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Don't Dip Your Pen In Someone Else's Blood

Discussion in 'Research' started by A. E. Lowan, Sep 25, 2020.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    The salient point, which she expresses concisely at the end, seems to be that when one is writing from the perspective of “other,” one has to be sure to do it well. I agree.

    There are a couple of issues that I feel bear further discussion:

    1. the author writes: “There are as many diverse ways to be a Muslim, or an Indian or a Jamaican as there to be an Irish person, a Catholic or an American.” That is absolutely true, of course. The statement seems to be at odds with the idea that if you don’t write a character of a certain ethnicity or religion or gender in a certain way, you’re doing it wrong.

    2. The underlying concept of cultural appropriation, in certain contexts (art (including fiction), fashion, cuisine) seems to be at odds with the values of diversity and multiculturalism.

    It is certainly an interesting topic.
     
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I appreciate articles that give advice on what to do and how to do it. Less helpful are articles that say what not to do (they rarely say how not to do it).

    It's an odd article, but I don't find it controversial. The author sets up the most extreme examples of cultural appropriation, many of which aren't related to writing, and then says in a vague sort of way don't write in such a way as to be guilty of it. The article spends much of its space in making the case that cultural appropriation exists and how it might be defined.

    Not much help for the writer.

    The article offers one writerly example, The Help. It points out how the book was well-received at first, then was condemned on precisely the point of cultural appropriation. Then the article moves on. I was waving my metaphorical hands at that point. Why was the book well-received? What were its virtues and strengths? Were the criticisms in the form of "yes, but..." or were the initial rave reviews in fact wrong? I mean, it's the same book. Seems to me the literary analysis around how a book that appears to have been sincerely aware of race issues in modern America can have got it so wrong. And while the matter of assumptions and perceptions are important, this writer would like to know how the writing itself might have been done differently.

    That would have been useful. I don't write about race in the sense of modern American race relations (there are many other racial conflicts in the world!), but I do write about other races. They do have their perceptions and biases toward one another. So it's a topic of at least secondary interest to me. If elves view ogres in a particular way, how does that get expressed? How does that differ from how dwarves perceive gnomes? How would race relations play out if dominance were not in the equation? When can a stereotype be harmless? And when relations are poisonous, how can I show this in a way that isn't just a re-bottling of modern American racism? The same, btw, goes for sexism, but that's another thread!
     
  4. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    I have said it in other places but it comes down to power of one group over another - cultural, political, monetary, etc etc. If a person/group with a power advantage over another group/person, then it can quickly become problematic when one (in power) is using aspects of another's life/culture (with less power in the situation).

    you can get into the minutia but just think of it in terms of money: If someone with the resources (education/money/connections) to get published writes a best selling book where all the characters are from a people- oppressed/exploited by the very group the author belongs to - such that they do NOT, due to to the exploitive nature of the power relationship, have access to the education/money/connections to have even written the book -much less get published....

    It ends up just being one more exploitive act that raises up the one already in power at the expense of those not in power.

    not such a huge problem when its dwarves and dragons... but still.
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Sure, no argument. In a way, that's easy because the examples are so extreme and obvious. The issue of cultural appropriation is absolutely ... er ... appropriate because it plays a role in allowing racism to persist. It's on that point where I would criticize the author of The Maid. She likely did her research in terms of authenticity. Her critics would (well, I would) point out that getting the voice right but the historical context wrong does a disservice to the maid and to the larger society. It hides or disguises the grimmer reality while letting the reader go away amused or inspired or otherwise comforted. People and societies don't change when they're comfortable.

    As I said, no argument on that score. Power, money, exploitation, victims. Identifying the problem isn't the problem. Solving, or at least ameliorating it, is the problem. I saw the article doing the easy part and not even addressing the more difficult.

    Not such a huge problem with it's dwarves and dragons. True. I wasn't approaching the fantasy elements from the point of view of problems, but of potential. How to portray relations between different peoples in a way that is convincing and varied. SF has long done this. Fantasy hardly at all.
     
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  6. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    yeah I wasn't really arguing either.. just writing fast and not reading as well as I should have in the first place.

