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Jay Lake
Date: 2006-11-14 07:10
Subject: Writing the other
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
I've meant to mention this since WFC. We had a panel on Regional Variations in Fantasy, with Fiona McIntosh (Australia), Neil Williamson (Scotland) and Holly Phillips (Canada), moderated by me (United States). One of the issues which came up was using native (ie, First Nations, Native American or Aboriginal) tradition in writing fantasy. The response to that was fascinating.

Paraphrasing quite a bit, Fiona said she wouldn't dare, that she'd wind up with her throat slit if she tried. Holly was less emphatic but offered a very similar answer. Neil and I were both somewhat boggled.

Why aren't we allowed to write about Aboriginal or First Nations matter? If writers only wrote about their own cultures, literature would be fairly boring. I don't perceive that Aboriginal or First Nations writers are forbidden to write about Ango-European culture. Far from it, I should think. I can (and do) cheerfully appropriate other cultural traditions in my fiction all the time, including Native American on occasion.

The only explanation I see is Colonialist guilt, which seems to me to be exactly the sort of thing writers are supposed to tackle, not avoid.

Please note that I'm not being disingenuous about the legitimate political and social issues surrounding native cultures in the Anglosphere. I am not ignorant of those factors. Rather, I'm fascinated with the idea that we, as writers, should view some (or any) traditions as forbidden. There are some subjects which are very difficult to write about (child sexuality, for example), but that list is fairly short. In my worldview, it doesn't include cultural trespass.

What's your take on writing the other, and what might be forbidden? For that matter, what subjects are forbidden, or should be, and why?

ETA: To be clear, I am keenly aware of the social justice issues inherent in the power imbalance between cultures. The narrow question is this: is social injustice sufficient reason for writers to remain silent?

ETA 2: To be clear about something else, this is not a material problem for me in my writing at the moment. Rather, I am fascinated by the values collision this problem represents. I don't happen to think it's resolvable, but I am interested in how people think about this. Because writerliness is interesting.
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Kadath in the Cold Waste
User: kadath
Date: 2006-11-14 15:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If I were Aborginal or First Nations, I'd be wary of whitey trying to write my culture, too, after years of "how, white man" crap.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2006-11-14 15:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How do you feel about the fact that Elvis made millions playing "Black" music while Black artists couldn't get a bed for the night in most major cities?

All things being equal, cultural fusion is cool, but when things are not only unequal, but so unequal that any white person using your material has something like a thousand or more higher chance of getting it published than you would, and would be taken seriously, and treated as a writer, where you would be treated as merely a cultural curiosity....
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-11-14 15:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Like I said, I'm not ignorant of the social justice issues here. Which is an immensely powerful reason for respectful treatment of an oppressed tradition.

My question is more narrow: is social injustice sufficient reason for writers to remain silent?

I have a hard time saying yes to that.
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azimuth
User: azimuth07
Date: 2006-11-14 15:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This sounds pretty familiar to me -- when a graduate student, I had initially wanted to examine the residential school system as I was looking at the influence of race and class in the moral regulation of children in 19th C. Canadian institutions. I was told by both other grad students and my prof that it wouldn't be a good idea. The thinking was that I would be exploiting the suffering of First Nations people for my own benefit -- IOW, a First Nations graduate student should be the one to tell her/is own culture's story, etc. I ended up examining the industrial school system in 19th.C Canada instead, which was pretty interesting in itself. So it seems the message is you can only exploit your own "group" . . . it is post-colonial guilt, me thinks.

When it comes to spec fiction, we're often writing "the other" -- aliens, androids, post-humans, other beings and creatures. When we write all white characters (if we're white), how boring and unrealistic. Canada today is very diverse; in the future, I expect it to be even moreso. NOT writing fiction that exhibits that diversity -- unless a lack of diversity is part of the particular future you envision -- seems creatively hobbled.
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Lucy Kemnitzer
User: ritaxis
Date: 2006-11-14 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now, that was a completely stupid response. "Don't write about history because yoju're exploiting the injustices of the past for your own benefit if you do--" I really hope you misunderstood that objection, and that it was something about the setup of your research they were talking about.

