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Writing Excuses 6.15: Writing Other Cultures

Writing Excuses 6.15: Writing Other Cultures


Key points: approach it with integrity, authenticity, and research. Beware the homogenous culture -- remember the Klingon belly dancer! Ultimately, we are all human. Don't write to the stereotype or to the average. Do the research, wed it to an understanding of people, and build interesting characters who feel right. Give them something else to care about, something else at stake. A character whose identity is "The Other" has no identity.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode World Con 2. Writing other cultures.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] Ha! Surprise, surprise. I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Lauren Beukes. Hello, Lauren. Thank you for sitting on the podcast with us. Sorry we're so goofy. Lauren is a Campbell Award nominee. Has two novels out, the first one called Moxyland and the second one called Zoo City. Dan says they're absolutely fantastic. So we're going to have him tell us about them in a little bit. But for right now, we're going to talk about writing other cultures. You suggested this podcast. Why, Lauren, did you suggest this podcast? What about it appeals to you?
[Lauren] Because I have... I did something quite contentious with Zoo City. I'm a white South African, and I wrote a protagonist who is a black South African. Which was... I was quite freaked out. I was worried that people would see that as a very bad thing. That... How dare I and how dare I speak for other cultures?
[Brandon] How has the reaction actually been? You said you're worried about it. Has it... Did you get that reaction you were expecting?
[Lauren] No, I didn't. I saw one blog post where someone was like, "Oh, there's this white South African chick and she's writing this thing with a black protagonist. I'm not so sure about that." But since I've written the book, everyone has reacted very, very positively so far. Including kind of the black literary community in South Africa.
[Brandon] Oh, that's excellent.
[Lauren] Which is great, but I think there are a number of reasons why there's been that kind of response, which we can get into.
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, let's start getting into them. How does one go about writing a culture that one is not part of? What did you do first?
[Lauren] Well, the first thing I did was live in South Africa, which helped quite a lot. So I'm very much kind of immersed in it, if not from that specific race. I think what... Writers write about other people all the time. We write about other genders, we write about other careers, we write about very dark scary people like serial killers, we write about heroes which are way beyond our capability, or certainly beyond mine. I think it's a matter of several factors. It's about approaching it with integrity, it's about doing it with authenticity, and it is about doing research. I did a radio interview recently. The woman ahead of me was... She was a poet, and she had written this book about... She had just visited Amsterdam, and she had written this book of poetry about sex workers in the red light district. She wrote about how she got into their heads, and what it felt like when the red light turned on for the first time, and how this affected these women deep down. The number of sex workers she actually interviewed or even had a cup of coffee with? Zero. That's just beyond the pale, it's not acceptable at all.

[Brandon] Dan? Writing a sociopath? How did you write a sociopath, not being one?
[Dan] Well, that's not really pertinent to this topic, because it was all autobiographical.
[Brandon] You are... You've been lying to us all this time!
[Dan] Mwah-hah-hah.
[Mary] Put down that knife.
[Howard] Just after we locked the back doors.
[Dan] So. First 10 people who something get to leave alive. I started writing a sociopath... Honestly, that was not super hard for me, and... This is... I don't know why not. Because sociopaths are basically normal people that can't filter their emotions and their thoughts as effectively as we can, and can't perceive emotions from other people as effectively as we can. I say "we" in a very strategic manner in that sentence. So really, it comes down to what Lauren was saying, of doing research. I set the book in a very small town in Midwest America. I live in Utah, so everyone who is not from Utah assumes I live in a very small town anyway. But I had to do a lot of research there. What is it like to live in a small town? What is the culture like? Finding all of these touch points and then just making sure that they get inserted there. Everyone in my book works at the same place because there's only one place in town to work. That's something that a lot of people have clued into, and said, "That was exactly like my town. We all went to the same high school. We grew up, and we all worked at the same factory." So doing your research is the way to get this done.