    And I hear you that Fantasy has been the slow brother in terms of this, and many other aspects that delve deep into race. Science Fiction of course taking a leadership role with visionary writers of all sorts tacking on just about everything not under our sun. One thing - that may be a question: Are the races of your fantasy world actually distinct races? That already set sit apart from human "racism" which is just a construct - popularized during the slave trade to justify atrocities - we are all one race: Human.

    But if a dwarf is a completely different species from an elf - the dynamics are of a different nature. But the line then blurs in some worlds where one could have a half-elf (assumes always a human.. as centric as we are) - and all of that if you wish to explore it.

    My brother had a great one where the "halfings" in his story were the humans, and then there were Bigguns who were clumsy, sort of slow witted, and lived short lives always rushing about for no reason.
     
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  7. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I appreciate what the author has to say, but I think I must dare to dip my pen on others blood when the story calls for it.
     
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  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    But... but blood makes for a very good ink...
     
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  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    More seriously, a few things....

    1 - I personally think the stuff criticizing people for wearing the clothing of other cultures is too much, but I do recognize that some people do so with an offensive attitude. I'm just reminded of a story about an Asian athlete who wore a Black hair style. A Black athlete criticized him for it, only that Black athlete had Chinese characters tattooed on his arm.

    2 - Books are written by just one or two people. Film, by contrast, often has a dozen people just in the writing room. While people can and should make a good faith effort to handle these topics well, I sometimes feel that critics try to hold novels to an impossible standard, and that it stifles and condemns many good faith efforts before the author even has a chance to develop their skills in this area. Whether it's the intent or not, some people are scared to death of criticism on these topics, and it holds people back.

    I had this story idea for something called the War Omen Tournament. The idea was that a continent is cursed, and all of the nations on it have to periodically send warriors to a tournament. Whatever fighters lose or win or die during the tournament, it would predict how upcoming wars would go between the countries they represented. It was supposed to be a parody, with ridiculous characters and fights, with updates about how the different countries rose and suffered between fights, and one of the challengers was supposed to uncover a mystery that breaks the curse. I really love the idea, especially because it wouldn't be a novel but a series of web updates (one week post a fight, the next week post a news bulletin about their countries, the next an announcement about the next fight...). But right off the bat I ran into so many problems when it came to the question of racial diversity because a Black or Latino fighter meant a Black or Latino nation, with ridiculous often sad things happening to them for a laugh (like everyone else of course). When I leaned into the ridiculous side of things the portrayal of the characters and their nations felt wrong. When I picked up the worldbuilding and developed them properly, it was the humor that felt wrong. The whole thing was a total mess and it's on the backburner because I couldn't work it out, even though I really wish I could.

    In Smughitter, my WIP, the main characters are tiny sprites who interact a lot with other tiny fairy creatures. I've been debating a little how wide the range of skin colors should be for a sprite, even though they're all the same ethnicity, so to speak. But the other fairy creatures are all over the place, and a few of them are based on creatures from non-white regions. So I did have some issues figuring out the diversity front, like how to portray a hob named Duende, but I'm comfortable that I've been able to work them out (I ended up switching his third-tier role with that of a second-tier character's so that his portrayal would be more serious, and I'm not doing any "coding" other than his name).

    I also have an Asian inspired story called Cliffjumper, and I didn't have any real issues, just an awful lot of work to get the worldbuilding right. It's on the backburner because the writing got too cumbersome. But the the six gods - dragon, phoenix, elephant, tortoise, tiger and monkey - had made a vow that limited their interaction with the world to the magic systems each was in charge of, including honor and rebirth (dragon and phoenix, based on karma), fairness and beauty (tortoise and elephant, based on feng shui), and nature vs. choice (monkey and tiger, based on ying/yang). Only, the gods have changed how their magic works over the course of history as the gods have developed as characters over time, at one point valuing great empires and at another, valuing quiet stability. And at one point the dragon god broke his vow to interfere with the world, and was cast out of the heavens, so that a common saying is that "honor is a broken magic," since the dragon god can no longer enforce it. The main villain, who is resentful of her erratic control of the rebirth cycle, is trying to wreck the world in an effort to goad the phoenix goddess into breaking her vow as well, which would make reincarnation completely random. Like I said, it's a lot, and it's heavy, with deep themes on life and its fairness and how people should live.