My father was an anthropologist whose work was supported by the people he studied -- because he supported them. And I think that's the thing that makes this kind of thing work: understanding that your position can not be neutral, and taking a principled position of mutuality.
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squirrel_monkey
User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2006-11-14 15:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"I don't perceive that Aboriginal or First Nations writers are forbidden to write about Ango-European culture. Far from it, I should think."

This question was much discussed during the post-Wiscon cultural appropriation debate; but briefly, I think the issue is the inherent power imbalance. You can appropriate minority culture; majority culture is thrust upon one, and is closer to assimilation or cultural colonialism than appropriation. Colonialism, which as you know is alive and well, destroyed many cultures, while stealing shiny trinkets. Plus, there's a great tradition of misrepresenting other cultures (Pocahontas, anyone?)

This is not to say that you can't, or shouldn't; but I think mindfulness is required, and acknowledgment that there are issues with this, and white people saying 'I can do whatever I want' while misrepresenting other cultures have soured many to the very idea. And maybe the issue will become less painful when writers stop reaching for a Native American every time they need a wise nature mystic.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-11-14 15:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Right. I understand the issue of power imblance. As I said to fjm, the narrow question is this: is social injustice sufficient reason for writers to remain silent?
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juliabk
User: juliabk
Date: 2006-11-14 15:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So, if I were to research my great grandmother's people for a story it would be okay because it's what, family history? But if I picked a different tribe it would be wrong?
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Swan Tower: writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2006-11-14 15:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
The issue's complicated.

You can't disregard the power dynamic. Majority culture is seen as "everyone's" culture, so to speak; to be really obviously offensive about it, it's "right" and "natural" that others should adopt it. For a majority member to try and write about a minority culture, though, carries overtones that, while they shouldn't necessarily dissuade you, can't just be ignored.

Also, it's an issue of knowledge. I've talked to Erzebet Yellow-Boy about a story I'd love to write that involves a particular aspect of Lakota cosmology, but as I know the next best thing to jack about Lakota culture, my story would probably be a very bad representation of it. Even if I do a lot of research, I haven't lived the culture, and may get the shape of it subtly wrong, even if you can't point to concrete details that are off-base. Again, something you have to bear in mind.

Finally -- or at least the last thing I can think of at the moment, but I'm in a hurry -- Western culture tends not to have much at this point that we consider "sacred" in the sense of "not to be shared with outsiders," but other cultures may. It's a problem for anthropologists, too. It's like the Danish cartoon kerfuffle: sure, there's nothing wrong from your point of view about showing Mohammed in a cartoon, but you offend the hell out of the Muslims who are against graphic depiction of such. The people you're writing about may not want their ways to be shared with an outside world.

All of this has tangential bearing on invented cultures that resemble real ones, but the burdens there are lighter, in my opinion. People won't necessarily assume my Jiang-lien culture is genuinely Chinese, for example; things I say in such a story aren't automatically going to be taken as statements of truth on Chinese culture.
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Swan Tower: writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2006-11-14 15:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
BTW, my personal take is that you should go ahead, as long as you're respectful. Unfortunately, respect is in the eye of the beholder, and one person may say my story's fine, while another sends me death threats.
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Snuffy LaRue
User: jess_ka
Date: 2006-11-14 15:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If you really do your research, and you write with honesty and respect, I can't see that anything is off limits. However, the threat of having my throat slit might give me pause.
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Richard Parks
User: ogre_san
Date: 2006-11-14 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a human being I claim the right to work within any human tradition at all if the story demands it. That said, it's always going to be a tricky business for a writer coming from a post-colonial culture and there's no point in denying that. The onus is always going to be on the one outside the tradition to demonstrate respect and to show that what they're doing is not just "more of the same" exploitation. Much easier just to avoid the whole thing. Which is what I do, except when I can't.
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angelinehawkes
User: angelinehawkes
Date: 2006-11-14 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: Fantasy
When writing fantasy I like to pull from many different mythologies throughout time/cultures. I've used Native American monsters/lore, as well as many many different mythos systems. Currently, I have a short on Amazon that incorporates an Aboriginal monster, the Bunyip. I like to find the unusual and make it my own. I don't see why borrowing from other belief systems or folklore should be a problem. It's not a judgement, it's creative license.

