Some Thoughts on Writing (or not writing) the Other

There have been some fascinating and important discussions on the net regarding cultural appropriation, racism and racial-cultural “disappearance” in science fiction.  I’ve not kept up with these very well, only because I have been insanely busy, but many people have been extremely articulate and intelligent about these subjects.  Racefail 2009 is summarized here.  The “disappearing” of Native Americans in Patricia Wrede’s book, The Thirteenth Child, came to my attention when I read Jo Walton’s review and the numerous comments.  What stunned me was that the non-existence of the Native Americans in the book was mentioned only casually by the reviewer, who apparently did not realize how problematic this was until people commented (upon which, to her credit, she acknowledged her error).  The author herself decided quite airily to do away with the Indians, as quoted here. This sort of casual blindness is not indicative of how evil the person is (and I am convinced that neither the reviewer nor author intended any kind of racism) but how pervasive racism is as an institution, and how easy it is, when you are part of a privileged group, to simply edit out of existence whole peoples and their tribulations.  May I never, ever, be so blind about any race, class, religion, caste or (for that matter) species.  I would hate to be in Patricia Wrede’s shoes right now.

I’d like to make two comments about writing the Other that might be useful to those contemplating such a thing (“Other” of course being a relative term). 

One: The discussions cited above underline the importance of context.  One can’t look  at a book in isolation from the literary, political and social context in which it exists.  Writing a book about an America without Indians is not by itself problematic except that it a) parallels the actual genocide and consequent invisibility of Native Americans by white settlers, and perpetuates that process, and b) participates in the “disappearance” or misrepresentation or appropriation of other races, peoples, and cultures in science fiction literature.

I read a short story some years ago, written by an American author, that played fast and loose with the gods of the Hindu pantheon.  There was no real disrespect in the story, mostly ignorance and a certain lack of recognition of the fact that the author was exploiting a living religion, not (say) that of the ancient Egyptians.  By itself the story was not such a big deal, and if it had been one of many stories out there where Hindu gods appeared in various ways and were explored from numerous points of view, including those of Hindus, the story would not have carried a certain offensive weight in my mind.  Because what it did (rather lightly, but still) was to extend and perpetuate stereotypes that had been promoted by the British in the time of the Raj, some of which persist today.  I’m as far from a religious fanatic as you can get, and have myself played with notions and ideas from Hinduism in my stories, and am all for (informed) imaginative play in which everything is grist to the writerly mill, but still the story was off-putting to me.   And again it was mostly because it existed in a context where a particular religion and culture were either absent or misrepresented in the literature and the social environment of the author.

The second point I want to make addresses one way to avoid the pitfall described above.  When I was a kid I used to read books by the prolific British children’s author Enid Blyton.  I didn’t get the subtle racism in many of her books but then I came across a book (set partly in Africa) in which the racism was in-your-face overt.  Before this I’d enjoyed the adventures, and identified with some of the characters.  When I read this book, I suddenly realized that I was not (as I’d blithely assumed) part of the author’s intended audience and nor were millions of people who lived in Africa and Asia.  The moment of betrayal is still vivid in my memory.

So my second point is that if an author wants to avoid being in Patricia Wrede’s shoes, he or she should set out to write for the world, not just for the readership one takes from granted (in this case Western white).  The world, here, is this diverse place where languages other than English are spoken and people have different skin colors, customs, beliefs and music.  Who knows — if Wrede had been sensitive to this wider world, in which Native Americans exist and might even be part of her audience, perhaps it would have given her pause for thought.

Another YA book is coming to mind as I write this, which I read some years ago and recycled almost immediately.  I wish I could remember the title and author — it was written by a writer with a Western-sounding name, and it featured a fantasy world that was apparently entirely made up.  Except that I happen to know something about Iranian history and I can speak a little Farsi, enough that I could recognize that this woman had ransacked Persian history and culture, amputated and anglicized the names and (as far as I recall) hadn’t acknowledged her debt to the country and culture.  It was clear that she had never even imagined Iranians as readers of her book.

I’ve felt that way about a lot of stories that feature Indians and India — that the author had not ever thought about someone like me as a possible member of the audience.  Now, fortunately, we have a lot of writers in the West writing far more knowledgeably and sensitively about India — people who do their research, who approach their subject with sensitivity, who have Indians proof their manuscripts, who hang out with the natives when they can, or even visit the country.  I applaud these folks and hope there are many more such attempts where we move beyond what is known and familiar and try to stand in the shoes of the aliens from our own planet.  That should be part of the point of SF.

But there can still be problems with works that operate from this enlightened and informed perspectives.  I will explore that in a subsequent post.

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7 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Writing (or not writing) the Other”

  1. softestbullet Says:

    Thank you for posting; this is really good.

    When I read this book, I suddenly realized that I was not (as I’d blithely assumed) part of the author’s intended audience and nor were millions of people who lived in Africa and Asia. The moment of betrayal is still vivid in my memory.

    Oh, yes.

  2. elfwreck Says:

    This post has been included in a Linkspam roundup.

  3. Avendya Says:

    I think you may be thinking of Hilari Bell’s Farsala trilogy? It was a very obvious rewrite of the Persian empire, and doing a bit of looking, I can’t see anything to indicate that she is a PoC. (She may well be, but I do not know that. If the book was disrespectful to the culture of Iran, it is probably a good guess she is not Iranian.)

  4. vsinghsblog Says:

    Thanks, Avendya, the Farsala Trilogy was it.

    I just found a link to the books here: http://www.sfwa.org/members/bell/fallkingdom.html. What I wanted to clarify was that she didn’t represent the culture as “bad” but used it and dismembered it to suit her story without (as far as I can find on her site) any attribution. Take for instance the use of Sorahb for the legendary Sohrab as hero, or the god Azura for Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian deity, and by the way that is a living religion we are talking about), or for that matter the word Farsala presumably derived from Farsi. Yeesh! Anyone who is Iranian, or Parsee, or knows enough about Iran or the Zarathustri religion would be put off by this blatant highway robbery.

    And yet this is not to say that Hilari Bell necessarily saw herself as a culture thief. I found an interview of her in which she sounds like a perfectly likeable, interesting person: http://www.harpercollins.ca/author/AuthorExtra.aspx?displayType=interview&authorID=20258. Which underlines my point, that this sort of blindness is not a matter of a few individual racists (althought they exist) but is a symptom of a larger and more subtle phenomenon.

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