About davidbrookesuk

David Brookes is an English writer living in Sheffield. His first novel "Half Discovered Wings" was published in 2009 - more details at his website http://www.spinninglizard.co.uk

Cultural appropriation or cultural representation?

Part 3 of a 3-part post about cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


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Appropriation or representation?

Following on from last week, I’m going to jump straight in with a snippet from this article from the Guardian, which first quotes author Courttia Newland, then author Ahdaf Soueif:

“The issue isn’t whether or not [white writers] are given the right to create characters of colour. Rather, it is whether they do it well and the privilege that comes with being enabled to tell stories that writers of colour are routinely marginalised for.”

Newland said white writers must recognise the privileged position from which they write, and understand the basis of accusations of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation is about power, or the lack of acknowledgment thereof, and respect,” he added. “There’s a reason Eminem largely escapes that type of criticism and Miley Cyrus doesn’t. It’s mainly to do with their actions.”

Booker-shortlisted author Ahdaf Soueif said: “In the end, what it comes down to is: are you going to write well or not? I think a novelist should be able to write about anything or anybody they like.”

“People and countries like Egypt and Palestine are used by writers as if they were simply stage sets, backdrops on which they can write their fantasies,” Soueif continued. “It is problematic, but it is not a problem to be solved by some kind of edict that says you can only write white male characters if you are a white male. The problem is far more subtle than that.”

A subtle problem indeed. If we approach the issue with a hammer and say “it’s wrong to write outside of your own ethnicity and experience” then we may as well stop writing. As with Tibetan monks (see my last post), chunks of humanity will fail to be represented simply because there are far fewer talented writers willing to represent their groups. I’m not suggesting that they need a privilaged white saviour to step in for them. I’m suggesting that a hammer approach will harm diversity, not help it.

A hard approach in the writer’s favour would be like that of Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2003, Serpent’s Tail). Shriver caused her own furore last year when she essentially said that writers should be able to write about anything they want to. “That’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes,” she said.

Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately wrote a rawly honest rebuttal, in which she said that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.

Although Abdel-Magied made the fine point that those with actual experience should be given the opportunities to tell their own stories, she fails to offer any solutions, or explain why exactly the writer stepping in is so terrible. I wrote earlier in this series of posts about the bias that comes from filtering another’s experience through our own. Again, we have lost focus of the argument: Is it bad that marginalised groups don’t have the same opportunities? Undoubtedly. But that is not the question. The question is: Is it wrong for me to at least try?

There seems to be the assumption that writers don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, many don’t. But how about if I spent a week interviewing a gay Aboriginee about his or her experiences and wrote a story about those? Is that still wrong? I’m still picking which bits that I want to write about, and it will be naturally be as a narrative rather than verbatim, i.e., my own words. This is an extreme example, but this is not that far from penning a fully-researched novel. It’s worth remembering, when discussing this, that writers look shit up. Some spend years reading every book to hand – including first-hand accounts and verbal histories – conducting interviews, watching documentaries, travelling to the countries/people in question, and generally working their damndest to achieve authenticity. This will not eliminate bias, but writers who care about a gay Aborinee’s story enough to dedicate a year or two to writing about it are probably already aware of their biases, prejudices, and the ever-present threat of accusation.

“But the writer is taking their identity,” Abdel-Magied and others might say. I’m reminded of a story told to me by an old girlfriend. She had a falling out with the girlfriend of her brother. Apparently they dressed alike, and one dramatically complained that the other was “stealing her identity”. Racial identity is a serious matter, but the idea of its theft is weak. Like the girls, one is not diminished by another’s admiration or duplication. A person’s race is not a Ming vase that is more valuable if there are no others. However, that is a long-running argument in the arts in its own right.

Abdel-Magied makes a startling leap in logic: “The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…” Perhaps this follows in the heat of the moment, but I don’t believe that even belittling or attacking another person directly qualifies as considering them “less than human”. And a writer is not (usually) belittling their subject: they are, according to the traditions of drama and, yes, entertainment, sympathising with them. How else could the reader care about our protagonists? Novelists are not usually writers of disguised hate speech. It’s surely established that most creative types are funamentally liberal.

