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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011.

Part 1: Science

Recently, I read a round table discussion at the World SF blog whose participants were international women SF/F writers.  The focus was, shall we say, intersectional invisibility.  One item that came up was the persistence of normalizing to Anglo standards.

Also recently I started Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani travelogue.  In the prologue I ran into the following sentence: “There is not much here about his wartime service in Crete, where for two years in the mountains he organized the resistance to the Nazi occupation.”  In other words, for those who read this introduction (or Anthony Lane’s and David Mason’s swooning accounts of Fermor), the Cretans became sidekicks in their own country, in their own struggle – like the Arabs in T. E. Lawrence’s memoirs.

There are two asides to this.  Fermor’s best known doing, the Kreipe kidnapping, conferred no strategic or tactical advantage, although the German reprisals were very real: they slaughtered and burned the village of Anóghia, the home of bard Níkos Ksiloúris.  Like most of its kind, the action served to maintain Allied control over the “unruly” native resistance.  Additionally, Fermor was frequently airlifted to Cairo, to decompress and receive his wages.  The Cretans were not invited along.  They remained in Crete, subject to said reprisals.  But Fermor was British gentry.  It was his version of reality that got heard, became canon history and granted him fame and fortune.

In Part 1, I said that if I wrote about New Orleans, readers and critics would be on me like a brick avalanche.  I followed the recent conniptions of the British SF contigent over Connie Willis’ depiction of WWII London.  She got terms wrong, she got details wrong, blah blah blah.   Care to know how many things Greg Benford got wrong about Bronze Age and contemporary Mycenae in Artifact?  Care to know what I think of Neil Gaiman’s “There is nothing uniquely Greek about the Odyssey?”  For that matter, you hear endless hymns about Ian McDonald’s books – until you discuss Brasyl with a Brazilian or Hyberabad Days with an Indian.

Myths and history that recedes into legend reach us already as palimpsests.  When The Iliad became standardized, the events it recited were already half a millennium old.  Such stories bear all kinds of revisionist tellings, and the more resonant they are the more ways they can be re/told.  If you want to see a really outstanding retelling of Oedípus Rex from Iocáste’s point of view, watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched.  However, whenever people embed stories in a culture they haven’t lived in and know intimately, I’m wary.  This, incidentally, is true across genres.  For example, I can’t quite trust Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, although Arkady Renko is a truly stellar creation.  If you read John Fowles’ The Magus side by side with his French Lieutenant’s Woman, the disparity in authenticity is palpable.  Marguerite Yourcenar knew Hellás; Mary Renault, not so much.

There is nothing wrong with writers using other cultures than their own, especially if they’re good storytellers with sensitive antennae.  But when such works are taken for the real thing, the real thing often gets devalued or rejected outright, just as real science gets rejected in SF in favor of notions that are false or obsolete and often duller than the real thing.  It’s like people used to canned orange juice disdaining the freshly squeezed stuff because it contains pulp.  Or like James Ruskin forming his opinion of women’s bodies from classical statues and then struck impotent when he discovered that real women possess pubic hair.

There’s another equivalence between science and non-Anglo cultures in speculative fiction.  Namely, the devil’s in the details.  You need to have absorbed enough of your subject’s essence to know what counts, what needs to be included for verisimilitude.  You may get the large picture right by conscientious research; you may get by with bluffing – but small things give away the game even when the bigger items pass cursory inspection.  The diminutive of Konstantin in Russian is not Kostyn, it’s Kostya.  Hellenic names have vocative endings that differ from the nominative.  The real thing is both more familiar and more alien than it appears in stories written by cultural tourists.  And often it’s the small touches that transport you inside another culture.

When outsiders get things right, they get saluted as honorary members of the culture they chose to depict and deserve the accolade.  Outsiders can sometimes discern things in a culture that embedded insiders cannot see.  Mark Mazower wrote riveting histories of Salonica and my people’s resistance during WWII that I recommend to everyone, including Hellenes.  Roderick Beaton and Paul Preuss wrote absorbing novels set in Crete that are inseparable from their setting (Ariadne’s Children and Secret Passages).  And Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho may have dated considerably in terms of its outlook – but you can tell that Frye lived in Hellás for a long time and spoke idiomatic Hellenic, whereas Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind suffers from a generic setting despite its considerable other merits.

Then we have the interesting transpositions, like Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War.  If you don’t know he’s loosely retelling the wars of the Hellenic city-states against the Persians, you enjoy the story just fine.  But if you do know, the underdrone adds emotional resonance. By knowing Hellenic history past the surface, McDevitt got something else right almost inadvertently: Christopher Sim is a parallel-universe portrait of Áris Velouchiótis, the most famous WWII resistance leader in Hellás.  On the other hand, Ian Sales turned Eurypides’ careful psychological setup into wet cement in Thicker than Water, his SF retelling of Ifighénia in Tavrís (to say nothing of the name changes, with Orris and Pyle for Oréstis and Pyládhis winning the tin ear award).

