“I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.”–Aliette de Bodard
French-American author Aliette de Bodard’s comment was made during a recent roundtable at The World SF Blog (TWSFB) on the issue of depictions of non-Western societies and cultures in speculative fiction. In this case, de Bodard was specifically addressing those writers in the West who take the (brave) plunge and attempt to write about cultures and societies outside of their own. I actually applaud this, and suggested in a recent blog that speculative fiction authors (of any racial/ethnic background, and specifically those in fantasy) should make this attempt more often. Yet, as I also noted in that same post, this comes with risks. As an outsider, it’s all too easy to fall back (intentionally or no) on stereotypes or exoticism as a means of depicting “difference.” So, continuing with this talk of spears, sorcery and black double-consciousness, how does a black Western writer create African fantasy that avoids (or at least tries to avoid) these pitfalls? I don’t have all the answers. Surprise. I don’t even know if anything I have to say qualify as answers. Double surprise. But here are some personal thoughts anyway, for what they’re worth…
So you want to write African fantasy. You’ve immersed yourself in books on African history. You’ve picked up others on African folklore, mythology and religion. You’ve strummed through pages and pages of photos of traditional African dress, customs, royalty, weapons and more. And you realize–Africa is a damn big place, full of diversity and complexity. The potential for fantasy seems boundless, and you’ve already begun to dream up stories that’ll make Middle Earth look bland. So how do you make sure your hard-researched tale doesn’t in the end engage in harmful stereotypes and exoticism?
Bodard suggests that you begin by accepting that “your narrative will always be that of an outsider.” With that outsider status comes the inevitable Western gaze, and all the risks of othering and exoticism. Recognizing and admitting this is an important first step to addressing the issue. Thinking that you’re somehow immune to these problems, or worse, that it isn’t even a problem, makes it more likely they’ll appear in your writing. Bodard states that Western writers, no matter how well-documented and researched, must “be aware of the issues in writing [an] outsider narrative (mostly that a lot of other people have been doing it badly, badly wrong over decades); and thus be very careful of what you put on the page.”
How do you do this? Perhaps start by simply reading criticisms on writing about difference. Sometimes seeing what not to do is a good way of judging our own writing. At Silver Goggles, blogger Jha has a list of links called Read These Before Engaging, dedicated to race, privilege and difference. There’s also the well-known book by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. These works are about race and gender, but like any good theory can be quite applicable when it comes to thinking critically about any type of difference. Read up on historical African stereotypes in the Western imagination, such as John Edwin Mason’s informative two-part photoblog. For a distinctly African perspective, see the aforementioned authors Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story and Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical How to Write About Africa, or watch actor Djimon Hounsou set it to narration.
Recognize African humanity, and thus African complexity–in peoples, societies and cultures. Seems simple, but often for Westerners this is hardest. There’s no one way of behaving or acting that can be defined as African, any more than there’s one way of acting American that would define everyone from Nova Scotia to Buenos Aires. If you start out with such a premise, you’ll also realize that people need not be reduced as “types” because they belong to a certain ethnic group, etc. This idea, that there are fixed traits and attributes to certain groups of people is a key part of the “othering” process, often termed essentialism–which came out of imperial projects of classifying varied subjugated peoples, as it allegedly made it easier for colonial governance. You see this in films or writings where people from Muslim countries (without exception) take great offense to their religion by outsiders, and may be provoked to violence because of it. That people from these countries may find other things more offensive, that they might react with humor, reasoned non-emotional acts, might not give a fig or be wholly indifferent, don’t fit many of our essentialist ideas of who they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to behave. Westerners (especially white) on the other hand are allowed a wide range of complex behaviors, making it unpredictable of how they might react to any given circumstance. Essentialist tropes for Africa might be a hyper-reliance on “tribal” identity (I’ll touch on that problematic word in a minute) to the point of making it so central for characters, that it overpowers any other kinship tie or rational thought/action; or there is the trope that all Africans are inherently superstitious or religious, so that every act or decision your character makes is guided by spiritual reasoning. This is a judgment call of course, as you may have distinct reasons for using
tribe ethnicity or superstition. But being aware of these existing tropes can help flesh out perhaps why and if you want to go down this road–and perhaps how to do it well.
The noble savage. In Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film adaptation Amistad, there’s a scene where the slave-rebel Sengbe (Djimon Hounsou) is just plain shocked when a higher court judge overrules another judge regarding his case. “What kind of a place is this where you almost mean what you say?” he asks in confusion. “Where laws almost work? How can you live like that?” Poor Sengbe. It seems that in his Mende culture, things like “lying” or the nuances of law are unknown. To top it off, in his anger Sengbe begins to chant in un-subtitled threatening African speech, strips naked and joins his fellow countrymen in a frenzied dance around a bonfire. Besides the 101 problems of Spielberg’s true work of historical fantasy and white-savior, patriotic revisionism, the exotic notion of the simple, innocent, primitive was continually used in the film. Of course, Mende societies had laws, rules and governance as complex as any other human societies. And more than likely, they were pretty up to snuff on such weighty matters as truth, non-truth and what lies between. Sengbe’s reaction and minor tirade was not meant to truly depict Mende society, but rather to show that the West in its modernity may have lost something more pure, as we passed out of a more “nobly savage” state: what we give up to attain the more tame state of being “civilized.” If your African fantasy characters appear too dim-witted to understand things most other people take for granted, are prone to fits of emotional rage, are incapable of normal reasoning or need to be tamed out of his/her wildness, chances are you’ve got yourself a set of noble savages. Do something about that.
