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Using Asian Cultures as Props

Snoopy

I came across a short post earlier this week that said white authors needed to stop using Asian cultures as props for their stories. I was one of several authors called out by name. Though the individual didn’t specify, I’m assuming I was included because of Codex Born, which includes a group called the Students of Bi Sheng, a kind of Chinese parallel to Gutenberg and the Porters.

I’m choosing not to link to the post, for several reasons. First of all, while my name was mentioned, I wasn’t tagged or linked … which to me says this person wasn’t posting to get my attention or invite a response. Linking to them would potentially force a dialogue/conversation they didn’t ask for. Basically, it would feel rude. And second, while I think 99% of my commenters and readers are awesome, wonderful people, it only takes a few to create a “Release the hounds” moment, if you know what I mean.

I haven’t been shy about my belief that stories should reflect the diversity of the world. One of the arguments I’ve seen, generally from white, male authors, is that they avoid writing about “the other” because they’re “not allowed” to write those characters. It’s an argument I have very little respect for, because almost nobody is saying you’re not allowed to write about certain characters … but people will certainly criticize you if you do it badly.

I’ve been criticized for how I’ve written certain characters. I suspect every published author has. But this post was the first time I’d seen someone telling me flat-out to keep my ass away from their culture.

I should point out that this still isn’t the same as telling me I’m not allowed to write about Chinese characters. “I don’t want you do to this thing” =/= “You aren’t allowed to do the thing.” But it’s something I’m trying to understand.

I’m reminded of something Ambelin Kwaymullina said at Continuum. After her GoH speech, someone asked her whether she thought non-indigenous authors should write about indigenous characters. Ambelin made an interesting distinction. I don’t remember the exact wording, and I apologize in advance if I lose nuance with my paraphrase, but I believe she said she thought it would be okay to do so when writing in the third person, but she was uncomfortable with the idea of a non-indigenous author trying to do so in first-person.

I thought about that a lot. On the one hand, I want to write stories that are honest about our world, stories that aren’t stuck in an illogically narrow and exclusive universe. And I want to do so as respectfully and accurately as I can. It’s one thing for me to describe the diversity of the world; but no matter how much reading and listening and research I do, would I ever be able to write from the perspective of an indigenous person, and do so truthfully? Probably not.

It’s a complicated question. Obviously, we use first person for more than just autobiographical work. All authors write about characters who aren’t themselves. I’ve written about goblins and fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and autistic teenagers and handicapped cowboys and more. Why shouldn’t I write about Chinese book-magic, or do a story from a first-person indigenous perspective?

Some of the problem, I believe, is about power and representation. What does it mean if we have white authors successfully writing and publishing and selling books about Chinese characters, but work by Chinese authors is ignored or shoved aside? What happens when we’re only reading about other cultures through the blinders and assumptions of our own?

We end up with an incomplete, distorted, often damaging understanding. There’s an element of colonialism — we’re not interested in truly reading about other cultures; we’re just playing tourist from the safety of our own cultural framework. That’s a problem

As I tried to write the history of my character Bi Wei, describing snippets of her life from 500 years ago, it’s very possible that I messed up. I thought I had done adequate research and written respectfully, but maybe I was wrong. And of course, it’s not a simple yes/no. People disagree on what’s appropriate and respectful and so on. And no matter how well I wrote, I still wrote the book from my own cultural perspective. I’m not capable of doing otherwise.

Legally, all of this is pretty much a null issue. I have the legal right to write about whatever characters and cultures I choose. But I believe a writer has the responsibility to write respectfully, truthfully, and well.

I read a book a while back where the only Japanese character was also a ninja, and I cringed. The book was well-written in many ways, but that part felt neither respectful nor true. The character wasn’t Japanese so much as they were the prepackaged caricature we in the U.S. have seen so many times before. Have I fallen into that same trap? I try not to, but I look back at some of my early stories and see similar mistakes. Maybe in ten years, I’ll look back at what I’m writing now and have a similar reaction.

So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling. And I think it’s good for me to struggle with it. I refuse to write books where I pretend other cultures don’t exist. But I also recognize that there are stories I’m simply not qualified to write well, that no matter how respectful I might try to be, my story wouldn’t be true. (An odd thing to say about fiction, but I hope you understand what I mean.) And I know that sometimes I’m going to screw up.