Omar Musa, the Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, told the Guardian that he finds the issue difficult; the suggestion that writers shouldn’t move outside the boundaries of their own experiences comes into direct conflict with what he sees as the purpose of fiction: to empathise with and understand other people’s lives.

This is the point that I find myself going out on: that writers are not, generally speaking, horrible people. There is, of course, a great risk that even the best-natured writers will unwittingly draw upon stereotypes or be reductive, but I believe that this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only in this way can we assess and learn from what is genuinely offensive or unfaithful and truly engender diversity. The bottom line: authentic cultural representation.

— db


Further reading:

This personal article from the Huffington Post also poigniantly disscussed the complex issue of cultural appropriation, partly in favour of Shriver’s strongly-worded speech.

Of interest to writers may be this collection of thoughts from published authors.

A writer’s experience with the dangers of cultural appropriation

Part 2 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.


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A writer’s experience

When I first began searching for representation for my novel “Cycles of Udapir” in 2015, I was told by one literary agent that “it is hard to sell a novel centering on Indian street boys and girls written by a Brit.” In the same sentence, he praised the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, written by Yorkshire-born Simon Beaufoy and directed by the English Danny Boyle.

What is a writer to do? In my last post I bemoaned the horrible device of writing a novel set in another country but with a white protagonist, which apparently skirts the issue of cultural appropriation but could land you in “white saviour” territory.

I have to ask, who are writers trying to kid with this? The white protagonist (by which I really mean “protagonist who matches the writer’s ethnicity etc.”, in my case white British) is meant to be a buffer, providing a legitimate filter through which the “other” is perceived – in the case of “Cycles”, my Indian characters. It would be offensive, we’re told, for me to write from the point of view of an Indian, so I must show my Indian characters through the lens of my privilaged white perspective: a white British protagonist.

It’s not good enough that I just want to write a story about Indians, which is my prerogative and which might be something that people want to read regardless of my ethnic background, as though that matters.

My latest novel, which is turning into something of an epic, deals with Tibetan Buddhism and the situation of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile following the occupation of Tibet by China. My young protagonist is Tibetan (plus a little Chinese) because the book is about Tibetans. Not only is it more interesting for me to try to get inside the head of someone with a different background and mindset to me, it is surely more interesting for the reader, too. Don’t we already have enough fiction with Western protagonists? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for more diversity in fiction?

Novelist Zoë Marriott said that writing rich, diverse characters was not the same as appropriating someone else’s culture. “People from marginalised groups are always being promised diversity and being delivered patronising, whitewashed and outright offensive portrayals instead,” she said.

This comes closer to my perspective, which is, crudely, “It’s fine if it’s done right.” But even this view is debated.


A writer’s dilemma

What is my specific problem? My book is about Tibetan monks and, unsurprisingly, not many Tibetan monks are novelists. Even if they were, they perhaps wouldn’t want to tell the story that I want to tell, which I believe could be meaningful and culturally significant. But of course, then I’m stepping in and being a “white saviour” myself, defending downtrodden minorities from my privilaged position. You only have to see how people react to famous actors providing relief abroad to know how that goes down.

I could write the book as I want to write it, be forced to self-publish, and have fairly reasonable accusations of cultural appropriation and possible racism levelled against me (assuming it ever gets finished and anyone ever hears about it).

Alternatively I could rewrite the entire novel from the perspective of a Heinrich Harrer-type character. Frankly this is boring, and will only serve to dilute the story. The book is about Tibetans, not what a white boy thinks about Tibetans. The reader already knows and accepts that these are a white person’s perceptions of another cultural group. Why must the writer go through the sham of creating a character to tell the reader what they already know? Frankly, it’s patronising and a waste of time.


Finding the root of the problem

In my my last post I wrote about the response to J. K. Rowling’s use of Native American folklore. The Rowling situation illustrated a point that has dogged the cultural appropriation debate for a long time: peope can’t remain focused. The issue at hand is not whether the words are offensive, or mis-representative, or reductive, but whether there is such as thing as appropriating another person’s culture in the context of fiction, and whether that is a bad thing. If “appropriation” means “using”, i.e. I wrote a book set in another country, then this debate shouldn’t even have started. Of course I’m permitted to set a story in another country. Of course I’m permitted to imagine what the life is like of somebody who isn’t me. Believe it or not, I’m capable of empathy and have rather a good imagination, and I’m capable of undertaking research.