On the flip side of essentialism and exotic othering, is the desire (and need) to show true difference. I spoke of this in part II of this post, especially for writers of African fantasy seeking to make their settings/characters distinct from the dominant Euro-medieval trend. Adapting modern Western ideas (or prejudices) of morality, right and wrong, etc. to your characters can help them be more digestible to your Western audience, but seem out-of-place or bizarre to the non-Westerners from whom you are culture-borrowing. What is the role of family in a given culture? How is wealth determined? What is masculine or feminine behavior? Do people who believe in more than one deity self-identify as “polytheistic”–or is that a Western descriptor? Or take sexuality. With a few rare exceptions, most modern fantasy accept a hetero-orthodoxy, and have been unwilling to address the fluid nature of sexuality or marriage in pre-modern Europe. So in graphic novels and movies like 300 (quite possibly the most flagrant offender of Orientalist othering in modern speculative fiction) we get truly ironic scenes of homophobic Spartans hurling slurs at the Athenians; anyone even slightly familiar with ancient Greek culture should find that wince-worthy. Similarly, I have yet to see a work of African fantasy (self-included) tackle boy-wives or female-husbands. I’m not advocating purity or the equally unattainable authenticity, where every writer should come as close to these realities as possible. Whatever fantasy culture you create will have whatever traits you give it. But before making assumptions that our Western ideals can be easily translated or adapted to every society, we might want to stop and give it some thought.
Something that may help with much of this–get more familiar with African literature. There are many African writers out there. Even if they don’t touch on speculative fiction, there’s a long-established tradition of literature written through an African lens. Reading through it may give a better idea of how Africans perceive themselves apart from how we in the West may perceive them. There’s no one way–as every writer is different. But it’s an eye-opening experience. Myself personally, I also tend to follow blogs or read news dailies by Africans about Africa–so I can pick up on day to day experiences, and popular tropes that many people may find offensive, or at the least annoying. Keeping up with the realities of modern day Africa may also help you make some important decisions regarding what is appropriate for a particular time. Charles Saunders first published the novella “Slaves of the Giant King” in 1981. In it, he prophetically depicted a scene of inter-ethnic conflict disturbingly similar to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Horrified by the similarities, Saunders completely excised the chapter from the 2006 reprint of Imaro III: The Trail of Bohu, and replaced it with two completely different plot points. There’s something to be said about empathy, not to mention sheer decency.
The panelists at TWSFB also suggest that maybe you let someone from the culture you’re pulling from read over and critique your work. I’m of two minds on this. Because of my Afro-Caribbean-American background, I’ve been asked previously to read over stories set in the West Indies. More than often these are in Jamaica–of which my own understandings come from books, music and friends. That people think I should immediately have some understanding of every West Indian community is annoying, as it tends to think that we’re all one. I won’t even go into the godawful renditions of patois. So I’m a bit reluctant to ask someone to browse over my semi-fictional pre-colonial African fantasy society–expecting them to have some insider insight. Then again, their eyes may be particularly keen at picking up stereotypes and exoticisms I take for granted as “normal.” Nisi Shawl suggests that if you’re going to force someone to be your cultural sensitivity critic, you at least compensate their troubles with an outing to a meal or drink. Seems fair.
So all of this may lead you to police your own work, and make some changes or rules. I have one or two that are simply personal–and shouldn’t be taken as a “must-follow” for anyone. For instance, I don’t use the word tribe. I realize it’s very commonly used and many people (including many Africans) see nothing wrong with it. But the word tribe has connotations in popular discourse rooted in ideas of “backwardness” or “primitivism,” with historical racial implications. It’s why Africans and Middle Easterners tend to have “tribal warfare” while Europeans worry about “ethnic conflicts.” Tribe was also part of the colonial narrative, tied to notions of essentialism, that rendered it easier (in colonial minds) for governing over “the natives.” Worse still, many so-called “tribes” were utterly made up by colonial administrators. There are entire articles for instance on how similar language speakers, say any with an Akan base in West Africa, would be declared one entire “tribe”–even if previously these different groups never saw themselves as distinctly tied this way. The late Aidan W. Southall’s The Illusion of Tribe is a good start, as is this online primer. The modern political implications of this are too lengthy to recount, but most of them have not been positive. That doesn’t mean I don’t use ethnic groups (usually quite made up) in my African fantasy worlds; but sometimes an over-reliance on this invented construct can lead to some of the previous issues–mainly of presenting one-dimensional African characters who speak and define themselves solely through this singular identity trait. I also stay away from other loaded terms, like “hut” (why be lazy when there are so many unique descriptions?) or “witch doctor” (seriously. do I need to go into why this a problem?), etc. Again, my arbitrary list. But sometimes they’re good to have.