I don’t have an easy answer. I do know it’s something for me to be aware of as I’m writing, and it’s something I hope people will continue to challenge me on when they feel I’ve botched it. I also know we need to do a better job of reading and publishing and promoting work from outside of our own narrow cultural lens.

I would be very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 51 comments — Leave a comment )
swan_tower
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC)
I can't help but look at the words used: it wasn't "don't write about my culture," but rather "stop using Asian culture as props." (If that wasn't the actual wording, you may want to edit your post to reflect that.)

To me, the second statement implies something very different from the first. A prop is a thing, a tool -- implied to be kind of a fake one -- used and then probably discarded in the course of a larger story. (An immmortal Scotsman running around with a katana because Katana Are Sexy: that's using an Asian culture as a prop, quite literally.) If that was the word employed, and you were indeed being called out because of the Students of Bi Sheng . . . your usage was one that basically said, "look, white people are not the only ones who ever invented something like this." You had Chinese people as agents in the story, pursuing their own ends for their own reasons. If you got details wrong or were insufficiently respectful or are ultimately bound by your own cultural perspective, I'd like to see you criticized for that -- not called out with a phrase that to me seems to be pointing in a different direction. Otherwise we're likely to end up having the wrong discussion as a result.
jimhines
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:46 pm (UTC)
Both statements were made, though the wording isn't quite 100%.

There's a part of me that really wanted to ask for specifics about what I was being criticized for. At the same time, if this is how the individual feels, they don't have to justify or defend that to me.

It's ... well, like I said, it's something I'm trying to think about, once I got past my initial knee-jerk defensiveness.
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nelc
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC)
If you're not allowed to write about the other badly, then how are you supposed to get better at writing the other? Your early other characters may not have been as good as they would be now, but you wouldn't be as good (however poorly that may prove to be) at writing them now if you hadn't tried in the first place.

"Write about what you know" is a good early step for a writer, but fantasy and sci-fi writers know that it's a strait-jacket when writing in their favoured genre. Your stock in trade is to write about what you don't know. Of course, when not making up cultures and characters you have less freedom than when writing about goblins, say, and you should be expected to do research into a real culture when writing about one, including into the mistakes that other writers have made. But, like any writer, you have to at some point stop the research and actually write. And being mortal and not godlike, what you're going to write is not going to be perfect. Well, that's life as a writer. You do better next time. You improve.

If your critic doesn't want to read your treatment of their culture, then the solution is in their own hands. If they want your writing to improve then they can criticise, as indeed they have. Ignore the cries to stop writing about X, but listen to the criticism (as much as you can stand, anyway).

Besides, it's not as if Chinese culture is in any immediate danger of being lost to the world. (Han Chinese, anyway.) A billion speakers and writers of Chinese can write about Chinese culture and get it right, presumably. A few Anglophone writers aren't going to make much of a dent in that.
tuftears
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:52 pm (UTC)
Barry Hughart isn't Chinese but I really enjoyed his Bridge of Bird series. He writes respectfully and entertains with good and not-so-nice characters alike rather than painting everyone with the same brush. I'm not concerned about the ethnicity of the author, I'm interested in whether the tale is true and good.

It's kind of a catch-22: don't people want more diverse casts of characters? And if so, wouldn't it make sense to make reference to these characters' cultures?
sylviamcivers
Aug. 11th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC)
Loved that book, but it's clearly listed as Fiction. Take everything with a grain... a tablespoon of salt. Also, he put gods and supernatural events everywhere, because apparently that's where gods and supernatural events live. As they do i most non-citified places, where humans just plain crowd them out.
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dionysus1999
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:54 pm (UTC)
If we follow this rule to it's logical conclusion, then only multiracial authors will have diversity in their fiction.

I don't think it's fair to say "don't write about my culture". I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask for someone to respect their culture, however.

Some else bugging me about this is "Asian culture". This phrase wraps into it an incredible diversity of cultures. Is Thousand and One Nights references Asian culture? Polynesian folktales? Cargo cults?

