My 2009 novel ‘Half Discovered Wings’ and its 2015 e-book re-release will be removed from sale Friday 2nd November.
‘Rick and Morty’ is a much-beloved animated TV show that follows a nihilistic super-genius scientist (Rick) and his hapless grandson (Morty) on madcap adventures involving time-travel, dimension-hopping and interstellar travel.
If you haven’t seen the show, its popularity might seem strange when you learn that Rick Sanchez is one of the most unpleasant characters on television. He’s the hero of the show, but he’s also a high-functioning alcoholic who constantly wears a splash of discoloured saliva on his chin, belches obnoxiously mid-sentence, and generally does whatever takes his fancy or whatever will further his quest for scientific discovery – including theft, cold-blooded murder and brutally insulting his family members, which whom he lives.
To Rick, young Morty is a “walking burlap sack of turds”. He calls his grandchildren “pieces of shit” and claims he can prove it mathematically. He said of Jerry, his daughter Beth’s cowardly self-victimising husband, “You survive because people think ‘Oh, this poor piece of shit, he never gets a break, I can’t stand the deafening silent wails of his wilting soul, I’ll hire him or marry him’.”
Rick asserts that he is “surrounded by inferior pieces of shit” and savagely insults the intelligence of his mostly-likeable grandkids and just about anyone else around him. Granted, he is a proven genius of significant resource and guile, so his arrogance may not be misplaced. But he is undoubtedly mean, selfish and disgusting.
So why is Rick one of the most likeable characters on the show?
Could it lie in the show’s great writing?
Most of the characters on ‘Rick and Morty’ are three-dimensional and endearing, despite possessed of some pretty serious emotional problems. The success of the show could come down to the balancing of its fine comedy (at the same time blindingly intelligent and scatological) against its ability to make us care about the characters, their flaws, and the promise of their redemption. Even Jerry’s doomed marriage to Beth (they are described as co-dependent and hateful of both themselves and each other) is a point of remorse for the characters’ many fans.
Viewers were unexpectedly moved in an early episode, when Morty is forced to replace a dead version of himself in a parallel reality and carry on with his life as though nothing happened. Morty sits on the sofa with the doppelgangers of his family, staring at an identical version of his home in bewilderment.
On the surface, Rick is vicious, egotistical and self-centred. But the show gradually reveals his nihilistic world-view (or universes-view), which might explain his often-dour expression. Nothing matters in an uncaring reality, he would say. Rick abandoned his daughter as a child to pursue his scientific endeavours and never showed any sign of regret, even though Beth’s abandonment issues are the reason she is trapped in a depressing marriage and is too afraid to confront her dad about the dungeon he built under their garage where he imprisons aliens.
And yet, in the Season 2 finale, Rick sacrifices his freedom for the sake of his family, a moment meaningfully underscored by “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails. Rick’s nonsensical catchphrase, always said with verve and a smile, is revealed to secretly translate as “I am in great pain, please help me”.
But it isn’t Rick’s unforced depth of character, unusual for an animated TV series, that makes a largely hateful man likable.
It’s because no matter his methods, Rick is good at what he does.
It would be pointless to list Rick’s fictional scientific achievements (like the microscopic universe containing a civilization he created to power his car battery), but they are beside the point. It’s Rick’s surety and expertise that frequently save the day.
This essay on writing from writer Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) explains the need to have your protagonist be good at what they do – He calls it establishing your authority. By showing your reader that your protagonist really knows what they’re talking about, you are creating a character that not only feels real, but is endearing. No matter how flawed or even evil your character may be, if they are an expert at something then there is something for the reader to admire. At the same time, the reader will trust you to tell a story that is convincing:
“Prove to your reader that you’ve done your research. That your narrator is the best, most-qualified person to tell this story. This method won’t engage the reader emotionally […] but it can be impressive and compelling.”
Palahniuk calls this the “Head Method”. It counterbalances the more common “Heart Method”, appealing to your character’s feelings and making them emotionally believable.
“You could also argue that Tom Clancy uses the Head Method. The way military and government procedures and technology are used to assure a reader that the protagonist is smart and trained – and therefore worth spending time with. This includes wonderful insider, jargon-y language.”
