A cautionary anecdote about cultural sensitivity in your writing.

Phyrebrat

www.beanwriting.com
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,849
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
I thought it might be interesting to share something that recently came up in my first draft and in research.

Background:
My horror (ugh, I hate that term for what I write...) is set in Victorian London in 1865+
A West African (The Gold Coast as was, Ghana nowadays) secondary, non-POV character called Apollo is a close friend/steward of a Captain Sir Benedict Ackley (ret.), and how he came to be in Sir Ned's life is briefly explored (they now live in a big pile in Romsey, Hants (called Marcombe in my wip)).
Their meeting goes back to the first Anglo-Ashanti War (1831+) where the Brits were 'protecting' (ahem) the Fante and Ga from the Ashantis who were invading the coast from inland (Kumasi).

Obviously Apollo is not this character's birth name, [and my knowledge of Ghanaian names is quite broad because of my work there, and my partner of 9 years being Ghanaian (an Ewe, from the Volta Region)] so I wanted to include a sentence about his birth name. Most will have four names, and often the defining name can have strange (to Britons) origins. In this case I wanted Apollo to be called Obímp3 (Obimpe) which means 'unwanted' or 'nobody wants'. (Usually down to a father disowning or refusing a child) . I'd decided the child was born on a Wednesday so tradition would dictate he be called Kweku, and I used a surname of Nsiah.

I checked with my partner who said it would cause problems as they are names that could possibly exist in Ghana. I said, yes, I knew that, and I was sure there were many characters in literature with real-life counterparts (There is a play called The Late Christopher Bean, FWIW). He said it was different because I was not using any English name, and when you use traditional names (especially as this character Apollo may or may not be homosexual, depending on the reader's interpretation) it would be very upsetting for the person who shared that name. He said I should just use Obímp3 (which I am fine with - there's no narrative need for a full name), or Kweku, but not a full name.

He said it's alright in literature like 'Things Fall Apart' etc which is culturally important story for W.Africa, but it would be troublesome for me as a writer of spec fiction, esp horror. Furthermore, in my experience there is an incredible juxtapostion amongst many African cultures who are often devout Christians, but also understand and believe in voudun/vodun - the so-called juju. So using a full name in this way, esp in what could be seen as a profane piece of literature, would be offensive.

[On a related note, names are sacred, far more so than in the UK. When I visit Ghana, the villagers shout "Akwesi Manu" at me instead of "Christopher", because after being 'adopted' by them, they prefer that I am labeled by my Ghanaian name (in this case, Akwesi can also be, Kwesi, Kwasi, Quarshie, or whatever, depending on tribe). Akwesi = born on a Sunday, Manu = second born, son.]

Anyway, I did feel pretty shocked that I could not put these two things together, despite my exposure to that particular culture. I thought it might be of use to those here who write outside of our cultural capital; no matter how good your research, there will be things others see through their cultural lens, that you cannot, or might miss.

pH

ETA: You should have seen his face when I asked him to translate my curse into Akan/Fanti :D )
 
Last edited:

Kerrybuchanan

Delusions of Grammar
Supporter
Joined
Aug 3, 2014
Messages
2,576
Location
Ballynahinch, County Down
Thank you, @Phyrebrat.
One of my novels was due to be published last November, but I had reservations about how well I’d written one of my black characters, so I asked my publisher if I could run it by a sensitivity reader first.
I’m so glad I did. She shared it with several other readers (with permission), and I got a wonderful report back from the entire reading committee about ways I could make the racism this character experiences more real (black and female in the Northern Irish police), as well as helping me create a more realistic backstory and name for her.
I’m not saying I’ve made my character perfect even now, but I feel far more comfortable with her character than I did before.
Whether writing about race/gender/disability/whatever, I think it’s really important to search out sensitivity readers.
 

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
5,630
I don't know how long this topic will survive, because such things always spiral down into politics, but all I have to say is (a) writers should do a reasonable amount of research and (b) there are limits as to what "reasonable" means in each situation. I don't know enough to say anything about this particular example, except that I wouldn't want to read "Obímp3" in text because I wouldn't be able to pronounce it (I felt the same with 3Jane in Neuromancer, for what it's worth), unless it was somehow explained, perhaps in a footnote.
 

Phyrebrat

www.beanwriting.com
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,849
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
Thanks for posting that, especially as I'll be using some African (East African/Kenyan) characters in my next big project.
I only know a couple of Kenyans but I'll keep an eye out in case you need sensitivity readers or advice when it comes to it

That does sound like a case of knowing just enough to hang yourself.
And it really does, in itself, make a good story.
Exactly! I was really quite ashamed that I'd not thought of the impact; not exactly hubris, perhaps, but there was an element of "yeah, I got this" which came back to bite me on the backside.

except that I wouldn't want to read "Obímp3" in text because I wouldn't be able to pronounce it (
Oh God, no, there's no way I'd write it using the Twi alphabet - I'm probably less tolerant than you; when I see these names in fantasy where the author has randomly inserted apostrophes, umlauts and circumflex's in an attempt to lend some kind of 'exoticism' I roll my eyes. Thing is with Obimpe the spelling would be fine with the e instead of the 3. If I'm communicating in Twi or pdigin with friends we never use the Twi character set.
 
Last edited:

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
5,630
I remember the creatures in Harry Harrison's West of Eden had a language that involved changing colour and moving their tails, which a human couldn't speak. There were plot reasons but it lead to names with symbols like > at the end, which was a bit too exotic for exotic's sake. More than anything, it was just rather distracting to read.
 

Phyrebrat

www.beanwriting.com
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,849
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
As a footnote to this, and in reference to Toby's comments on use of non-Roman/Latin alphabet characters, my OH asked his mum about the correct Twi spelling of:

"Riding out of the land where he slaughtered and made many foes,
forever will he and his successors pay in blood"

It's impossible to write without the backwards c (hard 'o') or back-to-front 3 (hard 'e') and there is a glottal stop and an ng sound that requires an accent. The problem with changing it is that Roman o and e are used in the translation as well, so it would essentially make it nonsense in places.

The curse however is crucial, and the Fante would not curse in English, so I may have to bite the bullet and write one line in Twi.
 

CTRandall

I have my very own plant pot!
Supporter
Joined
Jan 4, 2018
Messages
963
Location
North-east England
I think a line here and there with Twi characters would be fine. The difficulty is finding a balance--if you don't use it anywhere else at all, it will stand out as a huge contrast and not fit in with the rest of the text.
 

Thiswriterinme

I. S. Talbot
Joined
Jan 24, 2020
Messages
55
Location
Maine
Thank you for sharing. This was a good story to read, and also gives me some things to think about. As a fantasy writer, I tend to build my own worlds with their own cultures and customs, but now and then I'll write a story with some overlap into our Planet Earth. I'll keep this tale in mind for those stories!
 

Jo Zebedee

Aliens vs Belfast.
Supporter
Joined
Oct 5, 2011
Messages
18,213
Location
blah - flags. So many flags.
I’ve been following this thread - very interesting, thank you Phyrebrat.

I’m from a tricky little cultural place that half the world think they understand and ‘fix’, it seems. There are so many little nuances that quickly flag up anyone writing the culture without really knowing it - often giving offence (or causing much hilarity) - and I’ve come to believe that I either invent a place and culture, skip over such matters and use a generic setting or use only my own or one I’m very familiar with - with extra input if needed.
 
Top