- Where do people live? How many of them live in one place, and what are their houses like, from richest to poorest (if they have such distinctions, or any notion of some folks being more elite or worthy than others)?
- What do people wear? How do climate, social mores, occupations, religious beliefs, and class distinctions lead to variations in dress?
- What do people eat? Is there a particular culinary tradition associated with their culture, and if they are aware of other cultures, how would they characterize the differences? What is their special (holiday, for example) food like, compared to everyday food?
- What local resources—animal, vegetable, and mineral, magical—help determine answers to questions about shelter, clothing, and food?
- How is society organized? Are people in tribes, city-states, nations? How are people’s settlements arranged? Who is in charge? How are disputes arbitrated, both within the community and with other communities?
- How do people acquire things? What kind of trade occurs, both within the community and with other communities?
- What common occupations exist? What kinds of things will my main characters do, and are their occupations typical, or unusual?
In May of 2014, I attended WisCon38, the annual feminist science fiction convention. In addition to feminism, WisCon is concerned with justice and equality in all forms, particularly as they manifest in science fiction and fantasy – the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world isn’t, but could be. One of my favorite panels was called “Not All Aliens Act Japanese: Writing Exotic Cultures Without Exotifying Real Ones,” featuring Diana M. Pho, editor at Tor books and multicultural Steampunk activist; N. K. Jemisin, author of two outstanding fantasy series and one of WisCon’s guests of honor; and authors Eleanor A. Arnason, Emily Jiang, and author and editor Sophie Werely. They offered some great discussion and advice, and as I look forward to this year’s WisCon, I’d like to share some of that with you.
As the panelists pointed out, it’s very difficult – maybe impossible – to make up something out of whole cloth. Most fantasy worlds are based, however loosely, on something from the real world. This isn’t bad – after all, it’d be hard for a reader to get a grip on the story if there was nothing familiar for them to latch onto, either. But it does mean that we as writers must tread carefully when treading on someone else’s culture.
The more you know about different cultures, human and otherwise (Eleanor Arnason once created a culture using African hairless mole-rats as a basis), the better off you’ll be when creating a culture of your own – but remember that there are no human cultures that exist in complete isolation. One group of people interacts with another one, and they both change. Similarly, all cultures have a history, events and circumstances which have changed them over time: culture is never frozen.
Culture is also not always consistent. America is often described as a Christian nation, for instance, but there are plenty of non-Christians who live here, and exactly what “Christian nation” actually means is a matter of much debate. Emily Jiang discussed the importance of individuals within the culture – is your particular character a conformist or a rebel? How they interact with their own culture can help you to describe both of them at the same time, but it will change the picture your readers get as well.
While building a foreign world can seem intimidating, Sophie Werely quoted Nalo Hopkinson, writer and instructor of the “Writing the Other” course, who says that the reader will trust the writer’s unshaking confidence and authority – sometimes just diving in will pull people along with you. Character, too, is always a good starting point – people love other people, and will follow them into exceedingly strange places.
N.K. Jemisin pointed out that this is also the best way to do diversity in fiction. Empathy, she said, is the crucial difference between real and superficial diversity, and our culture does not emphasize empathy with everyone equally. “We are all capable of comprehending each other,” she said, we just don’t always try very hard. Werely emphasized that what publishers are pushing for is for the marketplace as a whole to become more diverse, not necessarily each and every book – no one wants to read a checklist.
When asked how to avoid cultural appropriation, Jiang reminded the audience that no culture is a monolith, and everyone who is a part of it or has a stake in it will not necessarily have the same opinions. What’s fine with one person might offend someone else. Understanding the significance of a particular thing to the culture overall is a huge part of being respectful. Werely also emphasized that many reactions people have to cultural borrowing or appropriation are less about the specific thing done in that instance and more about the overall shape of the culture – cultures who have suffered oppression are more likely to be sensitive about even the most well-intentioned gestures.
From a marketing standpoint, truly unique worlds seem to do better in science fiction – Jemisin recounted the difficulty she had with selling her Dreamblood duology, which is fantasy based on Egyptian culture. She wasn’t able to sell it until she’d established success with her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, which has a more traditional fantasy setting.
Diana Pho also mentioned that there’s another aspect to all this, and that’s how you handle criticism once it’s all finished and out there – and there will definitely be criticism. Arnason mentioned the research she’s been doing on Iceland, saying she’s been reading about it her whole life and she still doesn’t know enough to write about it, and she’s come to terms with the fact that some Icelanders will read her work and be sarcastic about how she got it wrong and that’s okay. What it comes down to, she said, is the oldest question there is in writing: is it okay to write about anyone other than yourself?
Jemisin and Arnason both agreed, though, that there is only one good response when you’re criticized for doing something wrong, being insensitive, or falling into a hurtful stereotype: “Thank you for telling me what I did wrong.” Try to learn from your mistake, try never to do it again, and never, never defend something you did that hurt someone else.
Registration is now open for WisCon39 at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, May 22-25, 2015. If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d love to spend a long weekend doing, I’d love to see you there!