    I don't mention all of this to make any particular point, except maybe that sometimes these challenges are genuinely hard. This article, I think, recognizes that. I appreciate that recognition. Sometimes people act like it's easy, and that just isn't always the case.
     
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2020
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    It is important to be respectful and not denigrate another group or culture. The idea that uses of other cultural elements is off-limits does not make a lot of sense to me.

    Firstly, I think it runs contrary to principles of diversity and multiculturalism. Humans have always incorporated ideas, styles, and the like of those they interact with. The more diverse and multicultural a society is, the more everyone is going to give and take various cultural elements, fuse them, and so on. The idea of maintaining a strict separation is the opposite of multiculturalism and diversity, in my view.

    Secondly, for most cases, I think the idea of a strict boundary around a culture is fiction. Most human societies have never been particularly insular. There was an issue on Twitter a while back where Arabic individuals criticized the Jewish proprietor of a restaurant for serving a traditionally-Arabic food. The only problem was, further research made is clear that the food wasn't Arabic in origin at all, but historically came form non-Arabic Turks. Arabic culture in some parts of the world absorbed it and it became a "traditional" cuisine for them. Elements of "traditional" Mexican cuisine were introduced by the Spanish. The Caribbean is a hodgepodge. And even in pre-contact Mexico, Tenochtitlan (now where Mexico City stands) was multicutural. So was Teotihuacan, long before it (we're talking within the first few hundred years A.D.). Cultures from the north as well as all the way down to South America traded styles, foods, art, and utilitarian devices. So, at what point does someone employing an Aztec style of art "take" from the Aztec, versus the Aztec taking from some of their many tribute cultures or the immigrants from South American cultures who lived among them?

    When it comes to religious elements, there is an even more fundamental problem, at least from the standpoint of a believer. If one believes in a certain religious principle or teaching, then one presumably views it as a universal truth. How can one group claim ownership of such a thing. It just doesn't make sense to me.

    We should not try to draw cultural boundaries around "ideas." Religious iconography, art, fashion, foods--they're all ultimately embodiments of ideas contributed to by countless humans and multiple cultural influences across the span of human existence. It's part of what is beautiful about the human species.
     
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2020
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Are the races of your fantasy world actually distinct races?
    Yeah, words. Little devils.

    I'm happiest describing Altearth dwarves, elves, humans, orcs, gnomes, as nations--natio, in Latin. The word gets the right sense in English when used like Iriquois Nation or Sioux Nation. Identifiable cultural group. Alas, modern usage has "nation" being synonymous with "nation-state" and talking about the nation of dwarves is bound to mislead many a reader. I do use the language on the Altearth website. I've successfully dodged it in my books.

    What I won't do is refer to the Race of Men or the Race of Elves. Not only is "race" even more heavily laden than is "nation", as you point out it's not even a very helpful term objectively.

    One of the places where I have put in some thought (hasn't surfaced much in the writing) is the question of whether gnomes are a nation or not. Gnomes are historical servants to other peoples, mainly dwarves and humans. It's cultural, maybe even genetic. Anyway, they are thoroughly intermingled. Humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, trolls, even ogres, all have their own space--kingdoms, republics, cantons, whatever the heck elves have. Gnomes don't. There are gnome vills, but these are always attached to some other community or settlement.

    The whole question of gnomes and their position in society comes to a head at a certain point, but it's during the Scientific Revolution, which displaces whole populations of gnomes, with tragic consequences. The Gnome Question begets larger discussions about what sets the Free Folk apart from animals and monsters, and what distinguishes the various Folk (human, elf, dwarf, ...) one from the other. The discussion has potential, but so far I've not tried to weave it into any story. And until my ideas are in a story, I try to leave them as unshaped as possible.
     
  12. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I'm a European, white male. If I can't write about cultures or people who at one time or another have been suppressed by white european males, then all I can write about is European, straight, white males.

    I agree that you have to be sensitive about cultural issues. And that you should avoid stereotyping characters based on racial traits. But that is very different from not being allowed to write about them. It means you have to do your research and you have to be fair and true to what you write about. But I don't see what is exploitative about writing about another culture. How am I exploiting an indian person if I write a book set in colonial India? Who do I exploit in this case? Writing is not a zero-sum game. Just because I write a book doesn't mean someone else can't write a book with the same themes and settings. Or that if someone buys my book they'll never buy another book about a similar topic again.

