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.

 

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

Doctor Strnage Tibet.jpeg

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:

untitled

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

World Comic Book Day 2015: Comic Books Count!

asmfam003_covIt would be remiss of me, a supposed writer, to let World Book Day go by without writing a few quick words about.  Here they are:

Books are awesome.  Read more.

I could go on and on about the inherent merits of literature and the many advantages of reading it, but there are a million places on the web where you can read about that.  Those five words are all you need.  If you don’t know it already anyway, then you’re a dope.

I could add a disclaimer: read more good books – actual literature instead of whatever “erotic” drivel or cookie-cutter crime tedium you have on your bedside table.  I am a little snobby about literature, but today’s not the day to blather about it.  JUST READ.  Whatever you can get your hands on.  Leave the TV off for just one day.

I’m lucky enough to have been extremely busy this last month.  I’ve written, edited, proof-read and critiqued a great number of texts with hardly a moment to devote to myself or my loved ones.  I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to “make time” for my own needs, and so I set aside half an hour every morning before switching on the laptop to work.  I spend it reading.  One of my personal joys is re-reading old comic books that I read when I was younger. The sheer happiness of nostalgia is a pleasure that is very hard to take away from you.

ASM390_18

I don’t talk about comic books often, because there is still a vast stigma against them in the world of literature.  Despite the incredible success of recent comic book franchises in cinema, like Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Batman Begins/Dark Knight films, people like me are still seen as dorks.  It’s now socially acceptable to enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. play the superhero Iron Man on screen, but if I were to whip out an issue of Iron Man, such as one from the award-winning Demon in a Bottle storyline, whilst on the bus, then I’d still get a lot of funny looks.  TV shows like The Big Bang Theory have popularised comic book references, but ridicule comic book readers.  The reason I don’t bring up comics books during polite conversation is because I’m tired of having the same old debate about why the best of comics books can stand tall alongside the best of literary novels, because they are literature (in the same way that the worst of comics books should be confined to weekend bonfires, just like the worst of published novels).

Many of the arguments against comics books as literature come from people who don’t read comic books, and so they’ve never seen the best that comics can be.  One could argue that those who support the notion of comics as literature are already fans, so you can’t trust them either – except that readers of comic books agree that 90% of it is silly crud.  But the best of the best – such as Watchmen, Y: the Last Man, Blankets and Daytripper – have more literary/artistic value than 90% of published novels.  It’s not all superheroes, you know.

This year, I urge everyone to try, or at least acknowledge, that for the purposes of World Book Day 2015 we can extend “books” to include comics.  During today’s nostalgic re-read of The Amazing Spider-Man from circa 1994 I read some of the best damn material I’ve seen for a long time (if you’re interested, I beg you to find a copy of ASM #390 and #400).

ASM-400-29ASM-400-30

The 400th anniversary issue of The Amazing Spider-Man creates powerful emotions in me.  This is not just because it was the first comic book I ever read, aged about 9 years old, but because of its adult treatment of the material.  There’s barely a spandex costume in sight in either of the issues mentioned above; instead they are character-driven narratives with insights into genuine emotion and trauma, such as guilt, child abuse, hopelessness, redemption, identity crises, failing relationships and grief.  That might seem like a lot to cram into 44 pages, but it’s some of the most respectful, psychologically acute, emotional literature that I’ve read in the last two years.

Open your mind a crack.  If your child or loved one asks if comic books count on World Book Day, you know the answer!

Comic books count!

—db