Autumn Is Coming


Just got word from Mike Davis that my story "Cul Du-Sac Virus" is going to be included in his Autumn Cthulhu anthology. As an avowed lover of Autumn (there really is no better season) I'm both honored and excited to have one of my stories among the leaves.

 

 

 

 

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Friday
Nov032017

Is the Answer Japan?: A (Very) Basic Guide to Writing about Other Cultures

When I was in junior high, a good friend, Tony Masters, invited me to an Akira Kurosawa film festival at Youngstown State University, the local college. Although I'd never heard of Kurosawa, like any youngling in the mid-nineties I was an avowed fan of Japanese culture (this was before total media saturation, when the only anime you could grab were bootleg translations or DBZ reruns on Toonami, and samurai/ninja were the stuff of culturally insensitive fighting movies starring white dudes with big hair who were "raised by 'oriental' masters"), so I happily agreed to come.

It was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.

Not only were we two thirteen-year old idiots amidst a gaggle of highbrow college kids (mostly freshmen and sophomores, but to my teenage self they seemed the height of sophistication), but nothing in my Ninja Scroll/Dragonball Z-filled experience had prepared me for the subdued mastery of Kurosawa.

Stray Dog, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, and, of course, Seven Samurai--if there was a formative moment in my young life, if was that film festival. It drove me to study Japanese in college, pursue a Master's Degree in Japanese History, spend years of my life in Tokyo and its surrounds, and write a billion stories about Japan.

I spent enough time neck-deep in Nihon to have all my illusions shattered, reap a whole new crop of illusions, then have them shattered, again (I'm currently on my third iteration). But you didn't come here to hear me babble about how many stories I've managed to get published or how much I love a Taiga dramas.

Let's discuss the zō-san in the room.  

It's been weird being a white guy who wants to writes about Japan. No, wait, I mean--it's been weird being a white guy who wants to write about Japan the right way. Although I've spent decades of my life studying Japan there's always the looming specter of cultural appropriation inherent in everything I write.

I know, I know--poor me, right?

Thankfully, genre fiction isn't as resolutely white and male as it was even a few years ago (we still have a long way to go, though). This means that more authors are exploring cultures outside of the standard European analogs that have dominated western fantasy and science fiction since its inception. Despite what the alt-right shitheads in various fringe writing groups would have you believe, it's been a true breath of fresh air to see more publications appealing to underrepresented writers. I mean, one of the points of genre fiction is to explore unfamiliar ideas and concepts, and, to be completely honest, I can only read so many stories about white dudes captaining spaceships--pew, pew, fist pump, warrior race!

Part of this trend is the problematization of white male privilege in the authorial sphere. In the wider context white men have had it good, real good, and losing privilege can feel like losing rights. I mean, who wouldn't mind having dinner and a glass of scotch waiting for them after a long day? You work hard. You deserve it.

Problem is, so does everyone else.

But I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about creating fiction outside your own experience. We're genre writers, it's what we do, right?

So you want to write a story about Japan, or Ancient Egypt, or featuring a Mexica protagonist battling Conquistadors, or basically anything outside the White European-American paradigm. Well, I don't claim to be an expert, but as someone who genuinely loves a different culture, and who's been trying (with varying degrees of failure) over many years to write about it, I've got a couple suggestions:    

 

1) Don't

I don't mean don't write, I mean don't just write. Before you even consider writing a piece drawing on another culture, you need to seek out writers from said culture (native writers, not other white folks). I guarantee there are some amazing authors whose fiction will give you real insights into what it means to be from the culture you want to write about. Seek out their stories, their novels, and, for fuck's sake, GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY.

At its heart of darkness fiction is a business. We can call for equality and uplifting of marginalized voices all

 we want, but if no one is buying their stuff, they're going to get swept back under the rug by the white folk who are stealing their ideas. It's a lot easier to read a story about someone else that has been filtered through a lens of whiteness than it is to read a story written about someone else written by someone from the culture they are writing about.

