Fri
Sep 20 2013 10:00am

A Few Thoughts on Other Cultures and Diversity in SFF

Blade Runner Noodle Bar

This article is about the ways in which authors—particularly those in SFF—can more sensitively write about cultures other than their own, and touches upon issues of racial and cultural sterotyping. It was originally posted on Aliette de Bodard’s personal blog on September 13th.

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere, but for what it’s worth, the usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Researching another culture is freaking hard work, PLEASE do not undertake it lightly (and when I say “freaking hard work,” I don’t mean a few days on Wikipedia, or even a few days of reading secondary sources at the library). And PLEASE do not think you’ll be exempt of prejudice/dominant culture perceptions/etc. No one is.

Read your sources; read primary if possible. Reading primary sources written by people from inside the actual culture is very important, because there’s a boatload of really fairly outsider books out there that are still held up as examples of accuracy. Not saying you shouldn’t read books by outsiders (it’s also important to have reference points you can use if you’re not from the culture, because some things are so obvious that insider books won’t stop to mention them at all), but you have to be very careful and very critical of what’s inside them. A lot of the stuff I read about Vietnam just feels hilariously off to me; and I’m a second-gen, not someone actually living in Vietnam, who presumably would find even more hilarious bits.

Try—inasmuch as possible—to be aware of your prejudices when reading. You can’t hope to view 13th-Century China by applying your 21st Century (Western or otherwise) values to it: the fact that women were “oppressed” by modern standards doesn’t mean they would have described themselves in such a way, nor does it invalidate the entire civilization (and nor does it mean that sexism and/or masculinity took on the same forms as they do now, or as they did in Ancient European countries). Note that this isn’t me advocating moral relativism; this is simply that you can’t hope to write something set in another culture if you do not understand what makes that culture tick (or you’re writing propaganda against that culture, in which case you probably don’t need me…)

Be aware that you’ll never write insider narrative, because you’re not an insider. That in itself is not necessarily bad, but be aware of two things. The first and most important point is that outsider narratives have a tendency to string together bloody offensive clichés (generally the perception of the dominant culture you grew up in) and are totally oblivious to that fact. I have lost count of how many narratives on China* featured any combination of the following: over-formality between members of the same family (because everyone knows that Chinese is a formal language! Guess what. Most communications within the family are brutally simple, because the respect is already implicit in the relationship itself); use of broken English (because all immigrants/foreigners speak bad English!); reference to women being tiny and fragile and exotic, or a combination of all three (a cliché that might not be a problem; but if you’re in a Chinese-dominant universe, where—guess what—everyone is equally small and “exotic,” it is most certainly totally unjustified); everybody or nearly everybody being experts at martial arts (not to say martial arts didn’t exist, but you have to be aware that they certainly weren’t mainstream, and that a Confucian court official is unlikely to be an expert in them—more like really suspicious of those dubious sporty techniques since Confucians hated sport). And the list goes on…

*I’m using China as an example because there aren’t so many Vietnamese narratives lying around. If any Chinese people are around and would like to correct me, feel free!

If you get past the stage of clichés (and a vast majority of outsider narratives don’t, so do take some time to think on what it is that you’re writing and how you’re presenting the culture), the most frequent and insidious problem of outsider narratives is tone-deafness, aka putting the emphasis on what seems shiny to you (and totally commonplace to insiders), and/or casually using important, traumatic details with no idea of their importance. For instance, referring to people or features of the Vietnamese/American War as an easy way to set the background for your story? Those are NOT casual mentions; they’re linked to events that took place barely a generation ago; and they’d be pretty traumatic for most Vietnamese. Similarly, if you geek out on durian in your food descriptions, that’s a bit like your French characters geeking out on strawberries—sure, if you’re a foodie (and even then, they’re unlikely to describe strawberries in loving detail, but will rather focus on what makes those strawberries so extraordinary compared to the standard ones). That’s just the small stuff—there’s also the big stuff such as cultures simply not having the same emphasis and the same values as the one you come from (being a scholar in Ancient Vietnam? The most prestigious and famed occupation, the dream of all mothers for their sons. Being an academic in 21st-Century France? Opinions will vary, but there’s certainly not 90% of the population for whom this is a dream job).

Drowning out: apropos of outsider and insider writing, if you’re not from the culture (and especially if you’re from a more dominant majority), be aware that your narration will be that of the privileged (whether you’re the most privileged strata of your society or not), and that as such it has a strong likelihood of being taken *more* seriously than actual work by people from the actual culture. This is problematic on two levels: one is that, as said above, outsider narratives can give a more or less false image of a given culture (and thus promote problematic representations, again on a more or less serious level, reinforcing the majority perception of that culture); and, second, because, for good or evil, works set in an “exotic” culture are perceived as part of a limited market (ie, if your work features, say, Aztecs, the perception is that there aren’t many slots for Aztec novels, because those “are all the same”. I know no one says that of works set in the US and featuring straight white men, and that this is an unfair perception, but it doesn’t change that it exists). And because the market is limited, that means that publishing that kind of work removes space for insider narratives to exist (again, in the actual state of publishing. Change is coming on that front, but like all changes it takes time). Again, not discouraging you from writing what you want to write (I’d be the last one in a position to do so!); but it’s good to ask yourself why you’re writing what you’re writing; to be aware of the consequences; and to promote writings by people from the actual culture in addition to your own—because they have voices of their own, but more trouble getting heard.