Palahniuk refers to The Contortionist’s Handbook, a novel by Craig Clevenger, who uses “a wealth of information to establish the narrator’s authority as a forger – a criminal so adept at his job that we can forgive his crimes because we’re so impressed by his obsessive, methodical work habits and skill.”
Palahnium knows what he’s talking about: One of the best things about Fight Club (book or film) is that every other line is a bit of information you didn’t know – what goes into a homemade bomb, or how a cinema project reel works. Learning as you go, you begin to intimiately trust the narrator as well as the writer. You realise you’re reading “something good”, not to mention informative and fun.
Rick is an arsehole, but he can always explain a complicated situation and how he is going to resolve it. Whether it’s more basic expositional dialogue, like explaining the characteristics of a particular alien race to the clueless Morty, or filling the viewer in on the plot so far, the result is that Rick is shown to be knowledgeable and capable.
How capable is Rick? In one episode he finds himself transformed into a sentient pickle, unable to move, and washed into a sewer. When anyone else would shrivel up and rot, Rick bites the head off a cockroach, uses his tongue to stimulate the nerves in its exposed brain, and uses its corpse to build an exoskeleton out of rat bones and sinew. Soon enough he’s on his way home to get himself de-picklised. The episode is a celebration of his unbridled genius, even though meanwhile his family is in a therapy session discussing Rick’s unrelenting selfishness.
But the ‘Head Method’ is as dicey a writing approach as any other. Take it too far and you run the risk of realising the ‘unique protagonist asset‘ trope, basically making your hero a superhero and suspending disbelief (Think MacGyver making a functional defibrillator out of some candlesticks and a live wire). A moderate example would be Jason Bourne, whose excellent combat skills set him apart from his foes even though he doesn’t remember how he got them.
‘Rick and Morty’ has come highly recommended by me for some time, but it’s only the most recent two seasons that have shown Rick at his worst, and at his best. For writers looking for tips on characterisation, pay close attention to the twisted psychology of Beth and Jerry and the co-dependent conflict evident in their marriage, and the scientific brilliance of an otherwise hateful Rick.
Imagine a Rick who was bad at science, who had no expertise at all … Would he still be likeable?
Dear current and future clients,
I will be unavailable for work between 26th April and 6th May 2018.
I will have some limited access to my emails, so please feel free to send any queries or quote requests that you might like me to look at upon my return.
This will not affect any current, ongoing projects.
With kind regards,
You may not have heard, since British news seems largely uninterested in covering the story, but a Bollywood film has had major attention across India this week. “Padmavat”, the story of a Hindu rani defying a Muslim ruler, has been barred from release in four of India’s states. Since November, India’s High Court has been involved to overturn the local bans amidst a violent outcry.
The film stars favourite leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who have previously been paired up in similar epics Ram-Leela, a 2013 Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy, and Bajirao Mastani (2015).
Why the uproar? Although specific complaints have been about the sexualised treatment of Rajput legendary figure Padmavati (the “i” was removed from the film’s name in a superficial bid to appease some, following a recommendation by the Central Board of Film Certification, who approved the film’s release uncut). In a single scene, Muslim ‘king’ Alauddin Khilji dreams of a saucy tryst with the revered beauty Padmavati, the depiction of which has outraged Hindus across India.
To be clear, the film is not, strictly speaking, a romantic picture. So what is the real problem?
As usual, it’s about Hindus and Muslims, who just can’t seem to get along. It’s not surprising following centuries of invasions, massacres, Partition, heated rhetoric and ongoing bloody conflict. Frustrating is the way that the two sides can’t leave history where it belongs, in the past, and work towards a future of peace and cooperation. It’s easy for me to say. But it’s also easy to do. One simply puts down the sword.
I’ve simplified: it’s not just about Hindus and Muslims. It’s also about India and Pakistan, and about women and men. Women have a pretty shit deal in both countries. Padmavati is idolised as a powerful woman, despite her act of power being sati, suicide-by-fire. In this case her self-immolation was to protect herself from being ravaged by the enemy, but almost always sati was and is an act of social pressure and culturally-imbued madness on behalf of a widow, whose death must inevitably follow that of her husband if she is to remain pure and respectful. She does not, in any real sense, feel like she has a choice. I myself have seen the red paint handprints on walls of village buildings and forts that were the historic signatures of those about to die because of men.
I would like to say that the film controversy is, in some way, in sisterhood with the powerful MeToo movement/s here in the West, but it’s not. Boil it down, and it’s still about Hindus and Muslims.
