing out that the real New York (not the TV New York) itself is a multicultural city with all kinds of people in it.

There's a tension: I don't want to write just another romano-celtic story. There are enough of those in the world. But I also don't feel nearly as bad about doing a crappy job with The matter of Britain as I do with The Matter of Australia.

I'm much more comfortable ripping the stitches out of Christianity and rearranging it into a nice patchwork quilt than I would be doing the same thing to any other major world religion. Which--that eggshell treatment--is a form of othering in itself, and I'm pretty sure there are enough Buddhists in the world for it to take care of itself, but there you go.

It's a remarkably intractable problem. I'm not capable of writing children's books in Hindi. My first language is English, and I'm a mongrel white western person. And yet I still want, somehow, to contribute to a just society. I can't figure out what else my life is good for.

(I never meant to imply that writing cross-culturally was easy. It's remarkably hard. I think I said that it's simple, not easy. Sort of like mountain climbing.)

(Edited for bad editing.)

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 08:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Ok, first off, I'm catching up on comments with this post, so I haven't had the time to look at any of the resultant discussion happening elsewhere.

there was Stuff going on out there that might not enter into the self-absorbed little world of the Celtic and American characters

That interests me. And yeah, you can but try. I mean, I meant it when I said that I liked Blood and Iron quite a bit, mostly because of the women and the conflicted werewolves, but I did resent the Caribbean kelpie. And now you know, and its up to you to use or discard that information as best serves you. :)

And yet I still want, somehow, to contribute to a just society. I can't figure out what else my life is good for.

Ok, I'm going to do something I normally never do online, and get personal. Because I've been reading your LJ for years, and I believe you when you say this.
Bear... it hurts when you talk about your insecurities about writing the Other in a way that gives importance to that over the greater problem of mis-and under-representation of the Other. I've commented on your LJ about this before, and I've tried to be cautious because its your space and you have every right to say what you want in it and if I mind, I can just leave, which is what I do, but I've been hurt by the ways in which you've defended your position or participated in a discussion in the past. I'm just sharing that, for what its worth.

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From: [identity profile] matociquala.livejournal.com - Date: 14/1/09 08:47 pm (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 14/1/09 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thingswithwings.livejournal.com
I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

Beautifully put. This is an excellent post, and I am going to be chewing over it for a while; thank you for writing it.

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Date: 14/1/09 02:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] erzebet.livejournal.com
What a glorious post. I have added you as a friend because of it. Thank you.

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Date: 14/1/09 03:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dragonmyst.livejournal.com
This is a fascinating post, interesting and thought provoking.

I found this through [livejournal.com profile] matociquala. Do you mind if I link it in my lj?

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 05:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deepad.livejournal.com
Go ahead, I'm glad it was useful to you.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 03:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anachred.livejournal.com
Thank you for sharing your heart and history about this.

I'm having trouble articulating what I mean, but I'll trust you to give me the benefit of the doubt here...though I can't seem to make it not sound stiff and self-congratulating:

My concept of myself as Other, and my ideas of the problems of bringing a home-culture to bear on literature, have been shifted a bit--I hope for the good, and more humility about the advantages in my background.
I really appreciate you taking the time to put your thoughts where others (even strangers) can read them.

(no subject)

Date: 14/1/09 03:26 pm (UTC)
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)
From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu
Not only thought-provoking, but beautifully written. Thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 28/1/09 12:51 am (UTC)
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