If we can’t establish the foundation of the debate, then every other question is meaningless. If we can start at the bottom and build up, then we can begin to have constructive conversations on what is permissable and what isn’t. In reality, no-one will be able to agree on what is permissable, on both sides of the argument. Every person is unique even amongst their own people, and that is why art is possible and absolutely necessary in all its forms.

One viewpoint is that the diversity is supposed to come from those groups other than the dominant one. Anything else is arguably patronising. Regrettably for all the dominant group is (almost?) always Western white folk. It is no lie that the entertainment industry (to name just one) is geared towards whiteness and makes it extremely difficult for other voices to be heard. According to the argument, it’s not enough that there are very few novels about Tibet and that I’m in a position to try to write one (i.e. have the time and information and skill (?) available to me). It should be Tibetans writing about Tibet and it’s the industry (a reflection of societal bias) that’s stopping this from happening. By writing about Tibetans I am appropriating their culture (and probably getting it wrong in the process), whilst at the same time making a profit (ha ha!) from an industry that is, perhaps indirectly, blocking genuinly diverse voices.

This is one view, but it’s not one I wholly agree with. Isn’t it possible to represent another’s culture without appropriating it? That is the question for Part Three

I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this topic! Feel free to comment away.

— db

The Anthony Horowitz row – Why cultural appropriation isn’t straightforward

Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Part 1 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.


What’s it all about?

If you haven’t heard, Anthony Horowitz, writer of the Alex Rider series and the latest James Bond novel, recently claimed that he was ‘warned off’ creating a black protagonist  because he is a white writer. Allegedly, an editor said that it would be inappropriate, ‘artificial and possibly patronising’, to do so.

This has reignited the old debate about cultural appropriation in literature, with several writers putting forward their points of view.

Ben Aaronovich, writer of the ‘Rivers of London’ series, tweeted of Horowitz: “If you don’t feel confident or just don’t want to write black characters, just say so. Don’t pretend it’s political correctness gone mad.”

What is Aaronovich actually claiming – that Horowitz made it up? I don’t believe that to be true, especially since no-one’s previously come out to say, “Oi, Horowitz, where are all your black characters?” Hororwitz wasn’t responding to an allegation. Therefore Aaronovich can go away if he’s not going to add anything constructive to the argument.

More helpful is the view of Patrice Lawrence, author of the best-selling ‘Orangeboy’ (2016, Hachette), who said that “[t]he whole issue of equality and diversity has been hijacked by white writers.” It seems that we have appropriated appropriation. The  Guardian article goes on to say to how some people claim that working class white people don’t have equality either, so perhaps this is what Lawrence means. Anyone who thinks that manual labourers in Sheffield’s Manor Top have it as bad as, say, African slaves worked to death in the bellies of British galleons, could do with a wake-up call.


Coldplay

From Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, set in India. Photograph: PR company handout

Can “appropriation” be done right?

An aggressive article by the Guardian’s Rashmee Kumar last year referred to the “colonial representation” of India by “ignorant white people everywhere”, in response to a Coldplay music video:

Director Ben Mor sprayed the “essence of incredible India” onto his video, a diluted perfume invented by white, western creatives whenever they want some Indian inspiration. Under the western gaze, India is a lush, exotic land filled with dingy slums inhabited by pious, levitating holy men and lanky brown-skinned children who are always throwing colored powders at each other. This idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony.

Forget the nonsensical implication that a 3-minute music video could ever capture the entirety of a country’s complex culture; Kumar seems to believe that all Western interpretations of India are as “myopic” as Mor’s video and that no-one but an Indian could possibly get it right. The article suggests that it’s wrong to portray only the exotic and positive elements of a culture (but strangely tosses slums into this category), calling it “reductive”.