    Another thing is that culture is fluid, undefined and it doesn't belong to anyone. I have as much claim to Dutch culture of the 1850's as a Chineese person has. That is, none at all. I might recognise parts of it as being similar to my own culture. But I wasn't alive back then. I have nothing to do with it, other then that it forms the basis of present day Dutch culture.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    It's not the topic, it's the treatment. I'm not a Native American, I'm an import. I certainly can write a book that has a Native American in it. I can write a book "inspired by" the Native American experience. I can write a book that is *about* Native Americans. None of that is cultural appropriation. Nothing in the topic is intrinsically offensive.

    But, if I write about how a Native American only makes it in the White world by having wise, strong, White friends, and the book doesn't address that as problematic, then I'm pretty sure to offend some readers. This is, as I've heard it reported, more or less the criticism of The Maid, but with a different culture focus.

    It's not the topic. It's the treatment. The story itself. So, OK, don't dip your pen in someone else's blood (I love the line), but do listen to their voice.
     
  14. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    I think the problem I have is in monetizing someone else's voice without due credit- and money- given back to that community.

    it's an economic argument that goes along with any moral one connected with labor rights- etc and who is actually the creator. Take the whole race thing out of it and look at similar instances:

    An easy example is a Professor of performing arts, who makes a very good living studying and writing about artists who create work. They go to conferences and fly around the world, have a nice house, and work maybe 20 hours a week - retirement plan - the works.

    While the artists they study- which is the backbone of their work (they could not even exist without them) often are destitute, live 5 to a room, struggle and work 70 hours a week at both the art and day jobs.. no retirement.. yadda yadda.

    So why are the people who create the art, less well compensated than those who study and write (and are often wrong - but they are only talking to other people who are also wrong) about that art? There is an imbalance in the system.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    As a retired professor, I can state that this portrayal of most university professors, at least in America, is quite wrong.
     
  16. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    heh. it may have been hyperbole, but I am a university professor (though only adjunct and in the Performing Arts.. that is why I used this example). :) And I see it around me and in myself.
     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    But, doesn't this imply ownership? When it comes to a lot of what I think about in terms of culture and art, it doesn't make much sense to me to speak in proprietary terms. Who owns the right to a set of spiritual views, or a style of cuisine, or a hairstyle, or to paint a certain way? These are shared aspects of humanity, the result of millenia of human existence, exchange of knowledge and customs, etc.
     
  18. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    Were it not for a bit of cultural appropriation, one of my formative influences as a kid, Longfellow's 'Hiawatha,' would not exist. It's interesting that some of the critics of the time said there was nothing of worth in the tales of 'savages' and the poet was wasting his time adapting them.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I didn't find the analogy persuasive either, but such is the way with analogies. To me, artists are not a culture; artists exist *within* a culture. Artists may well be exploited, but that's not the same as appropriated.
     
  20. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I have a few problems with the money argument and I don't think it should come into the discussion at all.

    Firstly, culture doesn't belong to anyone. There is no one to pay money to when you use a culture. And it's even more the case when using cultural aspects from more than a generation ago. Who should I pay if I write a story focussing on the problems native americans had during the civil war? The problem becomes even worse when you consider "invented traditions", where we invented the idea of certain traditions in relatively modern times which didn't actually exist and the blending of traditions. Who does a culture belong to when it was invented only a few decades ago? Or when it is a blend of two different cultures?

    Also, no one owes an artist money. I don't deserve to get paid just because I've written a book. I should get paid if people buy it. But no one is forcing anyone to create art. You could just as easily get a well paying job (or become the critic with the retirement plan) if you so desire. It's a choice. And if you chose a career that has low chances of making it rich then either you need a side job or you need to accept that you have a chance of staying poor.

    And lastly, the example is only anecdotal. I think for each rich critic you can find a couple of rich artists. After all, how many university professors make more money than J.K. Rowling? I think all of them combined still have less money than she has. How many sports comentators make more than professional football players? How many music critics make more than Beyonce? Even if I would make 1% of what Rowling makes I wouldn't care about a retirement plan...
     
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