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Thoughts On Ellen Oh’s Advice re: #DiversityinSFF

Prophecy_300While looking up a little more information for a post to add to my series on SF in South Korea (though the post is about Koreans outside Korea writing speculative fiction) I ran across this post at the website of Ellen Oh, one of the authors I’ll be discussing in that forthcoming post. Oh is the Korean-American author of a series of books titled The Prophecy series, which are a high fantasy trilogy set in what is (according to this interview) a fantastical version of Korea modeled on the Three Kingdoms period. (I’ll have more to say in a forthcoming post; I haven’t read the first book int he series, which is the only one available at the moment.)

Oh’s aforementioned post contains some succinct advice for writers who want to, er, diversify their writing–that is, depict characters or settings that are not white/Western), but are nervous about doing so. There’s some good advice, and then some other things that got me thinking. I figured extended comment belongs here on my blog, so I’m posting here.


I recommend checking out the original too. Go on. I’ll wait.


So, I have some thoughts on all that. For one thing, this bit:

Look, I’m Korean American and I wrote a fantasy book based in ancient Korea. I studied it for 10 years on top of all that I knew from being raised by Korean immigrants. And yet I had plenty of people bash me for getting things “wrong” about Korean culture in my book–and most of them weren’t even Korean!

I winced and thought of the expat blogosphere in Korea… as well, indeed, as some of the nationalist rantings of Korean national I’ve known. Oh, to be a fly on the wall reading some of those objections…

Though, who knows. I will say from my long experience in Korea that Korean immigrant parents (and their first generation offspring) can often provide a great snapshot of their country of origin at the time when they left (or a passable one, for the first generation kids), but aren’t particularly helpful for other time periods, let alone a sense of how things have progressed since they left, unless they’ve spent a significant amount of time back in the old country. Which is to say, I can imagine some Korean Americans flying into paroxysms of objection to things in Oh’s book, even thing she might have gotten right.

This should not surprise us:  after all, your average white American is going to be a great resource on how things were in ancient Gaul, or how life was lived among the Picts prior to the Romans’ arrival. I’m half-French and half-Scots, and all I know about Gaul, I know from Asterix comics; all I know about the latter, I swear, comes from one volume of Samurai Cat. As for my “knowledge” of later Scottish history, well, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger kind of took apart all the hogwash I grew up believing a long time ago… clan tartans and all.

My point is that most people whose parents immigrated from one place to another are likely better resources on the invented, imagined, and fantastical received version of their racial groups’ histories, than on the history itself.

None of that is an attack on Ellen Oh as a Korean-American author depicting Korea, or on her point. In fact, quite the opposite: I’m suggesting that her race and family background likely afforded her probably far less effective advantage for the task of writing a story set in ancient Korea than I imagine people offhandedly assume. (Except, perhaps, a degree of immunity to accusations of cultural appropriation.)

I imagine she maybe did enjoy a minor head start, just in understanding certain culturally-ingrained sensibilities: beyond that, though, I imagine she had to research like mad. After all, Korean-immigrant parents might be a great resource on mid-20th century Korea, but Oh’s books are set in a reimagined ancient Korea. Unless they’re immigrant time travelers, then peninsula during the Three Kingdoms period is about as alien as ancient Rome is to New Yorkers today… which, incidentally, is more alien than most of us realize, because of the fantasy-New York we walk around with in our heads. Frankly, even for a modern Korean, writing a passably authentic story set during the Three Kingdoms period (or a fantasy analogue of it) would likely involve piles of work.


Which is to really say, to whatever degree Oh did a good job on the history (or the mood of the time, or cultural details, or or whatever), it’s almost surely because she would have had to work her ass off. And the idea that race does offer a shortcut kind of minimizes that: it’s another way to ignore, minimize, or dismiss the hard work PoC authors have to do just like anyone else… a trap we can fall into even when we don’t push PoC authors into spokesperson positions.

(Note: again, I haven’t read The Prophecy, so I can’t offer any impressions of how Oh did with ancient Korea. I’ll post once I get around to it, but it’ll be a while, since I’m trying to plow through my paper books on hand at the moment.)