So powerful is the outrage that the as-yet unreleased film has inspired the following:
Bhansali has denied that the film includes such a sequence at all.
But such is the mass madness that comes with the peculiar mob mentality of some Indians. Fuelled by ignorance of the truth, validated by the belief that they are on the side of God or gods, and buoyed by centuries of bloodshed and bigotry (against both faith and gender), violence has washed across the country yet again.
Padmavati is not a historical figure, but a fictional heroine, here portrayed in a work of fiction.
Is it naive to expect sense from hordes who are lit on such fuel? Yes, obviously, but to paraphrase Lenon, I’m not the only dreamer. My India novel ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ was a necessarily naive novel, written from the outside by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the ancient fued between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Only, I do have a stake, and it is a desire for less death and suffering in the world, on behalf of humanity, and as a member of the human race I was more than happy to speak out in my own modest if offensive way.
When I passed free copies of ‘Cycles’ to my Indian and Pakistani friends I was always told that the first chapter was good. But then followed silence. The novel is about the growing pains of modern India, a grand attestation I make, with some embarrassment, through a more modest analogy of teen rabblerousers in Rajasthan. In part it is also about the romance between near-atheist Hindu boy, Shivlal, and near-irreverent Muslim girl, Mariam. Told, I hope, sweetly, but paying due respect, I also hope, to the fierce history that precedes my shallow experience with the societies involved, I expected the star-crossed romance to go by without much offense caused. My desi friends, after all, were worldly-wise and, in their small ways, irreverent of their own traditions to get involved with this gora backpacker/kafir scribbler. But their silence spoke volumes.
I make explanations for my naivety: It is naivety that will allow dreams to pave the way for future change. I make explanations but not excuses, since I was deliberately naive, and because an ‘enforced naivety’ – the choosing to forget about the things that don’t matter, in order to make things better for ourselves and our children – is what India and Pakistan need. But who am I to say this? I am a human stakeholder, that’s who.
It’s hard for me to hide my sad, weary disappointment. There is a lot of love in the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. But passion is a double-edged sword, and it continues to threaten to slice on both swings. I hope that there can be some new peace and cooperation found once this latest scandal blows over.
I strongly encourage discussion on this and related matters! Leave a comment here or email me at davidbrookesuk(at)gmail(dot)com.
Reading has always been my greatest solace, and my most solaceful reads have been from Haruki Murakami.
I read Kafka on the Shore soon after its publication in 2002, during my university years, and soon devoured his entire back catalogue and have snapped up every one of his novels since.
Known for his elegant prose and surrealist narratives, Murakami always reminds me that there is beauty in the mundane, and that it’s normal to feel pain and confusion.
Recently overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature again, this year in favour of lesser-but-still-OK Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, Murakami’s disappointed fans have been remorseful in typical style, with whiskey and jazz, both hallmarks of Murakami’s stories (along with lonesome male protagonists, quietly sad women, and cats).
I took great pleasure in reading his latest book, the collection of short stories Men Without Women. Inspired to revisit his previous works, I’ve also decided to embark on fun project that I’ll share with my dear readers between more useful posts on editing and writing.
Whenever I encounter mentions of a specific whiskey or jazz piece as I read a Murakami novel, I’ll spend a relaxed evening listening to that very piece and sipping that very dram whilst reading a favourite chapter or two, and then writing about the experience that comes from that unique combination of Murakamiist things. Perhaps I’ll get sucked into a dadaist Murakami mindspace, or find myself able to talk to cats…? Or maybe I’ll just enjoy myself.
Join me in a week or two for my first Murakami Dram – reading Men Without Women.
Update: 28 July 2018
The first three ‘Murakami Dram’ posts have been taken down from the site indefinitely. I don’t feel that they’re contributing much to the site so I’ll keep my Murakami experiences private for now. If you’re a Murakami fan and would like to read my posts please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an email, and I’d be happy to email the posts to you as PDFs. Thanks.
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.
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.
Part 2 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
Buy ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here.
Dear current and future clients,
I will be unavailable for work between 24th March and 4th April 2017.
I will have some limited access to my emails, so please feel free to send any queries or quote requests that you might like me to look at upon my return.
This will not affect any current, ongoing projects.
With kind regards,