Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Adventure Stories & Orientalism

I'm so pleased that several people have commented on my post concerning dieselpunk and orientalism. I had already decided to write a follow-up post in order to delve more deeply into the question, as I really think it's worth discussing and it's something I mull over a lot. This is that post.

David Mark Brown commented on my original blog post about how he chose to flip character expectations around in order to challenge some of the problems of race relationships, etc., in his dieselpunk fiction. That shook me out of the assumption that the main characters of dieselpunk stories had to be westerners. I still have an issue with that, though, which is as a white westerner myself, I'm not sure how to believably write from the point of view of a nonwesterner or someone belonging to a nonwhite culture. I'm not ruling it out, just saying it would pose a considerable challenge to me. I've actually attempted to write from the pov of a black woman in the past (it was sci fi in a universe I built, so saying African American or Caribbean American doesn't fit). I never felt like I pulled it off, though.

A really big part of what troubles me is the issue of exoticism. Stephen A. Watkins commented on this blog post (which Tiyana Marie White wrote in response to my post), "I think there’s a difference between the aesthetic appreciation of something “exotic” meaning that it’s outside the norms of your experience and the type of problematic “exoticization” that results from fetishizing something that’s different for no reason than that it’s different." Exoticism/exoticization is huge for me. To be clear, the trouble I have is that I would like to write stories where the mc must go to some country foreign to them, to seek out some sort of treasure/have some sort of other adventure, much in the tradition of Indiana Jones. What I can't work out is how to impart all the thrills and fears of such a thing, without painting the culture as exotic and sinister. I'm not talking about describing the people in stereotypical terms (which isn't just offensive, it's also plain tiresome), so much as trying to achieve a tone of menace, etc., for the mcs, who are navigating a land that is foreign to them. Throw in some sort of cursed item(s) or whatever, and you have a recipe for your typical dark and threatening culture as seen in myriad books and films. The problem with that is that when you choose to represent a real Earth culture that way, you other them and contribute to a history of imperialism and oppression, something I don't want to do.

One option is to go ahead and represent some of the culture as sinister. For example, have some creepy big wig in the culture invite the characters to dinner, say, and then the characters proceed to navigate a house full of unnatural shadows and decorated with unsettling objects. The meal would be shocking to them as well due to whatever they're eating... if you've read my previous post, you might recognize this as a reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a movie that really beats you about the head with orientalist representations. As you may recall, part of the trouble with Temple is that it's not just portraying a culture in a very negative light, it's also doing so with blatant inaccuracies. Anyway, so let's say I want to have the creepy dinner chapter and I'm going to avoid the blatant inaccuracies. I'm still using items of the culture to create an aura of fear and danger. I could counterbalance that chapter with some sort of positive interaction in another chapter with much more approachable, appealing characters of the foreign culture. I don't mean yet another stereotype (lusty women who fall for the hero, mystical sages who provide guidance, etc.). No, I'm thinking more along the lines of the Colombian drug lord in Romancing the Stone (not a dieselpunk movie, but it operates on the same principal as interwar adventure stories with the mild mannered woman and rough and tumble male guide--think of The Mummy, same principle--who delve into a dangerous foreign land and encounter menacing characters, etc. in the pursuit of treasure). In Romancing the Stone, the audience is led to believe romance writer Joan Wilder and her adventuring guide, Jack I-forget-his-last-name are about to meet a stereotype of a Colombian thug: some backwards, unsophisticated guy who rides a mule. Turns out, the guy has modern ammenities, has read all of Joan's books, and the mule in question is a 4X4. Now, believe me, I'm not here to say that Romancing the Stone somehow avoided racist depictions because of this scene. Sadly, as much as I enjoy that movie, I think it's terribly problematic, too. But I digress. My point is that the scene challenges audience expectations. It does it, no doubt, in order to get laughs. Similar scenes abound in many films--and I think more often than not, they are there to get laughs. It's funny to set up expectations and then turn them on their heads.

