Writing: Being real when writing about (people from) strange/other cultures

I am on my way to submit a story I wrote for “The Future Fire”, which I wrote about earlier. I then stumbled upon another site called “Expanded Horizons”. Take some time to read the submissions page.

Gay/lesbian native?

I am nothing of that all. I have had a reasonably safe life, regardless of what some people with high regards of me might think. The risks I took were safe as well. I knew I would be able to pull myself out of it. One example of my risk-aversion is how I approach skiing. I do not. I do not like the speed and the risks. I do not like the strain it puts on my knees. I do not like the wetness of the snow.

I stopped Jiu Jitsu after 6 months when somebody landed on my solar plexus and I withdrew crying for whatever it had released. The pain was surely not the reason.

I am neither gay or lesbian. I am native to a Dutch small town white culture with roots in Catholicism. I never used drugs on a regular basis. My only homosexual experiment was in a safe bar where you would wear shoes and socks: to find out that the possible latent preference for men really was not enough to tickle other parts of my brain. I never endeavored poly-amorous or polygamous relationships as I did not like the efforts required. It was already hard enough to find one person who was attractive to me and would like to have a intimate relationship with me.

I was a virgin until my 24th. Mainly because I was awkward in many ways. Too self-absorbed and maybe emotionally dysfunctional and probably just too much a Nerd with the kind of friends that did not go anywhere, related by me as the “wrong kind of friends”.

Representing?

Still: I do write about a lot of stuff I never experienced. “Representing” people I do not know. And honestly? I do not want to “represent” others. Yes: I want to add more works to the — in my case — SF that is smart, about gay, lesbian, bi-sexual strong people from any background. I want to write stories that are inspiring. That show a different type of reality where you can feel at home when you are “different”. That try and beat the shit out of ideas I find diminishing, demeaning and meaningless. To enrich. To deconstruct. To show there is more, there are alternatives, there are ways out of certain situations.

If there is anything I represent, it is a mind-set that says: “do what your heart tells you”. “Take the risk” and “do not believe the hype”.

If there is anything I represent, it is what I could have been if my brain would have been in a different body and/or with different preferences on any possible matter. What I could have been if I would have been from a different background, a different time.

If anything I represent myself in as many possible colors and from as many possible backgrounds I can imagine. And in doing so I try to avoid the stupid mistakes as much as possible. And when I fail, I try to do it with style and the full knowledge I took risks.

“Research”

From the same submissions page mentioned before (enters/alinea’s added by me, for readability).

I have been wondering a lot about :”what do I do with the following?” How do I deal with something like this?:

We do not accept stories about indigenous/Native peoples that are not told realistically from the perspective of those indigenous/Native peoples themselves, or stories that place Native narratives in a romanticized “past.” We are uncomfortable publishing stories about Native peoples or theme where the viewpoint character is non-Native.

We do not accept stories which romanticize Native people, history and customs (real or fictitious), or stories in which Native peoples (real, fictitious, visions, ghosts) serve as literary symbols for a pristine ecosystem.

Please note that stories in which the “tables are turned,” and someone does to the descendants of the colonizers what those colonizers have done to the Native peoples, will not be accepted, nor do we accept stories featuring indigenous/Native people or cultures where the author exercises “creative license” to invent the beliefs, customs, religions, languages, traditions, legends, myths and lore of indigenous/Native people or communities.

If you, the author, are not indigenous/Native, you will be asked to provide the research you have conducted in order to write your story. This research, while important for all stories where the author is “writing across difference,” is especially important in stories representing Native and indigenous peoples, whose cultures, traditions and lore are so often mis-represented in fiction as well as non-fiction, whose cultures and spiritual traditions are appropriated by whites, and about whom white authors so often feel the “right” to invent material with little to no historical or contemporary basis.

I had to look up “pristine” to understand it is: a. Remaining in a pure state; uncorrupted by civilization. Indigenous: Originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment.

I find it hard, if not impossible to comply to this. I romanticize. I have no fucking clue in most cases how these different cultures work. What make them tick. I simply guess, make stuff up, make it so that it feels good and solid and represents my ideas about freedom and the strive for a better life.

