Last weekend’s Readercon hosted a panel on Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy. Though all of the panelists identified themselves as “western,” they wrote about cultures into which they had not been born. How can one invent a non-western culture without falling into the colonialist or orientalist traps?
Panelists warned that writing was always about “being outside ones own skin,” but that there is a difference between exploring Otherness and exploiting it. With Edward Said’s Orientalism as a starting point, the panel focused on how to write about Otherness without reducing a culture into stereotypes or assumptions. Darrell Schweitzer noted that writers “are always writing about the Other; the key is to not suck at it.”
To this end, the group offered several tips:
- If you’ve only been somewhere a few times, it’s easiest to write from an outsider’s point of view. While this is certainly a valid point of view, be mindful of how you are exoticisizing or reducing the values of that culture.
- Be aware of the limitations of your knowledge. Don’t assume to know more than you really do.
- Read works written from within the culture you’re studying, preferably in the original language.
- If at all possible, spend some time immersed in the culture you’re writing about. Even if you can’t travel to another country, spend time interviewing people and asking them for their stories.
Nalo Hopkinson stood out as a bright spot on the panel. As the panel dove into anecdotes on how western and non-western cultures were different, she reminded us to not always focus on the differences between us. She commented that one of the things that irritated her was being approached and told that somebody could never write about the same issues she could, as they could never write from the point of view of a black woman. She reminded us, “you may have never been black or never been a woman, but you know the joy of biting into a fresh piece of fruit. Remember that we have more in common than we don’t.”
Hopkinson observed that often when people research another culture for their writing, they aren’t searching for the value of that culture’s beliefs; they’re looking for a way to avoid offending people. She assures writers that “there will always be people mad at you, people who don’t like your work. You must find your own moral compass as a writer.”