If you find yourself twisting the research to fit your original plot idea, ask yourself if you’re really going the right way about it. For instance, if you wanted A in your plot set in Ancient Vietnam, and it turns out Ancient Vietnam has no such thing as A, for the love of God please don’t go about grabbing obscure parts of Vietnamese culture and twisting them so you can still have A (or, if you must do it, please stop pretending right here, right now, that you’re being respectful and that you did your research). Take a long hard look at your premise which includes A, and ask yourself if you can’t tweak or remove A from it. That way you won’t find yourself having Vietnamese dragons who eat people for lunch because your plot needed it.*

*Vietnamese dragons are Heavenly messengers, and humans aren’t really part of their diet. Meeting one is only dangerous insofar as meeting angels is dangerous—they’re beautiful and terrible and not part of the mortal world, but they’re really not going to savage you for no reason (unless, possibly, you’ve incurred Heaven’s wrath, in which case a stray dragon is really going to be the least of your problems).

Using readers from inside the culture: it helps a lot. But be aware that they’re not omniscient; and also that they might just be too polite to give you honest or strong feedback. If they raise points in their critique that they self-label as small things… be very, very careful of dismissing those as actual small things. This might just be their way of telling you you’ve screwed up big time. Also, quite obviously, you can’t go around saying “my narrative is perfect because one person from culture XX thought so!”

Using foreign languages in your narration, aka my personal pet peeve (sorry). I tend to think that this is like using edible glitter in coffee*—easy shiny exoticism and a quick way of saying, “look, we’re not in the UK/US/France anymore.” If you think about it, though—the entire narration is in English, presumably “translated” from whatever language your characters really think in. Why single out a few words for special treatment? You can argue there’s no equivalent in English; but most foreign words don’t have equivalents in English (and very often, it’s not those “difficult” words that get dumped in the narration, but simply a random scattering of words). Also, if you don’t speak the language (and by “speaking,” I mean “almost bilingual”), you simply run strong chances of not having the right words, because they wouldn’t be used in this context, because they’re the wrong diction level, because they’re acutely wrong for your time period. One book I read used “salaud” as an insult in Medieval France, which really threw me out of the narration since “salaud” is quite a modern insult. Ironically, if the entire book had been written in modern French, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but because there was no French context for this use of the word, it merely looked wrong.

*Sorry. I’m biased against glittery coffee. Though on, say, chocolate cake, sparkles do look fabulous!

What about using a native speaker to do your translation? Most of the time, the translation requests I see go something like this: “can someone tell me how to say ‘A’ in French/Mandarin/etc.?” There’s no context, or insufficient context, and sometimes ‘A’ simply doesn’t exist in French, or has several very different translations depending on who’s speaking and what they’re saying. And the author, quite happily, takes the answers they’re given and run with it, unaware of the issues underlying the translation.

Bonus round: on diversity in SFF. Been following the hashtag only distantly; and I’m all in favor of more inclusivity in the field in general. However… Diversity in SFF is not only more diverse characters written by white authors (and “more diverse” doesn’t just mean funky skin colour and weird eye shapes, but a taking into account of cultural differences at bedrock level); but also, as said above, encouraging the expression of voices from other sources than the dominant culture (LGBT folks, POCs,…). And in at least one respect, what I’ve seen has been hugely frustrating, because there’s a huge assumption that people from other countries than the usual Western Anglophone suspects (US/UK/Can/Aus/NZ) cannot possibly write in English and that “international SF” is shorthand for “translated works.”* It’s a very… monolingual assumption (guess what, people all over the world have to learn English because it’s the dominant language, and we end up speaking it quite well, thanks, well enough to write stories in it and/or function quite normally with native English speakers); it’s even worse than that, because there’s a lot of non-Western countries where English is the first language, or at any rate an official language (India, Singapore…), and authors from those countries are also being erased. You can take a look at the output of people (mostly) writing in English over at the World SF blog.

*Not that there isn’t a huge problem of unbalanced translations (from English to other languages vastly outweighs from other languages to English, and if you don’t write in English, your visibility in the English-speaking world is pretty weak, to say the least).

*With the attendant “worship” of translations—I’m not saying translations are an easy art (as someone who speaks several languages, I’m acutely aware that a good translation is an uphill climb requiring as much, if not more work than the original writing; and the translation of humorous stuff like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld into French, for instance, has definitely got me in undying awe). But the “translation is a difficult, awe-inspiring art” all too often seems to devolve into a more-or-less conscious reinforcement of the mystique of translation. At best, it simply deflects the conversation away from the dynamics of power of Western Anglophone publishing vs rest-of-the-world publishing to nuts-and-bolts questions and anecdotes; at worst, it serves as an underhanded justification that things don’t get translated into English is because translation is too hard and impossible to get right; and that is a patently false idea.

 


Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she designs automated metro systems. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and won a Nebula Award, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her latest release is the SF novella On a Red Station, Drifting. She blogs on speculative fiction and Vietnamese cooking.