While I think any author could use constructive criticism to enhance their art, this isn't a constructive prescription, it's a proscription. Who made this blogger the gatekeeper of all things Asian?

jimhines
Aug. 7th, 2014 07:02 pm (UTC)
To be fair, there's a lot of U.S. based fiction that treats "Asian" as a giant homogenous soup of geisha girls and rice and ninjas.

For most of the post, the individual referred specifically to the use of Chinese culture/character. And thus we hit one of the drawbacks of me choosing not to link :-/
martianmooncrab
Aug. 7th, 2014 07:11 pm (UTC)
goblins and fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and autistic teenagers and handicapped cowboys and more

so you arent a Goblin Princess Libriarian? *shocked face*
jimhines
Aug. 7th, 2014 07:14 pm (UTC)
Not that you know of...
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aberwyn
Aug. 7th, 2014 08:23 pm (UTC)
"Asian" covers rather a lot of ground. Even "Chinese" includes not merely a lot of territory and history, but 5 major languages, a number of minor languages, and many diverse cultures. As the '60s Maoists used to say, "100 Flowers Bloom."

A writer could research 1 Chinese culture and have members of the other cultures there think he'd made mistakes, when he hadn't.

But there is a Generic Oriental, which is offensive even to someone like me, who is white and merely lives in an area where a lot of people live whose genetic make-up hails from southern China. That we should all avoid. IMHO.
swan_tower
Aug. 7th, 2014 09:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I wonder if anybody is going to ding me for the "fake" dragon names in my next book, when in fact they're the romanized Hokkien forms (rather than the more-familiar Mandarin forms).
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nellorat
Aug. 7th, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)
Think about this as if it were a review--which it is, only less fully explained. You probably already know from reviews that some will dislike the same work that others love, and you just have to learn what you can, if anything strikes home, and keep on doing what you're doing.

In this case, for me learning would include reading what I could from historians and Chinese (or Chinese-American) authors, but then I'm a researcher by nature & profession. The more I think about it, the more I think you're right not to link & not to engage there.
asakiyume
Aug. 7th, 2014 09:52 pm (UTC)
Complicated indeed!

The colonialism element that you bring up is important, and it's why in addition to advocating for diverse *stories*, people are advocating for diverse *writers*--because people speak with different voices and tell stories differently. People's unique voices are inimitable. But you do support diverse writers! And when it comes to your own writing, you can only be who you are.

If you can give pleasure to people from the culture you're representing with the story you've written--more people than you're upsetting--then I think you're probably doing it okay. As nellorat says, it's like a review: no book will please everyone. And, you're only obliged to consider, thoughtfully, what people say in criticism. You're not obliged to accept it.
ritaxis
Aug. 7th, 2014 10:28 pm (UTC)
My answer to this got long, so I moved it to my own journal.
bluecarp
Aug. 7th, 2014 11:47 pm (UTC)
I think it's better you do it than not as long as you were sincere and conscientious. Here are some links talking about and resources for such stuff:

http://writeoncon.com/08/13/diversity-in-writing/
http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/


serialbabbler
Aug. 8th, 2014 12:32 am (UTC)
I think everybody should write what they feel the need to write regardless of their status and do it as well as they are capable of doing it and if that's not good enough... well, nothing ever is really. Fail better and all that.

(Then again, I'm not sure how you use a culture as a prop. It's more of a set, to my mind. Hmmm... )
rhodielady_47
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:35 am (UTC)
I happened to see a reference to this journal entry of yours while I was logging in and I'd like to share my own POV on this topic if you don't mind.
You said:
"So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling."
I understand how that feels. There are so many intricate and exotic cultures around the world that are so much fun for a writer to explore and they're equally fun to read about.
Unfortunately as an American, who was also born and raised a Southerner, I also understand all too well where that reader is coming from.
I long ago reached the point where I don't want Yankees writing ANYTHING set in the American Deep South whether it be modern times or pre-Civil War times. My reason is quite simple. They usually haven't taken the time or effort to do their research before they sit down to write and it shows. Ninety-nine percent of the time their writing is the literary equivalent of a length of toilet paper hanging out of the back of someone's pants, it's so poorly done.
Probably the only person I've come across who does a decent job of writing a story with a pre-Civil War setting is Barbara Hambly. I think her fantasy and science fiction writing that she did early in her career actually gave her the training in world/culture building that she needed to approach the job properly. Too many would-be "southern writers" never realize that the pre-Civil War South is an entirely different culture in every aspect from our modern South even though the two share the same real estate and most of a common language with each other.

