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.