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Race in different cultures

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Memorhi, Aug 13, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Worthwhile questions. I pretty much dodge them in Altearth, partly because I know just enough of the literature about blacks in medieval Europe to know I either need to read much more or I need to sit down, fold my hands, and be quiet. :)

    As for Hispanic, that's easier, I think, because they didn't exist in medieval Europe, not in any way that is meaningful in the modern world. There were Castilians and Catalans and Galicians, but to me the whole vocabulary around Latino and Hispanic implies New World. I'd be much more concerned with not mixing up the Spanish stuff--treating Navarre and Castile and Aragon as all "Spanish."

    There are almost no Asians, unless you want to include the Middle East as "Asian." But you said Muslim explicitly, and that one's more complicated. There are the Moors, who occupied a fluid area in Iberia from the 700s right up to 1500, but there was also a large Muslim population in Sicily for many centuries, and isolated communities elsewhere. Including one in the Alps! I can't give any references; my very limited knowledge is all occasional and tangential.

    Then you ask the big question. How can a writer increase the prominence of a particular group? Having recently read Children of Earth and Sky, you could take that path--simply set your story somewhere in the Balkans, or in Venice or Genoa or Pisa, and you have a ready-made stew. Go bigger and set your story somewhere in the Middle East. Doesn't have to be Cairo or Jerusalem; it could be Cyprus or Georgia or Armenia. The Empire of Trebizond. You're in for some major reading, but those are settings seldom tapped.

    Another approach would be to come up with a reason why some group is in a place where they weren't historically. Real historical parallels could be the Jews coming to Venice from Spain, or the settlement of Muslims in the Italian town of Lucera, done by Emperor Frederick. So it could be done. All you need do is come up with a world or story reason why your particular group were in that particular place. Just for reference, in the late MA, the wealthy in Venice kept personal slaves. Being a nation of lawyers, the Venetians argued that the prohibition against slavery applied only to enslaving Christians, so they bought slaves in the Arab slave markets--mostly Slavs, but some African blacks.

    Pursuing that last, slaves taken in war could provide an excuse. Some great victory that resulting in disappointing plunder, so they took whole families of slaves. Then you could set a story about how those people rebelled, or were ground down, or eventually won freedom and everyone lived in peace and understanding ... whatever story you wanted to tell.

    Overall, though, I tend to avoid this sort of thing. Matters of race (or other modern hot-button issues) are too important, imo. The stories about such things are both more powerful and more influential if they are set in the real world. I'm currently reading The Kite Runner. I don't think that story would have benefited from being set in a fantasy world.
     
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  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    BanBan, speaking for myself, some of it is clumsy language, some of it is as you mentioned the American fault lines, and some of it is about representation. According to Skip the Saxons occupied seven towns in Romania. That's fascinating and cool and totally relevant for a story. But, in terms of the American or international reading audience, it's not hitting any of the big groups of minority people who are going to be asking, "Do I see myself in this story?" When we stick to a strict level of historical realism, those modern groups of readers often get left out, or roped into specific types of people (i.e., "the Moor") that aren't reflective of the readers.

    It's not my intention to lump all Asians or Latinos into single cultural groups, or to make claims about black culture or European cultures at all, or to leave out the diversity within the global Muslim community. But these are the fault lines people use for discussing modern representation. Nobody can honestly do justice by the immense variety of people in this world. But I know for me, I am interested in doing right by my readers, and so that's where my own perspectives come from.
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I need to add that some folks may misunderstand "Saxon" here. Most folks will likely think of those who lived in England prior to the Norman Invasion in 1066. And those were indeed Saxons. From Saxony. In Germany. Where there continued to be Saxons for many centuries. It's those German Saxons who populated the Siebenbuergen.
     
