kaigou: Roy Mustang, pondering mid-read. (1 pondering)
[personal profile] kaigou
Last week (after we got back), I was bored enough and hadn't read a book in awhile, felt like, so thought I'd check out what new ebooks were on offer from the publishers I like (read: who seem to be somewhat consistent in decent quality). One area I almost always check out is "multicultural", but this time I noticed something and I'm not sure whether it's me, or if it's not me.

When I say "multicultural", I mean as in: where the two (or more) main characters come from a variety of cultures. Kinda culture-clash, even if on a superficial level the characters may have a lot in common, visually. Someone from Australia and someone from Britain might look like they have distant-distant-distant kin, possibly, but culturally they're going to have some differences. The lack of a language barrier meaning the differences may be less than, say, Australia and Peru, but still, culturally it's still not quite exactly the same. Still, that's what I'd consider a watered-down multiculturalism, because between language, ethnicity, and culture (on a very broad scale), there's still a lot in common between the two characters, more than there's difference.

More forthrightly, I was looking for a story that would mirror a WiP of my own -- one of those, I want to read this but I haven't the energy to write it, so here's hoping someone else was following the same vibe I had, when I was writing. In my case, the main male protagonist is Czech with a Lebanese/French mother, and the main female protagonist is (northern) Chinese with a Portuguese mother, but raised in an immigrant's enclave in the eastern sector of Tsushima City. With an edge of futuristic, I had amped up the Korean aspects of Tsushima, so it's a mix of Japanese and Korean place- and thing-names, with the Japanese/Korean grammar (being somewhat similar) acting as the 'dominant' half of the pidgin, and Mandarin vocabulary forming the subordinate half. That kind of an urbanized, immigrant-influenced, crossroads environment hits every sweet spot I have when it comes to how cultures mix and meet and meld, and the immigrant blends in the main characters just adds to it.

So when I say, multicultural, I mean, lots of cultures. Lots and lots of cultures.

However, the books I found seemed to be weighing the term in a different manner: Hispanic woman and white guy. Or white woman and black guy. Or Japanese man and white woman. The setting? Almost always in the US (if it's not on a space station and we're getting into major SF genres). Wait, no, I take that back: of the contemporary stories, I couldn't find a story that wasn't set in the US, Canada, Australia, or Britain, with the majority being US-setting. For that matter, with the exception of a smattering of M/M romance where the two protagonists were both PoC, any story with a M/F interest had at least one white protagonist.

Now, it's not like I'm getting upset about white protagonists. I think they're fine, in moderation. But the confluence of "white protagonist" (from any social class) and "USian setting" really hit me, this time: because doesn't that mean that one-half of the main characters are from the dominant culture? And to extend that, doesn't this mean that at least one-half of the main characters are not in a multicultural environment?

Let me put it this way: the white culture dominates. I don't think we can dispute that, for USian situations, at least. (I can't speak to elsewhere, though my impression is that this holds in many/most other places, so don't think I'm clueless; I just don't have as fine a grasp on the nuances elsewhere for an argument like this.) We have one white/dominant-paradigm character... and a second character who has probably been raised constantly exposed to the same dominant-paradigm culture. Yes, there is a Black American culture, and a Hispanic-American culture, but from everything I've ever been told (and can see for myself), a character might be lucky enough to grow up with a strong sense of ethnic or regional culture, but there's no getting away from (and thus no ignorance of) that dominant/white culture.

The stories labeled as "multicultural", to me, might get a label of "multiracial", but they're not really multicultural. Sure, the white protagonist might have to learn a little about the other person's sub/culture, but they have a huge soft landing pillow of their own dominant culture. Things get too tough, privilege can (and will) simply assume that the "common" culture between the two would be that same white/dominant culture, because it's the one they both "know".

Do you see what I'm getting at? This imbalance in privilege -- that a main character is a "known" variable on a cultural level thanks to cultural dominance -- doesn't seem to get addressed in many of the stories, and that interrogative gap means my brain will fill in the spaces. Problem is, my brain filling in spaces in stories usually results in criticisms that ruin the story for me.