My question is, do those sorts of scenes challenge expectations enough to be an antidote to the sinister scenes that paint a "foreign" culture as dark, dangerous, magical, etc.?

Anyway, to return to what Stephen Watkins wrote, I suppose another way to approach the issue of exoticism to interrogate whether those "sinister" representations fetishize the culture or simply represent it as unfamiliar to readers/viewers. When I wrote the as-yet-unpublished sequel to The River and the Roses I wanted to introduce Daniel Seong's family, and I wanted to do so intelligently. So I went on a Korean American chat board and asked a bunch of questions. The people on the board were super patient with me and helped to dispell some of the stereotypes I had knocking around in my head. They gave me insight into how to represent the family dynamics, the words people use, the way a dinner would play out, etc. It was all very cool and I learned a lot in the bargain. I'm reasonably sure I did a nice job of writing those scenes concerning Daniel's family. It's just a lot easier in the realistic setting of my modern day psychic mystery to not fall into the orientalist trap. In River, I can have Veronica come in as an outsider to a culture she's unfamiliar with, and have her be a bit uncomfortable and nervous about it, but still see it as a real, breathing, normal culture. Then again, she's not meant to be in a threatening situation. It's not an adventure story. Aside from her ability to commune with the dead (which really makes her more exotic than anyone else in the book), there's no magic, no cursed items, no spooky caves, no dungeon crawls, no evil villains (there are bad guys, but they are much more plebean). Is it possible to write adventure stories where there are all those things and not fall into the orientalist trap?

I suppose another option is to take the flipping-the-binary thing even further. Have a nonwhite and/or nonwestern hero who is dealing with a white, western villain. I mean, you do see that, of course. Nazis spring to mind. Is that the only way? Isn't avoiding casting nonwhite and/or nonwestern villains in a story just another form of discrimination?

Well, I've written myself into a corner. Help me out, folks. What's your take?


  1. Obviously not a regular reader/commenter here, but as I entered the conversation over on Tiyana's blog (and especially since I get quoted here), I thought I might chime in with some additional thoughts.

    I think the question of how to go about portraying a culture as potentially sinister or effectively dangerous to a foreign protagonist (whether that be a western-flavored protagonist in an eastern-flavored culture or vice versa) is approaching the problem from the wrong direction. You need an antagonist, but you don't necessarily need an antagonistic culture.

    Consider it this way: how would your average Western reader respond to a story set from a non-Westerner's point-of-view that portrays Western culture always as sinister or antagonistic? (Ignoring, for the moment, questions of post-colonial problems in the relationships between real-world Western and non-Western civilizations.) A lot of western readers wouldn't appreciate the mischaracterization of the entire western culture as essentially villainous and antagonistic. But on the flip-side, I think Western readers are perfectly comfortable postulating the existence of villains existing within our cultural framework.

    There are few cultures where I'm comfortable condemning and casting in sinister tones the entire culture itself and, by extension, all members of it. (Okay, I have a real problem with cultures that are inherrently misogynistic, but then again it's hard to find real-world cultures that aren't at least a little patriarchal in some way.)

    That's why in my comments on Tiyana's blog I recommend the multiple viewpoint method. This doesn't necessitate a full protagonist-like treatment for each of the various different viewpoints. But getting different views fleshes out our own understanding, as readers. This allows, I think, both for the experience of the "exotic", in the sense that the experience is something new to the reader, and at the same time helps to avoid the problems of "exoticization".

    The best advice I've seen regarding writing the so-called "other" is to write all your characters as if they're fully-fleshed out, three-dimensional, layered human beings. When you give your characters this sort of treatment, I think it helps de-"other"-ize them, because the reader is able to interact with the character in a fully engaged way. Giving viewpoint treatment is one major tool (though admittedly not a fully sufficient one) for adding depth and three-dimensionality.

  2. Thank you for your comment! You've helped me realize two things:

    1) I still didn't manage to articulate the problem I'm having clearly enough.
    2) I think I'm starting to see a solution, which has only become possible as I've tried to better articulate the problem. So it wouldn't have been possible without your post. Thank you again.