As a Southerner, I enjoyed reading Hambly's "Free Man of Color", a novel written about a black man who was born into slavery but set free by the man who took his mother for his mistress. It felt right and it felt right in every tiny bit of detail from beginning to end, so I think she succeeded in writing about a Southern black man even though she is white.

Perhaps what this reader truly objects to is someone who isn't from their culture PRODUCING SHALLOW GARBAGE WITH A SETTING WHICH BEARS ONLY THE VAGUEST RESEMBLANCE TO THEIR CULTURE. That reader might actually like a book written by a white writer who's taken the time and effort to learn the culture thoroughly before they actually sit down to write something set in that culture.
That white writer could also go that extra mile, just as Hambly did, of finding someone of that culture to proofread their book for cultural mistakes.

I hope you'll find some useful food for thought in this.
:)






idancewithlife
Aug. 8th, 2014 03:07 am (UTC)
Hambly is also a historian, and college history professor as well as a sf/f writer.
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firecat
Aug. 8th, 2014 03:27 am (UTC)
Hiromi Goto's Wiscon speech addresses your issue to some extent. I'm including a quote but it's not a full representation of what she said so I encourage you to read (or re-read) the whole speech.

http://www.hiromigoto.com/wiscon38-guest-of-honour-speech/
I don’t think the “burden of representation” rests upon the shoulders of those who are positioned as under-represented. If this were the case we would fall into an essentialist trap that will serve no one well. However, I’m okay with saying that it is my hope that white writers who are interested in writing about cultures and subjectivities outside of their own consider very carefully: 1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?
jimhines
Aug. 8th, 2014 11:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for that. I'm going to use that link and quote in the comments over on my main website, as it's rather dead-on.
ariellm13
Aug. 8th, 2014 10:52 am (UTC)
I have to wonder if the main reason you were criticized was because of your usage of a historical Chinese figure. I don't know what you wrote about the character, so I don't know if your Bi Sheng was an oc or not. I do know that Bi Sheng is a chinese historical figure with pretty unique name so that may be one reason.

Also, always keep in mind that when you start talking about another culture you don't really know anything about, you're bound to get things wrong. Cultural nuances aren't always easy to search. There may be a whole host of things you skipped over without knowledge or intent. To you it will always be an honest mistake but to a person of that culture, you may have just insulted them.

In my book, diversity is okay no matter who it's written by but you should try to keep things in your own culture. Writing about an asian american would be much easier than writing about someone from the Yuan dynasty. If you do really want to write about another culture, have someone from that culture beta for you.

Edited at 2014-08-08 10:52 am (UTC)
jimhines
Aug. 8th, 2014 11:54 am (UTC)
I was using the historical figure, but Bi Sheng wasn't a character who appeared in the book; he was simply referenced as being involved with the development of printing in China, and the magic that went along with it.
marlowe1
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:07 pm (UTC)
I'm actually having fun adapting a Japanese story based on a Chinese legend (the one about the two snakes who become human and one falls in love with a scholar) to 1980s Minnesota. The story was called Bewitched and it was written in the 1700s I believe and it's from the perspective that the human who falls in love with the snake is letting down his family.

Anyhow adapting it is an interesting task since cultural values such as family being everything need to be translated in different ways - and no matter how close a Midwestern family might be, they are not all going to be living under one roof and taking orders from the father figure. I also had to turn the theft of a sacred object from a temple into a murder because that seems to be how serious the action is in the original story.