In all art forms an interpretation is reductive, simply because it’s not possible to describe the whole of a culture’s history in one painting of a ship, or relevant to write out the whole of a culture’s economical situation in a film that is meant to be a romantic comedy. As always, an artist will take the elements that are relevant to the story being told. Later, Kumar suggests that the mere act of “invoking” India is something offensive. The message: stay away unless you’re Indian, or at least know what you’re talking about. The latter I agree with whole-heartedly; the former is offensive and divisive.

There are many excellent points in Kumar’s article, especially about representation, and it’s well worth reading in full.

The “fine if it’s done right” perspective doesn’t always apply. J. K. Rowling took heat for writing a fictional account of wizards in historical America, which linked her stories to true beliefs held by some Native Americans. The result was an accusation of cultural appropriation:

“You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” said campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

Was Rowling “claiming” Native American spiritual beliefs? I don’t believe so, any more than I’m “claiming” the beliefs of Catholics when I write about 16th Century Britain, the people of which are just as much “other” to me as a Native American. Referring to something is not the same as claiming it, and forbidding a writer to write about something other than which they are personally ethnically connected is firmly against what art is about: creating in order to bring people together. Saying “keep away from our stuff” does not help anyone to build a true understanding of another’s culture.

Some complaints were along the lines of “my beliefs are not fantasy”, despite the consensus of almost the entire planet believing that they are (every believer in any god but yours thinks you’re wrong). This complaint is not the same as “you didn’t write about it respectfully”, which should be the point. Others quite rightly took umbrage at Rowling referring to a “Native American community”, when actually “Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another”.

Rowling was quiet after the accusations, despite receiving thousands of comments. I don’t blame her: even talking about the issue is an invitation to be pulled apart (I expect I shall be saved by lack of readership). In the second part of this series of posts I will talk about some of my own experiences and take a look at what could be the root of the problem. In the meantime, I sincerely invite comments and discussion.

— db

 

Why fiction might need “white saviours”

In fiction, the “white saviour” trope is the unfavourable use of a white (typically Western) protagonist who saves a group of non-white (typically non-Western) characters from a situation from which they have been unable to free themselves.

Wikipedia puts it better:

“The narrative trope of the white savior is how the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts—such as morality—as innate characteristics (racial and cultural) of white people, rather than as characteristics innate to people of color.”

In almost any sense, this is not cool. It frames the person of colour as being too weak, incompetent or ignorant to solve their own problems, and it takes a outsider to ride in on a white horse (sometimes literally) to show them the light. This has appeared in a great many novels, films and TV series and continues to happen (Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ (2017) and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-present) come to mind.

Iron Fist

Finn Jones in “Marvel’s Iron Fist” (2017)

Game of Thrones

Emelia Clarke in “Game of Thrones” Season 3 (2013)

As a young reader I was frequently irritated by novels set in other countries but which had a Western protagonist. I now see the advantage of this: the writer gets to show the exotic setting through the eyes of a newcomer, highlighting things of interest to an unfamiliar reader that would be ignored by a native protagonist as being too boring or too normal to be worth mentioning. But since the protagonist is (should) usually be important enough to the story to warrant having a novel written about them, they are typically the hero of the story, and this almost inevitably puts them in the position of a ‘white saviour’ type.

Personally, I would rather have the novel steeped in the local culture entirely; and besides, wouldn’t I be more fascinated by a protagonist who thinks and acts like a native? I’m smart enough to work out the differences myself, you know. Some of my favourite novels dropped me right into the thick of it, such as Salmon Rushdie’s masterpiece ‘Midnight’s Children’.

The problem with the current publishing industry (in the West) is that although exotic people and locations sell, naturally enough, today’s floundering publisher wants to flog as many books as they can, and that means alienating as few readers as possible. According to the industry, the weary commuter on a bus doesn’t want to go to the trouble of understanding a ‘foreign-minded’ protagonist. They don’t want to be challenged and have to look up unfamiliar words. It should be made as easy as possible for the reader, since most books sold are lowest-common-denominator fiction in the romance or crime genres found in Tesco, which I generally think of as formulaic fiction for dum-dums (sorry).

