Right and wrong ways to write about other cultures/places

I don't often mention this because it makes me sound like a nutcase, but I was brought up by people who cared deeply about the destruction of highland culture after Culloden (1746). It's quite surprising what living people care about.

I would go on (except: what I said above about sounding like a nutcase).

And let's not forget what the English did to the Welsh 700 years ago. I suppose that was quite a long time ago though... ;)
The solution is to avoid being ignorant and to not write inaccurate books; the solution is not to equip oneself with either a sense of guilt about your country's past or its current success. (One could argue - I would - that because toes are being tread upon, greater care should be taken with cultural matters, but that's because one shouldn't go around upsetting people if one can avoid it.)

Well, exactly. We may be coming from different angles, but I think we agree on the outcome....

I was thinking a bit about this while at work (no point thinking about work, right?) and I was thinking....say I wrote a book set in the US. And I got Chicago mixed up with Toronto, and the US mixed up with Mexico, and all the people from LA had false boobs and a coke habit and said the main religion was Jedi and....(Note: And not on purpose, but in all seriousness)

I don't think I'd have my work held up and applauded as meticulously researched, or whatever. I'd get laughed at. I certainly wouldn't win any awards. And yet, when someone from the west cocks up China in such a way for instance, they get a round of applause for their 'authenticity'. Sometimes they win awards too...maybe that's the rankle (or part of it)? That if it was perpetrated the other way around, no one would give it any credibility, because it isn;t credible, but if it's somewhere Other, no one seems to care about that.

Because that would piss me off no end!
I fully agree that critics' (and award givers') reactions (well, lack of pertinent reaction) to badly researched books is a big problem, as it not only suggests to those who don't know that the contents of those books are in some way accurate, but gives those inaccuracies a stamp of approval.

That isn't really the fault of the readers, who may be reading the books to better inform themselves (poor beggars). However, thinking that critics, and those on awards panels, know anything beyond the "literature" aspects of a book, as opposed to what is underpinning the contents, is a big mistake.

Now that papers seem to be discarding their fact checkers - not that UK "newspapers" show evidence of ever having used them - perhaps the organisers of awards should employ one or two of them to check for inauthenticities in the candidate books.
It certainly isn't the reader's fault - I assume when reading (rightly or wrongly) that a writer has done their research unless I know otherwise.

I think that's the real danger - people assume what you have written is correct*, and if it isn't, well that's when people who do know better get pee'd off, particularly if there isn't a broad range of books that cover that area. If there was, say, a big range of SFF books set in Thailand, including some that were very well researched etc, then maybe that one that isn't would rankle less, because readers then have that broad exposure to compare against (sort of what I was saying upthread The Uk has plenty of great books written about it that are true to it, so that one or two that aren't are less of a problem).

*For instance, when I read teh Wind up Girl, I assumed that this was an accurate portrayal, because I've never been to Thailand, or read much set there, so couldn't know otherwise. Then I found out it wasn't. If I hadn't found that out, I would still have thought it accurate.
Since there's no point even trying to get away from the book, apparently 50 Sades of Grey fell foul of this, some American readers being rather unimpressed by the British author's clueless approach to her chosen setting.
I think it's a question of not IF you borrow, but how. If you are just plonking stuff in because 'it sounds cool' or whatever, probably not going to go down well. Same with if you take a stereotype or two and perpetuate them. People will roll their eyes at the very least.

If, however, you take the time to do your research, hopefully get betas who know teh culture/place you are trying to portray, it will show and you should (depending still on how you use that research) have a lot less problems.

Thing is, say Britain has been so often and so positively portrayed in fiction, one book that cocks it up won't make much of a blip. But if you write a bout a culture that has been often badly/stereotypically represented in teh West (or not all) then the onus is more to get it right.

You're probably going to have some people offended however well you handle it, because that's just the way it goes, but if you can satisfy your most rigorously critiqued self and the majority of people who are from the culture you are trying to portray, then you should be fine.

NB: Re the Wind-up Girl; at least one of the problems I've seen bandied about that was, while the author did do some research it was mostly based on the experiences of expats living in Thailand, not Thai themselves. I'm not sure how true this is, but it would account for a thing or two.

Very well said.
I think the thing is that the US and UK get depicted in all sorts of ways, positive and negative. All the time. Thailand or Indonesia, for example, only get portrayed negatively or in an exoticized way. Or almost only.