Anyway, I hadn’t planned on discussing that point. I was more interested in discussing the advice Oh provides, in form of five bullet points:

1. Do your research and be respectful. Don’t culturally appropriate from POC and then claim that your world is different therefore you can do whatever the hell you want with it. Call your world whatever you want, but if your world looks and sounds like China, and you even use Chinese words and architecture and terms specific to that culture, then don’t pretend it’s not China and mix us up with every other Asian culture. It just reeks of sloppy research and not giving a damn. If you want your world to feel Asian without specifically calling out a specific country, it can be done – see Eon/Eona. See The Last Airbender series.

I don’t know Eon/Eona, but I have to say, that reference to The Last Airbender surprised me. I liked the series, but I felt (and so did Mrs. Jiwaku, who, if you’re not a regular reader, is South Korean) that many of the characters, locales, and costumes used consciously evoked specific Asian cultures. There was a lot of analogue stuff: I remember saying, “Huh, very Thai,” at one point, and at another, being somehow pleased to see that the characters had finally reached the Korean-analogue society, hanbok and all. Besides all that, the Fire Nation is obviously a Japan-analogue, and the water tribe folk are clearly Inuit-analogues.

Which was fine. I was okay with it, because (a) there were enough fantastical differences between that imaginary world and ours, to make the visual parallels feel more like Easter Eggs, little fun gifts. I can’t help but wonder, though, how Japanese viewers felt about the politics of the Fire Nation’s colonialism being, you know, obviously an analogue to Japan’s imperial misadventure during the twentieth century. I’ve never heard about any Japanese response, but given the degree of political tension that continues between Japan and both China and Korea, I’m curious now.

For the record, I don’t think The Last Airbender was very well-known in Korea. My wife had never heard of it before I suggested we watch it, and the few times I asked other people if they knew of it, very few people did.

Anyway, Oh is right: you need to do your research, and be respectful. Do your research, I’d clarify as reading the best scholarship available to you. Historical novels set in a certain time period aren’t necessarily more reliable than, say, HBO’s Rome: gripping TV, but not so much like ancient Rome.

But as for being respectful: that’s complicated. Case in point: South Korea is still overwhelmingly sexist. James Turnbull noted (a few years ago) that, while great progress has been made–enough to put Korea Korea very high in terms o the Gender Inequality Index–the Gender Empowerment Index for South Korea is depressingly low. (This post from 2011 discusses the troubling disjunct between the GII and the GEM, and be sure to check out at least the first few comments.)

Given that reality–a reality that overwhelmingly affects women I know in Korea–how do we define “respect”? It’s complex: do we push the discomfiting stuff aside so it’s not in focus? (That seems disrespectful to the many women whose lives are subject to this reality.) Making it a theme of the narrative, on the other hand, is likely to provoke accusations of disrespect, too…

I think the answer is to try approach it in as balanced a way as you can, and be ready to be told off not only by people who’d mad because you got it wrong, but also by people who’re mad because you got it distressingly right, and they don’t want dirty laundry aired in public. Even a balanced approach will piss off a hypersensitized reader, so… you need to be ready for someone to get mad at you no matter what you do.

2. Avoid stereotypes. There are many. The magical negro, the blonde bimbo, the smart Asian math whiz, the ghetto talking black kid, the feisty Latina, the Asian dragon lady, the cryptic but wise Native American, the uppercrusty WASP, etc. Using stereotypes is lazy writing. You don’t want to invest in your character’s development to go beyond an easily recognizable trope. Don’t do this.

There’s a qualifier missing there, of course: one should avoid racist stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t always lazy writing… or, rather, we call it a stereotype when it’s lazy, and call it an archetypal figure when it’s not. Plenty of salty, drunken, nasty old sea dogs are stereotyped characters; Billy Bones (from the beginning of Stevenson’s Treasure Island) is a mysterious, fascinating figure that draws us into the novel… because he’s a very particular salty old sea dog, with particular obsessions and worries.