I am cautious about using stories about Asian culture mostly because I wrote a novel that attempted to tribute the Hong Kong movies taht I loved in the 90s and it's pretty cringe-worthy (thankfully never published) in retrospect, but putting a big sign that says "ONLY X can write about X culture" is silly. Even when Y writes about x culture is can be good and true. And even if it's not there are usually some opportunities for unintentional comedy (like writers describing Jewish characters as "looking like an Old Testament prophet" - it's always Irish writers taht do it too).
6_penny
Aug. 8th, 2014 04:06 pm (UTC)
So extrapolating we go back to the old 'women can't/shouldn't write male characters' - and vice versa.
Perhaps a variant of the Bechdel test is what is really needed rather then segregating the material any writer is allowed to use.
stillnotbored
Aug. 8th, 2014 05:12 pm (UTC)
I have become very aware of the fact I think and write like a native Californian. Things that have been normal, unremarkable, my entire life are a very big issue for people outside that experience.

The grade school I went to was 98 percent Black, 2 percent other. My siblings and I were part of that 2 percent.The housing project I lived in was a mix of Hispanic and White, with the Hispanics being the majority. We all drifted in and out of each others apartments. We called each others mothers Mom, and they treated all the kids like their own kids.

I have 12 first cousins who are Hispanic and Apache. Two of my aunts were born in Sonora, Mexico. I have a nephew who is Hispanic, Navaho, and Sioux.

When my daughter was in high school, her friends, who had been her friends since kindergarten, were at my house all the time. On any given day my family room had Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Hispanic, Polish, Iranian, Pakistani and generic white teenagers sitting in a circle on the floor talking and eating cookies. I'd know these kids since they were 5. They might as well have been my kids.

27 different languages were spoken in my son's elementary school. His friendships, which also started in kindergarten, were just as diverse as his older sister, maybe more so. His friends spent an enormous amount of time in our house.

So I struggle, a lot, with what to say about this, and what I should and shouldn't write. Diversity was always the norm in my life.

Which doesn't make me a special snowflake. But it bothers me and reactions like the one you cited...yeah. I don't know how to answer that.
thedragonweaver
Aug. 8th, 2014 10:22 pm (UTC)
I am also a native Californian, from a place I call Greater Suburbia. (There's a lot of GS in various places around the country.) I think the primary obstacle that you shouldn't have to overcome is seeing different cultures as Other—and if you want to write about a particular culture that isn't yours, you may well have the option of going to a friend who happens to have that culture in their background to ask them if you got it more-or-less correct, or if there's something that you totally missed.

(I do love that my kid's school is unconsciously diverse. I think that will prevent a lot of problems later.)
deborahjross
Aug. 8th, 2014 08:36 pm (UTC)
Nobody (that I know of) has (so far) accused me of cultural appropriation in basing my horse nomads in The Seven-Petaled Shield partly on the Mongols (and Scythians, and Sarmatians). Or taken me to task because the lead character in Shannivar (and also on the cover of The Heir of Khored is clearly Asian. Should I feel slighted?
triciasullivan
Aug. 9th, 2014 04:20 am (UTC)
This is an issue I struggled with a lot the last couple of years. I wrote a novel set partly in Thailand and there is a POV character (not first person, but close third) who is Burmese. The novel centers on a Dominican-American teenager who is training Muay Thai in Bangkok.

I followed the advice in 'Writing the Other' and I had a couple of Thai readers help me with the cultural details, but I could not find anyone from Burma. And a had a violently negative reaction from another Thai reader (and writer) who told me in no uncertain terms to get out because my work was harmful. I called my agent and asked her to take the book off submission, I was so dismayed and felt so terrible about it.

Here's the thing. For me personally, not publishing the book ended up being too drastic a step. I wasn't prepared to throw away a whole novel on one reader's say-so. I had to decide, is this novel completely invalidated because I am occupying space that belongs to Burmese and Thai writers? And for me, it wasn't. Ultimately I had to think about myself, and I couldn't afford to throw it all away. For me, it seemed better to do everything I can to promote diversity and to support efforts to bring more global writers into the frame, than to throw out my own work. Especially because at the time I was working on another novel which has some involvement with West Africa and I started to realize that the big canvas of SF was getting narrower and narrower if I could only engage perspectives I know from the inside. I'm an SF writer and my brain thinks globally. My brain also works (however badly) by empathy and that means trying to get close to characters. If I can't do that, then I'm setting all my work in the distant future in outer space and that--to me--would be just a dodge, not an honest effort to engage reality.