But a multicultural story is one, seems to me, where the various represented cultures are on an equal (or mostly equal) footing. Nobody gets to be the dominant paradigm, though obviously privilege (if not based on race, based on language or religion or just plain gender) will show up somewhere in the story. Can't get around that -- well, most authors can't get around it, even if they pretend to (see also, my brain filling in spaces, etc). But a multicultural story could be two people of similar appearances in a third culture, (somewhat) unfamiliar to both, and neither of their 'home' cultures has the upper hand. Nobody gets to claim the privilege of being the "standard" in re cultural or racial or ethnic or nationalistic.

Anyone know any stories that do mesh with what I'm talking about? SFF is a favored genre, but I'll read contemporary (as long as it's not romantic suspense and pulls that damsel-in-distress shit)... I just want to see someone else taking on the richness and complexity that comes when one culture no longer dominates. Obviously, SFF is more likely (or at least futuristic), because then the author is freed to imagine a world where multiple cultures clash and mix as equals and no one group gets to be the top dog, but I'll take what I can get.

If it seems like it's an odd request, it's because I've realized that we can extend that meme about "if you don't like panels with only white guys, as a white guy, don't agree to be on panels with only white guys". If I don't like books with only white characters, stop agreeing to read/purchase books with only white characters -- and to be honest, settings in which the white culture dominates quietly, in the background, as an unquestioned assumption, is part of that refusal.

I'm thinking it's time to paraphrase the Dalai Lama: read the change you want to see in the world. I'm ready to read. Throw some titles at me!

Date: 27 Jun 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)
serene: mailbox (Default)
From: [personal profile] serene
Now, it's not like I'm getting upset about white protagonists. I think they're fine, in moderation.

I <heart> you.

Date: 28 Jun 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
From: [personal profile] firecat
I love the subject line.

The Calcutta Chromosome might qualify.

Date: 28 Jun 2011 05:24 am (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
From: [personal profile] firecat
I don't know if you do LiveJournal, but I like [livejournal.com profile] 50books_poc for multicultural recs.
Edited Date: 28 Jun 2011 05:24 am (UTC)

Date: 28 Jun 2011 07:03 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
Well the Eliot Pattison mysteries set in Tibet are all awesome. The Skull Mantra, his first, won awards all over. I haven't read those of his set in 1760's America, but a friend said they're...dense. And intense.

Date: 28 Jun 2011 07:15 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
I think there should definitely be more of these books, and I wish I could give you more recs!

I liked The Calcutta Chromosome a lot until I got to the ending, which, hmm, insert rant about modern literary fiction here. Kamila Shamsie is an amazing Pakistani writer, and her Burnt Shadows (which follows characters from Japan and Pakistan, prior to and post independence) is on my pending list. Hsu-Ming Teo's Love and Vertigo is a beautifully written family story about a Singapore Chinese family who endure the Japanese occupation of Singapore and move to Malaysia in time for the anti-Chinese riots, and then on to Australia, but all the characters are fairly unlikeable (insert second rant about modern literary fiction). Maureen F McHugh? I remember liking her future cities, but it's been a while.

I've seen quite a bit of theatre that does multicultural well, but it's hard to reproduce these (I really like Robert Lepage's earlier works, especially a brilliant bit in Seven Streams of the River Ota where the characters start arguing with their own translators). I feel that there should be more movies, but my brain is not being helpful.

(also, I am intrigued by your WIP...)

Date: 3 Jul 2011 09:33 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: Painting of a bare tree, by Rita Angus (tree)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
Arrgh, that sounds deeply frustrating - I do hope you haven't given up on the story! (as opposed to giving up on getting critique from unhelpful people).

