Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

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3 thoughts on “How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

  1. “Tumblr is a good place to start.” Lol, that’s an understatement. I read so much discussion about appropriation there it made my head spin 😉

    I love the awareness in this post. I agree its very important to think about the undertones of the civilization you are creating. Is there any way to maybe just – not set the two warring factions in the real world? That’s how Tolkien got away with Orcs!

    1. They are fighting in their own fantasy world, just like Tolkien’s orcs, but that doesn’t stop them from causing potential cultural aftershocks in the real world!

  2. I’m going to disagree on this. It’s getting in the way of good storytelling and is often destroying a fantasy world’s verisimilitude for political correctness. Authors have been using the inspiration of past cultures, myths, stories, and even present cultures since there have been cultures and stories to admire. Rowling is just a big fish a small group thought they could hook.

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