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Rather than trying to get a whole people living in an ahistorical place, you could just go for the loner. Or a small group. You could easily dream up a reason why a person, or a person and her buddies, or a mercenary unit, a wandering wizard .... could be from Ifrique. As for the Latino angle, go for a part of Iberia not generally known. Galicia could be a good source. You could quite believably have not only a "Spanish" person or persons, but also a Celt and a Basque. That way you'd have some internal dynamics along with dealing with the outside world. Galicia's an interesting place. Then, instead of sending them over the mountains to France, or sailing them off to England, have them go south instead!

    Now I think of it, you could flip the majority dynamic. Some Europeans (gagging on the generalization here) go to Alexandria or Ceuta, and then go into the Sahara, or down into sub-Saharan Africa (Ifrique), where it's the white guys who're the minority. Having people from different cultures then have to face a supernatural threat could be fun.
     
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  5. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    DevorDevor I do understand that notion and believe it has the right intentions, but I feel that to a certain extent it is in itself indicative of the cultural differences that make this a bit of a weird topic for me. You ask yourself whether your reader can see themselves in the story, and try to remedy that through the lense of ethnicity. This in itself relies on a model that identifies race as a principal source of identity, which is again out of bounds with a lot of the world. For many people in the world, an individual's race is far down their priority list, and they'd feel much more represented if you focused on including their culture. On the other hand I fully understand that in your context and the audience within your context that this form of approach makes sense, and I respect that.

    Back to the main topic at hand. Apologies for the intrusion folks.
     
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Out of curiosity - because I know you'll have a good answer for this BanBan - but how would you look at culture and inclusion? What kind of cultural details would you be looking for when it comes to representation? (Nobody will fault you for using Limburg as an example.)
     
  7. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    :) Now this is a topic I like.

    If a culture is portrayed through a locale or character in limited capacity, simple surface culture appreciation goes a long way. Things such as showing an awareness of the food, the language, the region, the history and things of that nature. People like seeing things from their daily life reflected, and you'd be surprised how many people outside of the US feel respected when they are mentioned in American entertainment and media in a positive, or at least neutral light.

    If the character or locale is more prominent, it would be respectful to look into the deep culture. That being the mentality of a people, and showcasing how the culture manifests itself. In my own Limburgish culture for example, the concept of having a Burgundian and Catholic heritage matters a lot. Burgundian in this sense refers to a way of life focused on slowing down and consciously enjoying the world through food, drink and company. Catholicism likewise is seen more in terms of way of life than pure religious doctrine. An awareness of such different ways of seeing the world per culture, even if cursory, is much appreciated and will make a reader feel a connection.
     
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  8. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Sorry, I tried, but I did not read the whole thread.

    Some thoughts...

    I am willing to go with anything, so long as the reason is there. So, if you are going to show me a world with restricted travel and yet, also regions with people of many different racial mixes, I am not likely to buy it, and will be asking questions which are usually bad towards me reviewing the story well. Oft times, it can take only one out of place character to have me thinking the circumstance is very unlikely. But...if there is a good story reason, I will go with it. Even if that story reason is the world was just formed with people of mixed completions all grouped together. The reasons will matter, and I expect them to have some story impact. If, for example, one nation had taken a lot of slaves from another, and over time they had become part of the everyday people one would encounter, I would expect the relationships of current or former slaves and current or former masters to be quite prominent in the interactions between peoples.

    Given limited travel, as I would expect in a medieval time period, I might expect some mixing of ethnicities, but I would think it uncommon to rare, and more rare as we moved away from places they would likely be encountered. But not impossible.

    I think a story has a much better chance to be immersive if I am not spending portions of it thinking something unlikely or not credible. And if characters are added to add diversity, I will likely detect it, and that will take me away from the story, so I would suggest not doing it unless there is a good story reason for it.

    I do appreciate when authors undertake to show different cultures, and the naming schemes go a long way to that. Star Wars for example, with Boba Fett, and Obi Wan, and Greedo would not likely have a Luke and a Leia. I did not mind these names really, but I did come to wonder if they would be likely.