[Brandon] This is a really interesting topic because this is a... themed mostly towards science fiction and fantasy, our podcast is. A lot of times when you're writing science fiction and fantasy, we are writing very out there sort of things. New cultures, new races, all these things. In a lot of ways, that's easier, much easier, than writing a familiar culture that you're not part of. Because when I write a weird fantasy race, I can't get it wrong. No one can stand up and say, "Well, I lived there, and guess what, Mister Sanderson." Then I would say, "You are obviously living in a land of delusion. You should be reading Dan's books." But not...
[Dan] I hope you do say that.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, I definitely do, all the time. But that's actually in some ways... People ask me about research and doing research for my books. The big dirty secret is I hate doing research, and so I make stuff up. I write books where I can make stuff up so I don't have to do all this hard work. It is hard work to get this right. Mary?

[Mary] Well, one thing that I was thinking about, that I really particularly liked in Zoo City, was that you don't depict it as a homogenous culture. That's one of the places that I think a lot of people fall down, when they're trying to write another culture, is that they go from just one source. It's about showing a breadth of humanity, a wide swath. Because not everybody is the same. Like Star Trek drives me... The Star Trek alien race... Everybody in the alien race has exactly the same viewpoint. I really want to see the Klingon belly dancer. You know what I mean?
[Brandon] Yeah, the Klingon... Or even something simple.
[Dan] I do too, but for very different reasons. Yeah. You see this in fantasy all the time where every dwarf ever written is exactly like Gimli. Then... That's why I was so delighted a few months ago to hear Tracy Hickman talk about a book he had written that was kind of set in this very kind of fantasy world, but the dwarf in his town just wanted to be a dancer, and wanted someone to dance with him at the town hall parties. That's the most original dwarf ever written since Gimli. Because it wasn't this monoculture idea. So the principles we're talking about of writing in another culture can apply to any genre fiction you're writing as well.

[Lauren] Well, I actually have an interesting story about that, which is that I hired my friend Zukiswa Wanner ( who is an amazing South African writer. She's won several prizes. I hired her to be my cultural editor. I said, "Listen, can you just read this book and make sure that I've got it right?" So she read it, and she came back with like pages and pages of notes, including stuff on Johannesburg, which is a melting pot culture. It's not homogenous at all, it's an amazing city. Including stuff like, "Oh, no, Zinzi goes downstairs and she buys a Stuyvesant. She would never buy a Stuyvesant. The cigarette you buy on the streets in Johannesburg is a Remington Gold." I'm like, "Oh, great, fantastic, I'll write that down." I got to the end of her notes and I was like... I phoned her and I was like, "Zukiswa, you haven't answered my main question." She was like, "Well, what's your main question?" I'm like, "Is Zinzi black enough?" She laughed at me. Because she said, "What is black enough? There are so many different ways of being black." That is not to say that race and culture and gender and sexuality are not really big important parts of who we are, but ultimately we are all human. If you build a character, you have to factor all those things in because they are lenses and it's a way of experiencing the world and it shapes who you are, but it is not all of who you are. So what she turned around and said to me was like, "Okay, don't worry if she's black enough. Worry if she's Zinzi enough. And don't worry, you're fine."

[Brandon] I think that's fantastic advice. In fact, that's... We talk about... We've done podcasts about writing the opposite gender and things like that. We keep coming back to the idea that if you try to write someone as the perfect version of whatever you're doing, they're actually going to be unreal. Because you're going to write to the average, and they're going to be this like average uninteresting person, and averages...
[Howard] Well, I mean, you're going to write to the stereotype, and they're going to be offensive.
[Brandon] Yeah, you're going to write to the stereotype.
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Well, not even... Even if they don't get offensive, not every person... How shall we say? None of us fulfill every attribute of what we are maybe stereotyped or expected to be. That's okay. That's what makes us real. The average person in the world has fewer than two arms. Right? Because if you pull the average, you know someone out there has fewer than two arms. So the average is actually no... Not really what a person is. When you write to the average, suddenly what you're going to get is, you're going to get this thing that even if it's true in any one given aspect, nobody out there doesn't deviate in some way. Nobody doesn't act... I mean, I've got... Moshe, my editor? He's pretty Jewish. He's pretty Jewish as Jewish people go. But you know what? He's got so many weird deviations that everyone of us have. That's what I think we're getting at, is make them a character first. Certainly, they should have some of the things from their culture that are, in their culture because that's... You know. But they shouldn't have every one. They should be deviant in some way.

