Digging Into Taboo

So in my last post, I talked about rape as a potential taboo topic for writers. And even though I used taboo in that post under the definition of”oughtn’t do,” the taboo I want to talk about here is cultural taboo. Okay, small step into Freud by yours truly, Ph.D. in lit prof. In very simple terms, taboo is when the Superego (equivalent of social rules) tells you you oughtn’t do, feel, think, desire, and etc. So you shove that thought/feeling/desire/idea down into your subconscious and hide it there, your mind pretending like you never had it. Culturally, we do something similar. We decide that certain habits, certain ways of talking, certain references, are not acceptable, appropriate, politically correct (though I have some issues with that term as in it’s not such a bad thing as people make it out to be). And then we decide not to say those things, or act that way, or we try to punish those who do in some way.

Okay, now on with what I actually want to talk about. Here’s a story. When I was in grad school, I was teaching a freshman literature course. This was in Indiana and there was one black student in my class. She was your basic 18 year old freshman and she was shy and not all that willing to speak out in class (making her super-typical freshman girl). I had assigned John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” totally forgetting the ‘master slave’ game in the story. This story is a great example of postmodernism. But it obviously raised the issue of racism. I soon felt bad for this young woman because I hadn”t remembered, so I didn’t preface the reading with any sorts of questions to raise the critical issues during the reading process. The next day in class, I knew she had to have been very uncomfortable with it. She sank down in her chair and sort of hid behind her backpack. If she didn’t want to speak up on a normal day, that day she wanted to be in another state. And then add in that the other students kept looking at her when they talked about the story, as if she could be the token representative of all black people in our little classroom, and I realized I had really bungled. Not in asking people to read the story, but in not presenting the material effectively at all. (Ever since, I have reread every single text I teach before teaching it, no matter how often I’ve read it before).

I told you that story to get me to this. When we write, there are things that sometimes we shy away from as incendiary subjects. Partly because they are taboo in society, and partly because we fear how people might react. Some people shy away from subjects because they’re, well, icky. But as a writer, you really have to embrace the taboo. At least, seriously consider it. Sometimes you have to force yourself to go places that feel dirty or disturbing or make you want to throw up. If you believe Freud (And mostly I think he was a chauvinist jerk-faced bastard, but he did say a couple of interesting and useful things and he gave us Dr. Phil and Oprah–maybe that’s not such a good thing). Anyhow, if you believe Freud, that our subconscious is what drives human action, then you have to believe it drives your characters too. If you don’t embrace the taboo–those things that are dark or icky or embarrassing or taboo inside of them, those secrets that drive them to certain behaviors–then you can’t really build realistic characters.

Next time on Di’s Taboo soapbox: the things you hear people say you should avoid writing about, including killing pets and getting a period.

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  1. 1. Lucy Kemnitzer

    I get that we ought to dig into taboo, but there are times when that dilemma of “effective presentation” is an obstacle. When you want to make sure that the thing you’re saying is the thing you want to say, and not some other thing.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    Interesting. My current book is a YA novel with teenage boy as the protagonist. It’s first person, which I find challenging in this instance, especially because having been a mother of a teenage boy, I have to let go of how I wanted my son to think at that age and delve into how he really thought. He’s 24 now, but he tells me teenage boys really do spend a huge amount of time thinking about sex and checking out every woman they meet. I saw Sharyn November on a YA panel at World Fantasy and she suggested the taboo now is not SHOWING teenagers having sex, i.g., it can happen but off-stage. Another panel suggested the only taboos in YA were the two B’s: boring and bestiality. Of course, then people in the audience kept dredging up bestiality examples.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Killing pets is taboo? Uh-oh. Can’t wait to hear what my editor says about the book I just handed in. Is it taboo if the pet simply dies because it wasn’t meant to live and the body gets used for magic afterwards?

    Not that I’m going to change it.

  4. 4. Michele Conti

    What’s so bad about getting a period. It’s a rather natural event in womanly life. And it’s not nearly as icky as it sounds when you look at the science behind it. I mean, all it means is “no baby this month” Which, to people my age translates to “WHOO HOO….not ready for that yet anyway”

    Far as I’m concerned, you should be able to write about whatever you want. The readers CHOOSE whether to read it or not anyway. I mean, I know it is a little about what will sell, but if there’s a market for all the “strange” things you find in an adult shop, there’s a market for just about anything. So I figure, write what you want to write, even if nobody but family and friends see it.

  5. 5. Radish

    Usually I see a taboo as a rule that’s enforced by superstition and social censure — sometimes a taboo is a good thing, and sometimes it isn’t. Tradition isn’t always beneficial to everyone.

    But not examining and discussing an uncomfortable topic? Wouldn’t that only lead to its perpetuation, and allow things like slavery and child abuse to go unchallenged? Kinda like leaving that splinter in the finger because removing it can be painful — but not removing it will have greater consequences.

  6. 6. Mike

    I wrote a long post about this topic, or something very close to this topic, back in August on Forbidden Story Themes: Peril and Promise:


    The most relevant part for this discussion:

    “The first striking example of a “forbidden” theme I remember seeing in a workshop was at Clarion West in 1994. One of my classmates had written a fantasy story in which the central message was: once a slave, always a slave. Hoo boy, that didn’t go over well. The critiques kept picking around the point that took people a long time to articulate, and that point so many wanted to make was that you aren’t allowed to write a story with this message!

    “Of course, I’m sure such a story would have gotten a different reaction in a past society were slavery was accepted. Such a theme would have helped maintain the status quo, and would not have been forbidden. In fact, the story of a slave transcending their station would have been the forbidden story.”

    It also occurs to me that in a different country, like India, with a strong caste structure, the story theme would be responded to very differently. The American culture continuously reinforces ideas of equality and that it’s possible to go from rags to riches. Other cultures have not wanted to spread that meme.

    Write what you must write, but recognize the likely cultural reaction of your audience. I was recently told that my new novel Spider Star feels very “American.” Guilty, I’m sure. Makes me nervous that I’m planning to set my next book in a real place that isn’t America, which will be a challenge for me.

  7. 7. Richard Ahlquist

    Very elegant point. I know that personally one of the most memorable series I read (Piers Anthony’s Tarot series) was memorable because of the vivid handling of taboo subjects. Not once when I have ever endeavored to recall what series that was have I paused even momentarily, it will forever be on the tip of my tongue.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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