Sure, Billy Bones is white, in a white man’s novel. But that raises an interesting point: these stereotypical characters exist in other cultures, too. Take the Chinese sage on the top of the mountain, for one thing: where do you think we got that figure? From Chinese martial arts movies, of course. but those figures have a long tradition in Chinese folklore, too. Taoist sages in remote, wild places possessed of arcane power… yes, it’s cheesy in Kung Fu Panda

–but these figures can be done in a way that’s wonderful, as long as they’re not mere stereotypes.

(Some, might argue Kung Fu Panda does this too. (Slavoj Žižek has a lot to say about the film, but sadly doesn’t touch on characterization.) I can’t remember enough to have an opinion, though I’m dubious.)

The cool thing is that other cultures have other stereotypes we can use. A couple I’ve run across in Korean narratives include:

Of course, these figures can all be used badly (as stereotypes) or written thoughtfully (either as fascinating flat characters, or, with a twist, as a departure from the usual stereotype). A dutiful daughter who must lie, cheat, steal, and kill for her parents’ sake is a fun twist. A drunken artist whose art is magic is an interesting, and dangerous proposition.

Or, in fact, the lusty villager, which as far as I can tell has spawned whole subgenres within Korean cinema:

On that latter, I remember hearing that there was an original Joseon Dynasty-era text the film was based on, but can’t find anything online about that now. However, there’s enough of a tradition of ribald folktales and stories from premodern Korea to serve as a source for these kinds of stories… even if, as CedarBough Saeji notes in this paper on mask dances, what was clearly read as ribald in the old days probably flies over many heads today:

Sexual acts in the mask dance dramas today are much less ribald and obvious to the audience  than they once were. This is both due to changing ideas of propriety and because what was understood to be sexual intercourse to an audience 100 years ago may not be “read” in the  same way today. (pg. 167, n.11)

There is one danger-spot, though: some character archetypes that exist in another culture are going to come off as problematic, depending on what you do with them, so  caution is a good idea. For example, I think most Western readers (and some more politically conscious younger Koreans) are likely to take a jaundiced view of an uncritical perpetuation of the dutiful daughter. Self-sacrifice is heroic sometimes, but selfless dutiful   

Another example that comes to mind is a figure that hasn’t quite turned up enough times to be a stereotype–yet–but I’ve seen him enough in recent Korean films wonder whether he will: I’m thinking of  closeted homosexual monarch plays the role of jealous, sexually-predatory antagonist, as in A Frozen Flower and The King and the Clown (more suggestively titled 왕의남자, “The King’s Man,” in Korean).  If the closeted, homosexual predator-king were to become a character archetype in Korean film, I would still avoid it, since to me it suggests a homophobic stereotype I don’t recommend a Western author (or any author , really) uncritically adopt.

But that doesn’t mean a society’s social problems necessarily should be avoided. If you ask yourself why Korean ghosts are so often female virgins, you find interesting answers tied up in Confucianism and the idea of moral duty. (The duty to marry and bear a son, specifically, as much as resentment at missing out on the joys of sex.) Those kinds of stereotypes/archetypes are interesting, and useful: they shed light on a culture, on both its values and its hangups… and they’re alien to our culture, which makes them useful, powerful, and fun to work with.

3. Exotification of another culture. “But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.” ? David Wong. I think the context of this quote was about women and how men view them. But it works well in this context also. If you don’t include POC in your book, you are dismissing them. If you do include POC but make them exotic and other-worldish, you are going the other way. Neither is acceptable.

This is interesting in the context of SFF because plenty of characters will be interesting and other-worldish anyway; when an author writes a standard high-fantasy set in Asia, with a Gandalf-type character, people won’t say boo if the character happens to be a sage or a yogi or something. But if you he or she makes that yogi-like Gandalf-knockoff into a Mr. Miyagi stereotype? They will be (deservedly) crucified.

