Culture Clash?

I’ve had some insights today. Life’s complicated.

An acquaintance of mine received a rather disheartening review of a book they’d written. The review isn’t even about the story they’ve come up with, but about the world they’ve built…

The writer had tried to create a diverse cast of characters in order to get away from the eurocentricity that is so common in fantasy literature. You know how your average fantasy story seems to always be taking place in some made up version of medieval Europe, right? Their book wasn’t supposed to be like that.

They’d created new races of their own, in a new world with a new history. They’d tried to be open minded about it and include people of different colors in important roles. Unfortunately, it seems they’d gotten it all wrong.

The acquaintance in question is European, and, from what I gather, they don’t really have that much experience with the issues that can arise between different cultures (kind of like myself). They weren’t going to let that stop them though, and they stepped outside of their comfort zone and did something different – or tried to.

Through some kind of blog arrangement, the book ended up being reviewed by someone with a quite a lot of experience with racial issues, and in a scathing blog post they tore the entire setting of the book apart. This reviewer pointed out all kinds of issues and mistakes and general badness in how the different races of the world had been created.

My acquaintance, the writer of the book, didn’t understand.

They did, of course, understand that the reviewer didn’t like the book or the world, but they didn’t understand the points about the races that the reviewer attacked. This resulted in a fairly long online discussion, and eventually someone with a bit more experience turned up and explained the criticism in more detail. I’m not proud to admit it, but I too benefited from that explanation.

Essentially, the writer had included black people in the story, without being aware of the kind of issues black people in the real world might face. Rather than creating a world rich in cultural diversity, they’d managed to put together some kind of hodgepodge of bad racial stereotypes – the opposite of what they’d been striving for.

I don’t even want to try to imagine how disheartening something like that might be. Writing a book is a lot of work. Doing it, and then finding out that the fundamentals you’ve built your work on are really the opposite of what you thought they were must be utterly devastating. It’s just not your work that’s wrong, it’s you. You thought something was so obvious it didn’t even need checking, and you were wrong, in a bad way. I’d be broken if it were me.

Sure, the writer could have avoided the issue by consulting a black person for feedback, but they didn’t. The idea there might be issues they weren’t aware of didn’t occur to them. They won’t make that mistake again – I’m sure of it.

What worries me is that I could be on my way to doing the same thing.

I’m working on creating a character for my next novel, and I just recently decided to change the color of her skin from white to brown. What mistakes sprung from ignorance will I make when portraying her? I’m bound to mess something up. It’d be cool if I didn’t, but I doubt that’s possible.

I feel sorry for my acquaintance for what they’re going through, but I’m thankful they shared their experience and confusion, giving me the opportunity to avoid making the same mistake.

I probably will anyway, but hopefully not on the same scale.

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Culture Clash?

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