39 comments
Ahmed Asi
1. kanta
Nicely put, particularly the bit about getting readers from inside the culture, itself--it's a very good way to pick up on the little missing or misrepresented details, and will also help pull out the things the seem trite or simplistic from an "insider" perspective.
hydroxide
2. hydroxide
There's a fundamental problem with your article - it does not understand what research is. You ignore that there is always bias, no matter whether from an insider perspective or an outsider perspective - and the insider has no small degree of bias towards the outsider. Disagreement in perception is usually attributed to bias by the insider, and you illustrate that yourself. This is ignoring that the personal perspective is anecdotal. Insiders also have their own dominant culture which they can be highly protective of - and thus view aspects of it in a biased fashion.

This is why the non-academician is far more well advised doing intense secondary literature studies. Talking to an insider will give him or her ONE perspective. Talking to ten insiders will be a lot of work and give them perspectives from ten insiders. Statistically, that is still far from representative and thus cannot be taken as THE insider perspective.

Long story short: a handful of insider perspectives are nice to have, but not as research but as anecdotes and because they can be inspire attitudes of individual characters and add flavour. As far as the overall culture is concerned, this is simply not research, which is why the writer is better served to consult actual, systematic research. Any discrepancies in perception arising might just as well result from your own bias towards your own culture as a potential bias of the researcher or writer.
hydroxide
3. seth e.
Thanks for this excellent essay. It touches on a lot of things I think about, in a very different context (I'm an artist and an academic). In fine art, too often "site-specific" and "social performance" work involves artists helicoptering in, exploiting some rather shallow connections, and then toddling off again without too much actual engagement.

The thing I've been thinking about most is the necessity of being honest to one's own position as an outsider. Most art and writing, including F&SF, inherits the idea of the invisible author without much critical analysis. We all know that you're not supposed to think of the artist themselves, but to take the work on its own merits. On the reader's side, as a tool for interpretation, this fits right in with the idea of authorial intent not having authority, but from the artist's point of view it too often means that dominant-culture artists adopt the default voice of authority, as you note. Often it happens without the artist meaning to, which is a call for us as artists to be more aware of what we're doing. That invisible author isn't a luxury we have time for in the 21st century.

hydroxide @2 - Your criticism of the essay rest on the assumption that there's no such thing as "actual research" done by insiders. You split possible sources of information into anecdotes by insiders, and systematic research by outsiders. But it's pretty clear to me that de Bodard does understand what research is, and that, for instance, reading a history of China by a Chinese historian is qualitatively different than reading one by a Westerner. Primary research, plus secondary research by deeply engaged scholars, plus secondary research by removed scholars who are writing in languages it's easier for you to read, is how you do it. The third kind is important, but of the three, the least so.
hydroxide
4. hydroxide
@seth e.

"Your criticism of the essay rest on the assumption that there's no such thing as "actual research" done by insiders."

No, it doesn't.

"You split possible sources of information into anecdotes by insiders, and systematic research by outsiders."

No, I don't. I never commented on who authored the secondary literature. I referred to TALKING to insiders as opposed to accessing secondary literature - by whomever.

"Primary research, plus secondary research by deeply engaged scholars, plus secondary research by removed scholars who are writing in languages it's easier for you to read, is how you do it. The third kind is important, but of the three, the least so."

No, it's not how to do it. Primary research is original research, and by nature laden with the hypotheses of the person doing it. That's precisely where the bias one brings to the table gets problematic. Which is why academia has introduced concepts of peer review etc. Someone not the least bit trained in research risks going out far on a limb engaging in primary research without having any training into how to process the data generated to minimize the effects of both bias and random scatter.

Doing primary research when you're not being actually paid for precisely that research is likely to be a waste of time. In many cases, you will have a hard time drawing on a large enough sample size to produce results that are statistically valid.
hydroxide
5. seth e.
In your second paragraph you refer to "talking to insiders," but in your first you consistently compare "the insider perspective" and "the outsider perspective" without any qualification as to what kind of perspective you're talking about, such as "talking" vs. "research." The only kind of insider perspective you describe is first-person anecdotes; in fact the only sustained comparison you make isn't between "talking" and "research," it's between "insider" and "outsider," the two terms you mention most often. If you didn't mean to say that "insider perspective" and "unreliable anecdote" were the same thing, you certainly didn't say anything to suggest you were making a distinction.

Also, de Bodard says "read primary if possible." Nowhere does she say or imply that writers should only do primary research. In fact she says "Not saying you shouldn’t read books by outsiders."

You're correct that observer bias exists, of course. You're incorrect that de Bodard is unaware of it, since it's the burden of her essay and she mentions it explicitly several times. In fact she explained to the reader, before you explained it to her, that individual insider perspectives are only that, individual. Perhaps you missed that section.

You're also right that insiders can have bias or mistrust towards outside perspectives. But outsiders can also have bias. For instance, a reader of an article at tor.com could do a sloppy half-reading of the essay in order to justify the hobby horse they'd like to jump up on, mischaracterize the essayist's argument, lecture them on things they said themselves, and go to considerable trouble to discount "insider perspective" as unreliable without remembering to include the qualifiers they are no doubt aware of. You did these things; if you're not displaying bias, you're certainly displaying sloppy reasoning.