It is fiction afterall; there is room to bend the rules.
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Lucy Kemnitzer
User: ritaxis
Date: 2006-11-14 16:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I disagree that this issue is complicated. There are complicated issues related to it, but this one isn't.

There are only two parts to the issue.

1. Everybody is the heir to the whole of human experience and human culture. All of human culture has the weight and dignity of history. All artists have the right to draw from where they are drawn to.


2. No art is neutral. No artist is neutral. If you don't consciously put your art in an ideological, cultural, political context, you will unconsciously. If you don't examine what a particular story is doing, it will do what your accumulated experience and your learned attitudes lead it to do. Which might be just fine, or not. I don't think you have to sit there and work out every implication of every bit in the story and test it for respect, or whatever other characteristic you want to have in it: but if you think about it from time to time, you can develop a world view that leads you to say the things you want to say and not some crap that floats up from the racist matrix in which we live.

Personally, I don't avoid writing things which come from other traditions. It's a necessary stance for me, because, being the child of outsiders and eccentrics myself, I don't have a unified tradition of my own narrower than "the human experience as a whole." Nor do I fret about how respectful I am, most of the time, because I think about the implications of the stories anyway.
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kit
User: mizkit
Date: 2006-11-14 16:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My Walker Papers are drawing from NA and Irish mythology. I feel much more free in slaughtering the Irish mythos than the NA mythos, although in both cases my method of slaughtering is more or less, "Go read as much as I can on the phenomenon I want to use in the book, and once I feel I understand it, then twist it to my own ends." But I keep figuring it's the NA stuff that'll mortally offend somebody.
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mevennen
User: mevennen
Date: 2006-11-14 16:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've done it quite a lot and haven't run into any problems so far, which isn't to say that there aren't any. Writing EMPIRE was particularly tricky, given the complex (to be polite) history between Britain and India. I am writing something now with an Islamic protagonist.

Let's face it, aliens are unlikely to show up soon and give me a kicking over my inadvertent lampooning of their cultural mores.

Ultimately, however, you're going to be damned if you do (cultural appropriation!) and damned if you don't (all you ever do is write about white people!). So I'd come down on the side of doing it, with great care, as others have said. I don't believe in gratuitous offence, obviously. But I don't agree in sentimentalising people, either. I'd like someday to do a book about my late partner's background: his family were fairground workers and he lived with a group of gypsies in the 1950s. He loathed them, for good reason. So I've no intention of being patronising...
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dragonkal: DC huh?
User: dragonkal
Date: 2006-11-14 17:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:DC huh?
This is a fascinating subject to me. I regularly pen (and sell) stories about men from male POVs, and I'm astounded by how many people ask me things like "Why is your novel's protagonist male?" My protagonist is an "other" to me in many ways, but it's always the gender "other" that raises the questions.

I adhere to the school of thought that nothing is off-limits for an author. To shackle an author to their own culture/background seems like its own form of repression to me. Obviously, as with any topic, an author has an obligation to thoroughly research and appropriately depict the subject, but I don't see how that would be any different in writing about native cultures than it would in writing about, say, professional chefs. In both cases, it seems like a writer (whether belonging to a native culture/professional chefhood or not) would bone up on the basics, pick the brains of experts, and take care with one's plotline. Seems the same to me.
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Leah Bobet
User: leahbobet
Date: 2006-11-14 18:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
...really? We're not allowed to do that?