Previously, the costs and intrinsic distortions of translation stood between stories of other cultures told by their own members and Anglophone readership.  With SF/F writers of other nations increasingly writing in more-than-fluent English, this is no longer the case.  The double-visioned exiles that camp outside the gates of SF/F might be just what the genre needs to shake it out of its self-satisfied monoculture stupor.  The best-known examplar of this is Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) whose bewitching stories have never gone out of print, though her Kenyan memoirs have their share of noble savage/colonial glamor problems.  Of course, one swallow does not bring the spring: reading one author per culture won’t result in major shifts; singletons cannot serve as blanket representatives of their culture — they remain individuals with unique context-colored viewpoints.

I think we should encourage cross-fertilization or, to use a biological term, back-breeding to the original stock.  We need to listen to the voices from outside the dominant culture, if we don’t want speculative fiction to harden into drab parochial moulds.  We need to taste the real thing, even if it burns our tongues.  Burt Lancaster (but for the accent) was a memorable Don Fabrizio in the film version of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo; but Ghassan Massoud swept the floor with his Anglo co-stars as Salahu’d-Din in The Kingdom of Heaven.  Although, to be thorough, Salahu’d-Din was a Kurd.  So he might have had blue or gray eyes.

Images: 1st, Peter O’ Toole in another quintessence of palatable exoticism, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia;  2nd, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; 3rd, Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan in Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Related entries:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Added note:  Almost concurrently, Aliette de Bodard and Cora Buhlert discuss aspects of the same issue.  The synchronicity suggests that the time may be ripe for a change!

18 Responses to “Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture”

  1. Caliban says:

    Even within a culture, it can be annoying at the least when a writer gets a subculture badly wrong. Doctors generally hate the depiction of medicine in most entertainment, police the depiction of law enforcement, and of course science is grossly misrepresented. This ties back to your previous essay, but it’s not just the information of science, but the culture as well.

  2. Athena says:

    Agreed — it’s the common utterance of “Can’t they get a postdoc/resident/paralegal to read this for a few pennies?”

  3. Asakiyume says:

    I agree with your thoughts here. My impression is that as time has gone on, people have become more and more interested in having their tales of faraway (in space or time) places be accurate reflections of those places and times, rather than just made-up concoctions with a few interesting details thrown in–and that’s all for the good.

    Making-believe about a distant place is easy if you’re not going to run into someone who knows about that place; what’s interesting these days is that you are unlikely *not* to run into someone who knows about that place, because our world is so tight these days. If I say I’m writing about Malawi, lo and behold, one person on my friends list has a colleague from Malawi and another has traveled in Malawi. And so on. Whereas, when Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Mikado, almost none of their audience had been to Japan, etc.

    Of course, too, even when you write about something you know intimately, you can often be accused of getting it dead wrong–I’m thinking of people who write about the horrors of their thinly disguised small towns, and residents of the small towns take umbrage. If you ask two graduates of a high school what the high school was like, you may get VERY different stories, and so on. … But even so, those kinds of arguments are on a different level from whether or not someone understands about the way local government works, or the way the local fair works, or how parents behave at soccer games, etc.

  4. Athena says:

    Very much so: there’s much more intermingling these days (although people in other ages traveled a lot more than we think, and slow traveling may have made for a different experience than jetting over/passing through).

    Your point about different people forming different impressions echoes mine about the need to read more than one token representative per culture. If Orhan Pamuk is the only Turkish author you read, the tendency to see the culture through his eyes is strong. This happened with Nikos Kazantzákis and his novel Zorbás — for decades, it was the sole metric for knowledge of my people.

  5. Caliban says:

    Athena, you almost certainly have seen this recent post which is related, but some of your readers might not:

    http://aliettedb.livejournal.com/392989.html

  6. Athena says:

    Yes, indeed — as well as one by Cora Buhlert. Interesting synchronicity! I added both links to the main body of the article.

  7. Cora says:

    I think what annoyed a lot of British people about Blackout/All Clear was less the inaccuracies than an incredibly ill-considered comment by Connie Willis about how exciting WWII Britain must have been with all those bombings and heroism. It’s easy to see how such a comment can drive people who grew up with survivor accounts of bombings from their grandparents or parents and who may even have lost family members up the wall. It certainly drove me up the wall and I am not even British (but then Britain wasn’t the only country that was bombed). It drove my Mom, who experienced WWII as a small child, up the wall and she had never heard of Connie Willis before that point.