Working against that doesn't mean ignoring the bad, but rather striving for accuracy that shows the good alongside the bad, and achieves a realism that locals would recognize as realistic. I mean, Indonesia may have severe problems with poverty, social unrest, religious strife in specific times and places, environmental destruction and so on, but it also has vast and diverse cultures, strong family and communal values, a generally tolerant and inviting populace, wonderful mythic traditions and great natural beauty. I don't think it would be hard to show those side by side.
I think the thing is that the US and UK get depicted in all sorts of ways, positive and negative. All the time. Thailand or Indonesia, for example, only get portrayed negatively or in an exoticized way. Or almost only.
Perhaps; in the US and the UK. Not being able to speak or read any languages from south or east Asia, I have no idea how each of those countries' literature deals with either the "western" countries, their own country or the neighbouring countries; unless it's been translated into English. I expect that, depending on the book from that part of the world, I might be missing out on a good read (which would a pity), or missing an improbable portrayal of one or other "western" societies (for which I should be grateful).

Anyway, I must be off: I'll soon be heading north of Watford and so have to be fitted for my flat cap and whippet....

** - Literature written in (or translated into) one of the world languages - which are not all from the "West" - will be read all over the place, which does mean that poor (and even woeful) portrayals of other cultures by those writing in those languages,has a greater reach, and so will be read by those who are likely to know just how bad they are.
Research isnt all that is important, you have to be objective and remember we are very similar as humans no matter the culture, differences. Im very sensitive and annoyed with novels that write about African peoples like its so different experience or something.

I liked for example River of Gods a SF set in India by Ian MacDonald. He wrote the characters as people first and didnt define them by their different setting,background.

Other than that if i want to experience read about different peoples,cultures i will read those peoples own books. For us who live in West we should be very careful about letting only europeans,americans tell you stories about other peoples in other continents,part of the world. Personal experience is very important and i mean all kinds of lit and not only SFF authors.

A western author could never ever have written Things Fall Apart like Chinua Achebe did for example. He wrote about his own peoples and his own POV in a way that spoke to me who are from total different culture alot.

Its a balance that im very conscious about i have grown up in the west but belong to other part of the world as some of you know.
Another spinoff thread from the RH one. Though I would start by asking: when and how can you write about a place, culture or people other than "your own?" What constitutes "doing it right" and what counts as "appropriation?"

I'm going to return to this discussion because something that has been bugging me of late is when the English-speaking world writes about non-English speaking peoples.

In English, names usually don't mean anything - certainly not any more. However, in many other cultures, names can mean something.

Yet many writers still instil that English-speaking mindset on the people's they write about.

This occurred to me when reading a piece of historical fiction based on Mongolians. In Mongolian culture, names have meaning. But Mongolian historical fiction and fantasy writings use the European view of names and titles.

A simple example - a Mongolian character who refers to Ghengis Khan or the Khan of Khans is not thinking in a Mongolian way, but instead, using European appropriation of Mongolian words. Instead wouldn't they arguably need to refer to "Emperor" or "King of kings" to make it authentic to the original meanings?

The argument is perhaps more revealing when we speak about Native American peoples - if we had a Sioux Native American character who referred to their name as "White Bear" then wouldn't that be authentic to that character's cultural POV? However, if we read their name instead as Matoskah, would that not be a sign that the character has immediately been "othered"?

Isn't using non-English names to refer to meaningful names just another form of appropriation?
if we had a Sioux Native American character who referred to their name as "White Bear" then wouldn't that be authentic to that character's cultural POV? However, if we read their name instead as Matoskah,
I'd have to ask a Native American. Perhaps Matoskah (White Bear) on first usage and then Matoskah later, if Matoskah is a sensible transliteration. "Many Moons" should maybe be translated /written as Months.

I pretty much hated the idea of the Latin teacher that all our names had to be translated to Latin. Here in Irish Language schools they use a Gaelic equivalent if it exists for a name, (first or surname) or else Gaelic spelling. Irish for meanings of names not used.

King of Kings, or High Chief or High King for Ghengis Khan or Ard Rí, certainly might make sense, sometimes translating makes sense and sometimes it doesn't. I think it depends on context.

The British when taking over India called every Indian high Title "Prince" even though even the Chinese translated some as King or in one unusual case, Emperor (as by Chinese thinking the world could only have one Emperor originally). This was cultural imperialism. So "translating" rather than transliteration of titles must be done with care and depending on context sometimes transliteration is better.
In Chinese "Wang" approximately King (or sometimes prince, or heir to Emperor depending on period). The Chinese "surname" "Wang" is not the same thing and should be left as Wang. Mostly there are reasonably equivalent European Ranks to Chinese ones, though some may be a little obscure. Some ranks perhaps should be transliterated with if context allows perhaps (Governor) or (Baron) suffixed once. The Chinese and Indian (Hindi?) for Emperor and King probably ought to be translated as such, most English Raj era deliberately mistranslates Indian titles.

Czar = Kaiser = Caesar. Might have meant "hairy" only from Augustus, I think, that it was a title.

