18 March 2016

Story status, and the Line between Appropriation and Erasure

I'm currently still working on The Towers of the Moon, the small collection of short stories in the Trifold world (showing what happens on the trip to France in between Pyramids and Tangleways).

I am so not a short story writer.

By which I mean I have so far written a novelette (Two Wings) and am halfway through a novella (Forfeit).  Then there should be an actual short story (possibly called The Queen of Hades if I don't outright call it Ned's First Kiss).

I started thinking about stories set in France while in Paris in 2014, walking along the Seine getting a feel for the landscape and wondering what would France look like in a world where local gods 'Answered' their people, effectively protecting and preserving many cultures that have been erased in our world?  Would it be steampunk Asterix and Obelix?

Okay, I never seriously considered steampunk Asterix and Obelix, but I would pay to see some concept art.

In the end, I chose for the gods of France to not Answer.  France instead was invaded - briefly by Rome, and then the people of the "Green Aesir" (which is what I've been calling the Germanic gods who are very very similar to the Nordic gods) - and later by the Cour d'lune, which are "sort of low gravity Fae dragon people", and don't call themselves gods at all.

Basically, I erased both France's true past, and her early cultural history, and replaced it with an invention of my own.

Writing the Trifold series - any alt-myth series - requires many decisions regarding appropriation and erasure.  I've been thinking this over lately after reading numerous thoughtful essays about JK Rowling's "History of Magic in Northern America", which appears to have involved conflation of multiple different traditions and beliefs.  The essays ask (or state an opinion on) whether it is ever okay to 'mine' other cultures for their beliefs in order to write fantasy.

Now I'm Swedish on my father's side, and Swedish/Danish/Scotch/French/English on my mother's side.  But mainly Australian.  I would not feel at all comfortable embarking on a series that used Australian Aboriginal cultures and beliefs as a basis - the closest I've come to that was a short story, Blue, that positioned the POV character as an outsider who is "welcomed to country" (a tradition that has grown up in Australia to acknowledge that we occupy a land stolen from its peoples).

But while I am not very French, my great-grandfather was.  Does that make France 'open season' for me?  I was born in Sweden: is Loki mine?  If a people runs around invading other countries and attempting to imprint its culture onto the locals (as Rome did), does that make their culture mine?  I'm using the Latin-based alphabet to write this blog, after all.  Half my language is based on Rome's.

And what of Hades?  Can I mine Greek myths, since Rome's gods apparently were rather strongly copied from Greek gods, just with judicious tweaks and renaming?  If I've had Rome's gods Answer, does that mean they're really the Hellenic gods?  And who gets to play in the traditions of Egypt, whose cultural disconnect was so complete that the language was lost - and yet Egypt is surely populated with the descendents of the people of Kemet.

At one point when thinking this through during the drafting of Pyramids I started wondering whether an alt-world/alt-myth series was really a good idea.  Or, at the least, whether I should confine the story very strictly to Sweden and England.  But that's a different form of erasure.  How could I start with our world, with its thousands of cultures, and only ever mention two?  That seemed rather the worse route to take.

The end result is a story that is primarily focused around cultures that I have some connection to, choosing to include cultures that have been part of the 'primary interchange' in Europe (eg. the Hellenes) while acknowledging that there is so much more world out there, and providing an outline of its shape.

This involves a heap of extra research.

The Trifold version of North America, for example, is called Stomruria (at least by the Norse, and the people who were first told about the place by the Norse).  For a book that does not mention that continent at all, I spent a lot of time researching First Nation tribal boundaries and beliefs, all because I wanted to acknowledge the place existed, and give a tiny glimpse of that vast continent by the inclusion of a Wabanaki fencing master (Wabanaki being a country in north-eastern Stomruria).

I don't intend for my characters to visit Stomruria at all in the series, but to write in this world at a point where all the continents are known and interacting with each other, I had to have some idea whether Stomrurian gods had Answered, which of them had Answered, what impact that had had on tribal boundaries, what those boundaries would be after a millenia or so, and what they would call themselves.

There isn't a way to get an alt world 'right'.  Not being completely, immensely, insultingly wrong involves much side-reading.  But I now know (or have at least read - my memory sucks) the names of many African kingdoms that I never knew existed.  I know which side of a continent 'Thunderbird' belongs to.  I now know about the Lady of Yue and her influence on the art of the sword.

Trying not to be insultingly wrong is a reward in itself.


  1. That's a terrific perspective on it. I've struggled mightily with the story I'm working on because two of my ghosts are Islamic. It made sense -- the hero is ex-military, who else would be haunting him? -- but I don't want to be disrespectful or insulting or insensitive and it feels like there are millions of ways to get things wrong. But I also hated the idea of doing something like making them Americans dead in a car accident, just so I wouldn't have to stress about writing another culture. I have learned a lot, though!

    1. Erasure and charicature are both very bad. A thoughtful attempt, even if imperfect, seems to me the least a writer can do.

  2. Reader only here, but I LOVE Jacqueline Carey's portrayal of what could be Europe Asia and (North) Africa were some magic/deity there in her Kushiel Saga. There is clearly no link between the religion there and in reality, but still, I think it is a great tribute to the wide cultural diversity.

    Thanks for taking care :-)

  3. Have you read Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country? If you're not familiar, it's a travelogue written by an American who lived for many years in England. As an American reader, I found it, for the most part, witty and charming. But I've often wondered what Australians make of it.

    As an outsider, I didn't have problems with the book, except for the section where Bryson tore down a teenage hotel clerk because the hotel had no vacancies. Cutting remarks about Canberra were fair game; capital cities are hardly powerless. But I thought it was inexcusable for the person controlling the narrative, the only one with a voice, to bully an anonymous hotel clerk when the balance of power was so uneven.

    Going back to your post, do you consider the degree to which the culture is endangered? The degree to which it still has a voice? In my mind, at least, there is a continuum between the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which have a billion heirs repeating and reinterpreting their mythology, and aboriginal cultures, which are under siege. The former seems like common property while the later seems like a minefield of ways to inadvertently offend.

  4. Yes, I've read most of Bryson's work. He's very funny, but also in many ways not a very nice person. I think In a Sunburned Country is pretty popular here.

    I think one of the more complex issues with appropriation is when a person not of that culture becomes an authoritative voice for that culture, subsuming the voices of those who identify with it.

    There's no correct answer for any of this, since so much of what forms part of many cultures has washed back and forth. Greek particularly is one where I've talk of people appropriating Greek culture, but those stories are the bedrock of other cultures (particularly when looking at Latin copy/paste cultural expansion).


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