Thoughtful Thursday: Writing the Other

Terry Weyna and I attended the 2013 Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, California last week. The event focused mostly on the Saturday awards banquet, and programming was rather light, but I did attend a panel called “Writing the Other,” subtitled, “How do we write about what we cannot know?”

Ken Liu, moderator

Ken Liu, moderator

“Writing the Other” looked like the staff of a think-tank. Saladin Ahmed (Throne of the Crescent Moon), Kim Stanley Robinson, (2312, which won the Nebula), Ken Liu (“Paper Menagerie”) and Aliette de Bodard (who would win for the novelette “Immersion”) made up the panel.

Liu, who moderated, said that originally the theme of the panel had been how to write space aliens. Robinson said he agreed with Stanislaw Lem in Solaris; no one could write a believable space alien story because we wouldn’t ever be able to communicate with aliens. End of story. You can’t. De Bodard then weighed in with the argument that even if you could, you mustn’t, because “alien” equaled “non-human” and had been used as propaganda for centuries to dehumanize people of color and justify enslavement and genocide.

So, writing aliens: 1) You can’t, and 2) you shouldn’t anyway. While I was sighing deeply and writing “I am very disappointed right now,” in my notes, the panel went on to discuss the challenges of writing “the human other.” They did all agree that this could be done, although at least two of them, again, thought you probably shouldn’t, (although they had). This got pretty lively.

Saladin Ahmed raised an interesting issue when he talked about writing Islamic characters. Ahmed was raised Muslim and is Arab-American. When he wrote Throne of the Crescent Moon, he was not writing “the other.” He was writing what he knew. Those of us reading it who did not grow up in that culture might have been reading “the other.” A person in the audience, though, brought up the fact that Ahmed’s main character is an elder; elders might represent “the other” for Ahmed.

What do you think? Is there a benefit in writing about, and reading about, cultures that are different from your own? Are there risks? And, to you, just what is “the other,” anyway?

One commenter wins a book from our stacks.


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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

15 comments

  1. April /

    If nobody ever wrote ‘the other’, which is, essentially, something we cannot know first hand, then fantasy wouldn’t exist. According to your report of the panel, they believe that it is impossible to both know the other and write about it as well as politically incorrect to even want to do so. I have to disagree with that opinion. If we didn’t explore outside of our own heads, we’d all be fanatics of self (which would be an entirely different argument) and nobody would speak to each other and life would be pretty much meaningless.

    I think people should try scoping out the other. See what it might feel like, explore what others think and why they think that way.

  2. April, I might go a step further and say that if we didn’t venture out and try to imagine who people other than ourselves think/feel, then fiction wouldn’t exist.

  3. April /

    Agreed.

  4. sandyg265 /

    I have to agree with Marion. Even when an author writes human characters they are writting something other than themselves. Any fiction is going to be based on the writers experiences and imagination.

  5. One concern the panelists had was about bad writing of the other; that stereotypical writing is worse than not reaching out at all. There’s also a concern that people unconsciously (or consciously) write the alien, the other, in a way to support their own belief systems. What do you think?

  6. April /

    Of course there is always the danger that people will purposefully or unwittingly disparage or propagate stereotypes and that is definitely not something that is good in any way. But, if you don’t explore you’ll never expand your knowledge.

    I think that exploring the other should be done with eyes wide open and with thoughtful research. But you cannot limit people to only writing what they know in and of themselves. We’d stagnate and books would be boring.

    And then there is the readers’ perspective which is just as important. Readers interpret everything through their own views and as such change the work they are reading.

  7. Seth /

    In my non-SFF reading, I recently finished “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo. It’s an excellent narrative non-fiction account of life in an Mumbai slum, but written by a white American woman. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how the story might be different if written by an Indian. But unless you’re writing either an autobiography or fiction with a total author stand-in, you’re always writing from the outside in some way.

    With proper research, though, it can be done. Katherine Boo had to live in the slums, J.R.R. Tolkien had a lifetime of studying ancient legends, and Michael Crichton spent months in the library (and still came up wrong sometimes). They all did what you have to do when writing about another culture: try to get as close as possible for as long as you can, then take that step of hubris to act like an authority on what you’re writing about.

  8. I’d love to see a transcript of this as I’d guess we’re missing the nuances of the discussion. Of course one writes “the Other,” if by “Other” one means not oneself. Even a white guy writing about a white guy is likely to be writing about an “Other”–one’s married, one’s single; one’s a liberal, one’s a conservative, one’s a country mouse; one’s well, you get the idea. So you’re always writing outside your POV, whether its gender, class, race, time, culture, religion, food choice, sexual positions–the list is literally endless. So when one says “Other” in this context, really what one means is “Other as in those people who have had their voices silenced, distorted, erased, co-opted, etc.” Though again, that can grow into a pretty large list.

