Writing Convincing Non-Western Fantasy – A Guest Post by Aliette de Bodard

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Aliette de Bodard is a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, specialising (I’d say so) in writing about non-western cultures. She has been nominated for quite a few awards in her career and has also won a few of them. My run-in with her earlier this year was quite accidental: I saw the cover art for her upcoming (at the time of course, but now released just yesterday!) omnibus edition of her popular Aztec Mysteries novels. It took me a long time to get around to reading her work but I can definitely say I’m the better for it. I contacted her after finishing Obsidian and Blood about doing a post on her experiences writing non-anglophone cultures and this what she had to say.

Writing Convincing Non-Western Fantasy

by Aliette de Bodard

So, I had a plan when I started writing this. I was going to produce a post on the advantages and drawbacks of writing books set in non-Western cultures. Four or five years ago (aka around the time I started writing Servant of the Underworld, the first Obsidian and Blood), it wouldn’t have been a problem. I probably would have produced a bullet point list of good and bad practises , and blithely gone on my way. Now, however, I’d feel uneasy writing such a post without tackling some of the elephants in the room. In the intervening years I’ve become more and more aware of the issues associated with diversity in fiction and with cultural appropriation in general, so I’m going and try to recount my experience writing Obsidian and Blood from a slightly different point of view.

So one thing I’m not going to do in this post is debate on the advantages and drawbacks of setting stories in non-Western cultures if you happen to be from said non-Western culture–it’s a much less loaded topic and genuinely contributes to diversity in fiction. Rather, what I want to talk about is my experience with the writing of “outsider” narrative, that is, writing as a person who doesn’t belong to the culture.

I picked the Mexica to write my books out with genuine good intentions: I’d read far too many books in which the Aztecs or pseudo-Aztecs were the bloodthirsty moustache-twirling villains, and I just couldn’t believe in a culture that had no redeeming points whatsoever (especially when the people pointing out the Barbarism were the conquistadores, ie highly vested in justifying their genocide). I wanted to depict the Mexica before Cortes as a vibrant, highly advanced culture, one that didn’t stand in the shadow of the conquistadores’ arrival–hence the decision to set the books forty years before Cortes first set foot in Mexico, close to the zenith of the Mexica Empire.

Writing a novel set in a culture so distant from me in time and space required a lot of research. A heck of a lot of research, in fact. I have about three shelves’ worth of books on the Mexica, ranging from general books to folklore and religious texts; various JSTOR articles and emails to people more well-versed than me in Mexica culture. Each of the books in the series started with about 1-2 months’ worth of research and plotting conjoined with world building before I would even write a chapter part. But, for all that research, a simple fact remained: that I was writing, even with the best intentions in the world, outsider narrative.

I’ve talked about it quite a bit, but there is a strong difference between writing insider vs outsider narrative, and the most obvious of these is the very unfamiliarity of the culture. Outsiders are more likely to present the narration in ways that are familiar to a Western Anglophone audience; but they are also far more likely to seize details that seem “cool” to them and inflate them to the level of full-blown exoticism. For instance, a Mexica walking to his neighbourhood temple isn’t going to pause and describe every little detail of the buildings around him, because he sees them every day–whereas there’s a very real risk a Westerner, finding the buildings unusual and cool, will describe them in detail and swerve from explanation into full-blown exoticism. I tried to shy away from that as much as I could in the Obsidian and Blood books by sticking close to the point of view of my main character, but it’s always a little hard to be matter-of-fact when describing the unfamiliar (and I understand the people who say it’s impossible to write decent outsider narrative, even though I don’t entirely agree with them).