I'm acutely aware that I may be shown to be very wrong about this and backward in my thinking. I'm deeply uncomfortable about the whole area, and I do hear what Hiromi Goto is saying in that speech. The world is full of tremendous inequities and it can be really hard to work out how to respond to that as a privileged person.

I have no answers, except to say that I'm still publishing the book set in Thailand and I know that it makes a subset of the community angry.

Edited at 2014-08-09 04:21 am (UTC)
sjiva
Aug. 9th, 2014 01:56 pm (UTC)
I read your post, and immediately thought that this is a discussion on orientalism and postmodernism. And you address both very well in your post.
The comment about not using the Asian culture as a prop is a great example of protest against orientalist representations, is it not? Can anybody ever correctly represent the culture of another? And is one justified to try?
Take it a step further, and combine it with postmodern thought, you can never write about anything again! Nobody could ever understand what another thinks, feels, or does. You’re not the other. Everything you write would be a misrepresentation, even writing about your own culture, your own gender, your own class etc. It would always be limited to your view and understanding, so it could never be an accurate representation. You would always misrepresent someone, somehow.
The only answer would be post-postmodern thought. Realize what you are doing and what your limitations are. Treat the other culture, gender or class with respect in your writing, and not as a prop, a caricature or just for the hint of the exotic. Research well, and do the best job you can. Realizing you can’t create an accurate representation. But you can create the best possible one that you can.
And as you show in your post, that is exactly what you do. I do not think that anybody could ask for more from an author.
slhuang
Aug. 10th, 2014 12:07 pm (UTC)
(1/2, I'm too long-winded)

I'm Chinese. I haven't read Codex Born (YET -- it's high on my TBR), but this makes me want to, because one of the thoughts I had reading Libriomancer was, "But! The Chinese!" So for *this* Chinese person, the concept, at least, is exciting and makes me happy. :) But moving on...

FWIW, I think you approach all these issues solidly in general -- you think really hard about these things even/especially when you're criticized, you make a huge effort to use your platform to boost underrepresented authors and underrepresented voices (BIG THUMBS UP), and you acknowledge that you won't always get everything right but you'll always try to fail better. (I love that "fail better" idea, btw. In fact, I think it's the only way to do things.)

But I know you didn't post this looking for cookies. So as to your question:

This reminds me of Asian jokes.

My friend is a stand-up comedian. I go to see her shows a lot, so I see a lot of stand-up comedy, much of which is bad, and I talk to her a lot about comedy and what works and what makes jokes effective. Like when I read an article on what type of rape jokes can actually be funny (ones that attack the power structure / culture and are empowering, the example given being Wanda Sykes' "detachable pussies" routine -- i.e., ones that punch up).

And we talk about ethnic humor.

I love Asian humor -- when it's funny. When it's funny it's hilarious. But when it's not funny, it's very, very, very not funny. Like, the person should sit down and shut up and never tell another joke ever level of not funny.

I tried to describe to my comedienne friend what makes an Asian joke funny, and the best I could come up with was, "It's funny if an Asian person would laugh at it." Which is, of course, both lame and horribly nonspecific, because Asian people aren't a monolith and even though there are SOME jokes we would all agree on, there might be a bunch in the middle that some people find crude and others get a kick out of...yadda yadda...you know this.

But my friend got what I meant. She said, "It's like all comedy. Comedy either has to be full of truth or such an absurd lie no one can take it seriously." And I said, "OMG YES, THAT'S IT EXACTLY." When someone tells an Asian joke that I can see my family in, I die laughing. When someone tells an Asian joke that is *clearly* an absurd depiction mocking stereotypes, I likewise find it hilarious.

(Incidentally, the former types of jokes -- the truthful ones -- unsurprisingly tend to come from Asian comedians. I see Asian and non-Asian comedians alike successfully tell the absurd kind all the time, though.)

But there's this uncanny valley in between those extremes when the joke is mocking Asian people but isn't a clear lie. Then the Asian people become the butt of the joke, instead of the absurdity or the stereotype being what we laugh at. It becomes offensive, and, perhaps the bigger sin in the eyes of many comedians, it becomes not funny.

