Normally I only post on Wednesdays (every other), but…I came across a blog from a writer who was new to me and she had a very interesting article that really got me thinking about some things.
I was actually doing a search on Twitter for other writers who are into the dieselpunk aesthetic and found Sophia Martin’s blog by happenstance. Not long ago she wrote a post on dieselpunk–which, of course, I couldn’t resist. Though, there’s a whole lot more packed into her post than explanations on what dieselpunk is.
Sophia asks some really thoughtful questions, I think, that could easily apply to all sub-genres of speculative fiction. A substantial part of her post regards the problem of Orientalism, which she describes as “the representation of [non-western] cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it’s just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc.” It has a negative connotation because these portrayals of non-western cultures tend to be heavily romanticized, prejudiced and/or grossly exaggerated. Sophia also lists some examples of where this has been done, namely in movies.
I started writing up a response to share some of my thoughts, but then I realized it was practically going to be an entire blog post in itself, haha. So instead of making a ginormous post over there, I decided to just blog about it here in a question-answer format.
Sophia Asks Writers:
“How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical?”
I actually think this is part of the problem: (1) some writers try too hard at attempting to portray an entire culture rather than the individuals that contribute to it, and (2) they automatically settle for lumping an entire culture into “good” or “bad” categories. The problem is that real-life cultures, like individuals, are way too complex for such simple treatment, so I don’t see why it should be any different in fiction that aims for at least some measure of verisimilitude.
When writers attempt to do these things, it tends to get especially hokey when they develop gross caricatures to represent cultures or focus too much on certain (often superficial) aspects of characters and take things too far—i.e. the writer harps on the same point over and over again in attempt to establish the “otherness” of someone/-thing: “He had an Italian nose…” (Which I think is a terribly lazy description, btw!) Then the reader starts thinking: “Okay pal, you mentioned his nose several times in the first, second and third chapters. How many more times do we need to be reminded of his ‘Italian’ features? What is this obsession?! We are capable of remembering details, you know.”
That kind of focus is too narrow, imo. There should be many different aspects about a culture (cuisine, gestures, common verbal expressions used, customs, etc.) and yes, even an individual (quirks, speech pattern, thoughts, beliefs, etc.). Of course, within the confines of a novel, you can’t list too many of these aspects or else it gets out of hand–yup, that elusive art/design principle of balance. Still, these aspects should be given ample thought by the writer, and I think peppering–no, that implies superficiality–placing them into a story over time, preferably at different times, and refraining from putting too much focus on any of them in any given scene (unless a plot point hinges on them for some reason) would help alleviate this problem.
So how do you make a culture seem mysterious to a primarily western audience? Study non-western cultures (especially rare ones)–which may include interviewing and interacting with people from those cultures–to inform your portrayal of said cultures in stories set in our world. Or, in the case of secondary worlds, use that gained knowledge of other cultures as inspiration in order to derive new ones that will then, hopefully, seem “different” to your target audience. (Easier said than done, right?)
Those are my amateur-writer thoughts, anyway…
(You know, author Kameron Hurley actually writes some really good posts that are related to this, namely her worldbuilding posts (see Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd for an example). I really think this lady knows what she’s doing and talking about when it comes to creating and successfully portraying unique cultures.)
Sophia Asks Writers:
“But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there?”
Well initially, when anyone encounters something (or someone) that is unfamiliar to them then that something will automatically be “other” until they can get past the newness and are able to accept it as just another aspect of their reality–or, in the case of fiction, the story’s reality.
But that’s the whole appeal of adventures like in Indiana Jones or Star Wars and lots of other speculative stories. Viewers/readers are always being introduced to new worlds, characters and cultures that may be very “other” to them, but hopefully, after having experienced the entire story through the eyes of the locals (characters), they’ve gained a better understanding of these things (assuming they’ve been accurately portrayed to begin with) as well as an appreciation for them–lessening the “otherness” and bringing about a sense of familiarity.
Also, I think you could still write a main dieselpunk character(s) who isn’t a westerner, per se, in the same way that there can be Asian-influenced steampunk, for example. It’s just not typical to see here in the West.
And then there’s the potential for racism—which, if it’s an important part of a story… I mean it isn’t really bad to incorporate it if you’re going for some realism, but it’s different when it stems from a character rather than the author, if that makes sense… But yeah, I won’t even get into that right now, haha.
In the end, I think all of this comes down to, well, (1) knowing what you’re talking about in the first place, (2) learning how much focus to put on any one thing in a story and (3) figuring out how to tastefully and artfully balance all the elements of your stories—kinda like art. Though, like with art, measuring the success of the execution of these things is pretty subjective, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…
So yeah, those are my thoughts.
What Do You Think?
Have you encountered Orientalism in your writing projects, or seen it in fiction you’ve read/seen? How can it/should it be addressed?