Writing for the World

There has been a lot – and I mean A LOT – of stuff written about the subject of writing the “other”, not one’s own culture, something that Science Fiction and Fantasy authors tend to trip over time and again simply because they ARE writing about reimagined  worlds which nonetheless, inevitably, take into them all the cultural, moral, ethical and other baggage which was very firmly packed in the “real” world in which they reside. There is little one can do about this, really, other than pay attention, have respect, and, well, occasionally get it resoundingly wrong. And, in the days of the Internet and Quick-Draw-McGraw blogosphere and commentariat, probably be taken to task for it before the printing ink has fully dried on the offending piece of work.

Vandana Singh writes about writing the other on her blog, here: http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2009/05/22/some-thoughts-on-writing-or-not-writing-the-other/

Here’s a couple of quotes from that post:

“I’ve felt that way about a lot of stories that feature Indians and India — that the author had not ever thought about someone like me as a possible member of the audience.  Now, fortunately, we have a lot of writers in the West writing far more knowledgeably and sensitively about India — people who do their research, who approach their subject with sensitivity, who have Indians proof their manuscripts, who hang out with the natives when they can, or even visit the country.  I applaud these folks and hope there are many more such attempts where we move beyond what is known and familiar and try to stand in the shoes of the aliens from our own planet.  That should be part of the point of SF.”

Also,

“…an author wants to avoid being in Patricia Wrede’s shoes [SEE THE SO-CALLED MAMMOTHFAIL DISCUSSION ON WREDE'S LATEST BOOK ELSEWHERE ON THE BLOGOSPHERE], he or she should set out to write for the world, not just for the readership one takes from granted (in this case Western white).  The world, here, is this diverse place where languages other than English are spoken and people have different skin colors, customs, beliefs and music.”

All of this is true.

It is also impossible to live up to.

Yes, many of us do heaps of research for our books. I have done so myself, and although I’ve stopped short of providing a bibliography at the end of every novel (it is not an academic treatise, it’s a story, and the research material was there to inform me as I reimagined its subject matter in a manner which may or may NOT completely and accurately reflect the research materials) I think I’ve provided an author’s note on practically every book I ever wrote acknowledging that research. But I do not, and cannot, “write for the world”. I can only write a story – the world can read it, like it, hate it, attack it, distrust it, applaud it, trash it, discuss it or ignore it it will. Some of us are limited to actual armchair research – as opposed to, as Singh says in the earlier quote, actually visiting the country of which they are about to write. Frankly, I have my doubts as to the value of a “visit” to any place which lasts less than a year and does not involve actually learning the language and living like one of the people who inhabit the land and the culture – anything less, a flying visit of a few weeks or even a month or two, and you’re doing cursory conversations with people and getting stuff from a single or even just a handful of points of view, often probably coloured by the fact that the “native guide” is speaking to a foreigner, and you’re paying flying visits to a bunch of museums or cultural shrines – and  if you’re lucky, and you can find a common language or an interpreter, you might get a chance to speak to a curator or a keeper and find out a fraction of the things that it is actually about and most of which you will never, probably CAN never, completely understand.

It’s hard enough to do research through time, as it were, in a culture that somewhat resembles your own and you at least share a common tongue with (up to a point – go back far enough and even English becomes… difficult…) Things vanish into the mists of time. Things people used to believe absolutely three hundred or six hundred years ago, they laugh at now. Things they worshipped as holy might be everyday science today. Their understanding and belief systems, coloured as they are by the circumstances in which they arose, might have been perfectly valid in their time but will be difficult, sometimes impossible, to translate into concepts which are comprehensible and even remotely sympathetic to the modern reader of any work which you might produce with the research which you have done. And that might be your own culture, your own background, your own history, something that you might have the wherewithal and the knowledge and the instinct with which to go back to primary source if they are available.

But if you’re doing research across the added dimension of space, if it is rooted in a different or exotic place which you have never been a historical or cultural part of and never can be, things become an order of magnitude more difficult. Primary sources are useless if they are in Sanskrit or Aramaic or Japanese or Langue d’Oc and you are not Hindu, or a Biblical scholar, or Japanese, or have roots in medieval Provence.

You decide you are going to write a story which you identify as a fantasy or as science ficiton, and by that definition these stories take place outside our own world – but because you yourself live in this world and it is all you know you base the story on something that has roots in this world, just as you do. And you REIMAGINE (because otherwise you are writing historical fiction, and that’s a whole new ball of wax). And sometimes you reimagine in ways that may be boneheaded, or ignorant, or earnestly eager to please but fall flat on their faces. But the point is that you are taking the real world in some way shape or form and you’re re-kneading it to bake faery bread from it.

