[process] Another shot at thinking about the Other

The Edge of the American West has a post up today about speaking from cultural authority and presumed expertise. As is sometimes the case, a lot of the interesting action is in the comments section there.

The blog is talking about current fighting in Gaza, but this is a question which runs rife through our field. I’ve spoke before here on the blog about being on a panel about cultural authority and appropriation a few years ago with an Australian writer, a Canadian writer, and a Scottish writer. Both the Australian and the Canadian were horrified at the thought that a white writer might use Aboriginal or First Nations material in their fiction, that we as white writers didn’t have standing to do that. This baffled both me and the Scottish fellow.

By this logic, the only culture I have ‘standing’ to comment on is middle aged, middle class, WASP male American culture. If I stuck to writing about that, I’d either be John Updike or unpublished. (Which of those possibilities is the more likely I leave as an exercise for the reader.) This line of thinking says I cannot write about female characters because I am not a woman, or Jewish characters because I am a Gentile.

That way lies madness. Our field, at its best, is about Writing the Other. Likewise, to the point of the cited blog post, the arts of politics and diplomacy are about the Other.

I am not ignorant of the nuances of exploitation, oppression, colonial heritage and the whole panoply of errors, wrongs and outright crimes committed by one group of people against another. Bluntly, in many cases by my ancestors against quite possibly yours. I am the transparent case of the oppressor class, in stereotyped leftist dialectic.

Yet I’ve spent years living in Africa, for example. That is something about me which you can’t read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that experience empower me differently? My family is multiracial. Again, something you can’t read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that give me a different cultural authority?

Whose voice counts? Why or why not? I find these questions distressing and uneasy, which means they’re important questions. The churn they raise drives the boundaries of good fiction, good thought and good citizenship.

9 thoughts on “[process] Another shot at thinking about the Other

  1. Jaws says:

    What I think you’ve hit upon is one of the distinctions between “political correctness” and actual cultural sensitivity: The misuse of surface characteristics as proxies for “visible authenticity.” That’s functionally the same thing as any other kind of bigotry, because it uses those surface characteristics as an inherent denial of individuality.

    Flip things around for a moment: Does Thomas Sowell have any right to have his comments on race relations in America — and, in particular, relations among social strata disproportionately composed of racial elements (e.g., the urban poor) — taken seriously by anyone just because he is melaninically enhanced? Or, as a closer question, how about multimillionaire Al Sharpton, who at least maintains some personal contact with the urban poor who share his ethnicity? I personally think the answer to both questions is “no,” but I base that on the cognitive dissonance between what these two individuals say and do, on the one hand, and reputable scholarship on those issues on the other.

    In short, visible authenticity is just a means of cavalierly dismissing competitors in the current buyer’s market of publishing and public discourse. There are more authors and would-be pundits than our current communications infrastructure can distribute to their satisfaction (and I don’t just mean the editorial process, either…). Whether proponents of visible authenticity admit it to themselves or not, the meme fulfills the same function as any other mindless means of excluding potential competitors from the market, and doesn’t require awareness of its “rational actor” foundations to work that way.

    <sarcasm> Besides — these days, is there a difference between “John Updike” (IMNSHO, one of the most overrated of the current generation of American auteurs blanc-gris) and “unpublished”? </sarcasm>

  2. Nisi Shawl says:

    Jay, I’m wondering if you capitalized your mention of “Writing the Other” because you were referring to the book and workshop by that title that I created with Cindy Ward? If so, that’s great, and you can also include a link to the book’s/workshop’s website.

  3. Jay says:

    @2 Nisi — In fact, I was thinking of what you guys do, but managed to utterly space linking it. What’s the best place to do so?

  4. Fábio says:

    Jay, I think every voice counts. Ian McDonald wrote a book with Brazilian protagonists, and he did a very nice job capturing some of our cultural traits and ways of thinking. He didn´t get it right every single time, but he got it right most of the time, and this is great.

    Here in Brazil we have the same problem. When Ben Bova wrote “Mars”, he implied that we have Indians walking on the streets of our major cities. Unfortunately, that is very far from truth. Native Brazilians are mostly dispossessed people, living in reservations or in slums on the outskirts of the North Region cities, near the Amazon. (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, for instance, are approximately 4000 km from Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas)

    As historian Homi Bhabha says, it is much easier to talk from our cultural location. But that is for historical reports. For us writers, as much as it is for actors (I´m a writer now but I was an actor for the theatre a decade ago), the question is “how can we put ourselves in The Other´s shoes?” For we must. Otherwise, how can we tell stories?

    Even though Brazil is a country full of very good writers from all walks of life, we are still afraid of doing that, however. Only from the 1980s on we are beginning to have books published by Afro-Brazilian writers, and a small handful of books (mostly YA books) by Native Brazilian writers. Unfortunately, most of these books are still restricted to the retelling of mythos (the Native Brazilian examples) and the life in favelvas (the Afro-Brazilian writers). We still don´t have black and Indian SF/Fantasy/Horror writers in Brazil yet.

  5. Deireanach says:

    I disagree with the ‘write what/who you know’ meme, although for reasons I haven’t seen stated yet. Jaws’ comments come closest.

    If I were to only write the non-Other, with the settings of my stories reflecting only the make-up of the people in my life, my work would be filled with middle-class white people, with a smattering of non-whites and other classes, mostly as background characters. However, considering most of my stories center around three or fewer characters, non-whites could easily disappear entirely.

    Getting some of the details wrong is, in my opinion, a lesser crime than erasing the existence of the Other entirely. Besides, the Other is more interesting than I am; after all, I’ve already been there, done that, when it comes to my own native culture.

    A tangent: is the insistence of some people that writers only write the culture they know like the insistence of some people that we should fix all problems (at home, in the city, on Earth, …) rather than (go to work, build a ring road, go to Mars, …)? It seems to me to be rooted in the same sorts of fears: don’t make new mistakes/waste valuable effort when there are old mistakes to correct/situations needing attention already under your nose.

  6. Kai Jones says:

    “Write what you know” is for beginners. It’s a starting place, not an ending place.

    Writing the other requires knowledge and empathy. It’s possible to learn both. One of the pleasures of being a human is the ability to learn from another person’s experience in addition to your own.

    Sure, I sometimes get tweaked when my own cultural stuff is appropriated, but I have no right to do so. It’s not like it was an entitlement gifted to me at birth. Somebody made it up in the first place!

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