renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (i love being awesome)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
I haven't read Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer, although I marked it as to-read after I saw a blurbs a few months ago. Since the release, however, I've heard enough problematic details that I'm sure I won't bother. This review by You're Killing Me and an essay by The Book Smugglers about their experience with the book and author gave me serious pause. The first link provides additional information at the bottom of the post about why this book is problematic and had me slamming on the brakes and canceling my library hold.

In some quarters, there's been a lot of interesting discussion about appropriation and writing different cultures. Because seeing these issues is hard for people not used to looking for them it becomes a good learning experience. Of course, there are also reviews and comments like this:

"The Japanese things didn’t bother me at all. It was nice to read something not based in medieval Europe or Victorian England. And, as it’s a fantasy book, I don’t care how historically accurate it is or if the usage of the language is real-world correct. I see it as the authors prerogative in their strictness of adhering to their inspirational areas and cultures." [source]

"I wasn’t aware of any “controversy” around this book, or a strongly negative reaction to it, until I was preparing to write this review. People have taken umbrage at the appropriation of Japanese culture, and found it to be used clumsily or inaccurately. That aside, other readers found it to be heavy-handed in its messaging and the writing to be bogged down in too much exposition, repetition and needless translations. There is even an argument that it is too close to a story by Frank Herbert. I’m certainly not going to quibble with any of that, but it does shadow my thoughts as I write this. I will tell you this much, to start off with: this is a fantasy novel, keep in mind; and secondly, I lived in Japan for three years, and while I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on Japanese culture (and my Japanese has greatly diminished down to the basics), it gives me some insight." [source]

"I mean, it is a fantasy. I think that people are sometimes willing to overlook facts like that when they want to be nitpicky about this or that issue. I also love the fact that apparently this is very much a novel that makes the steampunk aspects integral to the plot instead of a secondary aspect. I love a good fantasy that really makes you think about some issues we either ignore or take for granted in our current society." [source]

All these comments come straight from How to Be a Ignorant White Person 101. Starting with the oblique and contemptuous references to a "controversy" (note the scare quotes, just link the people you're calling out, please), we could play bingo: "Give white dude a pass on cultural appropriation of a culture you're not a part of" and "Make excuses for white people to be offensively ignorant about cultural appropriation when it's pointed out" and the geographical cred version of "I have Japanese friends!!!!!!" and "it's only ~*~*~fantasy~*~*~*" (interchangeable with "it's only fiction!" when appropriate) could all be squares. That last one is infuriating and if you use it and have it pointed out to you that you're being ignorant and you keep using it, you level up to ignorant jerk. It's not "just fantasy" when a white author is mining your culture for their own entertainment and financial/artistic benefits. It's real and it's offensive. The more defenses of this book I read by white readers who clearly have not yet understood how to enjoy problematic media, the more I understand the charges of anti-intellectualism and failure of literary criticism in book blogging culture.

I think it's important to note that it's fine if genre fans don't see these things. It takes years of work to do so, because we're all swimming around in the same cultural sewage. It's hard and it's tough to recognize something you love is also something you have to love with reservations and accept that other people can't love because it's injured them by portraying them horribly and without complexity. The more privilege you have, the farther you have to swim to get out. But I do have a problem with genre fans that don't see the issues and then turn around and tell people who have criticisms that they're wrong. It is everyone's right not to engage with problematic aspects of literature. But when we step over into trying to dismantle the criticisms of people who might, perhaps, know better about an issue? That's when it becomes a problem. Engaging with criticism means more than trotting out tired, stereotypical excuses and reasoning. It means thinking deeper and thinking more. It means actually engaging.

Actual engagement is difficult, and not only for readers. From Jay Kristoff's website:

"I've tried to be as accurate as possible with my use of Japanese terminology and honorifics, and recruited a dirty posse of badass Japanese speaking folks to help me with my translations. But I did co-opt a few terms for my own nefarious reasons, and I am gaijin at the end of the day. Hopefully no offense is caused. If you're the kind of person who thinks George R.R. Martin was doing it wrong when he spelled "sir" as "ser", you might be in for an aneurism because I do a lot worse than that.