The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise in ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)

Temple of Doom

Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1984)

I ran aground in this respect with my last novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ (2016). ‘Cycles’ is set in Rajasthan and deals with a group of lost teenagers struggling to find their place in modern India. Knowing what I (thought I) know, I chose to include one character who is an outsider who could introduce the glorious, frantic, artistic beauty of Udaipur to the reader in the opening section. This came in the form of Bindya, a young woman of Indian descent who was born in Udaipur but emigrated with her parents to Birmingham, England as a teenager. Years later she returned to this strange but familiar land, where she set up a youth centre. Although the main characters look to Bindya for advice, since she is older, she is actually just as lost as they are and is of little help.

I had hoped that this slight Westernisation of a character would be enough for the literary agents to whom I submitted the novel for representation. Actually it didn’t help at all. One agent said that no-one was interested in a book set in India written by a non-Indian (Isn’t that a bit–? Never mind). Another said that Bindya’s first chapter, in which she returns to Udaipur after a short trip away, read like travel writing (i.e. she was too much of an outsider). It seemed that I wasn’t going native enough – but did I have a right to go further, since I myself am an outsider? I was self-conscious enough about that when I set out to write ‘Cycles’.

Recently, whilst doing a lot of enjoyable reading and pretending it’s research for my current novel, I returned to the vibrant graphic novel ‘The White Lama’ by Alexandro Jodorowsky (writer) and Georges Bess (artist). The story is full-blown fantasy (unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, shamanistic magic and demons), but I love the mystic melodrama of it. The story is set in 19th Century Tibet, where two white missionaries are killed soon after they arrive, and their orphaned baby is raised by local Tibetans, who believe him to be the reincarnation of a revered lama. He grows up to reach a high level of enlightenment, develops a set of fierce magical powers, and then saves his adopted people from tyrants and dark sorcerers.

The White Lama

Isn’t this just another example of a white saviour? I thought (secretly loving pretty much everything about it). The book is even called ‘The White Lama’…! Why couldn’t it have been about a Tibetan baby? Fair enough, he is a reborn Tibetan ‘soul’….

This was agonising for me, at a time when I had completed the first 70,000 words of an epic novel set in India, this time focussing on Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala. At first I imagined my Tibetan protagonist having a Heinrich Harrer-type confidante, but wasn’t that equally shabby of me? Eventually I settled on having the protagonist’s mother, who is the main focus of much of Part One, being the daughter of Tibetan exiles raised in Switzerland, where there are 4,000+. Like Bindya in ‘Cycles’, Padma Pema temporarily allows the reader to see the growing drama that surrounds her through the eyes of an outsider, though this time in a way that is far more significant to the plot.

Neither Bindya nor Padma Pema are saviours in their stories, but they do their jobs. It seems a fair compromise between a white hero in an exotic land and a ‘totally native’ novel written by an outsider.

What do my readers think? Are there any warranted examples of ‘white saviour’ types? Should writers only write about their own cultures?

—db

Buy ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here.

 

How Brexit is riding on the coat-tails of Trump, and what this means for the arts in the UK

BREXIT EU scrabble

Since my post in June following the UK referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, the world seems to have only gotten crazier. A wave of popularism may be leading to major political changes in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and the world has most notably has changed with the bizzare election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The wave had already washed over (or arguably partially originated in) Britain in 2016, with 52% of the British public voting for the United Kingdom to leave the EU.

The reasons for the support for Brexit were clear: ignorance and hatred. I won’t go into some of the absurd myths that lead to the backing of rats like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Anti-immigrant sentiment and general xenophobia were evidenced in the weeks following the vote. The general distrust of foreigners and deliberate fear-mongering over international terrorism groups like the so-called IS were echoed horribly in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which led to his inaugoration last month. As this national attitude becomes more normalised, several European countries are following suit and often-extreme right-wing attitudes are becoming validated.