And if I would take this literally within my own mind-space, nothing I do will ever comply.

The only thing I can do is do all of the above as good as possible. So good that when people “I write about” think: “that is a nice story. I really enjoyed it!”.

I will come back on this quote and base-line later.

My writing

I write about gay/lesbian/polygamous people and cultures and use my vision on emancipation for several reasons (I mentioned in earlier posts)

  1. It is under-represented – Mainstream (SF) stories, including the ones I love, are mostly about male, white characters
  2. Default characters bore me – There is no learning for me in writing about characters which are straight and “normal”. Regardless of how awesome a story like American Beauty might be I would not get further than chapter 3 if I would write something like that before dropping it out of sheer boredom.
  3. It is not me – In another life, and possible in the future – I and my life will reflect more the cultures I write about.

So I write about people who tend to be gay/lesbian/undefined/bi-sexual, from Indian, Chinese, African, Russian, whatever backgrounds because there are already enough stories about people who are none of the above.

I avoid stereotypes by using several tricks:

  1. Outsiders – My characters are all outsiders. Whatever might apply to people from their background does not apply to my characters.
  2. Human – I focus on the human aspect of my characters. We all have several basic elements that define our humanity, including our body and our senses.
  3. Culture is a background element – Can a person from “X” be “Y” when their culture denies it? I say: “yes”. And mostly due to very personal choices of that person.
  4.  Leaving things out – There is stuff I do not even know about my own family or culture: why did they make specific choices? I really have no fucking clue. In that case, actions are more clear than explanations “why”
  5. Consistency – I try to be consistent in what I do know about my characters. So choices I would not make are logical for them.
  6. Avoidance/inversion of cliche – Why do people choose specific directions? Why did they become as they are? “Well: because they had horrid and abusive parents”. Or rape. Or something else. What if none of that happened?
  7. Letting the character speak – Sometimes this is simpler than other times. Say I have a gay male character who is born and raised in Inda. How do I characterize that person being neither and none?

Making it feel natural – why stories suck

Even IF I am indigenous and from a pristine culture I will be able to write complete crap that would insult my fellow people.

Reading all the things they do not want on this submissions page makes me think they get a lot of stories in those categories. So why do crappy stories happen?

  1. Experience (life) – How experienced is the writer? I wrote a lot of shit when I was 18. I really had no clue. I thought I needed to make things BIG to make a story entertaining. So my characters suffered a lot when they were suffering. If I thought being a rape-victim, a car accident and losing his house would be a good explanation why my character would be angry for being refused to a club I would use that.
  2. Mind set/state of mind – If I believe that certain people behave in a certain way – because that is what people (who have no fucking clue themselves) tell me and I never challenged those views, my own stories will reflect this as well. Hence that many “strange” characters border or cross the line of being unrealistic.
  3. Reversing the wrong things – So your character is somehow invalidated, suffered something in the past to make him/her “more interesting”. Reversing that specific thing (like: the guy in the wheelchair always been pushed over takes horrid revenge on his bullies) is exactly what you should avoid unless you can pull it off. Instead, go for what is less obvious. Revers the cliche. “Guy in wheelchair saves the day” can become “guy in wheelchair is the biggest asshole in the story” and “feels sorry about himself” can be “does not give a shit”. There again reversal is required to avoid other cliches.
  4. Easy choices – The first thing that comes into mind is usually completely shit. But it can be a very good starting point. The characters in the stories suck in most cases because the writer stops at the first place that seems nice or familiar. “Burger king” instead of “Joes eat-Emporium where we mix meat with fish and give you rice instead of bread”.

Writing about other cultures

Can I write stories about  indigenous and pristine people? Not unless I go into that culture, live there for ten years, make a lot of notes, ask a lot of questions, mingle with the natives, shit in their toilets, work the same work they do, learn the language, forget all about my own background and have all possible experiences I can have while being there.

Still then my stories “about those people” will be made-up and just one single view on that culture. Much more true to what could be a real person than when I just read WikiPedia and Lonely Planet.

