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.
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?