Tag: cultures

A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

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A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere or on this blog, but for what it’s worth… The usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Warning: this is me in ranty mode, not helped by the 3 hours of sleep I got over the past few days (yup, I know that I volunteered for that whole sleepless thing. But doesn’t change much to how I feel…)
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On political and value neutral

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Expanded from my twitter feed, because I feel it bears repeating.

Escapism

I’ve been seeing a lot of gender-focused work described as “political”, with a strong negative connotation to the term political–it seems what is meant by “political” isn’t really “relating to the public affairs of one country”, but rather “involved, committed, with a message”. Which in turn is rather puzzling when you think on it–if a work isn’t involved [1], doesn’t have anything to say, then should we still be reading it? And are there really works that don’t have anything to say?

Even “escapist” literature or Hollywood movies have a strong underlying message and promote equally strong assumptions (on the value of escapism, on cultural dominance, etc. I could dissect lowbrow Hollywood movies but don’t have the energy here–maybe for next time!).

I remain puzzled by the assumption that some literature can be value-neutral, as if that were ever possible. It is not. Every single piece of literature/art is embedded in the culture/sub-culture that gave rise to it. I’m not doing cultural existentialism here–it’s not *because* something was produced in, say, France, that it will have X and Y and Z; but something produced in France by a French writer will be infused with *some* degree of French cultural background; same for US productions, etc. Every single piece of literature bears the assumptions and the worldview of its creator, who in turn bears the assumptions of the culture they’re part of  (and, to some extent, the work bears the assumptions of its reader, who might interpret it through different filters than the creator).

There is no such thing as meaningless fluff, because even the “shallowest” of fluffs carries an implicit value of what makes fluff; of what doesn’t challenge the majority of readers; of what kinds of escapism are efficient and “don’t engage the brain” [2]. For instance, going off on adventures away from one’ s family, saving the world and getting the girl might be the majority idea of what constitutes escapism in Western society; it will hardly be the case everywhere. Escapism in ancient/modern Vietnam [3], for instance, has a greater chance of focusing on saving one’s community and one’s elders, and romantic attachments have much less of a place, or at least there’s much less imbalance between those and the other kinds of attachments. (don’t want to do broad sweeping cultural generalisations, but I’d argue that in a system of Confucian-derived values, there is a much larger weight on fraternal/friendship bonds than on romantic love, and yet a larger weight on elder/younger family bonds than on any of these. Works produced *within* that kind of society which challenge those norms tend to do so in a specific and characteristic manner, for instance by elevating bonds of friendship over all other ones; just as mainstream Western works tend to challenge traditional Christian values in specific ways).

Coming back to “gender-focused” work, I think we see the same fallacy: the definition tends to be applied to anything with a cast composed mostly of women. On the one hand, I appreciate the need to qualify stories that challenge the status quo; on the other, there’s something… sticky about the lack of balance there: stories that have an all-male cast are equally gender-focused and promote the patriarchy to an even larger extent than female-focused stories (because it’s much easier to promote the status quo), and not applying this term to them fails to challenge the notion that culturally dominant stories are somehow value-neutral and “invisible”. And I find that bothersome: if we can’t recognise our own set of dominant tropes and how everything is geared to accommodate them, to produce them and to propagate them, then being in a position to recognise there is an (unequal) status quo and being able to challenge it are just going to be that much more difficult. It’s like the air you breathe: that you don’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s not there and doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a *huge* influence on you.

Very disorderly thoughts; I apologise for the mess. But I just wanted to put them out there, because “not involved” seems like a dangerous fallacy to me. Do I make sense?


[1] I know that to some extent this is about the “forcefulness” of said work and how vigorously it tries to get its point across; but that strikes me as the beginning of a slippery slope that looks a lot like the tone argument (anything people don’t want to hear gets tagged as “too vehement”). Hard to know when to draw lines; and I don’t pretend to have easy answers; just putting (rather obvious!) thoughts out there…

[2] Think for a moment on what  “doesn’t engage the brain” implies, and you’ll realise that a necessary prerequite for this is “doesn’t challenge my deeply-held beliefs/doesn’t challenge the majority view I’m used to”.  I’m religious, so anything that is actively hostile to spirituality has a much larger wall to leap in my hindbrain; but this is partly offset by the fact that the (French) society I move is largely atheist, and that I’m thus inured to negative portrayals of religion.

[3]  Bit of a tricky thing to separate influences, as Western culture is so ubiquitous even in modern (and colonial) Vietnam that it has started to bleed quite significantly into the culture/erase non-compliant bits of it. And again, general trends rather than specifics; I don’t want to do cultural existensialism, but equally cultural specifities shouldn’t be casually swept under the rug under cover of “we’re all the same deep down”.

Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

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So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
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On loss of language, colonisation and migration

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Two great articles, courtesy of automathic:
-Juliana Qian writes about being of Chinese descent in Australia. A lot of it is either uncomfortably familiar experience and/or strikes home quite accurately:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

-Rahel Aima on vernacular English:

Embedded within non-western English lies a parallel tension. The vernacular promises all the seductive freshness of exoticised difference, as well as the inherited anger of the Postcolonial Clever—the comfortably removed expat with a knowing gaze. There’s a certain expectation of kitsch, discernible authenticity and legitimacy, or at the very least, something to appropriate, please yaar? Or—something to awkwardly skirt out of respect to cultural relativism and because we are ostensibly beyond the myth of native English. Except then there’s also the orientalised yet unacknowledged elephant in the room: that the diasporic writer just might be the new bedfellow of cultural imperialism.