    Besides, what also annoys me about the surfeit of time travel to WWII stories that are nominated for and win awards (Connie Willis isn’t the only one, there were also two Doctor Who and one Torchwood episode) is that in the popular Anglo-American imagination, the British and the US soldiers unfortunate enough to be in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attacks were the only one who suffered during WWII, while everybody else’s sufferings and experiences don’t count, even if the US and Britain got off lighter than most other countries, since neither experienced occupation or ground warfare in their own country. Greece is probably even worse off in this respect than e.g. France or Russia or Poland or Germany, because most people know next to nothing about the Greek involvement in WWII. And it doesn’t help if they only read the likes of Fermor either.

    Thanks for the link and the email BTW. I’ll get back to you in the next few days.

  8. Athena says:

    I agree about that aspect, Cora: the US has never been invaded in the living memory of something like four to five generations. Too many US WWII films are essentially jaunts, without a feeling for the devastation of your own kin and hearth.

    In terms of relative percentages, Greece was almost certainly the most heavily depopulated country in WWII — between war and bombing casualties, starvation, and reprisals for the resistance we lost more than a quarter of our people. And because our resistance was coordinated primarily by communists, its history got buried. For example, few people know that the British and Americans first tested napalm against the Greek guerillas, after the Yalta agreement “deeded” Greece to the west (without consulting with its people).

  9. Cécile says:

    Thanks a lot for this thought-provoking article.

    It’s not original, I know, but one thing that bothers me with the use of non-Anglo cultures is how History seems to be a concept that applies only to the West. If a writer wants an Arab setting, it seems that they’re not usually going to bother about doing 12th-century Baghdad, 14th-century Damascus, 18th-century Cairo… (with the exception of Arabic Spain, because that’s a myth in its own right). You can do “Arab”, “India” or “China” in the way you would do “Renaissance”, “Victorian times”… How can you be realistic if you ignore the evolution that this culture underwent?

    And another thing I don’t care much for is invented culture where the “invented” part is only an excuse for basing yourself on a given culture and not bothering with the research. When I see cities in the desert, veiled women, religious monuments with a muezzin and where people take their shoes of, and fierce and proud nomadic tribes riding camels, I think “Stereotype”, not “Well this person invented a whole culture and that’s why it doesn’t sound realistic, and did I ever hear about a city called Al-Hojra? No? There you go, it’s invented!”

    On the other hand, would you say that drawing inspiration from existing cultures, to create an invented culture that’s as coherent as you can, that’s made of bits and pieces sewn together as seamlessly as possible, constitutes a serious work of reflexion and imagination? Or would it still be cultural appropriation?

  10. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Cécile. As for your point, exactly! It’s like a cloud of cheap perfume: generic and meant to provide safe entertainment while leaving assumptions undisturbed.

    You pose a very interesting question in your last paragraph. Personally, I think that if you have put serious thought and imagination into inventing a culture and have come up with a unique hybrid or transmutation, it’s not longer a veneer but a new creation. Granted, the configurations we can conjure are not infinite, so the likelihood of coming up with something totally new is low (one exception is true polyandry, which I’ve encountered exactly once: in Poul Anderson’s Winter of the World. I’ve remedied this by having such a culture in my own SF space operas, in which the custom, dictated by overriding survival reasons, is totally different from simply gender-reversed polygyny; you can get a glimpse of it in my story Planetfall).

  11. intrigued_scribe says:

    Excellent and insightful work. I agree that the tendency to accept misrepresentation of a non-dominant culture (or ignore many of its aspects outright) is detrimental. Likewise, concerning the imbalance in many retellings of wars — which in turn bring to mind the saying “history is written by the victors”.

  12. Athena says:

    Very glad you enjoyed it, Heather! As you say, we view history through such distorted mirrors that it’s hard to contemplate, sometimes. That’s why revisionism is such an important and ever-constant process.

  13. [...] A theoretical…Culture, Representat… on Monday Original Content: On Th…Astrogator’s L… on Women writers, international w…Shared Worlds, inter… on Monday Original Content: [...]

  14. Nicely written, Athena, and lots of good food for thought. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Athena says:

    I’m glad you decided to read it, Brad, and I look forward to more conversations.

  16. [...] and not exoticised and be wary of cultural appropriation (see here and here and here and here and here for more on [...]

  17. [...] What is Cultural Appropriation by the Angry Black Woman also posted here with additional comments. Safe Exoticism, part 2: Culture by Athena Andreadis From Aliette deBodard: -  Writing Cultures: Insider vs. Outsider -  On Worldbuilding, Patchwork [...]