Jan 15, 2009

[Culture and Fantasy]

The vast majority of fantasy is Eurocentric, almost universally told through the lens of European culture and mythos, with 'other' cultures used only as 'exotic flavor' or appropriated as foils for the main characters, not as fully fleshed voices of their own. How does this fact affect young fantasy readers from other cultures, and their ability to write their own fantasy stories from their own mythologies? Deepa D. describes her own experiences trying to create a fantasy novels from her own Indian perspective, and how difficult it is for people who try to break out of the Western-dominated fantasy formula:

When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern.

But there were no taverns in India. Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

There are far more eloquent writers who have pointed out how difficult it is to growing up reading books (and watching movies) about a culture alien to you, and how pernicious the influences thereof can be. I am lucky in that Indian culture is more widely represented in Western media than other colonised regions—when I talk about Bollywood in the yuletide chat room, there are people who have an idea about what I might be referring to, bastardised ideas of ‘pundit’ and ‘caste system’ and ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’ are present in the English vocabulary. Yet still, my ability to connect fannishly with people from different parts of the world is mediated through the coloniser’s language and representation. Enid Blyton, with her hideous caricatures of African tribal boys helping the intrepid British children is read from Johannesburg to Jaipur—Iktomi stories are not.

These imbalances of power are what frustrate me in several discussions regarding issues of representation and diversity in writing that I’ve seen recently.

The rest of the thought-provoking essay is here.

I think the true potential of Fantasy as a genre is rather stunted by the fact that Tolkein's worldbuilding conventions are used almost universally, while there is no similar work for non-European mythologies to use as a foundation. This results in the genre being dominated by only one style of culture, which tends to treat and view anything from outside as 'alien' or 'other', rather than those views ever being used as stories in and of themselves.