When considering/plotting future UF stories, I strive to be culturally diverse, and not just Eurocentric. I want to have characters from a range of backgrounds, and what’s more, I want to draw my magical inspiration from a range of different sources. My aim is to do this respectfully, without ignorance or appropriation. I am, however, plagued by the following worries:

  • My default setting on magic in the real world is usually some variant of All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences. This is because most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other, and can therefore only be unified by an amorphous Bigger Picture. I don’t like the idea that only one part of the world got magic (via mythology) right, and inventing new systems that are purely Eurocentric in origin feels like another way of saying that the rest of the world was wrong. But it feels like there’s a difference between rooting around in my own cultural heritage to make new versions of vampires, werewolves and the Greek pantheon, and rooting around in someone else’s to make new versions of celestial dragons, the Egyptian pantheon and djinn.  So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.
  • When it comes to choosing the magic of non-Anglo characters, I’m very leery of creating a Captain Ethnic, where someone’s powers are directly linked to their ethnicity. At the same time, I worry that taking a multi-ethnic cast and giving everyone magic that’s derived from Eurocentric mythology, fantasy and folklore is an act of cultural erasure. Neither do I want to invoke the Avatar/Pocahontas plot of a white character inheriting the burden of someone else’s culture. Obviously, these aren’t the only alternatives, but they’re currently the scenarios I worry about the most.

So, internets: any advice?

Comments
  1. I’m delighted to see someone else with the same concerns I have. I’ve blogged about this in the past and was surprised when that post became one of the most viewed posts I’ve ever done, even long after it went up. SB Stewart-Laing also blogs about this quite a bit on Writing the Other.

    The most basic way I can think of to handle the issue is to do my research thoroughly, so I get to the point where I feel like I can modernize or fiddle with some minor aspects of mythology and esoteric topics without departing from the *spirit* of the original. I also try to keep cultural context in mind. What is mythology or magic to one person is history and religion to another and likely still reflects *values* that were held 2,000 years ago and to some extent today. If I keep this in mind, I can improvise and combine without coming up with an idea that seriously conflicts (in an offensive way) with the sources I’m drawning upon.

    As to the issue of dealing with who got magic *right*, I just went with the idea that they are all right.

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s definitely important to distinguish between actively held beliefs and past mythologies. For instance, I might take inspiration from Vedic creatures like nagas, but I wouldn’t presume to make use of the Hindu pantheon. Although – side point! – I’m continually fascinated by the number of people writing angel stories at the moment. Granted, we might have fewer fears of appropriation when borrowing from our own socio-religious culture (even if a certain element is guaranteed to find your ideas blasphemous) but given the richness of apocryphal and pseudopigraphic literature dealing with angels, the links to early Judaism and texts like the Talmud, and the verifiable influence of the Assyrian/Babylonian celestial pantheons on the development of angelic hierarchies, I’m always a bit disappointed when such stories completely bypass all those awesome worldbuilding opportunities and just talk about fallen angels in love, with only the barest references to Western biblical scripture. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy those stories – it’s just that I keep wanting one with more mythological scope.

      Anyway!

      And I agree about everyone getting magic right. But you inevitably have to use discretion when different accounts contradict each other (Western dragons and Chinese dragons: Not At All Similar) and find a middle path, and I’m always a little cautious about doing so.

  2. I think you’re best bet in cases like this is generally to do plenty of research, but go with your gut (especially with regards to specific characters). Ultimately it is impossible to precisely balance things without losing some of that spark of authenticity, so go for what feels good. Also, leaving some things unexplained will allow the readers to fill in those gaps for themselves, which will be more fulfilling for them, and you won’t have to worry as much about imposing your own ethnocentric ideas on them.

    I’m of the opinion that mythology is a global heritage, so I wouldn’t feel bad about rooting through the myths of other cultures for ideas. As long as you are not disrespectful or denigrating to their cultural ideas (which does not sound like a problem for you) then there should be no reason to worry.

    If you are interested in an academic look at these kind of issues I would strongly recommend reading Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” as it is all about Western (especially European) appropriation and oppression of other (especially Asian) cultures. It’s dense reading, but if this is something which concerns you, you would probably find it very interesting.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think I read some Edward Said back in university, when I was studying the Middle East. I should definitely take an opportunity to read some more, under circumstances where I’m not (a) a student, (b) cramming for a tutorial session and (c) resentful of having to do anything that isn’t playing MarioKart: Double Dash.

  3. Kevin Veale says:

    I’m also delighted that this is something other people are concerned about. My best/only suggestion is to consider how magic relates to worldview/personality as well as to personal experience.

    That way you can find the weird and interesting edge-cases (ie, ‘characters) who fall into interesting gaps – like the girl who went to an Ivy League school and who would be transparent if she were any whiter who – if she has magic at all – would be drawn to vodoun because of how she comprehends the world, or a west-indian man who for some reason employs Talmudic sorcery and *can’t explain why* beyond that it works for him.

  4. I think you have the solution to your own dilemma in the concern about creating ‘a’ Captain Ethnic. Having a single person who is ethnicity A, dresses as ethnicity A, works with the powers/myths associated with ethnicity A, has relatives who are all ethnicity A and has no individuality outside ethnicity A…won’t work so much.