...I'm not sure where I was going with this. Right, fiction...
slhuang
Aug. 10th, 2014 12:07 pm (UTC)
(2/2)

The thing with fictional portrayals, for me, as an Asian person -- it's like the truthful Asian jokes that I deem funny: I know it when I see it. If I see truth in it, I consider it a good portrayal. But how the hell can you define that? It's not something you can check off a list. It's something that lives in that moment of personal resonance, the reverberation with one's own lived experiences that twangs some particular ineffable nuance of realness. How do you write that? How do you tell someone else how to write it? I don't fucking know. I wish I did. I have the same fears you do when writing about underrepresented demographics who aren't mine -- in fact, I'm so acutely aware that my impression of decent Chinese portrayals is based on intangibility that writing anything too far outside my culture feels absolutely stunningly IMPOSSIBLE when I think too hard about it, because if I know how perfect something has to be to make what *I* know resonate, how can I hope to do that for a culture I haven't lived? (I feel this way about all kinds of things, incidentally, not just culture and people -- but if I mess up the portrayal of a profession or a city or something, that's usually not going to be a problem that hurts people. So.)

But whenever I start getting buried in self-doubt about this, I always come back to: well, then, what's the alternative? I can't NOT write a diversity of people. That's way worse. I just have to to my damnedest to learn as much as I can and listen a lot and write honestly, and keep learning and keep failing better. That's all I got.

And nothing will ever be 100 percent right for all readers, because the *world's* fucked up -- to go mathy for a minute, there really IS no solution that fits every person's context; it's like one of those logic puzzles where you try to satisfy every clue in the table only there are 6 billion different things to satisfy and a bunch of them contradict each other, so the puzzle's not only stupidly difficult but actually unsolvable. So you try for a messy solution that *mostly* works and then try to learn about the places it's wrong. And by that of course I don't mean the "you won't please everyone so don't try" schtick, I mean, literally, that this level of nothing being all the way right is partly a *result* of the fucked-up-ness of our world, and so it's really part and parcel of what we need to think about with all these issues.

And I do think what another commenter said about inclusion vs. appropriation is important also. I feel qualified -- even responsible for -- including a diversity of characters in my books. That doesn't mean I'm remotely qualified to write a book *about* the African-American experience or the Latino experience or any sort of "issue" book when I haven't lived those issues in some way. But that's not what you're trying to do, as far as I know, so I'm getting a bit far afield here, and that wouldn't fall under the "props" criticism anyway...

Er. This turned into a bit of a ramble, sorry. Thoughts, you know. (and p.s. -- if you ever do need an "Asian beta" in the future, caveat sample size of one, I love feedbacking on that stuff so feel free to ping me.)
(no subject) - swan_tower - Aug. 12th, 2014 11:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - slhuang - Aug. 14th, 2014 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
wintersillusion
Aug. 11th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
I wish I had time to read all the other responses. Sadly, I am short on time and I am having trouble concentrating for very long on reading right now anyway due to a bad bout of depression. However, I wanted to say this...

I think that it is impossible for any person to be completely without prejudice or sexist beliefs to some degree because of the way we are raised, no matter the culture. This is something I struggle with internally all the time. The best I think a person can do is to continually try and recognize when they do or think something prejudiced or sexist so that they can try and work on it. I applaud you for constantly being one of those people who fights against these things and who can hear that someone else felt they were inappropriate and take it with a grain of salt and try to learn from it.

I have not personally read this book, so I can't tell you if I think you did well or not. I think it is fantastic that you try and include other cultures. I'm sorry that not everyone will always agree. I really think that you can only try to do it as respectfully as you can and hope for the best. Then possibly learn from your mistakes. However, this situation is hard because the person did not tell you what specifically they didn't like about your portrayal. If you know who they are, perhaps you could bring it up to them respectfully, saying you sincerely would like to learn how to handle things like this better and asking them to let you know what it was that really bothered them, away from the public.
anglerfish07
Aug. 12th, 2014 02:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jim. :)

I agree that no culture should be used as a prop. But we need people from all cultural backgrounds to write about different cultures. Representation and diversity are important. We need to keep writing about different backgrounds to get better at doing so.

They don't have to defend their views to you. But if you wanted to know how you could improve your writing/avoid bothering them in future, perhaps you could ask them in private? It's up to you. You're right - there's no easy answer here.
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