I'm an academic; if you are too, I appreciate that you don't want neophytes to hurt themselves with the tools. But come on. The pragmatic effect of what you're suggesting is to avoid dangerous half-knowledge in favor of comfortable quarter-knowledge.
hydroxide
6. Gerry__Quinn
Might be best just to write your story, in the full knowledge that various people won't like it, or will think that your representation of cultures they are familiar with is a bit naff. All literature is fundamentally a kind of porn anyway, in which cultures or archetypes (real or imagined) act out according to the writer's fetish. In the case of successful literature, the fetish draws a response from readers. Literature is not anthropology, and has no responsibility to accurately represent the cultures that influence it. The mirror always distorts, and no literature - whether "insider" or "outsider" - exists outside the mirror.
hydroxide
7. BDG91
As part of group that has, so far, been so misused by outsider perspective that it is common place to now wear headdresses and moccasins and call a hundred different peoples (sometimes differing in as many ways as could be possible) under a single name because people are apparently too lazy to racism correctly, I thank you for this.

@ hydroxide have you ever heard of qualitative narrative? My friend just earned her Phd using it to study the effects of wearing a hijab in western society, based on seven women. Peer-review and everything.

@Gerry__Quinn Prepare yourself this going to be rude. You just dismissed hundreds of thousands of people who get misrepresented because of popular media, and suffer because of it. The writer is responsible to represent the culture, a real way of life, respectfully without turning it into a stereotypical laden wasteland. Just because you’re doing art doesn't mean you’re free of the consequences you're years old racism has numbed you to (there real and they sting). Also let’s question the reason to write an outsider (not outsider-perspective but a social outsider because if not a outsider then why do they think so differently than the real-life people?) of a specific culture, if you’re not going to be respectful, you’re either writing propaganda or wanting an exotic setting without any of work that comes with it. Both times is just sloppy writing. (Note: Comment slightly edited by moderators to remove objectionable language--please keep the discussion civil, in accordance with our moderation policy.)
hydroxide
8. jsmith0552
BDG91 You get it!

The point behind the article is that as a writer when it comes to culture (actual existing cultures) one should at least try to get it right, but I've noticed you will always find people that will have a problem with any argument that writing about a culture not your own can be done better than it has been in the past. Generally when writing about science, and everything else writers will go to the Nth degree to get their facts right, but when writing about other cultures, there seems to be this "I'll just make it up", attitude followed closely by "all people think alike and want the same thing" so they write them from the perspective of whatever culture they come from disregarding time, place, or culture -- and we have a ton of bad fiction because of it.

Though a few commenters don't seem to get it (and the angle they're coming from seems a bit obtuse at best) at least no one has used the whine, "well I just don't want the hassle of being attacked as a racist so I won't even attempt to have any ethnic characters" This of course right before they commence to reading every book on NASA and plan their trip to interview all the NASA employees they can find in order to write a convincing scene set at NASA.
Shelly wb
9. shellywb
What I take away from this is that basically you can't win unless you write from your own perspective. If you try anything else you'll be inundated with criticism about how you did it wrong no matter how good your intentions. Hell, even then people won't like how you looked at anyone else in the story despite whatever research you do because you're doing that wrong too. So only write others if they're lizard people.

It's a wonder anyone even wants to write anymore. By the time you'd get done trying to please everyone, there'd be nothing left of yourself in the story.
Fade Manley
10. fadeaccompli
shellywb, If your idea of "winning" at writing is to never get any criticism on any of it, then I would say that even writing from your own perspective is a bad idea.

There will always be criticism. There will always be something worth criticizing, because we are not perfect prose-creating machines. (Well, I can think of one person who might be, but she's a bit unusual in that regard.) The goal of writing is not to avoid criticism, it's to do the best you can, and then when you find out what wasn't the best possible, do better next time. And this essay gives some practical, detailed explanations of how to do better. Which can be deployed before messing up some of those things! So that there is less to be criticized!

Try your best. Pay attention to what people say about what didn't work. Give that some thought, and think about in what ways what they're saying maps to what was written.

Do better next time.

Of course it's not easy. If it were easy there'd be no reason to talk about it.
hydroxide
11. BarryV
This is quite possibly the first 'pro-diversity in SF/F' article that doesn't devolve into "white men are eeeeevilll!" While the article gets close, it's nice to see someone attempt to tackle the subject without a blatant racist and sexist approach (yes, assuming most or all white men are part of some weird evil patriarchy is the very definition of racist and sexist; it's no less offensive than assuming all black males are gang members).

While it's not perfect in cultural depection, Clavell's Shogun is generally accepted as a good example of doing foreign cultures right. There is a great deal of respect paid to the pre-Tokugawa Japanese in his book, and I think that's the best lesson to learn. In order to do it right the author must respect the foreign culture as he respects his own.

It's sad we lost Robert Jordan before he had a chance to write his epic fantasy version of Shogun. That would have been amazing.
John Adams
12. JohnArkansawyer
Translators without access to insiders spent a lot of precious time--their own, and their readers'--fucking up.
hydroxide
13. BDG91
@ BarryV, first I don't think you understand how sexism or racism actually works in reality. Second, to be quite honest I'd rather not have any white person ever try to write anything on my culture and struggle ever again because the few who kind of 'get it' are so far in-between those who don't we be better off if they stick with the shallow examination of the American suburbia.