Um...I already wrote a First Nations story. A rather political one, in its way. It's been out for a while, and I have yet to get any feedback that suggests I was doing anyone a disservice...
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robin catesby
User: deedop
Date: 2006-11-14 18:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Having an anthropologist/linguist father gave me a somewhat skewed perspective on this topic. For a generation or more, my father and his colleagues worked extraordinarily hard to preserve & describe the native cultures of the Pacific NW, while most members of that same generation of First Nations peoples had little to no interest in doing the same. When the younger generation came of age, and started reconnecting with their native traditions, many did so without paying any attention to the research (or to their own elders) and ended up producing art & storytelling that was, frankly, new age crap. In other words, the white anthropologists and white artists (Bill Holm being the best example of the latter) were producing work far more in keeping with traditions than the "hokey poles" and watered down coyote stories that were sold to the white public as "Native Art."

Now, a new generation's come of age, and it does appear (thankfully) that most of the new agey crap is gone and they've rediscovered true traditions, but there's a new problem: many of the scholars & artists in this new generation are so intent on claiming the entirety of their culture for their own and only their own, that they've purged their libraries of books by white anthropologists and they've banned white anthropologists from attending the tribal events where once my father and his colleagues were generously welcomed.

This isn't endemic, but it's enough of a problem that one of my father's colleagues has lost her job over it (she was teaching at the Northwest Indian College in Bellingham), and there's an ongoing dispute about my father's field tapes: claims have been made that the tapes belong to the tribe and not to him or his descendants or to any museum.

So, knowing this history, and knowing that this younger generation of First Nations peoples wouldn't have a fraction of the knowledge they have now without the hard work of anthropologists and linguists and art historians from outside their cultures, and knowing how much they completely disregard and disrespect this hard work that they've rebuilt their own traditions on, well, frankly, I think it makes at least some small part of the "how dare you write about our culture" demand a bit disingenuous.

(And I should note that I have to be awfully careful where I've voiced this opinion because I've had my head bitten off for it more than once. Some people do not want to hear that for a generation or more, many First Nations peoples did far less than the non-native scholars around them to preserve their own cultures.)
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John: She Who Watches
User: djonn
Date: 2006-11-14 19:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:She Who Watches
Crossposted, but our perspectives are very similar indeed -- this very much matches what I've picked up from my own father and from my grandfather's accounts (he died before I was born, unfortunately). The one additional point I'd reiterate for the gallery is that sometimes, by the time the younger generation got interested in its heritage again, there may not have been any surviving elders with clear knowledge of the "old"/pre-contact ways and traditions.

At which point, I feel reasonably safe in extrapolating -- carefully -- from early compilations such as my grandfather's in crafting new stories based on these cultural traditions.
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John: She Who Watches
User: djonn
Date: 2006-11-14 19:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:She Who Watches
I've also already written and published short fiction involving Indian (aka "Native American", aka "First Nations") mythic material for Fantastic Companions; the mythology of the Pacific Northwest cultures is a major interest of mine, and I have other stories in mind working with this material.

Certainly, in doing so, I've attempted to maintain the integrity of the source material. This isn't a function only of respect for the cultural heritage of "the other"; it's also, in my case, a matter of respect for my own family's past. While I/we aren't of native extraction, my grandfather collected a significant subset of the folklore I've mined, published the results (with the blessings and to the satisfaction of those he collected the stories from), and maintained personal and working relationships with surviving members of the cultures during his lifetime.

Now, one issue that arises concerning some aspects of Indian/NA/FN storytelling is that it's not at all clear -- at least in some cases -- that the story-traditions have survived intact into the present day. One reason the Klickitat and other native storytellers were glad to talk to my grandfather, ninety-odd years ago now, was that they were worried that the old stories would not survive; there were few surviving elders who knew the folklore (thanks largely to the depredations of "white man's diseases"), and many younger descendants weren't interested in preserving the stories (or didn't have access to the few folks who knew the old tales). And contact with European teachings had led to the rise of new, fused traditions that combined elements of native and Western religious belief -- referred to now as "Dreamer" or "dreamer-prophet" sects.