Translation rather than Transliteration can be Cultural Imperialism.
I tossed and turned on this very issue when I was writing my SFs, as the non-Earth humans' naming traditions involved giving names with both literal and metaphorical meanings, so I was torn between giving them in the original, albeit transliterated, or to render them into English when the aliens are talking to each other, and therefore the whole passage is "translated" from their tongue. In the end I translated, but I'm not sure I'd do it if I were writing Earth-based fantasy/historical fiction in which the traditions were the same, as I'd be concerned that translating the name gave out the vibe that we need to have it in English as we're unable to cope with the foreign name.

I think my rough rule of thumb would be whether in the foreign tongue the name's meaning is more prominent as the meaning or as the name. Not sure how best to explain it (not sure I actually understand it myself!) but when people use the term, do they think of what it means or is it just treated as a name and no more? After all, some English given names still do have meaning, eg Flora, Prudence, Patience, Ruby, but I imagine that few of us think first of the concept when we know the people -- the names have been de-meaningised, as it were, in the same way that the names Matthew and James have meanings which are effectively lost, so the name = the person, not the concept. If we call someone White Bear in our fiction, which forces us to read the words white + bear, are we doing the reverse, and instead of seeing merely a name and therefore the person, are we seeing those concepts of white and bear? If that is what those who give the names would do, ie see the concepts, then fair enough, but otherwise, might it perhaps be a little dehumanising?

Not at all sure any of that makes sense! Perhaps the easiest thing if we are writing of a real foreign culture is to ask people of that culture how they would give their names on being introduced to someone who speaks English ie whether a man would call himself Matoskah or White Bear.
Funny you say that, Brian, because I would have assumed that a character referred to as White Bear was much more likely to be a stereotype Wild West "Indian" than someone called Matoskah. Frankly, I wouldn't worry overly about it, at least not in the context of writing a story. I think it's more important to treat the characters and story properly, and it will be clear whether they are being given the respect that they deserve.

If I have learned anything about SF criticism over the last year, it's that crackpots shout loudly. One bunch of crackpots will think (and want to think) that you are betraying the Christian heritage, encouraging homocommunism in their kids, teaching evolution and all the rest of it. Another group of crackpots will be delighted to have caught a rape-crazed member of the hegemony in plusbad otheringthink. To put it crudely, haters will hate, because that is what they've set out to do. Sensible people will probably read the story, think it was good, and realise that a novel is written at least in part for its audience, and that they will never learn the entirety of another culture from a short, made-up story.
Flora, Prudence, Patience, Ruby
Less obvious ones: Margaret = Pearl, Sarah = Princess etc

Fletcher, Miller, Smith, Baker etc.
German, Dutch, French
Fleischer (German) means Butcher.

Hebrew: You don't translate Dov even though it's Hebrew for Bear. Male names are often animals and Female names plants.
Frankly, I wouldn't worry overly about it, at least not in the context of writing a story. I think it's more important to treat the characters and story properly, and it will be clear whether they are being given the respect that they deserve.

I don't worry about it - but when tagging threads this morning I came across Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, which IIRC has been cited as a good example of writing about other cultures.

And yet - she retains Mongolian names and titles so that English readers are clear that she is writing about an "other" culture. My suggestion is that an authentic Mongolian POV would do no such thing.
I haven't read the Blog that began this discussion, or Wind Up Girl, either. However, I did read a Blog some time ago that was making a similar argument - not of racism though, but certainly of mis-"appropriation" (though it probably didn't use that word.)

I don't know if you watch the TV series Homeland? If not, then you really should as it is very good TV, but the third series was set mostly in Pakistan, and as the Blogger pointed out, if your view of Pakistan was based solely upon watching Homeland you would have a very poor view of the country. Islamabad is a modern, thriving city, but there it was depicted as being populated by violent terrorists, corrupt officials, poor, uneducated masses living in run down ramshackle houses built above filthy markets; underdevelopment and oppressive traditions. She said it bore no relation to the actual place that she knew well. However, while her criticism is probably, almost certainly, true, that depiction of the city made for very good TV.

Stories aren't tourist guides or holiday advertisements; someone else has that job. I'm also not certain they should be educational, or even totally accurate. Isn't a good story more important? Of course, if you stray too far from the truth then the reader/viewer will not follow with you.

Sensible people will probably read the story, think it was good, and realise that a novel is written at least in part for its audience, and that they will never learn the entirety of another culture from a short, made-up story.

Although, there is another completely different argument that we have all become so illiterate that the only place we are learning history, geography, arts and literature today is from TV, film and popular books. So, people actually do believe that Hollywood view of historical events, and maybe they do actually believe in that Homeland view of Islamabad. Tom Stoppard has said that he has to dumb down jokes so the audience can understand them, and that there has been a progressive deterioration in this. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/...own-jokes-so-the-audience-can-understand.html

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