    I have a generally automatic “bridle” at the word “shouldn’t” or “mustn’t” applied to art. So I pretty much dismiss that argument out of hand. And I don’t think it adds much to say it shouldn’t be done because some do it badly or lazily. If that were the standard, what would we ever do?

    I also think the “shouldn’t” side of an argument seems to start from the premise that art is a monologue. But it isn’t. It’s a conversation. And even bad writing adds to the conversation (or allows for different conversations to be had).

    What it comes down to in my mind is that great simple declaration by Linda Loman that would solve so many troubles in the world: “Attention must be paid.” In this case, by the writer. By the reader. Both have to do their due diligence. The writer has to try their best to “see” the Other, to peer through the unconscious veil of their own persona. And the reader has to call out the ones who don’t.

    Is it often two steps forward, one step (or 1.5, 1/8, 1.99) back? Yep. But it is forward (hey, the dinosaurs had 133 million years of evolution on us and they were still eating each other at the end). And artists who engage the Other help get us there

  9. I’m glad Ahmed has Muslim characters in his book. It’s important for the entertainment industry (and publishing) to try to expand the minds of people who may only know Muslims for what they see on the nightly news.
    As for the panel, hasn’t de Bodard ever seen Star Trek? The show did a great job of teaching tolerance.

  10. Kevin B. /

    I’m going to echo the others here and say that if noone would ever write “the other” nothing would ever get written.

    The spec-fic genres are all about exploration, about the “what if?”. How can you properly do that without, well, exploring?

    Then there’s the issue of the lack of diversity in sci-fi and fantasy characters. How will you ever adress that if everyone sticks to writing “what he knows”?

  11. Unless you’re writing an autobiography, you’re writing the other. (And even then, actually, if there are other people in your autobiography.)

    Writers who are concerned about this issue can use their work to debunk stereotypes and propaganda.

  12. For me, “attention must be paid,” really sums it up. As writers, we should research well, use empathy, and try to write honestly– and our biases and mistakes will still show up.

  13. I think there’s more grey area in this than many people give it credit for. Yes, writing outside your scope of experiences in difficult, and has many opportunities to mess something up, but if we didn’t try, we wouldn’t learn to understand. We wouldn’t stretch our imaginations and writers or readers, or indeed as people.

    To say that we shouldn’t ever even try to write non-human cultures is bull, if you’ll excuse my frank honesty. Nobody should do it because people before us screwed it up? Is creating a non-human offworld culture any different than creating a non-human on-world culture in a fantasy novel? Why are so many people allowed to get away with that, then, but not to write offworlders? Are we allowed to base anything on anything else? Do American fantasy writers have to base their fantasy worlds on modern American culture, because otherwise they risk getting something wrong? To say that writers can’t and shouldn’t do these things is extremely limiting, not to mention insulting because it implies that we’re going to screw it up no matter how hard we try or how well we actually do. At least wait until someone’s guilty of the crime before arresting them!

    For me, ‘the other’ could be a white heterosexual male without mental illness or physical impairment. ‘The other’ is what many would consider perfectly normal, average. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing in their lives I can’t relate to, or that I wouldn’t enjoy reading about them. Just as I can and do enjoy reading about east Asian characters, Muslim characters, characters with disabilities, and characters who aren’t human. And I don’t appreciate being told that I, by default, could never write one of these characters because I’m not one of them either.

    I’d say it comes down to whether a person does it well. But even that’s subjective. But to say that it just shouldn’t be done is narrow and limiting, and means that above all else, nobody expands, nobody learns, and nobody shares experience. And what is speculative fiction for, if not those things?

  14. Seth,if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

  15. I identify as straight and I just wrote a story focusing on an LGBT relationship. I was surprised, on one hand, by how natural it felt to write about this relationship. “Love is love,” as people say. On the other hand, I was worried that I might write insensitively or unrealistically about this couple, or even that my decision to write these characters might be seen as co-opting a narrative that isn’t my own. Still, as Kat pointed out, everyone is the Other to us.

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  1. Marion and Terry report on the 2013 Nebula Awards Weekend | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] I covered “Writing the Other,” in Thoughtful Thursday. The panelists were Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Liu, who moderated, Aliette …

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