Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Response to Deepad's Open Letter:

My response to Deepad's Open Letter:

Hi.

First and foremost, thanks for responding, especially considering your initial reactions, and how you find it unproductive engaging with strangers. To be honest, I was looking for constructive feedback, and the only place that linked to my essay was http://intranationalities.dreamwidth.org/, and it's a locked community, so I didn't know if people were praising me or ranting at me (and based from the comments in your post, it seems more of the latter).

Right from the outset, let me admit my faults. Heart of Darkness was a bad choice on my part. And it's a bad choice because I haven't read it. Shoot me now for using it as an example, not because of the points you raised, but because of the fact that I used a book I hadn't read as an example. People will mock me for this, and they deserve to.

(And at this point, it strikes me that I'm digging my own grave the more I speak.)

Okay, The Good Earth, that I've actually read. Haven't seen the movie though, so can't really comment on how it's being used as a precedent to for the upcoming Avatar movie. Did I find some of the text problematic? Yes. Is it perfect, in whatever context you prefer? No, definitely not. But I'd like to think it has some merits, no matter how small. Although each reader does have to ask the question whether the good points of the book outweighs the bad. For me, I'd like to think of it like Star Trek. Progressive for its time, not so progressive when viewed from today's paradigm.

For the sake of establishing culpability, my essay used horrible examples. Let me be transparent about my faults.

As for Vikram Seth, haven't read his works, and for all I know, he should indeed be lauded. But as you pointed out, we don't live in an egalitarian world. But I understand your point. Buck gets praised because she's a privileged writer, Seth isn't. Still, that brings me to my thesis: is it permissible for writers to write about a culture that's not their own?

As for my usage of small awareness of the literature of other cultures, well yes, I'm making a generalization, but here's how I see it: yes, each nation is aware of its neighbors to a certain extent: China is aware of Russia's literature, Korea is aware of Japan's literature, etc. But compared to the entire world, that's just a few countries out of hundreds. I'm from the Philippines for example, and I know a bit of Chinese literature and Japanese literature, and I'll be the first to admit that I know nil when it comes to Indian literature, Romanian literature, Australian literature, etc. (And yes, it is also unfair that Western literature is prominent in a disproportionate amount compared to other countries.) I think I was fair in my statement that there is a "small but growing awareness" and that's not tied to any specific culture or nation.

As for placing writers above readers, as I cited in my essay, cultural mistakes aren't excusable. If you feel someone did something wrong, people are free to correct the author. Which is also why we're having this exchange, and why I want to thank you for taking the time to point out the flaws in my essay. Instead, what I'm calling for is level-headed discussion. You could easily have rambled and used many swear words in your open letter (and some would say you're justified in doing so). But you didn't. That's what I want to espouse. It's not placing writers above readers (although my writing might be that bad that that's the impression you're getting), or that writers automatically get a free pass when making mistakes.

As for Germany and ethnocentrism, I'd like to think the latter led to ultranationalism, hence anti-Semitism and genocide, but at this point, it feels like nitpicking for me. It's almost midnight here, and I'm too tired to argue this point, so feel free to chide me on not doing enough research on this part if you want.

This entire response, however, sidesteps my thesis. So what's your opinion on what was supposed to be my main theme, which is whether it's permissible for someone to write about a culture that's not their own? Is it bullshit, or if the answer is yes, what are your qualifications before one does so?

27 comments:

Jha said...

Considering that we have answered the question over and over again, I think your focus on this thesis is starting to border on completely ridiculous. I'll repeat myself for clarity's sake, which, in a nutshell, runs as follows:

Of course it is permissible, but be prepared for criticism if you get it wrong. Which is a good thing. And be aware that if you have privilege, you have the power to be taken more seriously than a person who is from that culture itself. Which is a bad thing.

The discussions of qualifications and writerly sensitivities are completely irrelevant and only detract from the writing process, within which only two things matter: 1) Do Your Research and 2) Check Your Privilege.

Anything else is just asking for trouble beyond the scope of your question.

N. K. Jemisin said...

Charles, I'll leave it for Deepa to decide if she wants to respond to you, but I want to point out something I'm getting out of your discussion.

You have not done your research. You keep insisting that RaceFail didn't adequately discuss the issue of whether writers are permitted to write about other cultures, when in fact that was the bulk of RaceFail. Heck, there's a whole book on this subject which predates RaceFail, which apparently you haven't heard of either. (Here's the short version.) Possibly because you didn't pay attention until people got angry. Which is fine -- but the remedy for your ignorance is not to pester other people to explain again what's already been explained ad nauseum, but to educate yourself by reading the existing material.

Oh, and --

Instead, what I'm calling for is level-headed discussion. You could easily have rambled and used many swear words in your open letter (and some would say you're justified in doing so). But you didn't. That's what I want to espouse.

