Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing About Other Cultures--Talk Given at SinC Into Great Writing 2016 in New Orleans (long)

I'm just recently back from Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans, and the day before B'con began, Sisters in Crime presented its SinC Into Great Writing workshop, as usual. This year as part of SinC's emphasis on diversity that began with their Report for Change, it was "Doing Diversity Right." Walter Mosley gave a masterful keynote speech, and was followed by four presentations by Frankie Bailey (dialogue), Cindy Brown (characters), Greg Herren (plot), and mine about setting or culture. After all of us finished, we made a panel for Q&A with Terri Bischoff, acquisitions editor for Midnight Ink, representing publishing.

I promised several people to post my entire talk when I made it back home, so here it is, along with the resource list I handed out at the conference.

Writing About Other Cultures

This piece of our workshop is called Writing about Setting, but in my view, setting implies environment, background, and culture. It's much more than simply a case of painting backdrops of landscape or buildings for each scene, more than picking out a few exotic and colorful places and fascinating ceremonies to make strange and beautiful set-pieces of spectacle. So we'll be looking at how you learn how to write about the whole thing—environment, background, and culture, most of which is covered by the term culture.

On the resource handout, you'll find the best book possible on writing the Other, as academics call anyone who's not of your own gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, or ability status. This book is small and inexpensive, and it was written for science fiction/fantasy writers, but almost everything in it is equally applicable to crime fiction. It contains hands-on exercises and all kinds of helpful goodies. It covers character and culture. I can't recommend it enough.

You'll also find two blogs written by children's literature librarians that hold writers' and publishers' feet to the fire on writing about other cultures—because it's so important to write about the Other in kid's lit, but even more important to do it right. Read them, holding your writer's indignation in suspension. They're pretty unrelenting on those who didn't do that important work, especially if those writers double down on their mistakes once they're pointed out. After reading a while, though, you'll see that they also praise those who do the hard work to get it right and those who got something wrong, were called on it, and agreed to correct it in the next printing/edition.

I included these two blogs, so you'll see what you're facing when you try to write other cultures. These are the extremes because of the perceived importance in developing self-esteem and shaping world-views of children's books, but you will face folks doing a similar kind of judging on adult books, just usually not as important or well-publicized (librarians all over the country pay attention to these kid-lit blogs).

I believe strongly that it's important for writers to honestly portray cultures other than the mainstream, and the next blog listed is one I wrote after the Charleston Mother Emanuel Church massacre, talking about how dishonest and lazy portrayals of Black people had played a role in reinforcing the bigotry that caused that shooting, how these bad portrayals happens to other peoples and cultures, as well, and how vital it is that they stop. Writers must learn to portray cultures other than the mainstream. An artist must paint a true portrait of the world, not whitewash it.

The internet is awash in blog posts and articles on how to write about other cultures. Some of them are excellent, some mediocre, and some downright wrong. (Hint: while empathy and imagination are vital, they alone will not help you write authentically about a culture you've not experienced.) I've combed through most of these (new ones pop up almost daily) and listed the best ones.

As you can see, I strongly encourage you to write the Other. But at the same time, I don't want you to be blindsided by criticism you weren't expecting and decide you'll never make that attempt again. I want you to go into the arena aware of the dangers and armed against them.

For there are dangers in writing about a culture that's not your own, and those dangers are especially fierce if you're a middle-class-or-above, white, heterosexual, able-bodied writer.

First of all, simply by writing about that Other, you may well be keeping a member of that culture from being able to publish their book set authentically in their own culture. It's not your fault, but publishing is a very white, often dumb business. A publisher who publishes your book about XYZ culture will then say to everyone else who submits, “We have our XYZ book already.” And other publishers will often say, “That publisher does XYZ books, so we can't.” The mindset of mainstream publishing is that the world needs an infinity of books about the world of middle-class or rich heterosexual able-bodied white people, but the number of books it can handle about people of color, of varying genders, of the “lower” classes, of varying physical and mental abilities is extremely limited. And because of this limited experience and worldview, a publisher is much more likely to buy a book by a white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual writer about XYZ culture instead of a book by someone from XYZ culture—simply because they will share the same assumptions and perspectives, and it will feel less foreign and uncomfortable to the publisher.

Tony Hillerman is usually set up as an example of a good way to write about another culture—I've said so myself. Hillerman loved Navajo culture and people and had many Navajo friends—he really worked hard to get the culture right. But how many Navajo novels have been published by Navajo people since Hillerman's books? There are lots of fine Navajo writers, many of them friends of mine, but usually they only get published as poets or literary short fiction writers, because there are so many little literary magazines for those genres, and not many readers or any money or recognition. The niche for trade or commercial fiction about Navajo people has been filled by Hillerman, as far as publishing is concerned. I don't think he'd be happy about that, if he were still alive, but it's still the case. So the people who get angry about someone from the mainstream writing about their culture and keeping their own voices from being heard have a real point. There's your first danger: People may be angry with you, even if you get things right, because they see your book as preventing a person of that culture from writing and publishing—and they may not be entirely wrong.

