Writing about other cultures is bloody difficult. It’s also important, and speculative fiction writers in particular should always be thinking about different realities. But it is not something to be taken lightly.
I don’t want to talk about Lionel Shriver. That’s been done. It’s old news.
(click on PDF icon, above right, if you prefer to read black script on white)
I will say that most of us inhabit a space somewhat more sensible than Shriver – who obtusely argues we needn’t be sensitive or cautious when writing about the less privileged. And for those worried about her claims to the contrary, there are thankfully very few at the other end of the spectrum, espousing the reductionist juvenilia that states the author is simply not allowed to write in other cultures (I also can’t help but note a certain irony in this debate about sensitivity in writing about other cultures, where the discourse is utterly dominated by Americans).
For this article, I’m not about to start lecturing anyone else on what is and is not permissible. Rather, I want to focus more on the practicalities and difficulties. What I have to offer is an ethical and professional approach, informed in part by more than decade as an aid worker in Southeast Asia. Working in, and understanding other cultures, in particular the poorest and most marginalised in those cultures, was my job.
In aid, industry veterans understand this: good intentions are not enough. I’ve seen volunteers, sometimes high-paid consultants, who thought merely the act of them being in-country was sufficient. That the purity of their intent, that the warm inner glow they felt when hopping on that plane to fly to a dirt poor country, was enough to do good.
It’s not. At minimum, hard work, cultural knowledge and intelligence, and technical expertise in the particular field are crucial.
A culturally ignorant aid worker can do irreparable damage. They can exacerbate ethnic tensions in a civil war (if they were seen, for example, to run a project that benefitted one group over another); they can endanger women (if they ran a project that failed to understand the gender dynamic in a community); or can simply kill people through plain old incompetence (misallocation of rice drops in the aftermath of a natural disaster).
Even donations from abroad can hurt. The classic example is baby formula. Because, one – as advised by the WHO – breast milk is superior, and two, because baby formula has to be mixed with water, which is very often dirty in poorer countries. Another is clothing. After the 2004 Tsunami, local textile industries were damaged by foreigners donating clothes to countries that really didn’t need them (they needed just about everything bar clothing). Or there’s the x-ray machine to a village that didn’t have electricity; medication past its expiry date; spam to a Muslim country; a boatload (literally) of single unmatched shoes. I could go on.
Given my small audience, my writing is nowhere near as dangerous as the aid work I used to do. But it still matters. Words matter, even in a short story or a little-read blog. So I apply the same rule to my writing: good intentions are not enough.
To be clear: I don’t claim to be an authority on other cultures. I’m not. Though I can say I know far more than the average Westerner about the Mekong region. I can say I’m an expert in provision of basic education services to ethnic minority communities in Laos and Myanmar (that was pretty much my job title, at one point).
When I write about other cultures, I abide by the following rules:
One: I only write about countries I’ve lived in or spent a lot of time in for work (which is most of Southeast Asia), and even within that I have a strong bias towards countries I’ve lived in. Nothing – no google search, no conversation, no documentary – can match the experience of living and working in a country for an extended period. Especially if you go with an open mind, eschew the standard expatriate circles, and explore the country.
Two: I immerse myself in whatever national literature, poetry, and film that I can find. Even the smaller countries in Southeast Asia, for example, will have some of the key historical and literary texts translated into English. If those are hard to come by, translation costs for film and short film are far less onerous, and thus should be more readily available.
To be clear: I’m talking here about art produced by citizens of the country, not by foreigners. The latter work can be useful, and at its best, insightful and moving. But – and this is an important caveat – just because you’ve read The Quiet American does not mean you understand Vietnam. You will see it from the outsider’s perspective of a cynical, elderly, highly intelligent British journalist, but that is the limit.
Part of this point involves supporting artists from the culture you are attempting to write in. So, for example, a subscription to the only journal dedicated to Southeast Asian SF – Lontar – might be a good idea for someone wishing to write genre fiction set in that region.
Three: I seek critiques and advice from nationals of the country I’m writing about. This is why point One is important, as I have developed dozens of close friendships over the years all across the region. This beta-reading is not simply a question of getting certain details correct – forms of address and so forth – but whether the atmosphere, the interactions, and the world-building seem credible.
Four: multidimensionality. This seems quite obvious, but I read a lot of fiction where the main character is reduced to a set of cultural signifiers. I always try to add extra layers, such as class, or drug addiction, or criminality (I write noir, clearly). Generally the character will have an outsider status. This multifaceted nature will, I hope, open the doorway to empathy with the reader.
On point one: the expectation that an author should visit a country before writing about will be too onerous for most. We’re writers, after all, and we can’t afford to hop on a plane to Indonesia just because we’ve decided to write a short story set there. To expect this would deny the class dimension of writing, and privilege those with the means to undertake such travel.
However, points two and three are relatively straight-forward. An unwillingness to make this effort, in my view, signals a lack of empathy. That the writer is more concerned about how the work makes them feel, rather than how it may make others feel.
Writing in other cultures is tough. It should be. It is also the most rewarding. So do it, but examine your motivations first.