But this is fantasy folks, not international frackin' diplomacy."

Whether or not this was written before or after the release of the book, it's a problem. It's a refusal to engage and learn. If this is the respect the author offers, is it any wonder fans of the book are parroting him and his contempt for his detractors? We should be able to engage in dialogues that don't deny the reality of cultural appropriation just for the sake of difference, something "new". A culture is more than a thing that should be "mined for such speculative fictional purposes", as Fantasy Book Critic so helpfully wrote in their coverage of this title (after calling it "exotic").

Another culture is not a box of tricks for white people to reach into for the entertainment of white masses who swallow it without any critical commentary. It is something that is full of depth and history and complication and people that made it what it is. It deserves respect.

If we keep accepting and celebrating disrespectful stories without recognizing the flaws we will never be able to claim that we want genre fiction to be inclusive. If we celebrate a problematic story using Japan as a model, written by a white man who lacks the sensitivity to see what he's done and what he's doing then we'll never be able to claim that we want our genre fiction to be inclusive. If we disrespect the fans who highlight those flaws by undermining their arguments with defenses that were old and tired and predictable decades ago, we'll never be able to claim that we want our genre fiction to be inclusive. We'll continue to prop up a system that rewards white men and women for doing it so, so wrong and never demand they be better. When it sells well because we told our friends and readers to ignore the critics because their criticism doesn't matter and only the positive reading of the book is important, we invite in mediocrity. We brush the flaws away. The critics don't understand.

It's just fantasy, after all.

Hear hear!

Date: 2012-09-28 04:50 am (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
Kristoff would have been so much better leaving off the last two sentences of his defense. Then it becomes "hey, I'm foreign but I tried" which isn't great but is honest. But with those last two sentences you quoted, it becomes "so fuck you if you take it seriously."

Re: Hear hear!

Date: 2012-09-28 06:10 am (UTC)
owlmoose: (B5 - londo oh dear)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
Yeah, I agree completely.

Re: Hear hear!

Date: 2012-09-28 08:13 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Yep, this.

Date: 2012-09-28 08:10 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
The "it's only fantasy" argument disappoints me because, as you know, I've spent a lot of time in environments where I was shamed for reading genre, and where I was constantly cornered into arguing that the literature that I love deserves to be taken seriously. I often did this by pointing out that fantasy is in conversation with the real world; that the themes my colleagues and professors found so exciting in classics and "literary fiction" were all over the genre novels I read, too; that's it's really not just about quests and dragons and swords, but about, well, this whole business of being human. But whenever someone denies that these novels are in dialogue with reality with the "it's only fantasy" argument, it's like all those arguments were for nothing, you know? We shouldn't approach fantasy with low standards just because it's fantasy. No, a fantasy world doesn't have to be a historically accurate replica of reality, but if you're going to lazily use a real world culture, especially one you don't belong to and that has a history of being exoticised by the West, you're taking part in power systems whose ramifications affect the lives of real people. I believe that genre fiction can play the exact same role in examining culture and society as any other kind of fiction, but it's hard to argue this point when its own fans deny it the second something problematic is pointed out to them :\

Date: 2012-09-28 04:00 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
While I do understand and appreciate your concerns, I feel that he is being held to a standard other fantasy authors are not expected to meet.

If he had chosen to write a British-inspired fantasy like Game of Thrones, where he picked and chose bits of Anglo-Saxon historical culture, terminology, and mythology, changing it up a bit for his alternate world, would that be as offensive?

As an Australian is he only allowed to riff on the culture and traditions of his own heritage? And if that's not 100% accurate (and it wouldn't be, once he introduced mythical creatures), is it forgivable because he's working with elements of "his people" so he can't be as offensive as if he stepped into another geographical/cultural region?