I put a story through an sf/f critique group once with a contemporary New Zealand setting with fantasy elements, and a main character called Ngaire (fairly standard NZ Pakeha - New Zealand European - name, although it's a Maori word), and got similar bafflement on the pronounciation issue. This was a group who were perfectly happy to critique fantasy worlds with fantasy names, and it was kind of frustrating to be told to change the name, that it was off-putting if readers (i.e., them) couldn't pronounce it. It made me aware that there are expected conventions in even fantasy languages as well, and they all tend to skew Western. I think it's the "nga" sound that got them - it's a soft, barely audible "g", so "nigh-ree" is pretty close. (I think Nhaire, although not a name I've ever heard of, would have got away as sounding vaguely Celtic and all right, but maybe I'm being overly cynical). It's a story with other problems, and I haven't finished the rewrite, but I haven't changed the name either. Yet.

[and I like your writing! Although your characters are far too likeable for genre fiction - in terms of (semi) OCs, I'm very fond of Jade...]

Date: 4 Jul 2011 10:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] l-clausewitz.livejournal.com
On a not-so-serious note, maybe you should spell it "Casshern."

Date: 5 Jul 2011 07:45 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I'd say most Ngaires I've met are pronounced as 'Nai-ree' rather than 'Ngai-ree'.

It's correct for Tuhoe and some East Coast Maori pronunciation as well as English, anyway, to say /NG/ as /N/, IIRC.

However, I can see your readers' point. It's not just the NG, which leaves readers unsure of whether to say the last sound in 'sing' or to come up with something like an Africanesque N-followed-by-G combination; it's also the 'aire' which I have found leaves non-New-Zealanders confused. They don't know whether to say it as 'air' or 'air-uh' or 'air-ee' or 'ai-ree' or 'ai-ruh'. That's a lot of possible renditions for one spelling. Two possibilities for the first two letters, two for the last letter, and two for the second and third, and yet another for the last four letters. Ten pronunciations in total, I think.

It's a perfectly valid name, but, like my own, not one I'd wish on an SFF reader without a good explanation at the first use.

Date: 5 Jul 2011 10:17 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (McCahon)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
Hmm. Personally, I'm happy as a reader to stumble my own way through pronunciation, ignoring any detailed authorial notes - what really bugs me is having a lot of names that look similar (especially same first letter) on the page, rather than sounds. I can understand that names can be a barrier to readers, but surely sf/f readers are looking for at least a little dislocation? (I also wonder why, in fantasy, are gratuitous apostrophes acceptable when extraneous vowels aren't - I think this goes back to some of the subject of the original post, about what nonWestern experiences are reflected in literature)

Agree re Nai-ree, but I'm never sure if that's Anglicisation or pronunciation variant (and I've only met Pakeha Ngaires); I am also scarred by a past argument with a very determined British person about how to say "Tonga" that has left me very keen on representation of /ng/ :)

(also, with regard to your name - I think we know each other off-line, so suspect I have an advantage!)

Date: 28 Jun 2011 06:14 pm (UTC)
soukup: Kodama from Mononoke-hime (Default)
From: [personal profile] soukup
(Apologizing in advance for the atrocious syntax in this comment; flu meds have scrambled my brain)

The following sentence

a multicultural story could be two people ... in a third culture, (somewhat) unfamiliar to both, and neither of their 'home' cultures has the upper hand. Nobody gets to claim the privilege of being the "standard" in re cultural or racial or ethnic or nationalistic.

makes me hopeful that you might like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. It's set in the UK, but many of the characters are immigrants or second-gen, and the story is often narrated by characters who are not culturally British. Smith is sensitive but not neurotic, and all of her characters are silly and serious and relatable, whether they come from London or from somewhere very far away from London. I think my favourite thing about the novel is how she doesn't seem to favour certain types of perspectives in her storytelling the way other writers tend to do.