Yes, you should fully and completely admit your debt of gratitude to the culture from which you borrowed the yeast. That goes without saying. The hoary old saying “and any mistakes or errors or misinterpretations in this book are my own” should follow that acknowledgment. But that does not mean that you are writing “for the world”. There is no such thing as a universal story – all stories are, by definition, something that pleases SOME of the readers all of the time but not remotely something that can, or should, please ALL of the readers, not even some of the time. The writer has absolutely no idea whose hands will pick up the book with the story between its covers – and given that, how on earth is it remotely possible to even ask a writer to write for “everybody”? I know my own books have been translated into languages like Hebrew, and Portuguese, and Russian, and Turkish, and Catalan – I am perfectly certain that although the words in those translated editions remain (relatively) the same, the individual readers from the cultures defined by those languages will take away veyr different things from those books – and I could not possibly have written a story that will please a Russian, a Turk and two different Portuguese speakers (one from Lisbon, the other from Rio de Janeiro) at the same time and in the same way. I’ve met a couple of Russians in my time; once, on a plane, a hairy middle-aged Turkish man asked me to be his fourth wife (I declined); I’ve never been to either Portugal or Brazil, but I do know that their worldviews are rather different despite a common language. I do not KNOW these people. How could I possibly have “written for the world” and included things that would make all of them happy?

One more pertinent aspect here would be the fact that, for instance, I borrowed (and reimagined) the rich and lush history of China for a historical fantasy set in something that is a alternate-history-historical-fantasy version of Imperial China that really existed. I have said as much in my author’s note; I have said it in every interview I ever gave on “The Secrets of Jin Shei”. I was NOT writing about China. I was writing about an imaginary place called Syai which, before I put it down on paper, existed nowhere outside of my own head. The moment of truth for me was when REAL Chinese readers read that book, because they knew well the culture which I had merely researched and reimagined, and their response would carry the day.

I don’t have to tell you that I was a little apprehensive to see a silver-haired Chinese woman sitting quietly in the audience for one of my first-ever public readings of the novel. I read my passage with my heart in my mouth, watching for reactions. And afterwards, when she came up to have her copy of the book signed, she looked at me and smiled and said, “There’s a part of me that WISHES you were Chinese…”

Years later, another (shiningly Caucasian) woman asked for me to sign her book to her adopted Chinese daughter, and gave me the child’s Chinese name to do that – and then said, “Thank you so much, I’ll put this aside for her to read about the richness of her heritage when she is old enough.” And I asked how old the child was now. And she said, “Four.” This book was going to be put away as a treasure for a decade, perhaps, before this child would be ready to read it – and the fact that the mother thought it worthy of this  made me cry.

I’ve always taken these things – and other responses like them – as a great compliment, but hardly as an absolution. I know that I did not present an accurate and historically perfect mirror-image of the culture of Imperial China. The point is, I never intended to. I took a look at it and I rearranged it to suit my story and my purpose – and somehow I managed to make it into a story that was good enough to hold the interest of the people whose roots were in that culture. But I never wrote it for THEM, or for people who were NOT THEM -I did not write it for the Russians, or the Turks, or the Israelis, or the Chinese, or for the White Western Reader as such. I wrote a story which all of these diverse people chose to read. Some would like it, some would hate it, some would shrug their shoulders and cast it aside and never finish it at all but have no strong feelings about it whatsoever – but all of these reactions would be what the world brought to the book, not what the book brought to the world. I cannot write for all the potential readerships that could possibly exist out there. I would not know how. It would be a little like the centipede who attempted to figure out what, precisely, every one of his hundred legs did when it walked – and while they all functioned perfectly well together when the centipede concentrated on WALKING, they seriously got in one another’s way when it attempted to quantify and validate each individual leg as and by itself, resulting in a catastrophic situation in which the centipede would no longer be able to functionally walk at all.

Not everyone will find themselves in every book. That’s a given. Writers have made, are making, will continue to make, egregious errors in their facts and their interpretation of the facts. That’s a given. It is not a reader’s job to educate erring writers about the error of their ways (although responses to the writer’s work are pretty much always welcomed by the writer if the reader is willing to take the time to discuss them) – nor is it the job of a writer of fiction to educate readers about the world around them and the ways that this world has been reimagined to fit the mold of the individual story it contains.

In the end, you can’t write for the world. What a writer writes best is the story that he or she would like to read – that’s an audience of one. If the writer is lucky, there will be enough readers out there who share an affinity for the same sort of thing. But you can’t ever WRITE for them – because you don’t know who they are, or where they will come from, or what  details about the story which they otherwise love they are going to hate.