One of the most interesting and mysterious (racially) East-Asian characters I’ve run across in any book lately was a very minor character in Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakesh, which by the way was a travelogue by a British author living, as you might guess, for a year in Marrakesh. Among the many colorful locals the author/narrator meets a Chinese man living in the city. He seems pretty much local, though of course he is also seen as a “foreigner” by the Muslim locals.

The Chinese fellow remains mysterious, and exotic–to the Moorish locals. To Mayne, he is no more exotic than anyone else, and there is a fascinating moment near the end of the book where they are walking, and discussing why they both chose to live in the city. The Chinese man essentially says, because it feels right to him… and notes that it seems to feel right for Mayne as well, which is why he is no longer productive as a writer. By the end, the Chinese character in the book manages to be human, even as his is exotic and foreign.

Of course, in Mayne’s book the Moors he lives among seem more exotic, but they are also much more particularized and detailed. He seems to first see them as simply baffling in their behaviour, aesthetics, and values… but then moves past all that, to trying to understand both their culture, and–importantly–these folks as people. That is, part of the point of the book, like most books about the expatriate experience, is the process of figuring why people from this other culture behave in the puzzling ways they do, and when Mayne figures it out, it gives him an interesting comfort, even when it alienates him slightly. The Moorish characters continue to do all sorts of things that seem odd to him: getting stoned on hashish during a party; demanding ridiculous favors of him; unwittingly setting him up to get “engaged” to a “fiancée” he barely knows; cooking dreadfully boring food; misunderstanding him as badly as he misunderstands them… but even in these incidents, one senses that they are drawn with compassion, and with a kind of fundamental respect for them as human beings that doesn’t negate their actual exotic oddness, but also prevents the depiction from being dehumanizing.

At least, I feel that way. I haven’t seen any reviews by Moroccans, so I don’t know how it feels reading the text from that perspective. But the book seems to exude goodwill, from where I’m standing.

The lesson? Probably a very simple one: that when you write an exotic character, they still need to be a character, a construction that resembles a person, with individual problems, tendencies, joys, and habits. The more “foreign” your character is to the setting (or to the narrator’s point of view), the more you need to make sure you’re including particularizing detail to particularize that character… or, put another way, the more exotic the character, the more vividly human-like the character will need to be (and the more the “exoticism” will need finally to root in actual cultural difference) for that character to transcend stereotype.

4. Check your privilege. Don’t get mad that I used the “P” word. I know privilege can be a touchy subject. Asking you to be aware of your privilege is not the same as calling you a racist. What I’m doing is asking you to be aware of it. If you are a female, then you know that male privilege is very real. Take what you understand as male privilege and make a correlation to white privilege and you will see what I mean. And if it helps, read this:

This, I have absolutely no issues with. Privilege is a thing. I experience it myself along several axes (race, sex, orientation, social class). Most writers I know enjoy its benefits in some way or other, and ought to be aware of it.

5. Reach out to minorities for help. If you know nothing about the culture that you want to include in your book, then reach out for help. Yes, you can find a lot of information on the internet, but some things you can only learn from people who live that culture 24/7.

Yes! But, with caveats:

First, you should also be careful not to treat individuals as authorities on or spokespersons for their cultures. Someone being born into a given race does not make him or her an expert. (And, besides that, not all people of a certain race will be acquainted with a given culture. One of the stupidest things you can do is assume an Asian person is from one or another culture by their looks. Don’t believe me? Test out your hypothesis.)

And even if you discover someone of the “right” race for your project, don’t assume they’re acquainted with the culture. I’ve met the occasional Korean adoptee–raised by a non-Korean family–who knew even less about Korean society than the average expat who’d live there a year or two, and I’ve run across a fair number of overseas Koreans who are frightfully out of touch with the Korean mainstream in Korea today; some of them are also completely unaware of the fact; a few of them even present themselves as experts of a sort. So, on the hunt to find the help you need while researching your project, remind yourself:

Culture isn’t coded into DNA, and no one person can tell you everything.