I should warn you, though, that race and ethnicity are one of the central themes of the novel, and I really wish I had something else to offer you, because I'm pretty sure most people who aren't white/culturally British/culturally American have other interests than their ethnic/racial identities, you know? What really annoys me is that so often, I feel like I'm either reading about a foreign person or culture through the eyes of a person who comes from the same culture as me, or else I'm reading about my culture (or race or ethnicity or discrimination or tolerance or some other topic related to that fraught boundary of Us/Them) through the eyes of someone who's standing outside of it. And what I'd really like -- it's like the Bechdel Test, isn't it? -- is to read about two characters who are not members of the dominant culture/paradigm, who at least occasionally talk to each other about something entirely unrelated to the dominant culture/paradigm, or to their own culture/race/ethnicity's position in relation to it. Depressing that this should be so rare. Though White Teeth comes close at times, I'd say.

Date: 30 Jun 2011 01:02 am (UTC)
soukup: A still from "Julie and Julia" -- Julia and Paul in silly costumes with text "I am very conventional" (conventional)
From: [personal profile] soukup
Oh, of course not, and I'm sorry if I sounded like I was saying that, because it wasn't at all what I meant.

Let me put it a different way. Have you ever read a book in which there was a gay character whose gayness was present and not sidelined, and yet just handled as kind of a nonevent, as something that didn't deserve undue attention and wasn't spotlit or used to make some kind of big statement about Marriage or Homophobia or Gender Roles or whatever? Because I love talking about those things, just like I love talking about racism and ethnicity and nonwhite minorities and immigration laws, but just once in a while it would be cool to read a book about the folks who bump up against that stuff on a regular basis, and see these same characters also thinking about other things.

Paradoxically I think it's Smith's lack of neuroses that makes me long for a book like this from her: because her characters are all so full and three-dimensional, in a way that makes me sure that if anyone could write what I'm longing to read it would be her.

Date: 28 Jun 2011 09:43 pm (UTC)
kairia: The actress Eliza Dushku holding a ciggarette between her fingers. (Eliza - smoke)
From: [personal profile] kairia
Can't think of anything at the moment so seconding the rec for Burnt Shadows. I'm not a big fan of Shamsie. She's a talented writer and her love for Karachi is infectious but I've rarely liked her characters. Salt and Saffron is the exception. But Burnt Shadows is an engrossing read despite its flaws - I fell in love with the heroine immediately. Do give it a try.

Date: 3 Jul 2011 10:37 pm (UTC)
wynddancer: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wynddancer
Did you put a note with how to pronounce the name? I'm wondering if some of the replies about not pronouncing the name wouldn't have occurred if you had put a note of how to pronounce the name. If you did, and they still complained, well, aren't they special snowflakes.

Not knowing how to pronounce the name of anything has never stopped me from reading something but sometimes I'd get frustrated with real-world books (vs. fantasy where it didn't matter if I didn't say the word right in my head) that had a lot of "unpronounceable" names (to me, anyway. If I'm not familiar with an English word, I can hardly figure out to pronounce it from the way it's written (I have to hear it pronounced or have a pronunciation guide), so pronouncing "foreign" words, yeah, it's an exercise in frustration 'cause I KNOW I'm getting it wrong and I wanna get it RIGHT (yes, my education, esp. in English and Math, was very messed up during elementary and jr. high, especially). Part of this is frustration on my part with evidently having an "unpronounceable, foreign name" and it's not. It's "American" but rare and the way it's spelled is very unique and people have a hard time saying it when they read it. I get aggravated when I have to say/spell it multiple times. I have so much sympathy for people with foreign names and their efforts to get their name said and spelled right, which is why I want to get it right whenever I encounter names.

I love it when the books provide me with an appendix, glossary, whatever, that explains how to pronounce the words and what the "foreign" words, customs, etc. in the text mean, if it's not explained in the book itself. (This is also why I like fansubs (although I've bought my share of anime and then some--I still own NGE in subtitled VHS tapes; I have noticed a few pro efforts having this info on the DVD discs)) and more fansubbers than others--they'll take the time to explain some of the situations, words, etc. either during the fansub, before the eps, or after the eps and/or sometimes on their blog. I like learning this stuff. I don't know why people don't. I guess it's the Star Trek in me. IDIC, people, learn it and live it, okay?