    In the realm of fantasy, I am not sure race really should be a word to mean ethnicities, because Elves are a different race than humans, and that some humans are browner than others would not make them a different race. Given the example of elves, I am not sure race would have developed the same meaning, or more so, it would more likely be applied to mean actual different races.

    Anyway... I will accept different racial mixtures if the reasons are there, and will likely look for them if they are not. If the reasons are not sufficient, I will question it.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Excellent point, BanBan, about religion. We Americans tend to think of religion as a set of beliefs, loosely or rigidly held, but not much more than that. In other societies, it really is a whole way of life. For Americans, think of the Amish, for example. Not all modern Europeans go that far, not by a long shot; I offer the example just to make the more general point.

    Fantasy writers miss a huge opportunity when they overlook this. Maybe the story doesn't run along those lines, which is fine, but where religion is an important story element, treating it as little more than a set of ceremonies and a few turns of phrase is really too bad. In worldbuilding, too, understanding how religion informs daily life can add a whole dimension to your characters.

    Worst are those stories where religion is merely a bogeyman--the Oppressive Church of Wicked People that serves as an all-powerful (it's always all-powerful, isn't it?) antagonist against which our heroes struggle. You know how we speak regularly about how there ought to be some variation in our orcs or elves or whatever? Religion can provide one vector for that.
     
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >I am not sure race really should be a word to mean ethnicities
    Yep, pmmgpmmg, I agree. That's part of why it's nearly impossible to answer the OP--there's a muddling of terms so I wasn't sure what really was being asked.

    I struggle with the language around this for Altearth. I don't want to call elves and dwarves and humans different races precisely because the connotations that word carries for many English-speaking readers. The best term is one I can't really use either: nation. It's exactly the right word in its original Latin sense, very flexible but quite unrelated to skin color or whatever it is anthropologists do. I'm guessing modern work tends to rely more on genetics. Lately I've been using "peoples" but that can lead to awkward phrasing at times. Mostly I try to write around it.

    But the topic of community and otherness is very much part of the stories I spin, mainly because I find it interesting. I also enjoy playing around with how relationships might have changed over the centuries.
     
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    And finally, another response to BanBan 's post, this time wrt the treatment of specific peoples. This one I really struggle with. To take but one very broad example, where do I put my orcs? Would the Limbourgeois object if I made Burgundy the home of orcs? I suspect some might get a little indignant. The same is going to happen no matter where I put them. And if I have their point of origin be Arabia or sub-Saharan Africa, to take really obvious examples, then I open another cartload full of cans of worms. I've left their homeland--and trolls--vague so far, trying to keep my options open.

    That's but one example. There are other places where cultural norms and expectations figure in to how one uses language, describes physical features, gestures, customs. Oh, the road of the fantasy writer is paved with tribulation. :)

    At least it's paved!
     
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  12. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    skip.knoxskip.knox And at least there are some sturdy roman roads among them ;) It's a good set of questions though. While few with a strong regional culture would be all to thrilled to have their region turned into the bastion of darkness, I do believe you'll avoid most problems with a little bit of awareness. You might annoy a handful of us (and more notably the Burgundians themselves) if you'd call the Orcs Burgundian, but if you simply describe them as orc living in Burgundy? Not a problem I'd wager. Same thing for other places, though I do think it's a smart idea not to use places where less than pleasant real-world paralells can be drawn.

    As for the first comment. In my region the former religious identity as a form of a cultural identity may be more pronounced, as it used to be the main distinguishing (and segregating) line between north and south, but it can be found in greater or lesser degrees all over Europe. I read a book about France that described the atheists of France as divided along two cultural sides. The catholic Atheists and the protestant atheists ;)

    To provide some examples from my context. On the surface level the religious heritage is found everywhere. Most if not all Limburgish holidays are steeped in catholic tradition, from saint Martin to Carnaval (vastelaovend). The local folklore is predominantly catholic in subject matter. Catholic physical heritage is found every which way you look, either in name or in place. Catholic traditions such as the pilgrimage to Santiago, or the annual papal easter address are still observed by many non-believers, and many people who never frequent church still find it important to call themselves catholic, myself included, though I think cultural catholic is more appropriate.