-- please, please, please, avoid variations on the Tone Argument while you're at it, because that just makes it even more clear that you don't know anything about the RaceFail you're critiquing.

CMC said...

No, there is nothing that stops a writer writing about another culture/race/nation. The issue of writers, especially Western and white writers, is that there is a HEAVY political legacy. Misrepresentation isn't just about getting the facts wrong. Politics of representation is very clear in the history of the Philippines and other colonized nations. For the longest time, Philippine history was written by the colonizers and how we see ourselves and how others saw ourselves. Even today, their "representations" of Filipinos still embedded in our consciousness. Filipinos being "lazy and untrustworthy". And even when intentions are good, this burden of Orientalism and colonialism cannot be easily unburdened by the Modern Western white writer.

In the end, writers do not write about things that they do not know. Write about things that they believe is TRUE. So the question "what's your opinion on what was supposed to be my main theme, which is whether it's permissible for someone to write about a culture that's not their own? Is it bullshit, or if the answer is yes, what are your qualifications before one does so?" is utterly superficial. That is not a question a true writer asks.

aliettedb said...

Pre-WWII/WWII Germany is pretty much textbook ethnocentrism: Hitler started out as someone who wanted to give back their pride to the German, and then it sort of really mutated along the way. The Nazis had a numbered list of which races were superior to which (the most superior one being the Aryans, of course, and the Jews and the Gypsies being somewhere near the bottom), and came to the conclusion they had to purify the racial makeup of their country. In their enthusiasm to cleanse Germany, they bundled in deviant behaviours such as homosexuality as well.
Had they had more time to expand, they'd have found a lot of other races to put into concentration camps....

And if you want another example of ethnocentrism gone horribly wrong, try WWII Japan. A lot of Asian countries still remember what Japanese nationalist pride led to...

aliettedb said...

By "really mutated", I mean of course, "grew really worse" (Hitler probably had this in mind all along, but the German people didn't--they elected him on a much more subdued platform than the one he later implemented--admittedly with the tacit agreement or active support of a lot of Germans by that time).

Robert N. Lee said...

"You have not done your research. "

You didn't even read his fucking posts, if you can say that. Typical Failer, all full o' shit to say about shit you ain't read.

Maria said...

Haha, who are you calling a failer, considering that the OP is the one commenting on shit he hasn't read?

Robert N. Lee said...

Yeah, "I'm rubber and you're glue" doesn't work on me any better than accusing me of a "Tone Argument" does.

I should apologize, as I read in haste and didn't realize that was Ms. Jemsin I was responding to. I have read your work, and do respect you for that, whatever our strong disagreement in these matters. So I should have taken a different tone with you, and I'm sorry for that.

That voice is for haters only.

Anonymous said...

When a bunch of geeks told Larry Niven about a physics error in Ringworld (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringworld#Instability), he didn’t go sulking into a corner and say “because of you meanies, I’ll never write hard SF again”; he took his lumps and wrote another book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ringworld_Engineers) where he acknowledged the error in the introduction.



Why are non-scifi writers such hacks that they can't do something like that? Does criticism really need so much butthurt? Is "Okay, we fucked up, let's improve the next time. I'm sorry" THIS hard?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps because "errors" in presentation and interpretation aren't as easily objectively shown to be "errors", given the inherent subjectivity of such, as errors in physics and other hard sciences that are not based on personal perceptions and interpretations?

Robert N. Lee said...

Perhaps because that's a real error and not a personal attack based on bullshit a mob made up?

Charles said...

Honestly, I feel the outing (whether one actually happened or not) isn't relevant to the discussion at hand.

deepad said...

Charles: I appreciate the clarification regarding Heart of Darkness. My suggestion would be that you link this post to the original one, so that future readers do not continue to believe you are knowingly suggesting that the book be taken as an example of good Writing the Other.

As for the question you directed at me, you will find that I answered it in one of the first posts I wrote during the 2009 discussion you critiqued. It was addressed to the white people asking it of me, but I believe the same principle holds true for any writer wishing to write about a culture less represented than their own.

There are a number of things you have said in this post and the last, and in comments, that lead me to suspect that any further discussion about the subject would only lead to my feeling frustrated and upset, so I will leave it at this, and wish you well with the good work you are doing trying to increase the visibility of Filipino SFF.

rcloenen-ruiz said...

Charles, with regards to your question about writing a culture not your own, I think it's important for the writer to ask himself: why do I want to write about this culture.

No one is preventing anyone from writing another culture. The sincere writer will do their best to research and gain in-depth knowledge, however, even after intensive research, it's quite possible that people from that culture will feel that the writer is doing it wrong. If that's so, all the writer can do is accept the criticism, apologize and do better next time.

Heck, this is also a possibility when writing about your own culture. If we aren't ready to accept criticism, if our souls are so fragile that we crumple up for fear of criticism then we shouldn't be writers.

CMC says something that I feel is important to consider when a dominant culture writes about a minority one.