Quotelog: “ethnic sensibilities”

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Found this on twitter. Kathleen Alcalá on SFF alternate universes vs reality:

Last quote on the importance of ethnic sensibilities: Your alt reality is my everyday life.

Yes. It’s a brilliant summary of what’s wrong with the “rule of cool” SF (and why you need to be careful about which bits of which cultures you put into your story, as I argued elsewhere)

Activity this week is likely to be sparse, as I have to fit in a Vietnamese lesson, a few appointments left over from before the summer, and a workshop in Brittany with Kari Sperring, Tricia Sullivan and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. Can’t guarantee I’ll post, but maybe by next Monday I’ll have solved that %% virtual reality story.

Physical descriptions of Asians

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Reposted from my twitter feed because I think it’s worth saying:

The physical description of your Asian characters to easily ID them as Asian is not the first thing you should be obsessing about. Basically, this is the most Othering version of describing characters of colour–they’re just like white people, except with different physical features! But it’s not only features that make people “different” , and in fact our differences are often much much more than skin-deep. To whit: I can write (and have written) an entire story that features recognisably Asian people, without a single distinctive physical description. So can Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

(I wonder how much of the emphasis on physical appearance is shaped by our worship of movies/TV series? I sometimes think that Hollywood et al. influence our way of telling stories, not necessarily for the better…)

Cultural appropriation

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[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can’t make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clichés or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long [5]) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [6] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)


[1] Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist cliché when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] ETA 2016: having actually written that story *cough*, I’m going to amend that into “you totally can, but be aware what kind of vibe it ends up giving the final product” (in this particular case, it’s possible, but very very hard not to shade into horror).
[6] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.

The Rule of Names

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(yes, I like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. Sue me)

I was planning to do a longer and more detailed post, but time, once again, has got away from me (sigh, already so late on so many things. Clearly, I need a better juggling teacher). So here’s the shortened version…

There are few things that throw people out of your carefully researched novels faster than getting names wrong. I once opened a novel that had a French protagonist, and didn’t get past the first page because all the French names looked like they’d been fished out out of an internet baby list [1]. Names are one of the first contacts people have with your characters, but they’re a surprisingly common source of fail in fiction.

The main reason they’re a source of fail is because often, people assume that the same naming rules they’re familiar with will apply everywhere in the world. And that’s hardly the case, as countries and cultures can have vastly differing naming customs. For instance, we don’t have middle names in France and think it a very odd concept when it does crop up in American movies (and Vietnamese do have an intercalary name, but it doesn’t have the same function or characteristics as a US middle name).

Here are a handful of examples to demonstrate the common traps into which writers can fall: they shouldn’t be taken as actual knowledge, more like an indicative checklist that things that can vary across cultures. Also, not an exhaustive list, as I drew from those cultures I was at least vaguely familiar with, which were mostly Vietnam, France, and Russia–but already, you can see that names can follow very different customs!

Some errors I’ve seen in books (beyond the obvious ones of picking names that are ridiculous or don’t exist):

-Getting name order wrong (Chinese/Vietnamese last names come before the intercalary name and the first name: for instance, someone whose last name is Nguyen, intercalary name is Thi and first name is Hanh would be Nguyen Thi Hanh, not Hanh Thi Nguyen)

-Not understanding that you might have little choice for last names. In Vietnam, 99% of the population bears a total of 14 last names, which means you just can’t invent a Vietnamese last name if you feel like it! However, first names aren’t taken from an accepted list but rather chosen by the parents on the basis of words/concepts they like (there are rules/guidelines/usages, but I won’t go into them here), which means you can have extremely uncommon first names. A related one is Russia, where people have a patronymic name (derived from their father’s first name) and a family name–which means names have a very distinct structure.

-Not understanding what marriage does to last names (in a lot of cultures, women don’t actually change their name to match their husband’s)

-Getting diminutives wrong (a lot of cultures have different patterns than the usual Anglo one of shortening someone’s name by a few syllables to be more informal or more affectionate. See, for instance, Russian. Getting affectionate in Vietnamese mostly involves pronouns rather than diminutive forms of the names–OK, partially because Vietnamese first names are so short!)

-Conversely, not understanding how to address people formally. Using someone’s last name isn’t always the formal method to address them. In Vietnam, you use Mr./Mrs [2] + First Name to address someone formally.

I’m sure there are plenty more things to watch out for, but I’m only familiar with a handful of cultures… Anyone else have tidbits about how naming principles differ across cultures?


[1] Internet baby lists can be very dangerous, as they’re the first things that pop up when you’re looking for “names from xxx culture”, but are either badly compiled, or list all possible names without warning you if they’re popular or dorky choices (hint, for instance, don’t try calling your French female MC “Cunégonde” unless you want everyone laughing at her).
[2] “Mrs.” actually covers lots of different modes of address depending on how old the speaker is compared to you (“Grandmother”, “Aunt”, “Elder Sister”, “Younger Sister”, “Child”…), but this is very complicated and beyond the scope of this list!

(picture credits: Timitrius on flickr, shared under a creative commons attribution share alike generic license)