I just want to understand how far cultural responsibility within the fantasy genre extends. Do we only care about it if the author photo on the back reveals a vastly different real life heritage than that of the main character in the book?

Date: 2012-09-28 05:05 pm (UTC)
owlmoose: (book - key)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
Yes, in fact, I do hold an author to a higher standard when they are taking on a culture, a heritage that is not their own, especially if they come from a viewpoint that tends to be privileged (white, male, Western, etc.) and the culture they're appropriating is not. Because no matter how much research they do, they can never know what it is like to be a person who comes from that culture, and who has to see representations of their culture that are fetishized, incorrect, and/or outright offensive every day.

Is it "fair"? Probably not. But neither is it fair that marginalized people have to see their cultures wrecked by people who couldn't be bothered to ask them how they feel about it, and I'll be honest: I care more about their feelings than I do his.

I would never say that no one is "allowed" to write about anything outside their own culture. Anyone is allowed to write about anything they want; we are also allowed to criticize them if they screw up. And it can be done well. The example that comes to my mind is Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated TV show, NOT the live-action film); it was created and largely written by two white guys from the United States, and it did a fantastic job of depicting a fantasy world based on the cultures of Asia while being respectful and not appropriative. But it has to be done right, and it has to be done carefully, and above all it has to be done with awareness. Be aware that the other culture isn't just some pretend world that exists only to be mined for ideas, but a real place where real people live. Realize that you have an excellent chance of stepping on some toes, and be ready to learn from the mistake and apologize when you do. Do those things, and you're most of the way there, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Date: 2012-09-28 06:48 pm (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
Connie Willis got all sorts of flak for getting World War II British History incorrect in Blackout/All Clear.

He is allowed to riff on the culture and traditions of whatever heritage he wants to, he just has to be ready to accept criticism for it. In addition, playing with the cultural traditions of one's own culture is very different than playing with another's culture. That's for the very simple reason that we have lived through our own cultures.

Cultural responsibility extends until a person gets it right. If he or she doesn't, then they'll get criticism. Because when a person writes something for public consumption, the pubic gets to criticize it for whatever the fuck it wants to. Or are you asking how to not get criticized?

There are hundreds of articles covering these issues on the internet, particularly on how to "write the other". I'm sure you've seen some of them. Don't be "that guy" that pretends this is all new. It's not.

Date: 2012-09-28 09:15 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
What owlmoose and King Rat said. And the power differential between the culture you come from and the culture you're writing about, which exists in this case, also increases the responsibility.

Date: 2012-09-28 10:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I love the crap out of this post, you so wonderfully say everything I would like to to the people who pull the "IT'S JUST FANTASY OMG" BS. I find it pretty ironic and presumptuous that Kristoff uses the GRRM defense, not only because the Thrones series has been so criticized for its many social issues, but because he very clearly and desperately wants to be looked at on the same level. Then, of course, there's also how GoT is MEDIEVAL ENGLAND-inspired, and last I checked, the western world was not in the habit of maginalizing English people or culture. Talk about missing the point.

Would you mind if I added your post to the list of links in my review, and possibly quote some of it, depending on how ambitious I get? xD

Date: 2013-05-20 05:06 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm fascinated by the discussion around the use of real-world cultural elements in a speculative fantasy setting and I enjoyed your post very much. I've bookmarked this is re-read carefully and come up with an in-depth response to contribute to the conversation emerging in the comments.

HOWEVER, my impression on the first read-through is not flattering to your good self. If I walked away without a commitment to re-read the blog (and all the articles/reviews you have linked) I would be left with this impression:
"Having never read the book under discussion, I endorse the reviews criticising Stormdancer for cultural appropriation; the reviews defending it are by ignorant white people."

In all honesty, I don't think that's what you're trying to say: I think you are using Stormdancer as a handy example to launch a larger discussion. But you've gone to the trouble of visiting the author's website and quoting him - isn't it unfair to pull the author into this without having read the book?


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