On the back of this validation comes UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s strong push for a ‘hard Brexit’ – a clean break that will mean the end of the single market and the customs union for Britain. There have been numerous instances of President Trump specifically supporing Brexit as ‘a great thing’ and praising the UK, and a distinct lack of outrage from our Prime Minister regarding the recent anti-Muslim executive order and other disgusting behaviour from President Trump. Now that the snake is eating its own tail, we can look forward to a cycle that, at best, may only be slowed by the leftist outcry. In any case, Parliament seems dead set on Brexit and any hope following the ruling on Article 50 has been dashed. We can, apparently, expect more pandering towards President Trump.

So what does this mean for the arts in the UK and Europe? Sadly, not much has changed since I wrote about it 8 months ago. There have been some updates from Creative Europe in October and November of last year, but nothing since the Parliamentary ruling. The Culture, Media and Sports committee has launched an enquiry into the impacts of Brexit, the results of which are summarised here. The gist from Creative Europe is that there are no immediate changes to funding options – until the UK leaves the EU, which is anticipated to be finalised at the end of 2018. The European Commission assures us that there is no negative bias against applicants from the UK, but of course it would say that. I’m inclined to believe them.

To be more specific, we are seeing a boom of political art and publications that are direct reactions to what is happening in Britain and around the world, plus jumps in sales of dystopian fiction like A Handmaid’s Tale, It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, Brave New World, and my favourite Fahrenheit 451, along with non-fiction books detailing with totalitarianism and fascism, according to Literary Hub and other sources (plus, conversely, a new interest in Trump’s The Art of the Deal). Whereas one editorial of the Guardian says that Brexit and an apparent backlash against modern art are linked, and could therefore spell the end of pretention on modern art, another by Mark Brown is hopeful of a fresh injection of arts funding following Brexit, provided there is enough support from the government. It’s no secret that hardship can be the source of great art. As always, time will tell.

—db

 

Happy Holidays 2016!

This is a special STP Editing thank you to all my clients and new friends this year.

It’s been a pleasure to work with every one of my clients over the last twelve months and I’m very grateful to each and every one of you!

Wishing you all a great holiday season and a happy new year 2017!

happy-holiday-ld

Yours warmly,

David Brookes, STP Editing

Interfacing with the Future: An interview with author Lucy Mihajlich

I was lucky enough to work with Lucy Mihajlich on her new novel Interface, which is released this month. You should check out the novel here, which was successfully funded Lucy’s great Kickstarter campaign.

Lucy was kind enough to do a Q&A with me for STP Editing, where she answers questions about the technological, sexual and satirical themes of the excellent Interface:

INTERFACE:

The future always seemed bright, but it turns out
that was just global warming. Meals don’t come in pills,
shoes don’t lace themselves, and there are flying cars,
but the gas mileage sucks. There is one difference.
People have always searched the internet for answers.
Now they actually worship it.

Pen Nowen’s father was the founder of Interface,
a computer company so big and powerful that people
began praying to it. Especially when his death almost
tanked the economy.

Seven years later, Pen’s just finished her junior year of
high school. For their summer vacations, all of her friends
are going to Disneyland, Tijuana, or Disneyland Tijuana,
but Pen’s going on a pilgrimage to pray for what’s left
of her family. She’s on her way to the Interface flagship store
when she gets kidnapped.

It’s the second time this year. She’s about to begin the
ransom negotiations when the kidnapper says that he
doesn’t want money. He wants something else from her.
Before Pen can text 911, he says something even creepier.

He knows the truth about her dad’s death.


INTERVIEW WITH LUCY MIHAJLICH

author-photo

DB: Interface is set in the near future. How do you envisage the future – as it’s depicted in the novel, or something different?

LM: I sincerely hope the future isn’t like the one in Interface, although I did a lot of research on the future to write it. The scariest prediction I read:  Chocolate decline by 2020. I’m not even touching that one. I don’t write horror.

DB: The novel is a satire, particularly of social media. How do you feel about the current online world?

LM: I’ll preface this by saying I love the internet and may have to marry it just to make it an honest network, considering how much time I spend on it. Interface is not a critique of social media or the people who use it. That said, Facebook scares the hell out of me.

Social media adds a level of performance to our lives, and there have been a lot of studies done on the psychological effects of celebrity. I read about a study about how often people like Kurt Cobain used the first-person pronoun before and after they became famous. Their use of the word “I” increased dramatically. So did their struggles with substance abuse and depression.