I have always – and I do so here again, fully and freely – acknowledged my debt as a storyteller to the teeming masses of humanity and their rich stew of legends, stories, tales, myths and sagas – to their many and varied Gods, to their many and varied beliefs about where we came from and where we might be headed. What I present to the world, when I write a story, is something new that is made out of all of those ancient pieces – although it owes everything to its building blocks I am the one whose hands are on it to re-create it, and it will often be in a way that may make some of the pieces less than comfortable. It’s a little like building a dwelling house, but you’re using a Byzantine cupola as a roof, and classical Roman columns to support it, and the facade might be Forbidden City or Frank Lloyd Wright – the place might look strange, but its doors are open and I am inviting you in to find out for yourself what it might hold inside. You bring your worlds with you when you come to walk in mine – and I am always curious to see what you have brought with you, and how YOUR things and MY things can sometimes combine in alchymical ways to produce something that’s OURS and belongs to all of us. That’s what it means, to me, to write the “other” well – you’re reaching out to strangeness, to things that have their own ugliness and beauty but which are by definition not your own familiar back yard, and that act enriches both visitor and host. I cannot write for “the whole world” and make it happy – but I am inviting the world in to come and sit down at the feast, and hope that somewhere in my story smorgasbord there is at least a seasoning or a garnish that it might find pleasing. I know that I am often making dishes which are unfamiliar to me, and I may have had a somewhat freer hand with the spices than I should have done – but I am trying. The best I can hope for from the world is that it is willing to try with me.

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There are 7 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Tom Gallier

    Nicely said.

  2. 2. Jaime

    As a less than perfect writer re-imagining the world, I want to thank you for this.

  3. 3. mioche

    I had a differing interpretation of Vandana Singh’s post.

    I think her overall statement, though focused on white writers writing intimately about other cultures, is that she thinks many authors expect (by habit) all their readers to be white, so they exclude (most often by accident) everyone else, or else write them flatly and unconvincingly, as symbols instead of people. This meshes with a lot of the debate around the RaceFail incident, and it seems pertinent in Wrede’s alt.sf comments as well. I see this often when I pick up a book. It’s gotten to the point where it’s making me set down books. Singh isn’t being literal; she’s suggesting that writers should think about that reality of diversity before they start writing, so they’re aware that a wider audience will be reading their book, and that even in civilizations where transportation is limited there is still some mobility of peoples. That is something every writer can reach for.

    And that is something that I feel has been ignored. It’s upset me to see how many fantasy and sci-fi writers have refused to take criticism in the various raceFAIL debates. Of course criticism stings, and people rarely want to hear it, but fantasy and sci-fi are genres in many respects founded on making progress and crossing boundaries (this has not, of course, been flawless). To not listen implies that “You’re not worth listening to.”

    I hope it’s clear that I’m not suggesting you’re party to that. I agree with you: “There is little one can do about this, really, other than pay attention, have respect, and, well, occasionally get it resoundingly wrong.”

    I’ve read this blog for over a year, and I’m reluctant to be critical in my first comment (but I’ve obviously gone and done it anyway), especially in what has become a slightly tangential way. But while I largely agree with your thoughts on writing about “the other,” I feel like I ought to mention this perspective.

  4. 4. Asakiyume

    Wonderful essay–much appreciated

  5. 5. CE Murphy

    Oh, bravo.

  6. 6. Melissa Mead

    Thank you.

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Thanks, everybody.

    Mioche, in response to your point -

    “I think her overall statement, though focused on white writers writing intimately about other cultures, is that she thinks many authors expect (by habit) all their readers to be white, so they exclude (most often by accident) everyone else, or else write them flatly and unconvincingly, as symbols instead of people. …..Singh isn’t being literal; she’s suggesting that writers should think about that reality of diversity before they start writing, so they’re aware that a wider audience will be reading their book, and that even in civilizations where transportation is limited there is still some mobility of peoples. That is something every writer can reach for.”

    Again, all true – but the writing of characters “flatly and unconvincingly” is often no more than a failure of the writing, not an act of ignorance, prejudice or outright malice (although, granted, any one or all three of those may be involved in specific instances) I KNOW that Singh isn’t being literal, but your interpretation that Singh is suggesting that (white or other) writers should “think about the reality of diversity before they start writing”, so that they’re “aware that a wider audience will be reading their book” – that’s a putting down of those writers who do that regularly but just don’t do it to a degree that some other outside third party arbiter feels is sufficient. I am acutely aware of the reality of diversity (how could I not be, having lived in seven countries and four continents before I was forty?) and I am acutely aware (or at least hopeful) that a wider audience will be reading my books. That does not mean that I can write something that meets the expectations of the entirety of that wider diverse audience, and it is more likely than not that I won’t, and that somewhere, sometime, I will step into a sensibility I had no way of knowing was there when I was writing the story in question. My choices are not to write the story at all, or to go ahead and brace myself for consequences. But where I make my mistakes I don’t do so because I am deliberately setting out to hurt, diminish, belittle or stomp on anybody or on anything anybody believes in, and I don’t think that many writers do – and you can TELL those who do, and they’re easily rewarded with a healthy dose of the worst thing that can possibly happen to a writer, total obscurity, if people ignore them in droves….

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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