[Mary] One question that I wanted to ask was... When you were doing the research... I think that's one area that is difficult. I also have just finished a novel in which my main character is a young African-American woman, and spent a year researching it before I started in. So I'm curious about, when you're approaching research, what sorts of materials did you dive into?
[Lauren] I read a lot of books by black South African writers, especially kind of because I wanted Zinzi's background to be very authentic. So I read memoirs by people like Fred Khumalo about growing up in KwaZulu-Natal during the politics of the 80s. I also did a lot of research, actually going into Hillbrow, which is the inner-city slum where Zoo City is set. I went with a fixer and I just walked around and I talked to people.
[Mary] You went with a what?
[Lauren] I'm sorry. A fixer. It's a facilitator for a journalist. They're a security guard slash translator slash person who knows the neighborhood really, really well. Because Hillbrow is quite a dangerous area, but I think... It's... What we forget is that it's also someplace people live. That's what shows like The Wire do so effectively, is they put a human face to tragedy and to issues that we are so fatigued with.
[Howard] Fixer, you say? I think I just found a new mercenary for the company. This was research.
[Brandon] I'm going to go ahead... Yes. We get our research by stealing like thieves from the people on our podcast.

[Brandon] Okay. We're going to go ahead and do two books of the week this week. We're actually going to have Mary talk about Zoo City instead. Dan actually read Moxyland, but we want to talk about Zoo City because this is the one that the podcast is about. So tell us why Zoo City is awesome. It is not on audible yet. But you can go buy it in the bookstores. So why is it awesome?
[Mary] You can read it on paper. One of the things that I personally loved about it was in fact that it had a protagonist who was not yet another young white heroine. The other thing that I loved about it was the magical conceit which is that when you had done something terrible, you get a... Basically a... Soul animal is not the word she uses, but it's this familiar that stays with you and... It's a fascinating magical conceit. So you're marked, it's like a scarlet letter. Because you have this animal. You have no choice about what the animal is.
[Brandon] That's cool. That's awesome. That is way awesome.
[Mary] It's incredibly awesome. The whole book is this very gritty mystery. She does not pull any punches. I have to tell you, this is a dark and brutal book at times, but there are also moments of just unbelievable tenderness and joy in it. It's a wonderful book. Can't recommend it enough.
[Lauren] Thank you.

[Brandon] Okay. Lauren, we're going to let you actually promo a book for audible, because we want to promo a book that people can go download. You were going to talk about Fangland?
[Lauren] Vampires get so tedious and overdone. I think Twilight has done so much harm. But there is a wonderful book I read a little while ago called Fangland by John Marks. It takes the Dracula myth and it retells it in contemporary society. It takes Nina and recasts her as a 60 Minutes producer. She goes to Romania to investigate a crime lord. Is so hard-hitting and wonderful. It's really intelligent. What it is actually about is human atrocity. It's about genocide. Dracula kind of is the manifestation of all the terrible evil that we do to ourselves and to each other. It's just a smart, devastating, very kind of high concept book. I loved it.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Howard] So head on out to You can listen to Fangland. Download a free... Start a free trial membership, download Fangland, listen to it for free on the recommendation of the inimitable Lauren Beukes. Or if you're listening to this podcast deep in our archives, it's entirely possible that Zooland is also available.
[Brandon] Zoo City.
[Howard] Zoo City or Moxyland are available.
[Brandon] Yeah, we'll let you know when they're out. We'll keep an eye on it. Because they are being recorded. They're just not out yet. You might as well just look and see if it's there.