On the other side of the board, I think that Science Fiction and Fantasy has always been about exploring and engaging strange cultures (invented and real). What kind of culture would an extraterrestrial being have? Nobody knows. Still, we try our best to depict that otherness by referencing our own experience of being strangers in a place that isn't home.

Robert N. Lee said...

"There are a number of things you have said in this post and the last, and in comments, that lead me to suspect that any further discussion about the subject would only lead to my feeling frustrated and upset"

Po' widdle girl. We wouldn't want you to feel frustrated and upset, now, would we? That might "trigger" you. And then you might write a Dreamwidth post, and the world would tremble.

You might want to read the other thread, because I don't believe *you've* ever read "Heart of Darkness" from your descriptions, either, whoever you really are.

Robert N. Lee said...

Oh, and BTW, I'm loving watching a bunch of white Americans on these threads telling a Filipino in the Philippines what being an oppressed minority is like.

Uh, folks? Charles Tan did more to advance the recognition of non-white and other minority genre writers and writing last week than the lot of you will ever do, combined. He's earned a lot of respect from me, just because of the work he does.

What'd you do last week, aside from slander somebody famous on Dreamwidth with your BFFs?

Robert N. Lee said...

BTW, everybody did notice that "Deepa D" just took three longish paragraphs to say absolutely nothing at all, right?

silviamg said...

"Oh, and BTW, I'm loving watching a bunch of white Americans on these threads telling a Filipino in the Philippines what being an oppressed minority is like."

The bulk of the people replying here are non-white international authors: Jha, Aliette, Deepa, CMC, rcloenen-ruiz, Tariq, myself. N. K. Jemisin is African-American.

Robert N. Lee said...

Yeah, I'm aware there are some actual writers who've drunk the Kool-Aid on this bullshit. Although I wasn't familiar with you before, and you've got a CV, too, excellent. We even have some publishers in common.

Other than that, I got a bunch of anonymous trolls claiming to be exciting things. Like trolls do.

Oh, and some people who published something in something somewhere, once, but...that ain't an "author," FYI. And writing a lot of blog posts or fanfic doesn't make you one, either.

Oh, and just to be really clear about this: I don't care how good a writer you are, where you're from, or what your story is. If you lie about my friends or spread those lies, you're also a liar. If you can do nothing when challenged on those lies but cut and past bingo card crap in lieu of discussion...sucks to be you, I guess. I used to be religious, myself.

Robert N. Lee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kate Nepveu said...

For the blog owner:

Since Robert N. Lee (in his comment of 4/24/2010 12:13 AM) has explicitly admitted that he is outing a blogger's legal name against that blogger's wishes, I hope that you will immediately delete the comment.

Will Shetterly said...

For the blog owner (I love that phrase):

Coffeeandink was outing herself for years, and did not stop until four days *after* she accused people of "outing" her. See the pseudo-pseudonymity of Coffeeandink. (Which, for those who are tender about these things, does not have any clues to her legal identity. When I believed she had meant to be pseudonymous, I apologized for "outing" her, took her name off my blog, and promised I would not "out" her. I stand by that vow, though I acknowledge that's rather foolish of me given that she continues to claim she was outed.)

Robert N. Lee said...

"Since Robert N. Lee (in his comment of 4/24/2010 12:13 AM) has explicitly admitted that he is outing a blogger's legal name against that blogger's wishes, I hope that you will immediately delete the comment."

OMG, YOU USED MY NAME, YOU RAPED ME!!!

Grownups are talking. Go cut and paste your scripts at somebody who cares.

Will Shetterly said...

"When a bunch of geeks told Larry Niven about a physics error in Ringworld (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringworld#Instability), he didn’t go sulking into a corner and say “because of you meanies, I’ll never write hard SF again”; he took his lumps and wrote another book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ringworld_Engineers) where he acknowledged the error in the introduction."

There is a difference between physics and modern anti-racism. One's verifiable. The other is an ideology that's been rejected by many people who have studied race. My favorite essay on the subject is Thandeka's Why Anti-Racism Will Fail, but my favorite quote is by Walter Benn Michaels, who noted, "all the anti-racism in the world won't take any money away from the rich and won't give any of it to the poor."

I put "a beginner's guide to criticizing anti-racism, whiteness studies, and Critical Race Theory" at my blog recently for anyone who would like more links.

Dee said...

I do hope that Robert N. Lee lets us all know when his book is published, so I can avoid it as emphatically as possible. You're not only an incredibly unpleasant person, but you're scorching the earth of your "friend"'s blog here.

Charles said...

This has honestly become a "let's air our grievances" comments section, which is the last thing I wanted.

Also, Robert, thanks for taking a stand, your content (not all of it but most of it) and tone is antagonist and has derailed the conversation.

It's probably best to drop it, and at this point, no one's willing to talk.

Charles said...

Closing the comments section now.