I don’t think social media is the only reason my generation is struggling with what some people are calling an anxiety epidemic (student loans and Donald Trump are definitely a factor for me), but I think it’s a contributing factor.

DB: You have described Penny as an asexual character. What does this mean, for you and for the novel?

LM: I made my main character asexual because I wanted a character that I could identify with. I’ve known I was ace ever since I learned about asexuality. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until I was in my twenties, because there’s very little asexual representation in the media.

When I started submitting Interface for publication, I received an offer from my first-choice literary agency. Ten months later, the agent changed her mind. She said that she believed romance was crucial to my book’s success. So I decided to try Kickstarter, where Interface was 122% funded. The response was overwhelming, especially from the asexual community. I wanted a character that I could identify with, but somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that other asexuals might want the same thing.

DB: I found the novel to be fun, fast-paced and original. What inspirations did you have, if any?

LM: I could never list all the writers who inspire me. There are some who write in completely different genres, like Oscar Wilde and Terry Pratchett. In my genres, my biggest inspirations are probably Ernest Cline, Cory Doctorow, and Andy Weir. I’m also inspired by fanfiction writers. Some of their work is better than the published fiction I’ve read. Plus where else are you going to find a Hannibal/Doctor Who crossover?

DB: Interface is the first part of a trilogy. Can you give us any (spoiler-free) hints as to what might be next?

LM: More drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (but still no sex.) If you want to know more, the first chapter of the sequel will be included with Interface!

DB: Your Kickstarter campaign got a lot of attention and there are a lot of excited people out there. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?

LM: Thank you so much! I literally could not have done it without you. I hope Interface doesn’t disappoint.

DB: What are you reading/playing/watching at the moment?

LM: My current obsession is The Martian by Andy Weir, but since you can only reread a book so many times, I just finished Stranger Things on Netflix. 10/10, would be freaked out again.

DB: What’s next for you?

LM: The sequel! Maybe a nap first.

 


front-cover

Pre-order Interface on Amazon before its November 22 release: LINK

Check out Lucy’s website: LINK

—db

 

An evolutionary basis for storytelling

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A recent article by Helen Briggs of the BBC tells how the human love affair with stories might have an evolutionary basis: an almost cathartic effect that releases ‘natural painkillers’ in the form of endorphins and fosters social bonding. According to the article:

The human fascination with story telling was forged in ancient times when we began to live in hunter gatherer communities, said Prof Robin Dunbar, who led the research [into why we’re attracted to dramatic, and even upsetting, narratives such as tear-jerking films].

“Fiction is widely studied by humanities academics as it is an important feature of human society, common to all cultures,” said Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.

“There are good social reasons: folklore enables us to pass on wisdom or ingrain community values, bringing us together. While that is important, it does not fully explain why we are willing to return again and again to be entertained.”

He thinks our affinity for emotive fiction may have evolved in the context of cohesion of social groups, as the endorphin effect has also been seen in comedy, singing and dancing.

“This is not to say that this one chemical effect alone is the only reason for dramatic fiction – there are other aspects of human psychology at work – but we believe that it is an important reason for our enjoyment of fiction,” he added.

—db

Why I’m boycotting Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’

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The Internet has been over this before. In April, Marvel released the trailer for its next blockbuster superhero film, ‘Doctor Strange’, a story about an arrogant surgeon who, after his hands being irreperably damaged in an accident, learns the error of his ways and becomes a powerful scorcerer. Stephen Strange finds his spiritual awakening in Tibet, with the help of a Tibetal mystic known as the Ancient One, and thereafter protects the world from all forms of mystic badness as the Sorcerer Supreme.

Marvel’s first trailer brought accusations of white-washing after it appeared to show that the huge studio, now owned by Disney, has scrubbed all mention of Tibet from the story. In the film, Tibet has become Nepal and the Ancient One is now a white person. The reason seems obvious: to appease the government of the People’s Republic of China, a country that represents a huge cinemagoing audience and has the world’s most notorious wall of censorship, forbidding any mention of politically-sensitive situations like Tibet.