Tony Hillerman is a good example of the second big danger, as well. As I said, he worked hard to get Navajo culture right. He had many Navajo friends and ran things past them and went to them for information and answers to questions he developed. Big hint—this is what you should do when writing about the Other—check it with someone you've developed a relationship with who belongs to that culture. Hillerman's problem was that most of his friends were fairly assimilated and didn't still follow the most traditional teachings, so they told him about religious things that were supposed to be kept secret, and Hillerman put them into his books, telling the world. In traditional Navajo religious beliefs that tampered dangerously with powerful essences and may have allowed them access to the world. Also, because his friends were no longer still highly traditional, their understanding of some of these more religious things was a little off. None of this was Hillerman's fault, and the Navajo Nation awarded him Friend of the Navajo Nation status, but a number of traditional Navajo were very unhappy with him and still are.

As a part of this second danger, one thing you must remember about doing research on other cultures in books, libraries, on the internet, is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because journalists, anthropologists, other scholars, and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the white man was providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually white men, who had an agenda that placed wealthy white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your second caveat: You can do your research and still get it wrong in some way.

Still, as I pointed out, Hillerman was named Friend of the Navajo Nation by the culture about which he wrote, and even though there are some naysayers, he's counted successful at his attempts to portray Navajo characters and culture in some depth. If you can manage that, you'll have done very well, indeed.

How do we go about the process then? The beginning is always research—keeping in mind the caveats above about mistakes and agendas in the work of scholars. You can learn some basic history, etc., from these, but remember they're written from another culture's viewpoint and therefore are tales with unreliable narrators.

Look in particular for any primary sources you can find, work written by members of the culture as memoir, other nonfiction, or even fiction or poetry. There are magazines, often online, that focus on the writing of women, LGBTQIA people, Latinos, Natives, Asian Americans, African Americans, Muslims, working-class and poor people, and people with disabilities. In these, you'll not only find primary literary work you can read and learn from, but you'll often find references to books written by people of this Other culture.

Next, you must find and meet people of this Other culture. Do that basic research first, though, so you have some foundation. Nothing is more insulting to anyone than to say, essentially, “I know nothing about you and your culture, and I couldn't be bothered to do even the most minimal research on it, so please do it all for me and make me an expert overnight.”

If you already know some people from this community, now is the time to follow up on those relationships and deepen them. If you're someone who lives in a segregated community—and this is the case for most people now, congregating in suburbs and neighborhoods that are filled with people just like themselves—and you don't have any friends or acquaintances from work or an earlier time in your life who belong to this Other culture, this is the trickiest part—you will have to make friends. And people from marginalized communities can be quite wary of strangers who come in to their areas wanting to exploit them for some reason and then drop them. They've usually been there before. If you don't have any acquaintances in that community, ask among your friends and their friends and see if someone you do know has any. If they do, they can arrange an introduction for you. This can be extremely helpful.

Take your informant to lunch or dinner. Treat this person with respect. When researching another culture or anything—say, life as a policeman or the way City Hall works behind the scenes—please remember that common courtesy and respect are your best friends. If you've been recommended by a friend of theirs and you treat them well, they should relax in your presence. It's like making friends with anyone else new. You want to spend plenty of time getting to know each other with a huge emphasis on real listening on your part. (All the while you're listening, you're learning.) If you can show that you're really interested in them and what they have to say, that you're receptive and truly paying attention to them and truly listening, they will be much more likely to help you. Tell them what you're trying to write and that you want to give an honest portrayal, and ask if they'd be willing to answer some questions for you. You can take a list of specific questions with you, but you may well want to reserve your first meeting for getting to know and trust each other and set a second meeting to go over the questions.

It's a matter of building a relationship. If that's simply not something you can see yourself doing—many writers are extreme introverts—it's also possible to find paid “diversity readers” online, who will read your work to point out flawed areas and problem portrayals. Some of them are excellent writers from those communities, and their help is worth the money paid. Some of them are self-styled diversity experts who may not actually be of the cultures they purport to know. As with anything on the internet, you must do your own research on people before hiring them to make sure they're actually what they present themselves to be. Ask for references.

Once you've finished your first draft, you will want to have a reading by someone from the culture you're trying to bring alive on the page. And if that someone points out a problem with representation that needs to be fixed, don't argue with them. Go fix it. Even if it's a lot of extra work.

In the front or back matter of your book (wherever you put your acknowledgments page), acknowledge the help you received from the people you consulted on the cultural environment, and see to it that they each get a free book.

And remember, you can do it all right and still have someone upset that you published the book because there will be less room for a writer from that community now—and they won't be wrong. Do whatever you can to help writers from that culture to reach success—signal boost, give blurbs, mentor, recommend, whatever you can do. And continue to do this. Your book may be out there in the marketplace for a long time. Make sure you're helping people from that community be heard for at least as long. Aside from being the right thing to do, it's good karma.

Above all, know that what you're doing in trying to diversify your writing is absolutely important. Many of the problems we have with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, classism, and all kinds of xenophobia stem from the damaging stereotypes that are continually presented about other cultures and the people living in them. You are changing the world for the better when you change that.

Resources For Writing About Other Cultures

Best book around about it—Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

Blogs/online articles – a blog about good and bad representation in children's books – a blog about good and bad representation in children's books – a blog post I wrote about the need for accurate representation by writers, etc., and what terrible effects the lack of it produces

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