My gateways into Japanese fiction were Sōseki, Akutagawa, Tōson, Ōhara, UedaKurimoto, and Murakami, but there are quite a few anthologies of Japanese short fiction in translation that contain some truly stellar work.

Unfortunately, some cultures/religions/races/genders aren't as well represented in fiction…oh wait, I forgot, we have the internet. No matter what culture you're interested in, if you truly are interested, I'd be willing to bet you can find someone, somewhere producing fiction. Find them, read them, and again, GIVE THEM YOUR GODDAMN MONEY.

Need a place to start? Throughout this post, I've interspersed mastheads from a number of publications that focus exclusively on underrepresented groups. They can all be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee. They've all got free stuff to read, but really, shame on you if you don't buy an issue or two.

There are plenty more out there, these are just my favorites. If you have a particular publication that features underrepresented groups, please post it in the comments. I'll buy an issue.

 

2) Do Your Goddamn Research

I'm not talking about skimming the Wikipedia entry on The History of Nepal, I'm talking about reading a couple articles, blog posts, and essays written by people from area of interest. Again, you're on this webpage, so I'm gonna assume you've got access to the internet. Don't just research what you're interested in, research what happened before, after, and nearby what you're interested in. Culture is context, and context is king. If you really want to try and conceptualize something outside your current frame of reference, you've got to understand not only what it is, but what happened around it.

Oh, and books, articles, stories even academic treatises are all trumped by the ability to actually sit down and communicate with a person from said culture. This isn't always feasible (say, if you're writing a story about Wako pirates in the 1600's), but if you're interested in some fiddly bit of historical detail from a particular place or time, I'd be willing to bet there's a person from said place or time's modern equivalent that is also interested.

 

3) If You Can, Have Someone of that Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Culture Read Your Story

First, know that this is a privilege. Do not impose your work upon anyone. If, by some chance in your reading and research you've had the amazing opportunity to cultivate a working relationship (or even friendship) with someone of the place/culture/gender/etc. you're writing about, then count yourself extremely lucky.  

If you're genuinely interested, and they're genuinely interested, it never, ever hurts to get a second opinion. They may not be an author, but I can guarantee if they're a reader of genre fiction from an underrepresented group, they've got a laundry list of shit they're tired of seeing writers get wrong. Again, be super careful about this, nobody wants to be pressured into reading something. If they offer, fine. If not, let it drop. Also, keep in mind that reading and critiquing are work. Depending on your relationship it might be weird offering to pay someone to read your stuff, but, then again, it might be welcome. Still, if you want someone to do work for you, offering to pay them isn't a bad idea.  

 

4) Accept that You're Going to Get Most of it Wrong

There's no way around it. No matter how pure your intentions, no matter how embedded you feel you are, no matter the months of research you put into your work, know that you can't possibly capture every nuance. You're going to be ignorant. You're going to be offensive. You're going to make mistakes. Someone is going to call you out on it.

When they do. LISTEN. THINK. CONSIDER. CONSIDER AGAIN. Then reply.

Don't try to defend your work. I know, I know, you put a lot of time and effort into it. Listen to what people are saying. Apologize for getting wrong what you got wrong. Then, try to start a dialogue.

Yeah, there are trolls out there, but if you come at honest criticism with an open mind and acceptance of views outside your own, I feel like your good intentions will come through. This is where items #1 and #2 will come in handy. If you've done your reading and research, you'll be able to engage in a dialogue with your critics rather than imposing on them to educate you about what you got wrong.

Let me repeat: It is not their job to educate you.

There is a wealth of information at your literal fingertips. If you've done your research, you'll be able to better recognize the gaps in your understanding when they're pointed out to you.

So, that's it.

"But, Evan," you say. "That sounds like a lot of work. I just want to write a two-fisted adventure where a Zulu tribesman hunts a were-jaguar."

I'm not saying you can't. Just keep in mind that this is the type of work people of other cultures, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, etc. need to do every goddamn day to function in a society where whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality are considered the default.

Somehow, they manage. I bet you can, too.

 

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