A Rose by any other name would still have an ethnic identity

I can write about the persecution of yellow-skinned people by white-skinned people in a fantasy universe, and while people will associate them with Asians, there will be none of the knee-jerk reactions that I would have if I was writing about straight discrimination against the Chinese or Vietnamese (which can and will carry a lot of baggage both for the Chinese/Vietnamese, but also for White people). This means that it is possible to present issues to the reader in a way that will engage them instead of turning them off, and perhaps make them think more about what happens in the real world. – Aliette de Bodard

Warning: In this post, I will be getting a lot of things wrong. This is unavoidable. 

Those with keen memories will remember that in my initial post I indicated that one of the inspirations for this story was the Second Intifada, and the story of the Palestinian Occupation more generally, with its effects on both sides.  Now I’m not sure how much of this got into the final story, but one of the key features did, which was the keen awareness of and divisions based on ethnic and national identites.

In this post, I may conflate race and culture a bit. This is quite probably my first mistake. Race is a perception of cultural characteristics predicated on physical appearance. This perception can become very elaborate and can become calcified into law, custom and gain the patina of “truth”. Race also intersects with other markers of identity (a rich Asian man in Australia will have a totally different life experience to a poor Aboriginal man, or a middle class white woman in Hungary). Right, apologies for the first-year sociology.

(I thoroughly recommend the American Anthropological Society’s Statement on Race as a starting point for further research on this somewhat endless topic, if you’re interested)

Speculative fiction thrives on cultural difference (sometimes couched in alien races, and sometimes not). You will almost always find one culture in any milieu which is comparable to a modern day culture, for good or for ill. The freedom-loving Squirrel people may find themselves having a strange similarity to mediaeval Europe or revolutionary france, wheras the evil Toad-kin are obvious knock-offs of the Mongol hordes, Islamic tyrants and the like. Some authors take this all the way to allegory, wheras others will leave the connection there, but tenuous, deniable. This is (obviously) a simplification, and there are plenty of subversions and inversions which take place. More adventurous authors will present all the cultures species as alien to those of the potential reader (Jack Vance being one), which make it a harder world to enter, but one that can create intense (and intriguing) interference with a reader’s expectations.

Directly copying existing templates from the real world can be a very fraught enterprise. Tolkien’s bad guys are all dark, swarthy, non-Western-European types, wheras his heroes are all Nordic ideals. Tolkien’s own racism remains a hotly debated topic in academic circles, although it arguably doesn’t stand out from the prevailing attitudes of his time. This highlights how your use of race within your work is always rooted in how race is rooted in your brain, in your society, and in your reader’s heads. As a writer, you are only somewhat in control of how your readers will parse your views.

Another example – half sinister and half silly. Suzanne Collins’ mega-hit, The Hunger Games has several characters who are described as having ‘dark brown skin”. Fairly unambiguous  physical descriptions of the characters, one would have thought. However, the news that in the film adaption these characters would actually be played by black actors unleashed a storm of stupidity from fans of the book who had obviously not read quite as closely as they thought. The Hunger Games is directly presented as an extension of  US society, and had appended the basic descriptor “just like me” to the characters, which had led people to look into it’s pages, and see a mirror that wasn’t actually there.

As I’ve previously discussed, the universe I’ve written has two main cultures. One is the military representative of a star-spanning and multi-ethnic empire, whereas the other is the cast-off detritus of a different Imperial power’s slaves. The species are human (implicitly) originating on Earth, so I’ve kept ethnic identifications intact, whilst at the same time downplaying their impact. This is (quite probably) another mistake.

One feature of ethnicities is that they mark where they begin and end by how they define themselves. Clothing, gesture, food, language and NAMES are important for defining who are us and who are them. I’ve hopefully done a reasonable job in establishing the culture of the Veedzi and in establishing their uniqueness in terms of their cosmology, customs and social organisation and yet…

Names can often be huge anchors moored deep in the past. If a character has a name, it has a resonance in the mind of the reader. This can range from the sound of the name, the symbolism of a name, even the feeling they have when you say them out loud. When names change, the characters change, if not transform. Paul Atredies becomes Muad’Dib, Malcolm Little becomes Malcolm X. Viscount Greystoke becomes Tarzan. In each case, there is a category shift, where an old identity is abandoned and a new identity assumed.

Initially, I’d decided that I wanted to have “real world” names  and that although the Veedzi would clearly be “alien” to the protagonist, I would try my hardest to make sure they did not have “alien” (and therefore less-relatable) names. There was also a desire to mess with the perceptions of the reader, to make the most familiar names the most culturally foreign people and to make sure the reader’s sympathies do not naturally gravitate one way or another. 

So I gave them Welsh names. The Welsh have a clear history of resistance and I thought it was a neat fit. However, as I went on, it felt… wrong, and I just started to change names, then I went back and use the Search/Replace function to expunge all reference.

So I changed it to Balkan Islamic names (partially based on some Bosnian work colleagues as well as the identity politics of the region). But that feels worse, as Islamic Militants are one of the biggest pop-culture cliches around (even if treated sympathetically). Do I really want the Veedzi to be my version of Tolkien’s evil orcs, shoehorned into the role by my prejudices and preconceptions?

To an extent, this is unavoidable. I’m a writer working in a culture, informed by history, location, personal experience, class and the whole gamut of influences, the majority of which are invisible to me. But to the extent that these can be recognised and dealt with consciouslyI’m going to do my damndest to ensure that the internal consistency of my world’s inhabitants isn’t warped by me trying to fit them into the exterrnal models that I bring to the table.

(It bears mention that whilst the opposing Imperial power is notably multi-ethnic, I’ve tried deliberately not to present them as inherently more moral or admirable due to that)

This blog post may seem full of postmodernist hand-wringing and politically correct beating of the breast. However, there are (in my opinion) good reasons of tradecraft for keeping a Chinese wall between the real world and the one we create. The quote that opened this post is effectively saying that when you use the concepts of race, class and difference in your work, they can be powerful tools to explore societal issues, and fire your readers interest in asking ‘Why?” and “Why not?” To do this, you need to utilise those features consciously, and with consideration, not have them leaking out unconsciously and running away with your work in ways that you may not even be able to see, but that readers will pick up on.

So for me, it’s back to the drawing board on names,  seeking to walk the line between a coherent and relatable “canon” of pre-existing names / language and trying to avoid potentially unfortunate implications

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One Response to A Rose by any other name would still have an ethnic identity

  1. Pingback: Confidence the end is near… | Dispatches from the Gilded Cage

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