The problem with diversity in genre is deep seeded in western culture. It's part of a larger problem of representation and oppression from politics to classrooms. It's simply reflected in the fiction the culture produces. You're ignorance of this shows that you are part of the racist problem without even knowing it. That you actually think a white man can be systematically discriminated against, to his detriment of a lively-hood, and has to deal with constant vigilance by others to their actions and words, and has to fear for their well-being every time they step outside, and has to fear authorities because the unfair idea that there more likely to commit a crime, and is thought as a hivemind spokesperson for there people, and...well let’s just say they don't. Actual scientific fact.
hydroxide
14. hydroxide
@BDG91 "have you ever heard of qualitative narrative? My friend just earned her Phd using it to study the effects of wearing a hijab in western society, based on seven women. Peer-review and everything."

I think you misunderstand the use of qualitative research: It is exploratory. It does not really create any knowledge that would be applicable in a wider fashion. If you try to apply the knowledge from qualitative research onto people under slightly different circumstances, you might already get it wrong because the differences might include key factors. You can use qualitative research to, for example, get a spectrum of possible experiences. Then you can take those experiences and go out and to quantitative research. Only then will you be able to say what is a typical experience. And you might even find out that NONE of the results of your qualitative research are typical and that you have to go back to the drawing board. If your friend got a PhD for this, well, the standards of institutions vary dramatically.

@seth

"In your second paragraph you refer to "talking to insiders," but in your first you consistently compare "the insider perspective" and "the outsider perspective" without any qualification as to what kind of perspective you're talking about, such as "talking" vs. "research.""

That is because I was only talking about research vs. talking in the second paragraph, and about the question whether only outsiders have bias in the first.

"If you didn't mean to say that "insider perspective" and "unreliable anecdote" were the same thing, you certainly didn't say anything to suggest you were making a distinction."

Except where I pointed out that the connection is between "unreliable anecdote" and "personal experience" - which apparently you missed.

"You did these things; if you're not displaying bias, you're certainly displaying sloppy reasoning."

Or perhaps you display sloppy reading.

"But come on. The pragmatic effect of what you're suggesting is to avoid dangerous half-knowledge in favor of comfortable quarter-knowledge."

No, the pragmatic effect is to critically question whether allegedly superior sources are really superior. And that's a good thing. Internal sources are by NO means superior by nature. Quite the contrary, they can be tained dramatically by infatuation with one's own culture. Which is why SYSTEMATICALLY collected and processed knowledge is the preferable source.
hydroxide
15. BDG91
Except when systematically collected and processed knowledge is flawed by the person collecting it is because they are a outsider thus doesn't know when little girls are playing the liar game on the researcher such as with Margaret Mead's work (notice in this 'debate' between Freeman and Mead no one decided to go back and ask those people the work was based on).

I don't know what profession you hail from but as studying anthropologist an insider's view is nothing but essiental when it comes to understanding a culture. You seem to be under some kind of desulion that systematically collected and processed knowledge is the be all and end all of science. Guess what? Nazi's (sorry Godwin) had a very large amoung of knowledge that was processed and systematically collected. There conclusion from it was Jews, Poles and Romani people desevered to die. Same with Alberta's Eugenics programs and a hundred lost peusdo-sciences.

You act like research and researchers don't have their biases, like there some kind of fucking computing machines born and raised in a vacuum. Let me tell you something, almost 100% of research done on the (living) Cree people without an insider perspective is abosulte shit because of the researchers biases toward their own culture (psychology is pretty notourious for this). You of course leave that out. And just because something is peer-reviewed doesn't overly matter unless you have an insider perspective because guess what? Biases can be, and are macro structures that effect almost everyone in a society, including people who systemically process knowledge.

Except when systematically collected and processed knowledge is flawed by the person collecting it is because they are a outsider thus doesn't know when little girls are playing the liar game on the researcher such as with Margaret Mead's work (notice in this 'debate' between Freeman and Mead no one decided to go back and ask those people the work was based on).

I don't know what profession you hail from but as studying anthropologist an insider's view is nothing but essential when it comes to understanding a culture. You seem to be under some kind of delusion that systematically collected and processed knowledge is the be all and end all of science. Guess what? Nazi's (sorry Godwin) had a very large amount of knowledge that was processed and systematically collected. There conclusion from it was Jews, Poles and Romani people deserved to die. Same with Alberta's Eugenics programs and a hundred lost pseudo-sciences.

You act like research and researchers don't have their biases, like there some kind of fucking computing machines born and raised in a vacuum. Let me tell you something, almost 100% of research done on the (living) Cree people without an insider perspective is absolute shit because of the researchers biases toward their own culture (psychology is pretty notorious for this). You of course leave that out. And just because something is peer-reviewed doesn't overly matter unless you have an insider perspective because guess what? Biases can be, and are macro structures that affect almost everyone in a society, including people who systemically process knowledge.

P.S. I know the usual use of qualitative research; it's why I added the narrative. 7 different women, from different areas in life, and of different ethnicities got together for a year and half, once a week, and explained how the hijab affected them in their day to day life, and there was a sicken overwhelming central narrative of racism but I digress. Obviously there's more to look into but if you're honestly discounting that amount of work as NOT being worthy of a ph.d you're either a natural scientist and thus basically know nothing on how to study people outside of a biological perspective or you're a heavily biased researcher.
hydroxide
16. BDG91
Err...if you could ignore the first three paragraphs, there the unedited first draft of my response.
hydroxide
17. seth e.
Internal sources are by NO means superior by nature. Quite the contrary, they can be tained dramatically by infatuation with one's own culture.