    It goes deeper than that though. Catholicism and protestantism is perceived to have left different cultures in their wake. Generally speaking, catholic regions and cultures are more focused on community, moral equality as well as a respect for hierarchy and tradition, whereas the protestant counterparts are perceived as individualist, headstrong, socially equal, open as well as honest. These are simplifications of course of reality and even of the perceptions themselves. It would be best to consult a sociologist on this.
     
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  13. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    In the Middle Ages we had Arabs ruling in Spain and French ruling in Palestine. Swedes and Norwegians serving as the elite bodyguard of Greek emperors and ruling in
    Ukraine. And in Poland, Poles weren't even the majority, but still by far the largest group compared to the many big minorities. There's also European scholars and merchants serving in Chinese courts, and of course you have Mongols from Mongolia doing conquest in central Europe.
    And many cultures practiced long distance slave trade, because slaves are less likely to try to run away the farther away they are from home.
     
  14. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    You can solve that issue by having orcs not be a distinct species, but rather a mutation of people exposed to some magic. That way, they can be all over the world, if phenomenon causing the mutation is widespread enough.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >the atheists of France as divided along two cultural sides. The catholic Atheists and the protestant atheists
    Hoot! That's the funniest thing I've read in quite a while. Thanks for that!

    And I take your point, BanBan, about the complexities of Protestant and Catholic. I taught the Reformation for years (yeah, I'm a medievalist; ours was a small History Dept) and was fascinated by it. Provisionally I've based the Orc Empire in Lithuania, letting its history run roughly the same chronology as paganism did. But instead of the fitful but steady retreat of European medieval paganism, I'll have the orcs be a more immediate and pressing threat. As for the trolls, I've got the Five Kingdoms, occupying some vaguely-defined region of the Balkans. I've not given them much thought except to use the model of multiple kings (did the Avars do this? Gotta look that up), each ruling his own area but able to present a united front against invaders.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks, Aldarion, but I'm too far along with having them be a separate nation. Humans, still following the Roman tradition, are polytheists, but orcs are monotheist. Upon arrival in Europa, they more or less copied imperial forms, so I have the Orc Empire being a kind of reflection of the human Roman Empire. At some point, probably late medieval or early modern, there will be a lively debate as to whether or not orcs are human, humanoid, or monsters. On their side, orcs hold humans to be in the service of demons--that's how they characterize the Roman gods.

    All that means that my orcs need to be in a specific place, one big enough to be a respectable-sized kingdom with enough resources to threaten (occasionally) the human empire. The humans make this easier by eternally squabbling among themselves, of course. The Orc Empire might very likely have overwhelmed the Roman were it not for the Five Kingdoms of the trolls, who were forever worrying at the flanks of the Orc Empire. Orcs and trolls are natural enemies.

    Were it not for the historical development I've already established, the device of having orcs be a kind of mutated human would work well.
     
  17. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    In that case, just place them where it fits the most given their culture and physiology. Orcs are often implied to be reptillian in nature - scales, nostrils but no noses, etc. - which would mean that ideal place for them would be in hot areas, such as a jungle or a desert. Which means either Sahara or Arabia. If orcs are (somehow) warm-blooded, you can just roll a dice.

    Strategic situation you described would essentially place Orc empire as strategic equivalent of either Persia or post-Islam Arabia.
     
  18. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I really hope nobody is actually considering to turn discriminated minorities into orcs in their alternative history story.
     
  19. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Put the orcs in Luxembourg or Norway. Nobody would mistake that for a social commentary.

    Alternatively, you could put them in France because they deserve it.
     
  20. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    DevorDevor Burgundy is in fact a part of France.

    In other news, freedom fries are back on the menu ;)
     
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