Even after all of this, guess what, you might still end up making a mistake or receive criticism. Sometimes even trying to do the right thing, may lead to other unforeseen problems. Take author Margy Burns Knight’s children’s book Africa Is Not a Country. While hailed (and rightly so) for negating the mis-conception of Africa as one large homogenous place rather than a diverse cultural continent, it has also come under fire for depicting what one Amazon critic called “poor kids in villages with mud huts….From the book, one would assume yes, Africa is not a continent but, just a series of villages with no electricity nor running water; perpetuating yet another myth about Africa.” Ouch! And yet an extremely valid point. While writers of African fantasy don’t have to worry about this particular problem (there’s a whole other conversation to be had on whether an emphasis on precolonial Africa contributes to myths of African “backwardness” or “primitivism”), it does illustrate how a Western lens, even if well-meaning, can become blind to certain African concerns and mindlessly perpetuate popular stereotypes. So what do you do when you get criticism?
The panelists at TWSFB suggest that first of all, you accept it:
You might get called on what you wrote; you might be accused of getting things wrong. This is the frustrating part, because there really isn’t any other answer that you can give but “sorry, will do better”, even if you think the other person’s experience isn’t “representative” (whatever that hoary term means). You basically aren’t speaking in a position of authority about the culture, even if you researched it to death.–de Bodard
Another panelist, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands), gives similar advice:
…if someone says you’re doing it wrong from the reference point of their own experience, then you as an outsider writer just have to accept it and apologize or determine to try better/fail better. It bewilders me when people get defensive about criticisms leveled at their outsider work because isn’t that to be expected? I mean, as writers we already know that when we put something out there, not everyone is going to love it. That is just asking for the impossible. And that someone bothers to point out the fail is a sign that they wanted you to try harder or at least there was/is an expectation that you can do better than that.
This might be not be easy, especially if you’re a writer of African descent and the criticism is coming from those across the Atlantic, or recent members of the African diaspora in the West. There’s a tendency to feel your ancestral rights, already so hard to hold onto, are being trampled upon. Plus, you were actually trying to do some good here, and spotlight Africa. You get enough marginalization from the larger fantasy community–now this? Worse, some critics may use this as an opportunity to rehash the very *tired* simplistic discourse on Africans VS African-Americans, charging “appropriation” when that word rings hollow with regard to the black experience. All you wanted to do was write a good fantasy story, not get involved in politics! Still, ignoring these critics or becoming defensive does nothing to solve the problem. That most people who’ve read your work may not see a problem doesn’t deny there is one. There’s a long history here that quite understandably touches a raw nerve. And what you write may get a lot more scrutiny than if you’d just decided to stick to a European setting–where these dynamics aren’t necessarily in play. Them’s the breaks. In the end, it’s up to you to honestly examine your work and determine whether such criticisms have validity. But first, you have to at least listen.
Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA) states this in no-nonsense terms:
…the insiders will disagree. Some will like it, some won’t, and some will hate it because it is by an outsider. And the lesson for the writer there is not to say “Well, screw it, haters gonna hate, I’ll just write whatever because you cannot please anyone”. You’re still responsible for doing as good a job as you can. And accepting that your best might not be good enough for some people, and their opinions are also valid. Don’t trot out the natives who loved your work, don’t tell people who dislike it that they’re wrong because another person from the same culture liked it. So really, if you want approval, stay out of other people’s cultures. Nations won’t get together to sign waivers that say that you are free to appropriate whatever and no one can say anything about it ever. People will be angry, and they will be right to be angry. If it upsets you, reconsider your motivation.
American writer Rachel Swirsky states:
Speaking as a western writer, and as someone who has attempted to engage in writing with other kinds of privilege, I am inclined to agree that it’s inescapable that a privileged person will write a narrative that is rooted in their privilege. One can minimize exoticism, I hope, but I don’t think it’s possible to erase it.
An honest and refreshing approach. Stories about fantastic African landscapes, with sprawling magic boabab trees or cities set in bustling Sahelian kingdoms, are waiting to be written–asking to be written. There is no end of inspiration to spark the imagination. But as Westerners, of any background, writing about the non-Western world, we should remain aware of the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. All that being said, I hope this whole expose hasn’t scared anyone away. If it has, sorry. That wasn’t the intent. But perhaps if the tip of the spear is too sharp, you might want to stick to elves.
*Something I should point out- there are more well known African-American writers of traditional modern fantasy that don’t focus on Africa or Sword and Soul. This includes N.K. Jemisin and David Anthony Durham, whose novels (while refreshingly diverse) often create alternative fantasy worlds too divorced from Earth history to be classified as inherently Euro-centric or African (for instance, in Durham’s Acacia trilogy, there are distinct allusions to Mediterranean, African and Northern European societies–but nothing distinct). Both authors are fairly popular and are masters of the craft (in a previous blog I rated Jemisin’s last book in her Inheritance Trilogy my favorite fantasy of the past year), but don’t fit into the tradition of Charles Saunders or more modern writers like Milton Davis. Hence, I don’t include them in this discussion.
*blog art courtesy of art by Kris Mosby.