Hell: I come from an environment where — if you travel to another village — you are “that guy from A” even when you lived there 30 years and join all social things. Where they speak a different dialect and have specific approaches to clothing and interpersonal behavior you will never get to know because nobody cares to share.

In Holland, until the moment I left to Amsterdam in 1995, there was no such thing as the “typical Dutch” person or “typical Dutch” behavior. Unless you would compare it to another culture, like the Italian where I live 50% of my time. Indeed I do not call with my parents every day. It used to be such that if we called once a year it would be a lot. Indeed you will not find many Dutch families living for 3 or more generations in the same house or housing block. But then again, many do live in the same neighborhood, come back at a certain point, live within 10 minutes driving from each other.

Insults might be different. Ways of speaking the same. Reasons to feel insulted as well. But it is subtle. Like afterthoughts almost. “I did not stand up when I shook your hand” might be seen as a huge sign of disrespect. Like “item 6 on this long list of shared beliefs of things you simply do not do”.

Simply put, cultures:

  1. Create their own secret codes – What is OK “here”, is completely wrong “there”. These codes are usually unwritten. You learn them by being part of that specific society.
  2. Discriminate – The main reason why cultural rules are unwritten is discrimination. Secret codes exist to indicate that: “you are/are not from here”. Either for the good or the completely wrong reasons.
  3. Can be super local – From the family to the street to the village to a country to a continent to specific subcultures. Depending on why and what for I need to discriminate (“you are/are not from here”) I can choose to trust you, involve you or shut you out (“you are/are not one of us”).
  4. Can be mixes – If I am part of several different cultures and sub-cultures (which is the case in many situations) there will be many different roles I will play as well and many different indicators and reasons to choose sides. For instance: “within the village we do not mix because he is catholic and I am protestant. Outside the village we do, because we are from the same village and it is us against the rest of the world”.
  5. Can change – There are several reasons why cultures change. What was “the norm” twenty years ago can be completely discarded now.
  6. Are artificial/made up – Cultures are stories. They have nothing to do with genetic memories, regions or whatever. They are made-up by people. Stories shared. Behaviors transmitted to children.
  7. Are a result of (local) history – Cultures do not come into existence by a board of people making things up. To “create” or “change” a culture (using social engineering) is incredible difficult. Instead: culture is a result. Stuff happens. People respond. Stuff happens again. People respond again. At a certain point these responds become ingrained in the thinking and the language of these people.
  8. Are seldom the result of an educated process – Many cultures are a result of trial and error: people doing stuff and usually getting away with it, or not.
  9. Are seldom superior – There is not one culture more superior than another. Each culture is flawed and fails miserably on certain points where other do not.
  10. Involve trauma and aggression – Each culture has aspects of trauma and aggression and specific ways to deal with them. From physical abuse to repression and oppression to the approval of specific (violent) acts. Each culture we know has been violated somehow, either by conquer, being conquered, having lost people by work (deaths due to perils of the work) or other reasons. There is stuff you “endure” where people from other cultures would speak up  as “that is the way it is”.
  11. Has taboos – Each culture has taboos. Stuff you do not talk about. From innocent stuff like farting or burping during dinner to more serious stuff like not talking about the reasons uncle X murdered his wife and is still accepted by the village.

Existing versus made-up cultures

To write about existing culture — including your own — means to do deep research. To interview the local people. To do soul-searching. To go beyond your own preconceived ideas. To drop all your judgement. To acknowledge the fact that no person is the same as you. That there are no stereotypes. Even when “all people behave the same” under certain circumstances.

Most cultures you find described in writing are made up cultures. Approximates of what the writer understands of that culture. A true as can be description form the eyes and mind of the writer.

How true and good this culture is depicted depends entirely on the writer. (See all the stuff above.)

Made up cultures are a bit easier in some extends. They still need a proper rooting in the cultures they come from, but you can get away with mistakes as long as you know what to hide and leave out. Less is more and strategically places remarks usually do a lot.

Rooting things properly

The key is what I will refer to as “rooting” things. Where do you start from? What assumptions do you make? Are the things normal for you all that normal in the culture you use as a root? What do people eat? What is relevant? how important are things like family? What do people derive their status from?  How subtle or explicit are these elements communicated?