But even people who do have a working knowledge of a given culture may feel weird about being asked. I discovered just how weird it can feel through the experience of Koreans asking me questions about the whys and wherefores of my own culture, that I didn’t readily have an answer for beyond, “Geez, you know, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that…” That is, when they got the culture right. A lot of people would see a white face and assume my country was America.

I wasn’t driven to rage by this, like some expats, but it did drive home the point that it’s kind of uncomfortable to be elevated–without being asked if I was competent for the job–to the level of Representative of The West. Besides that, it was also sometimes embarrassing because some of the questions I was asked had weird assumptions underpinning them, such as that Westerners are hypersexual, or that the Western emphasis on individualism was sort of all the way over into Ayn Rand, “selfishness is a virtue” territory, or that Western feminism is somehow just an essential part of Western culture, rather than a consciously constructed political movement that only recently achieved anything tangible in the lives of women.

When asking questions, one needs to be careful not to just check privilege, but also to check one’s preconceptions.

Second, people can live a culture 24/7, and have insights about certain things that you would never find in a book, and still be terrible sources of other kinds of information. The classic example in Korea is when the foreigner asks, “Why do Korean people prefer not to sleep with a fan on at night?” You’ll get ten different answers from ten different people. There is no consensus, beyond the idea that doing so can kill you. (That belief is dying out among young people, by the way, but it is a real belief.)

The average person on the street is a great resource for common beliefs; he or she is often a terrible resource for actual historical facts. 

Third, certain topics are hot-button issues. Like, for example, the consumption of dog meat as a part of Korean custom. You get told things like that it’s a remnant of the starvation and desperation experienced in the Korean War. (But then why is it more expensive than regular meat? Why is there a folklore surrounding it about resistance to hot weather, and as a medicinal aid to male virility?) Most Koreans actually don’t seem to know anything about the history of dog meat consumption in Korean culture precisely because it’s a hot button issue in their society. (For the record, anecdotally, I’d say Korean society is split about 50/50 between people who eat dog, and people who object to the practice.) What I’m saying is: especially with topics that are hot button issues, you’re even less likely to get a sensible answer from the “man [or woman] on the street.”

(I’ll also conjecture that in a postcolonial society (like South Korea), it is precisely those aspects of a culture perceived by its members to conflict with “progress” and “modernization”–with implicit Westernization included–that will provoke the most anxiety… and the more anxious a society is about some element of its culture, the more nonsense you will hear when you as about that element. Korea’s longstanding history of slavery–one of the longest-running and pervasive slaveholding regimes on Earth, during parts of its history–is another area where you will either encounter bafflement (because that part of history has been faded to insignificance in general memory)… or you will at least hear a lot of nonsense, and very little helpful information. Even many Korean academics are notoriously defensive about the issue of Korea’s slaveholding system…)

Which is to say that:

Sometimes, you learn as much or more from the emotional tenor of a response to a question as you do to the claims made in the answer. 

Fourth, all of this first point is complexified further by the reality that is the fact that in some cultures, saying, “Geez, you know, I don’t know,” is not the done thing… I found that often in Korea, people  gave me either the received-truth answer (which wasn’t historically accurate), or else made up an answer when they didn’t know. Sometimes the motivation was for them not to feel embarrassed not knowing the answer to my question; sometimes, because offering an answer–even a made-up one–was perceived as more polite than “I dunno!”; sometimes, because individuals saw the question as an invitation to display patriotism rather than as an inquiry into facts; and, I imagine, sometimes because people were likely annoyed at being made spokespersons for their cultures; but often, because they felt obliged to provide me with an answer, some answer, any answer. 

Which is to say: sometimes people are going to “help” you in ways that are less than helpful. Be sure to tell anyone you’re asking for help that it’s okay not to have a good answer to your question, and try to have done enough research before asking around, to know what follow-up questions to ask when you get unlikely-sounding answers.

Those are my thoughts, on a more nitty-gritty level, in response to Ellen Oh’s post. And at the length I’ve reached, I imagine she knows all this, but wanted to write a shorter post. Ah well… maybe it’ll be of use to someone, as part of the ongoing #DiversityinSFF discussion.

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