    To come back to 1), my problem is that I believe that representing a part of a culture as sinister can, and often does, portray that entire culture through an orientalist lens. For example, in The Mummy, the heroes explore an Egyptian tomb. As they do, they awaken magical scarabs that have been dormant for thousands of years. The scarabs, inherently evil as they are, kill at least one character by burrowing under his skin and eating him alive.

    What does this say about the Ancient Egyptians (and, by association, their descendants)? I'm arguing that magical scarabs could *only* exist in Egypt. As such, they are representative of some inherent quality of the Egyptian culture. They are dangerous, evil, and magical. The message is, only the Egyptian culture is dangerous, evil, and magical *enough* to produce immortal flesh-eating scarabs. I don't think it matters how any other part of the culture is then portrayed. The scarabs have tainted the portrayal and introduced orientalism.

    So, on to 2). I think the solution is to avoid the "usual suspects" when it comes to settings for tomb raids, treasure hunts, dungeon crawls, etc. No Aztec or Mayan step pyramids. No ruined Indian temples. No Chinese Forbidden City. And no Egyptian tombs.

    One possibility is to pick on less frequently othered cultures, like the Celts. But better yet, I think my choice would be to introduce something outside Earth cultures altogether. There's always Lovecraft, after all, or inventing some new supernatural or alien cosmology altogether, and finding a way to connect it to Earth.

    As you pointed out, there's nothing wrong with pinpointing a villain in a "foreign" land. I think adding a layer of "s/he is under the influence or seeking out the power of " may do the trick in terms of avoiding the message that because s/he is from X culture and is engaging in some sort of sinister activity/magic because that culture is somehow more prone to it.

    What do you think?

    1. I know your last question was aimed at Stephen, but I hope you don’t mind if I jump in. :)

      I feel like what’s happening here is guilt by association. “I think that scarab beetles are evil, etc. and scarab beetles happen to be Egyptian; therefor everything Egyptian is evil, etc.” This is really a fallacy.

      No one thing or person can truly stand to represent all others that may share in a certain category, species, race…whatever. Everyone is an individual, and I think, as Stephen said in his own way, if a writer can focus more on the individual and less on what sort of group they might belong to then (s)he stands a better chance at avoiding painting an entire group as “sinister” or “bad.” It doesn’t so much matter what species/group/etc. an antagonist belongs to so much as the things it/he does that make it/him sinister, imo.

    2. I'll basically agree with what Tiyana just said. Taking the Mummy example, I didn't really see the scarabs as "evil", per se. They were pretty mindless, as I recall, and were originally created as a means of punishing Imhotep for his crimes against the king - to me the story makes clear that the ancient Egyptians saw Imhotep as a villain. It's only later that Imhotep gained control over the scarabs himself.

      What's more I think that Mummy does some of what I'm talking about, with multiple viewpoints on this culture: we've got flashbacks to ancient Egypt, and we've got the modern inherritors of the secret society devoted to gaurding against the evils of the Mummy. Granted that latter group is initially portrayed in a sinister and exoticized manner, but eventually we come to understand their viewpoint, and that makes them heroic instead of exotic and sinister. To me it was explicit that these heroic characters were meant to represent a certain aspect of the ancient Egyptian culture that's carried down into the narrative present. Taken together, I would tend to think that Mummy movies, as an example of dieselpunk and interaction with "exotic" cultures, doesn't exclusively portray that "exotic" culture in a sinister light. Which is not to say that there aren't perhaps some problems with it. (I personally think the character of Beni is more problematic than the existence of the "evil" flesh-eating scarabs.)

      I don't disgree with the idea of using external, fictional and non-real-world-based "powers" (Cthulhu-esque or otherwise) as an explanation or impetus for the individual villainy. That's certainly possibly another way to deal with it. But I'd still think that you'd want a more three-dimensional portrayal of the culture in question, including seeing viewpoints of those who are possibly opposed to, for lack of a better term, Cthulhu-worship.