"Tainted" by "infatuation?" Are you serious? Is this your idea of a critical stance? You continue to speak exclusively as though insider bias were the only type of bias one needs to guard against, and as though "SYSTEMATICALLY collected and processed knowledge" is (a) always done by outsiders and (b) immune to systematic bias. I'm really very curious what your discipline is, since you manage to use some academic terms while giving the impression of being blissfully unconcerned with a couple generations' worth of work in anthropology and enthnography on the mechanisms of observer bias. Going all the way back to Geertz, for Pete's sake.

The nature of the world in which we live is that external observation of a culture has an authorial voice that's given much more authority than those from within the culture. When these external observations have biases or assumptions built into their system, those mistakes of perception can become the groundwork for future "systematic" knowledge. Look at various current archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, which for years were dismissed as natural hills because American and European archaeologists simply weren't expecting to see settlements there. Local stories about ancient towns and cities were likewise dismissed as folklore. This gave rise to a generations-long misconception, in America and Europe, about the nature of Mayan civilization.

Look also at the context for this essay. It's addressed to fiction writers. These aren't people who're going to set public policy based on faulty statistics, their aim is to mimetically reproduce ethnographic detail in order to evoke a convincing setting. And this is in the larger context of a publishing milieu in which a published author can say, in essence, "I got some books on Japanese folklore out of the library and I love some of the words they use over there, so I assigned them at random to my characters!" I gather the author in question doesn't mention any Japanese sources in her acknowledgements. If she had spoken to a Japanese person, even casually in conversation, perhaps they could have told her that "Kami" just isn't used as a name in Japanese. It's like a white kid from New Jersey named Merciful Christ Witherspoon.

And yet this trivial, inane error made it all the way through the "peer review" of acquisitions and editing, and is now presented on the Internet without comment as an example of the author's research. This is the authoritative voice of external semi-knowledge against which internal perspective is part of a necessary corrective. You're at such pains to dismiss insider knowledge as "tainted" that your suggestion can only perpetuate these larger systems of external-oberver bias and error.
Katharine Duckett
18. Katharine
Thank you all for your responses to the article and for keeping the conversation civil, but I'd like to step in to remind everyone of our moderation policy and remind everyone to be respectful when they disagree with the arguments of other commenters. Thanks!
hydroxide
19. Gerry__Quinn
@17: I saw nothing on that page or the book's blurb to indicate that Kami Glass, who is part Japanese but apparently lives in England, was named by Japanese parents. It is not implausible that English parents might have picked a name that is not used in Japan (though I guess some might wonder about associations with Kamikaze, which her schoolmates at least would undoubtedly find amusing). After all, Sarah Brennan clearly sees nothing wrong with the name. Also, Merciful Christ Witherspoon is a GREAT name, and we need a character called that right now.
hydroxide
20. seth e.
Gerry__Quinn @19 - That's true, and fair enough, I suppose. But I'm not sure "it's not just the author being sloppy, she's allowed to be sloppy because lots of similar people make similar mistakes" is much of an improvement. The fact that she sees nothing wrong with the name is in fact my point--she's not required to see anything wrong with it, because British and Irish culture don't put a very high priority on getting other culture's names right. That it's not just her doesn't make it not an error.

The name Merciful Christ Witherspoon is free to a good home.
hydroxide
21. Gerry__Quinn
But if she's writing about her own culture, which doesn't put a high priority on getting other cultures' names right, wouldn't she be getting her own culture wrong if her characters tried hard to get other cultures' names right? So in fact she gets it right without trying, and would likely make an error if she tried to overthink the issue?
hydroxide
22. seth e.
I don't know that looking up a reasonable Japanese name counts as overthinking. In any case, we're giving Brennan a line of credit by saying that people like her characters might give their daughter a technically incorrect name. They also might also give her a correct name. Given that Kami is part Japanese, and one of her parents is presumably even larger-part Japanese, surely the latter is more likely. And given the long history of nonsense Asian names and other appropriative stuff in Western fiction, why not do better now that it's the 21st century?
hydroxide
23. Athreeren
Hey, a fan of Patrick Couton! It's true that the French translations of the Discworld books are pretty great, and they have long been the only books in my library that were translations from English. But though some puns are magnificently translated (or even remade, the French versions often have nothing in common with the original, apart from how funny they are), I finally realised that even with a skilled translator such as Couton, Pratchett's writing loses much of its quality through translation. But it's still pretty useful to introduce non-English-speaking friends to Pratchett's work.
hydroxide
24. Gerry__Quinn
@22: So now you're arguing that a white European author should be untrue to her own culture, in the interest of addressing some supposed cultural crimes of her forebears? Seems like this whole 'insider' argument is only intended to apply one way. I don't know what a 'correct' name is, in most - though not all - cultures, parents have a good deal of freedom to name children as they wish. Clearly the author put some thought into the name 'Kami', even if the thought processes do not meet with everyone's approval. But in any case if for some reason I were interested in what baby names are popular in Japan, I would not use as my reference the name given to an English girl with some Japanese ancestry in a novel.
hydroxide
25. seth e.
@24: No, that's not what I'm arguing. That would suppose that the only way for the author to be true to her own culture is to perpetuate a mistake that her culture has tended to make. "Some supposed cultural crimes of her forebears" is a straw man; we're not talking about the history of slavery or something. Perpetuating a lazy mistake isn't the same as being true to your culture; it only means that other people in your culture don't have a history of getting called on their mistakes. But it's still a mistake.

if for some reason I were interested in what baby names are popular in Japan, I would not use as my reference the name given to an English girl with some Japanese ancestry in a novel.

