In our last post, I encouraged you to stray beyond the borders of typical fantasy settings – leaving the castles, forests, and shires behind in search of new stories in new cultures.
However, when creating new societies, it’s not enough to simply cherry-pick aspects of some real-world community. Before you attempt to create a fantastic culture, learn how to write respectfully about different cultures. In that vein, I'm going to introduce you to the basic practices of Writing the Other. These tools will help you avoid mistakes a writer can make in creating fantasy cultures that mirror real communities.
1. Learn the stereotypes.
Familiarize yourself with the prevalent perceptions of that culture. Try to understand the community within a cultural context: What are the tropes and character tics that might reinforce pre-existing prejudices?
2. Seek out authoritative voices.
Plenty of smart, informed, and erudite individuals hail from the culture you’re aiming to write about. They write blogs, make speeches, and review representations of their culture for how they succeed or fail. These people are providing you with valuable insights into how to approach their community respectfully.
3. Pay attention to your own biases
We all have our own preconceived notions about other cultures. Unlearning harmful prejudices is a life-long effort, but I believe that learning to write sensitively and consciously is a good way to start.
If you’re like me, the thing you might struggle with the most is the daunting task of honouring another culture in a way that is appropriate, honest, and respectful. Most writers don’t deliberately set out to create racist caricatures, but when we do, we are rightfully called out, and the experience is, of course, embarrassing. On the other hand, failing to address representation in fiction contributes to a culture of erasure in which many readers are alienated and ignored. As writers, how can we reconcile ourselves to this problem?
Ultimately, as Shawl points out, “any connections [you] make with unfamiliar cultures must be more than one way.” Having drawn on a cultural source, you now have a duty to recognize that source, to learn from it, protect it, promote its interests, and prevent the spread of misinformation.
To remind you of the importance of representing many stories (and cultures) in fiction, watch this TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
Eleanor Fogolin is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.