Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ten Ways to Help Avoid "Culturefail" in Speculative Fiction

Be prepared to include all
kinds of people, places, and
cultures in your speculative fiction.

One of the panels I attended at Arisia 2013 was "Avoiding Culturefail."  This expert panel hoped to express to its listeners how to "win" when writing about another culture.  In other words, when writing about "the other" (which in some sense we do every single time we write), how can we avoid propagating negative tropes and stereotypes?  How can we ensure that our writing becomes part of the solution, rather than continuing the problem?

Here are some of the main ideas I gleaned from the panel.  I distilled them into ten points as a reference list when starting and then working through a new story.
  1. Commitment.  Commit to yourself to doing the best that you can when addressing cultural issues in your work.  You may not succeed in a "culturewin" but only a commitment to try will give a writer that opportunity.
  2. Know Thyself.  Ask, "Who am I?  Where am I coming from?  What is my perspective?  What are my biases?  How does the nature of privilege in my life influence my approach to that "other" I am writing about?"
  3. Research is the beginning.  The canonical phrase "do your research" still stands.  Intellectual knowledge of your subject, including cultures represented, is a necessity.  
  4. Community Contact.  Research is only the beginning.  After reading up on your topic, don't stop there.  Research is only the very first step.  Deep knowledge and understanding requires engagement with the culture in question.
  5. Be Thorough.  Research and community involvement need to be carried out on multiple levels.  Engage with more than one person of the culture you are writing about.  Use all the senses when doing research, i.e. looking at photos, listening to music, touching artifacts, and eating the cuisine.  Absorb stories, myth, and other literature.
  6. Subvert the Tropes.  When writing, subvert the common tropes, cliches, and negative stereotypes.  Tell an effective counter-narrative.  
  7. Be Uncomfortable.  Allow yourself to go to the uncomfortable places and "tell the harder truth."  Do not ignore issues of privilege, power, and oppression in your work.  Humble yourself.
  8. Conduct a Diversity Survey.  Conduct a diversity survey of your manuscript that includes the statistics of who and what is represented, and how.  Such numbers may surprise you, and may lead you to change aspects of your work.
  9. Get Feedback.  Ask for constructive criticism of your manuscript from people who are a part of the culture groups in question.  Be prepared to accept feedback that is emotional, since some issues are highly charged.  Be gracious to reviewers and consider their input carefully.
  10. Be Prepared to Make Changes.  Feedback and community engagement may lead you to reconsider your topic and/or how it is presented.  Be prepared to make major shifts in the work, if necessary.
I think of all the points here, I was most struck by my number seven, Be Uncomfortable.  I so often try to avoid discomfort, I think we all do.  As a writer, setting up tension and then resolving it is part of the process.  This point suggests to me that I shouldn't be over anxious to rush to a resolution, but instead I should abide in that space and allow the discomfort to remain a while.  There is clearly much to learn there.

Image Credit - Photoxpress.  Isolated pencils drawing.  Colored Pencils.

1 comment:

Gabriel Sigma said...

Very good tips! I personally like number 7 and feel that it is extremely useful. Being uncomfortable is a fundamental part of the process of writing about the truth. Even if the character is fictional, only with a truthful (and uncomfortable) probe into its mind and background, can we achieve authenticity.