There is also a strong power imbalance when the outsider narrative is written by Westerners: because it speaks better to a Western audience (and because of Western cultural dominance), those books end up being more lauded and appreciated than the corresponding insider narratives. By far one of my biggest sources of embarrassment with Obsidian and Blood was when I realised that everyone was seizing on them as an “authentic” representation of the Mexica, whereas I perfectly knew that they were no such thing. They were well researched; they were well documented, and attempted to pay justice to a much-maligned culture, but it didn’t change that I was no Nahuatl and no insider (and I don’t have a time machine!). The novels were my best attempt at recreating the glory of a bygone age without tipping into exoticism or romanticism, but I remain unsure to what extent I’ve succeeded.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write outsider narrative (it would be totally hypocritical from me!); just that you should be very, very careful about it, especially if you’re drawing from existing cultures. There is a strong baggage of, well, basically people doing outsider narrative very very badly and being praised for it.  A particular failure of outsider narrative, and one that never fails to irk me when I see it in books, is the wrong mindsets. People from different cultures and different ties are going to have vastly different values and assumptions, and you just can’t transplant, say, a modern British person and pass them off as an ancient Mexica just through a little change of costumes! When I was writing Obsidian and Blood as well as when I’m writing my SF short stories, I try to understand what makes a culture’s bedrock, what is likely to make people tick, what they’re likely to value and hate–different cultures have radically different axes.

To take just one example that I particularly love, the Mexica viewed pain as an offering to the gods; and just couldn’t understand the Spanish tendency to torture people to make them confess where they’d hidden their treasures, because something as sacred as pain couldn’t be used for a trivial expression of greed (and, in turn, the Spanish couldn’t understand why the Mexica got upset at such practises when they seemed to be practising cruelty en masse on their own people). It’s that different mindset that I try to get across in the Obsidian and Blood books: Acatl is a devout man who believe human sacrifice to be an absolute necessity, war to be the most glorious occupation for a man, and a host of other associated beliefs that seem odd to us now, but that would have been commonplace at the time of the Mexica.

(To some extent, however, I’m constrained by Western notions, such as the framework of a detective story: the very idea that you can track down and punish a culprit using logical clues is a very typical product of the Western Industrial Revolution.)

So that’s my experience writing non-Western fiction. I like to think I’ve navigated most of its pitfalls successfully, but I’m pretty sure I stumbled in more than a few places… That said, I’ve had the immense satisfaction of reaching at least one of my goals: quite a few people commented on how vibrant the setting was, and how I’d made them empathise with the main characters in spite of their decidedly dubious and bloodthirsty beliefs. I’ll take that as a success any day!

Note: if you’re interested in reading more on the problems around cultural appropriation, can I point you to two awesome posts, namely Jaymee Goh’s answer to “Writing SF/F in a postcolonial world“, and Nisi Shawl’s “I Hear a Different Frontier“. All the stuff in there is well worth reading and digesting.

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That’s all we have for you this time. A review of the omnibus will be posted tomorrow. Here’s a teaser for all of you:

This is one of the greatest stories ever told. Aliette de Bodard has brought Noir, Aztec and Fantasy together for an explosive, engaging mix worthy of being called a new trend in the genre. If you have ever wanted to experiment with your reading, then you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than read the story of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead.

Details about Obsidian and Blood:

This Omnibus edition of the Acatl tales collects the three novels Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts. Three short stories are also packed in towards the end: Obsidian Shards, Beneath the Mask, and Safe, Child, Safe. Finally, the collection also features a Character Index and a glossary of Aztec mythology that features in the novel.

You can also visit the omnibus’ Goodreads entry here.

If you’d like more Aliette de Bodard goodness, you can find her on Twitter as @aliettedb, or you can visit her website.

Stay tuned for more author guest posts and interviews in the future!

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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  • http://twitter.com/AnneLyle Anne Lyle

    I’ve read and enjoyed “Servant of the Underworld”, and I totally understand where you’re coming from – but then I write historical fantasy myself, and come across some of the same problems, even writing about “familiar” western cultures. It’s a difficult balancing act, presenting characters with historically authentic attitudes who are still comprehensible and believable to a modern audience (including those who think they know the period but do so only superficially).

    I also sympathise re writing outsider narratives. I’m sure there are people who would love me to write a Night’s Masque book set in the New World, but that would require a massive amount of research in order for me to be satisfied I was respecting the (in effect) pre-Columbian Native American cultures that the skraylings have been shielding from European conquest. Maybe one day…

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  • Charles Heath

    Cannot wait to read. However, Nahuatl is the language. The speaker of said indigenous language would be “Nahua.”