#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

Before I begin, I want to gratefully acknowledge that my thoughts on this topic have been significantly informed by the work of many, many writers and activists, most of whom are women of color. I’ve named and linked a few people and resources in this piece; please consider that a starting point, and invest some time in further research.

K. Tempest Bradford has put together a primer on what cultural appropriation is, which I highly recommend reading. It has links to many other useful pieces on the subject, including Nisi Shawl’s beautifully succinct piece on ways to reframe the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction.

Shawl writes, “[I]t’s unrealistic for an author to expect to be awarded an embossed, beribboned certificate proclaiming the authenticity of her work.” This reminds me of a talk I went to with activists Ajay Chaudry and Eric Ward, where they discussed the idea of people seeking not only plaudits for bravely writing across color lines but absolution or forgiveness for potentially getting it wrong and hurting a reader. If you’ve had thoughts in that direction, I urge you to move away from them and look for other ways to frame your relationship to your work and your readers. No one can tell you “Congratulations, your work is guaranteed harmless!” or “You aren’t one of those white people!” with any degree of certainty, because no one speaks for all members of their cultural group. Even people from within a group can have the “authenticity” of their work questioned (Ken Liu has spoken about this, with regard to his fantasy novels influenced by Chinese history). There is no absolution; there are no clear-cut rules that you can strictly follow and thereby relieve your anxiety. There is only you, doing your best.

Bradford also links to the Australia Council for the Arts’ protocols for working with Indigenous artists. Some elements of these are specific to Indigenous Australian cultures and their history with white colonizers, but reading the guidelines on writing, which include information for non-Indigenous writers writing on Indigenous themes, will give you some idea of the types of pitfalls you might run into as you address any culture not your own, especially those that have been repeatedly appropriated. These bullet points are particularly apropos, I think:

Some important questions to consider about interpretation are:

  • How will your writing affect the Indigenous group it is based on?
  • Does it empower them?
  • Does it expose confidential or personal and sensitive material?
  • Does it reinforce negative stereotypes?

If you want to shift away from worrying about or seeking advance absolution for harm you might potentially cause, try focusing on that second question of whether your work empowers the people you’re writing about. Another approach is Rose Lemberg’s model of “unbreaking the reader”. What would make your portrayal of (your fantasy equivalent of) China healing, satisfying, and empowering for a reader of Chinese descent?

Obviously you will need to do your research; less often discussed is the notion of honoring your sources. Consider including a research bibliography in the back of your novel. You can use the acknowledgments section to highlight teachers, librarians, essayists, sensitivity readers, and others whose assistance made your book a rich and thoughtful and unbreaking portrayal of its various cultures. (Make sure you get permission from anyone you want to name.)

One of the major concerns about appropriation is economic exploitation, the use of another culture’s stories or history to enrich yourself. Donating a portion of your proceeds to one or more appropriate nonprofits is one way to address that concern. (I recommend the Carl Brandon Society, which supports people of color in the SF/F writing field.) Hiring and paying sensitivity readers is another good way to directly support people with roots in the cultures you’re writing about. You can also include writers from those cultures in your promotions for your book, with paired giveaways and joint book signing events, and promote those writers and their work separately from promoting your own work.

Finally, consider Hiromi Goto’s questions for white writers:

1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; it is quite possible for you to think hard about them and decide to move forward with your project in an ethical fashion. As Goto and Shawl both observe, saying that white writers can only write about white people is its own contribution to erasure. As I’ve noted in the past, you are absolutely allowed to write outside your own experience. If this is the story your heart longs to tell, by all means tell it! Just be willing to put in the work: do research, hire sensitivity readers, excavate your internalized biases, and keep the marginalized reader foremost in your thoughts. Your book will be all the better for it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#70: Excavating Internalized Biases, Part Two: Catching Bigotry Mid-Draft

Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.

Hello Story Nurse!

You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.

Thank you for all your good work!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.

Continue reading