Nor would I. Nor, I'm suggesting, should the author of the novel have done so, or its equivalent. Why is it such an imposition to ask authors to give their own characters enough credit to be aware of their own ancestry, and to name their own kids accordingly? If a Japanese girl in a small town on Hokkaido had, say, a Dutch grandmother, I wouldn't expect her to be named Windmill. I'd expect her to have a family name.
hydroxide
26. Gerry__Quinn
Well, then you'd be surprised by little Windmill, wouldn't you?
hydroxide
27. seth e.
I sure would! if that were a thing that happened. Does it? Any real-world examples of people using common words in their ancestor's language as a given name? The closest I can come is creative American misspellings of Irish names, like Kaitlyn. And even that irritates many Irish people I've known, let alone naming your kid Whiskey ("it means water of life, you know!")
Paul Howard
28. DrakBibliophile
What I find "interesting" are books where the writer writes about a "sub-culture" of Western Civilization and shows he/she knows nothing about it (and thinks he/she does) but reviewers "praise" the writer because they share in the lack of knowledge about that "sub-culture".

Sadly, this happens when Liberals write about Conservatives and/or Religious Conservatives.
hydroxide
29. Gerry__Quinn
Well, if a character in a book were named Windmill, then that would be a thing that happened in the book. But in point of fact, there are loads of surprising names out there, not all of them the children of rock stars. Black people in the US, for example, often choose names many would consider quite unconventional. Not that it's the preserve of any given ethnic group. Sarah Palin named her children Track, Trigger and Bristol. Some children are named after luxury brands of car or alcohol. Common words in the language of the ancestors of an adopted child? I'm sure they exist, and probably go unnoticed in the crush of worse - or at least more unusual - names.
hydroxide
30. seth e.
Sure, and there's Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa too. But a couple of things about that. First, if Kami were that sort of name, I'd buy it more if she weren't of Japanese descent--and she isn't adopted, her grandmother was Japanese. One of her siblings also has a Japanese name. The idea of a person celebrating their own parent's heritage in that way but doing it wrong at least deserves some comment, even if they're fictional.

Second, I'd argue that Sarah Palin naming her kids whatever she feels like has a very different meaning than a fictional part-Asian kid in a Western setting with a cutesy exotic name. There's a long history in the West of half-informed, lazy representations of Asian cultures as cutesy-exotic or menacing-exotic or sexy-exotic. That's the reason we're having this conversation under a post about diversity. What I'm saying is, "Kami" as a given name has more in common with white kids getting tattoos of Japanese characters they don't understand than with a hippy kid named Moonbeam.

And since this sort of lazy lifting of contextless details has been going on for so long, sure, you could say that the author is just being true to her roots in making the same lazy creative decisions as other Western writers before her. But that isn't something to brag about, or to work so hard to rationalize. Sure, it's just a character in a book, she could be called whatever--but the English characters have English names.
hydroxide
31. seth e.
P.S.: I shouldn't have said "the English characters," since Kami's English herself. Aside from Kami and her brother, everyone else have standard English names--including two of Kami's other siblings.
Birgit
32. birgit
In Japanese there is a list of Chinese characters that are allowed in names: the common use characters (joyo kanji) and additional name kanji (jinmeiyo kanji). Characters used in names often have unusual pronunciations. It is also possible to write names in the syllabary (usually hiragana for Japanese personal names; Western names are transcribed in katakana). There are several allowed Chinese characters that can be pronounced kami, but they are more likely to occur as part of a family name, usually with a different pronunciation.
hydroxide
33. Jencat
Ok, woah, I think it needs to be pointed out that the Sarah Rees Brennan name thing has been taken out of context, before anyone else piles in who *hasn't* read the actual book. Even if the author doesn't mention it on the Tumblr post in question, the actual full names of the characters in question are Camilla, Henry and Thomas. Or at least that's what their father (who is half-Japanese and English-born, named Jonathan) calls them on page 121 of my Kindle edition of Unspoken (and yes, I just had to flick through half the bloody thing to find that because it was annoying me).

The fact that all three of the kids have Japanese-sounding nicknames of Kami, Ten and Tomo (that they are called by consistently until then) is used to deliberate effect as their full names aren't revealed until that point - their Japanese-born grandmother used to live with them, so it's pretty sound *in context*. It's a cute character moment. There's not much point in trying to hold nicknames or pet names to the same account as full names, surely?

(Although, on another note entirely, Camilla *is* an unusual name of itself, for someone of Kami's age and apparent social class in the UK. That's slightly more relevant, assuming you really want to bring naming conventions to bear on a YA gothic fantasy...)
hydroxide
34. seth e.
jencat, thanks for the correction. you're right that I haven't read the book--in looking into it online, I thought I found a reviewer saying that Kami was her given name, but either they or I was mistaken.