  3. On another note, I’ve also considered the idea of a “sinister otherness” in my WIP in a similar spirit of adventures like Indiana Jones or The Mummy (it’s the dieselpunk in me ;)), so perhaps I can share how I’m handling it at the moment and get your thoughts on that.

    (I should mention the WIP is set in a pre-WWII-like secondary world, not ours, and is kind of an adventure quest in that the MC is seeking information rather than an artifact.)

    Whenever the MC (who, for all intents and purposes, would be the equivalent of a dark haired, pale olive-skinned European) hears about the main antagonistic force of the story in the media, they are always associated with terrorism and described as an extremist political group “comprised mainly of Kesh and Maelts”—both of which are foreign colored groups of people. On the flipside, many of the MC’s own people generally see themselves as agents for good, in that they, or their country, make it a point to practice diplomacy and humanitarianism with other races and countries. And even though I’ve reasons for setting it up this way (colored people associated with “evil” terrorism), it still feels pretty strange because I’m a colored person myself, lol. With all the social awareness today about racism and stereotypes, you think I’d avoid doing something like this.

    The thing is I’m doing it intentionally because one of my aims for this project is to constantly challenge my MC’s outlook on “the enemy” throughout the length of the story. The fact is most people from her culture have no idea what this villainized political group is really about (and you could definitely say the MC sees them as “exotic” and "sinister" in the beginning), so when she actually learns the truth about them—essentially through becoming a spy, lol—it really throws all her previous assumptions for a loop. Pointing out the “bad guy” becomes a lot more difficult as a result and, in fact, makes her begin to question the values and policies of her own people, as well as herself.

    By the end, “sinister” is not as limited to outside races or groups but can be found very close to home within the practices of her fellow compatriots and the policies of her government. In the end, she gains enlightenment about what was “other” to her before and learns to examine everyone around her more objectively and carefully.

    So maybe that’s one acceptable way of playing with a sinister otherness without really ending on the note of “X culture = evil”? Can’t say if it’s successful or not yet, lol, being a WIP, but that’s my general blueprint. :)

    1. Probably not the right place for me to offer thoughts and/or critique, but since you put it out there ;)

      I think what you're trying to do with this structure is pretty interesting and will certainly play right into your typical "westerner's" pre-conceived notions, which could make the reversal later quite effective. I do see two potential problems or pitfalls, though.

      The first problem or danger I see is that those in your potential audience who are looking for something that does more and goes beyond exoticism and orientalism and portrays "other" cultures in a more nuanced and three-dimensional manner will likely be offended by the initial presentation of the other culture.

      To overcome this... I think you'd need to make it explicit up-front - i.e. in the back-cover description or some other such prominent place where you interact with the reader before the story proper - that the preconceived notions of the protagonist will eventually be proven false or misleading, which will have interesting consequences for the remainder of the book. This would allow the book to sit within what I think is something of an established tradition of cultural-reversal fiction.

      The other danger is that the aforementioned established tradition of cultural-reversal fiction often falls prey to the opposite side of the coin in exoticism and orientalism: that of the wise oriental/other mystic. This stereotype usually ends up portraying the "other" culture as inherently superior to the home culture, and is typically also one-dimensional. (Think "Dances With Wolves", "Avatar i.e. Dances With Smurfs", etc.)

      So, it's a delicate line to balance, I think.

    2. It sounds to me like you're flipping the binary, which is one way I think is effective in avoiding the orientalism trap most of the time. You are purposefully setting things up to challenge expectations. I disagree with Stephen about putting the information up front about the reversal, though, but then, I often avoid book jackets and movie trailers because I hate encountering even the most minor spoilers. I figure the vast majority of readers out there could stand to go through the journey you're setting up without being warned ahead of time. Not only are you creating a nice twist they might not foresee, but you'll be starting people off in their comfort zone and leading them into a place where they might be forced to question some of their own prejudices. I love stories that do that.