Done well, I see no harm and much good in invoking Indian/NA/FN motifs in modern fantasy and genre fiction; one excellent example is the series of novels by Tom Deitz, beginning with Windmaster's Bane, blending Celtic and Cherokee material in a contemporary setting. But of course not all works succeed; I have been unable to finish a recent book called Thunderbird Falls by C. E. Murphy, because I find its invocation of Indian myth-elements utterly unconvincing and lacking in credibility. (This illustrates one significant problem in dealing with Indian/NA material; it's sometimes difficult to discern what's genuine and what's been co-opted -- and often badly warped -- by New Age/neo-pagan practitioners.)
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squirrel_monkey
User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2006-11-14 20:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(This illustrates one significant problem in dealing with Indian/NA material; it's sometimes difficult to discern what's genuine and what's been co-opted -- and often badly warped -- by New Age/neo-pagan practitioners.)

Yes! It is a significant problem for many lesser known cultures -- the editors and the readers might lack the concept of what that culture is all about; this is when pointers from people who DO belong to this culture are invaluable.
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Alley
User: alleypat
Date: 2006-11-14 22:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I, too, was surprised by Fiona's "clean slate" kind of statment, but that's what's right for her. However, some of the most interesting and memorable work involves "First Nation" in some degree. We draw from our own history to write, however much we think we don't, so why would using another history for a story wrong? For some it would be, but for me, no. Isn't that what Resnick does with a lot of his work?

I don't think writers should remain silent on any account. I may not agree with what's written, how or why, but we as writers are the voices thru which all that's out there is filtered and restructured into entertainment and/or purpose. What's written may not be publishable in the current market climate, but does that mean it's wrong? No.

Good discussion :)
Alley
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2006-11-14 22:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My only fear about including native cultures in stories, or making them the story's center, is getting something wrong. I've already published several stories based on other cultures (like Japanese-American and SW Native American) and I've got several more I'm shopping around now--including one with an Australian Aboriginal characters.

Really, it's my most direct way of learning about a particular culture and passing on what I've learned. It's not just for public school teachers anymore!
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punkrocker1991
User: punkrocker1991
Date: 2006-11-14 22:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There are a bunch of things I can see in this, at least in an Australian sense. A white (or "wedjela" as they're known in the Aboriginal language of my area) writer would probably face accusations of "cultural poaching" if they got it right, and of simple racism/exploitation if they didn't.

I've read at least one article to suggest that Australian has the choice of either maintaining two separate cultures or working towards a fusion of these cultures, and through wedjelas writing about aboriginal culture we're making a start.

On another front, the oral traditions of the Aboriginals make it difficult to research them easily. Given the majority of Australian writers live in the cities, and the majority of Aboriginals still live outside these urban centres, chances are that the writers haven't spent a great deal of time in the company of Apboriginals, and won't have had the opportunity to experience their culture beyond some token didgeridoo playing and the occasional dot painting (dot painting is another area where wedjela artists get in trouble). The writers don't have the knowledge to write about Aboriginals, and therefore don't.

Much of the fantasy being written right now is pretty safe, and writing about Aboriginals would be seen to be less safe.

At shorter length some are writing about Aboriginals: Kylie Seluka had an aboriginal-inspired story in Outcast this year, and there's a forthcoming "fusion" story scheduled for TiconderogaOnline. Terry Dowling also did this extensively with his Rynosserus stories, and I recall him getting much apraise and much flak for this.

Right now we're still working towards Reconciliation of some sort, so I think a lot of writers are steering clear of any sort of confrontation.
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2006-11-15 00:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The only thing I ever ask (and try to do myself) is that cultural borrowings be accurate. I haven't heard a lot of complaints about the way that Neil Gaiman handled African and African Diaspora culture in American Gods and Anansi Boys, and I think that's largely because he pretty much got it right.
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girlie jones
User: girliejones
Date: 2006-11-15 02:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting discussion, I wish I was there. I'm actually working on a nonfiction article about this myself. As a Jew I get qutie irritated when people borrow from my culture but do it wrongly - I don't mind if you want to take my mythology and use it but I do mind when you do it and screw it up but keep the language etc.
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