I won’t re-tread old ground too much, but link to some articles here:

(Lionsroar.com) The Strange Case of Doctor Strange’s Tibet

(The Guardian) Tilda Swinton cast as Tibetan to placate China, says Doctor Strange writer

‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Says China-Tibet Remarks Don’t Represent Marvel

(Screenrant.com) Doctor Strange’s Erasure Of Tibet Is A Political Statement

(The Guardian) George Takei on Doctor Strange controversy: ‘Marvel must think we’re all idiots’

If you didn’t know, Tibet is technically part of China – ever since China invaded and stomped all over Tibet in the 1950s, and has been crushing it underfoot ever since. Before I get accused of exaggeration, let the world be reminded of an independant ICJ  Human Rights Report into the brutalities of the 1950-51 invasion of Tibet, which led to the exile of the Tibetan government, its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and over 100,000 desperate citizens. The illegal and well-guarded path over the freezing Himalayas has killed many fleeing Tibetans. They were and purportedly are still escaping beatings, brainwashing (thabzing), wrongful arrests and killings, torture,  mutilation, dismemberment, disembowelling, vivisection and crucifixion (yes, you read that correctly). Following the 1959 uprising, those shouting “Long live the Dalai Lama” were reported to have their tongues torn out with meathooks.

Children have been spirited away from villages to be indoctrinated at Chinese schools. Han Chinese have been urged/bribed to move into the “Tibet Autonomous Region”, displacing the native Tibetans an attempt at cultural erasure. Thousands of Buddhist monasteries were looted and destroyed (purportedly 8 of 6,000 remaining, as Potemkin tourist attractions), and celibate Buddhist monks were forced to have sex and marry one another. Nomads with generations of nomadic existence in their blood were told to stay put. Communism brought famine to the near-barren lanscape of the Tibetan plateau.

In Tibet, people are punished just for keeping in touch with their exiled relatives, even though this is now official legal. Self immolators who protest the enslavement of Tibet are thrown, still burning, into trucks and disappear, and may take a day to die. During the 2008 Tibetan uprising, which failed, bodies of protestors were piled high in the courtyards of monasteries. 1.5 million Tibetans have died in defence of their human rights. I’d heard stories, but the facts I found this year when researching my latest novel about Buddhism and Tibet made me sick to my stomach.

But Marvel wants to make money off its latest film, so it continues to pander to the Chinese film requirements. Censors in China only approve 34 foreign films per year, and some censorship requires that a film contains a scene set in China, has the casting of Chinese actors, has Chinese investors, or shows “positive Chinese messages”. Marvel already got into bed with Chinese film studios for ‘Iron Man 3’ to avoid those requirements (and, incidentally, adding additional scenes in which genius Chinese surgeons fix a superhero’s heart problems, adding Chinese product placement, and changing the Chinese villain The Mandarin to a British actor ‘playing’ a villain with a false American accent). You might have noticed a rash of films the last few years with scenes set in China or in which China saves the day, such as Looper (2012), Red Dawn (2012), Gravity (2013), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), and The Martian (2015). Why? Because this doubles box office profits from China, as well as allows the film to be shown in the first place. Forget politics, there’s dough to be made.

Weirdly, in the latest comic book issue of Doctor Strange, Marvel has confirmed the Tibetan origin:

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Doctor Strange #011 (Sept 2016)

What’s going on there? Appeasement to fans? A small sacrifice, considering the films are making far, far more money than any comic book run ever could. Not good enough, Marvel.

I don’t know about you guys, but kowtowing to a tyrannical government for profit in light of genocide and cultural suppression sounds pretty uncool to me. If you’ve read my previous travel posts you’ll know that I have a lot of love for historical and present day China, but I despise its government. I have a great love of Marvel, whose comics and characters have brought me some of my greatest joys in life, but I can’t in good conscience see a film I’ve always hoped to be made, with actors I adore. I was hoping that the newly-released second trailer might correct some assumptions – but sadly not. And already people seem to have forgotten about the controversy and are all set to pre-order their tickets. I don’t blame them – but I would blame myself.

—db