Are things that obvious? When you take a look at McDonalds and Starbucks in Italy, would they stand a chance? Would they in 1980? Would they in 2020? (They do now. They apparently sell enough coffee and imitation pizza to be in all major cities I visited on A-class locations which are quite expensive.)

How can seemingly illogical stuff happen? How do you make it believable  (Italian people regard their kitchen high. But even on the important issue of food there seems to be a double standard. And it is possible Starbucks and McDonalds have mainly tourists as clients.)

Even if you will not use most in your stories, asking “why” is very relevant if you want to understand your own story world. “Why would people eat crappy food?” might give you the answer to other issues in your story. Add to the internal logic of your world. The deeper you dig, the more alive your world becomes and the more logic the behavior of your characters become.

Rooting works two ways: from your story down and from the roots up to your story.

  1. From the story down – The more you know about the “why” of every element in your story, the more varied your characters can respond. “One reason why” becomes “many reasons why”.
  2. From the world up – The stronger your roots are, the stronger your story becomes and the stronger your story will hold up against criticism. Sure you can get away with leaving things out. You can not get away with getting stuff outright wrong.

Getting away with it

  1. Go for total ignorance – When you write for the ignorant masses, it does not matter if you get things right or wrong. Especially when that masses share your same beliefs. Who gives a shit you got 90% wrong and the rest of the world is totally NOT like your view on your home-village in Shitwater Creek, Nomansland. Nobody is there to criticize you anyway and those who do can be ignored.
  2. Faking it with just enough info – The second way to get away with it is to leave out the things you are not sure of. As long as you got the basis right (the “feel” of it) and the story and responses of the people in your stories are consistent,  people will not blame you that you leave certain parts out. You are not writing a sociological paper.
  3. Diving deep in – The third way is better but not always easy or possible (within the deadline or simply by who you are and where you are from). And that is by diving deep into the culture you want to describe, by doing a lot of research, read the (unfiltered) voices of people from that society (and Internet makes that more and more easy), do interviews, living the life.
  4. Translating your personal experience – Sure you do not know how it is to be X, Y or Z from culture M or N but perhaps you know how it is to have specific experiences. Perhaps you can translate that to a person in a specific culture where that person has a specific attitude that explains why he or she is much like you. As you are mostly writing about yourself in another setting.

First hand experience

In my field, first hand experience is not always easy. Compare it to fiction writers writing murder mysteries. Unless you are a killer yourself or working at the police, your view will always be “cute” bot not quite right.

The best you can gamble on when writing fiction is by translating personal experience, taking people you know and translate them to your representation of what you think you would do in their situation if you would be another person.

Here is the list:

  1. You – Who are you? How do you stand in life? How do you percieve things?
  2. Your first hand experience – What did you experience? How can you use that?
  3. Your facts – What do you remember? What facts do you have about what you think you know?
  4. Your impressions – How did you feel in specific situations? How can you translate those? Did you ever climb a mountain? Did you ever suffer extreme cold, extreme heat? What did that do to you?
  5. Your translations – If you would be different, how else would you have responded to those situations?
  6. Your limitations – What did you NOT do? Why not? What limitations did you encounter?
  7. Consequences – So you did X. What was the consequence of that? Did you get away with it? Did you get caught? Did other people get caught? How was that for them?

When you suck: suck less

We all suck when we start writing. I sucked a lot. To write better stories with more believable characters, situations and cultures, the best approach is to aim to suck less. But what to focus on?

  1. Open mind / closed mind – Depending on what you write, either can be a choice. If it is for people with dogmatic ideas, an open mind is not what you are looking for.
  2. Your take on stuff – Any story you write is your story. It represents you. Even when you imitate others and their style, you are there. Your choices, your voice. So: how do you perceive the world? Your character? Your themes? Is that what you want to represent and communicate? Is that how you want to represent and communicate them?
  3. Your research – Are you curious enough? When are you satisfied? Do you make an effort? Do you dig deep enough? Broad enough? Howe many voices do you follow?
  4. Your effort – How much effort did you make to tell a good story? How much effort are you willing to make?
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