[Brandon] Okay. So let's keep going on this concept with the writing other cultures. And doing it the... Oh, Howard?
[Howard] I had somebody come up to my booth today and say, "Mister Tayler, you''ve never actually been a mercenary, right?" Highest praise I can possibly get. He proceeded to regale me with story after story of his dealings with actual mercenaries back in the 70s and the 80s, before it was legal for an American citizen to work as a mercenary overseas. Yeah, it's a culture. It's its own society. How did I get it right? I don't really know. I researched a lot of military stuff. But what I came back to was we are all people. We all have... We all have appetites, we all have passions, we all do dumb stuff, we all do smart stuff, we flub our lines, we get our lines exactly right... Hi, Dan.
[Dan] Hey. I'm not that smart.
[Brandon] We totally didn't cut out a part of this broadcast. No, we never do that.
[Dan] No. Never happens, because we never do anything wrong.
[Howard] But the research... I think the way I got it right, besides being incredibly lucky, was taking the research and wedding it to an understanding of just people, and building interesting characters who felt right.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, I actually... Did you have something to say on that?
[Lauren] Yeah. I mean, I was a journalist for a very, very long time. That gave me so much exposure to the world. It was like a backstage pass to the world. I would spend a lot of time in the townships. I would interview everyone from electricity cable thieves to homeless sex workers through to very high up politicians staying in six star guesthouses. I like to think of that research and exposure... Not just to society but to people and different kinds of people... Really influenced my writing.

[Brandon] Excellent. I have like one last question. This has been itching in my mind this entire podcast, which we kind of touched on. But again, I like to get down and say how do you do this? I want to ask, how do you not overdo it? We mentioned making people a stereotype, but it seems like one way you could do this wrong is make the entire book about that culture. If that makes sense. Rather than telling a story set in the culture, making the book all about the culture. You... It feels like you could go overboard... Way overboard, so the whole book just becomes kind of comical. How do you avoid doing that?
[Lauren] I don't know. I think I'm at a big advantage because I'm writing about my country and to a certain extent, my culture. Certainly like a culture I interact with on a daily basis. I have friends who are black. I know that's a terrible cliche in the US. I have a half brother who is black. So I feel like I've really had some kind of insights, and that and actually just writing about people I know.
[Brandon] Okay. Mary?
[Mary] I actually ran into this with the first outline draft of the book I'm working on now. I ran it past David Anthony Durham, who was the Campbell winner two years ago. One of the things that he said was that you need to give them something else to care about. Something else is at stake. The story is about something else. Their culture is the world that they live in, and that's not... It's like... My story is not about being a white woman. You know, my own personal narrative. It is about having to run to the far end of the convention center to get extension cords because people forgot them for this podcast. But it's giving them something that is at stake that has nothing to do with their culture. Then watching the ways that that interacts... Those two things come into conflict with each other.

[Brandon] There's actually a really great essay I read online... I actually forgot who wrote it, but you can look it up... It was about Smurfs and dogs and cats...
[Lauren] I think it was on Max Barry, wasn't it?
[Brandon] Yeah, that sounds right. Yeah. With the idea being... You can just go read this, I don't have time to repeat it all, and I shouldn't, he wrote it really well. ( But the idea being that if you make the other character, whether they're the protagonist or not... If you make the other character unique only because they are the other, then suddenly they lose all sense of identity. The idea is, Smurfette... You've got all these Smurfs that are cool because of something that they are... One is brainy, one is this, something unique about them. The girl is unique because she's a girl. That is a terrible cliche. But it falls in to what we do naturally when we write the other. We write, "Well, and they're the black guy" and these sorts of things. When someone is unique only because of being the other, you really run into this trouble. So that would be a suggestion I would look at. Read that essay, think about that concept.

[Brandon] We are out of time. But... Lauren, here's something we do to guests, and I'm going to do it to you.
[Lauren] Oh, dear God.
[Brandon] Yes, I know. But we're going to ask you for a writing prompt. If you can think of one. You just have to come up with something that people could write a story about. Just ask them a question or some concept. Make them do.
[Lauren] Take some aspect of your neighborhood. Twist it around in the same kind of way that district 9 twisted a suburb of Soweto around.
[Brandon] Okay. That's a great one. Thank you for being on the podcast, and thank you all for listening. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: authentic city, average, characters, homogenous culture, integrity, research, stereotype, unique
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