To be honest, I still think it's a cheesy naming strategy--from Brennan's comments, I suspect that she started with Kami because she liked the word, and worked back to Camilla--and mildly appropriative. But it's not the mistake I thought it was, I'm wrong about that.
Vincent Yin
35. vinsentient
Let me give another example...

I've been reading a series of books with characters who are from a Hong Kong background, and who occasionally interact with Chinese from the Mainland.

The author of the series occasionally inserts pieces of chinese dialogue into the story. However, as we all know, in Hong Kong and the Mainland the dialect of chinese spoken is different (being cantonese in HK and mostly mandarin/putonghua on the mainland).

IIRC occasionally some HK characters will slip in some mandarin and I am left to wonder if this has meaning in the context of the story (ie: intentional use of mandarin) or was just a slip by the author. And since these are kind of mystery stories, that difference in intention could be revealing. So I end up being annoyed every time it happens, even if many other things are portrayed quite accurately.
hydroxide
36. shajara
hydroxide - You seem to imply that it will be most informative to rely on Western descriptions of non-Western cultures because writings by members of those cultures may be "dramatically tainted by infatuation with their own cultures," i.e., people tend to like their own cultures. Would you likewise agree that authors writing in current or future Western settings should try to gain a broader and more objective perspective on those cultures by reading the opinions of non-Westerners who are not overly infatuated with the West? If not, why not?
If you tried that, you would find that some non-Western depictions of America are as shallow and cr*ppy as a V.S. Naipaul depiction of anyone Muslim. There was a very influential guy from Egypt who went to college in the U.S. for a few years and wrote a book about how decadent, licentious and violent we were that has been taken seriously for 50 years. Being an outsider didn't allow him to write an authoritative treatment via lack of dramatic infatuation; it caused him to be completely unaware of many good aspects of our culture that any 10-year-old American kid could have told you about. I see no reason to believe that Western outsiders are somehow specially more competent.
hydroxide
37. BarryV
//@ BarryV, first I don't think you understand how sexism or racism actually works in reality. Second, to be quite honest I'd rather not have any white person ever try to write anything on my culture and struggle ever again because the few who kind of 'get it' are so far in-between those who don't we be better off if they stick with the shallow examination of the American suburbia. The problem with diversity in genre is deep seeded in western culture. It's part of a larger problem of representation and oppression from politics to classrooms. It's simply reflected in the fiction the culture produces. You're ignorance of this shows that you are part of the racist problem without even knowing it. That you actually think a white man can be systematically discriminated against, to his detriment of a lively-hood, and has to deal with constant vigilance by others to their actions and words, and has to fear for their well-being every time they step outside, and has to fear authorities because the unfair idea that there more likely to commit a crime, and is thought as a hivemind spokesperson for there people, and...well let’s just say they don't. Actual scientific fact.//


@BDG91 That's cute. You think I'm white. Stop jumping to conclusions.

Since you insinuate that you are some kind of minority, let me tell you why your attitude is why minority culture is going downhill. First of all, you think everyone white is racist because of their skin color... which is racism. Look. It. Up.

Second, you assume it is impossible for a POC- or anyone else- to discriminate against a white man, simply because he is white and male. That's bull, and you know it. I've personally had friends run white men out of our neighborhood or out of local businesses because, "Those crackers don't belong." That's racist behavior. Maybe you've never personally seen it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. If you have seen it, I hope you look at it different now.

I got into a great university when my grades in high school were poor, but I had the right skin pigmentation so they gave me a spot over someone with better marks. Again, that's racist. I didn't get it until well after I graduated but now it makes sense. Do we want to be judged on our skin color or on what we've accomplished? If we want to be judged on skin color, and given priviledges because of our skin color, then we open ourselves to people judging us negatively because of our skin color. They aren't racists, they are treating us the way we are asking them to treat us.

You know which minorities in my neighborhood are scared to step outside? The ones who live in gang infested areas. They aren't scared of white men, they are scared of idiot punks with guns. You honestly think white people are the problem, but as a society we need to look in the mirror and blame ourselves first. When we can get our own house in order, then we can deal with the tiny percentage of racists out there. And it is tiny. Maybe 1 out of 50 white people has looked at me funny due to my skin color in my lifetime. Why is it that every one of those white people are racist but a POC can look at every white person funny and they aren't? That's a double standard.

You are probably young (anything under 30 is young to me now, so forgive me if it sounds condesending) so I don't expect you to get it now. But think about what I've said here. Stop assuming whitey is out ta getcha. He isn't. He just wants to live his life and be left alone, just like you.
hydroxide
38. twbd
http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2013/09/03/avoiding-cultural-appropriation-in-steampunk/

check out this blog- he makes a lot of good points
C R L
39. Maac
@ 17 I feel I should point out that in Sarah Rees Brennan's book, Kami and her two brothers are all given names that, when written in full (one of them,"Ten," is going by a nickname) mean "god" or "deity" in Japanese. Their half-Japanese father, who had various sorts of estrangement issues, gave them these names to make a point. Whether or not we like what Rees Brennan has done here, I do not believe she did it even slightly unknowningly.

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