    Having a group whose backgrounds, friendships, and heritage are as wildly complex and diverse as would be expected in a ‘melting pot’ society must surely go toward making them _people_ rather than, ah, ‘flags of the world’. If you’re ethnicity A and are adopted by ethnicity C, and has a thread of ethnicity B blood, which can you use, which do you want to use? Can beliefs be taught and powers shared?

    A lot, of course, would depend on the attitude of your “beings of higher power” to someone who isn’t of their land’s blood – or of mixed blood – operating within an adopted belief system. They might embrace beliefs, but do the beliefs embrace them in return?

    [I rarely write in this world, so have only occasionally struggle with this issue, but had to settle my own approach for a short story of mine (“Blue”) which had two people of wildly diverse background heading to Parramatta (a setting which has the beautifully numinous meaning of “the place where the eels lie down”) to meet one of the ‘locals’ to take advantage of the power of the place. I found myself somewhat worried about the depiction of the local, and in the end found my own solution in asking what else the local did when he wasn’t welcoming foreign powers ‘to country’. A subdued implication that he was an office worker, and suddenly he had become a person, rather than a Captain Ethnic.]

  5. Malinda Lo says:

    “I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea”

    –> I’m not sure if I’m understanding you correctly. What your sentence quoted above made me think was: Every nation that has ever had an empire thinks of themselves as the center of a single culture/system. China, to take the most convenient example for me, calls itself the “Central Kingdom” (in Chinese). Talk to Chinese people in China and they are very likely to see the world centered around them (and economically, it pretty much is). The West does see the world centered around itself, but that’s because the West has blinders on just like China.

    Additionally, regarding this: “most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other”

    –> We like to think of globalization as a modern phenomenon, but it’s been going on for thousands of years. The Silk Road, for example, connected China with the Middle East and lots of things moved along that path: culture, trade goods, myths. Ancient cultures, especially empires (Rome, Egypt, China) did a lot of business, and business inevitably leads to cultures mingling and mixing.

    So I think “All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences” could easily work. I mean, in the real world today, I personally believe that all religion (which I see as kind of analagous to magic) everywhere is really part of one system, despite regional differences.🙂 I’m sure plenty of people disagree with me and believe their system is the right one, but it’s still possible.

  6. Kurt says:

    My solution has been to fashion a system that is divorced entirely from mythology per se but not from folklore and to presume that all of the figures we know from those are fundamentally inadequate or wrong – i.e. there might be mermaids, but they don’t look anything like Ariel, and there might be dragons, but neither Asian nor European images are the correct ones.

    This still raises dicey issues when I’m doing other world-building, though. Witchcraft in Africa is still a contemporary issue – people get killed because of accusations. So while for my system to be global I want to include African practitioners, I try to make it a little more generic at the same time

  7. Just found this post! I’ve been struggling with exactly the same issues with my current novel, which is my first substantial dip into urban fantasy – I’ve had a whole different set of personal struggles in trying to have a diverse cast of characters in otherworld fantasy, but this is a completely new set of ground rules for me. My novel set in Australia, though my main character is tapped into a global network and like you, I want the various magics of various cultures to be basically part of the same system.

    A huge focus of my story is on the magics which were basically imported into Australia as part of the colonisation process, but of course there’s the big OMG flag waving up and down at me of how to not ignore Aboriginal culture and their connection to the land I’m talking about, but also not actually make pronouncements about how their culture ties into my system.

    Worse of course because my story is set in Tasmania which has a hugely problematic history with the Aboriginal people, what with committing genocide against them and all. None of this is a focus of my story, but I don’t want it to be a huge elephant in the room that I don’t acknowledge, either.

    Having said that, my wish to have a diverse cast of characters in this book led to a whole Chinese-Australian subplot that provided a major twist for my climactic battle. Yay diversity! I hate to think what would have happened to my plot if I’d let that key supporting character be a random white guy instead.

    Anyway I just wanted to say hi, and it’s great to see other people talking about their with the same inner process that I am right now, because it’s very much on my mind.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Hi Tansy! Your novel sounds awesome – I’m sure you’ll figure it out, though I agree the Aboriginal element can be tricky. I think I remember Gillian Pollack saying some interesting things about writing Aboriginal characters at last year’s Worldcon, so she might be a good person to ask for advice on that. It’s always nice to know other people are thinking about the things you’re thinking about.🙂

  8. Jessie says:

    “So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.”

    Actually, this strikes me as a very Mahayana Buddhist concept. (Not that I’m any kind of expert! But I’ve spent a few years in Japan and studied the subject in university.)

    There’s that basic idea in Mahayana that any path, so long as it is a “skillful means” (aka spiritually beneficial), can lead you toward enlightenment. There is ultimately one cosmic truth, but different individuals perceive it in different forms, or are drawn toward one path more than others, depending on their personal needs and situation.

    I’m not really a universalist myself, but anyhow, the idea seems applicable to the question of a worldwide magic system, and I certainly don’t think it’s a Eurocentric concept.

    As for the very significant differences between such things as Western dragons and Chinese dragons, my gut response is, why not let them both exist as distinct species? Or maybe we only think they are the same type of creature, when in fact they were never related.

    Then again, as far as outer appearances go, just because Chinese dragons are depicted so differently from Western dragons in art, does not necessarily mean they would actually look so different from each other in real life. Chinese lion statues don’t look anything like lions to me, but they are definitely based on the animals that I know and recognize as lions, haha.

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