Stranger in a Strange Land: How to Take Your Reader to New Worlds

In the summer of 2007, on the first day of my first week of the Odyssey Fantastic Fiction Writing Workshop (an excellent program that was well worth blowing my savings at the time and living without income for six weeks,) our teacher and fearless leader Jeanne Cavelos led a fascinating discussion on what unique expectations readers bring to speculative fiction as opposed to realist genres. One thing she noted was that speculative readers (scifi/fantasy/horror) are looking for an experience of estrangement. They like being immersed in a world or experience that they don’t fully understand and then filling in the pieces from context. I know this is true for me, and I bet it’s true for a lot of you who are following this blog as well.

I dig estrangement. I love the idea of exploring strange new worlds, and when I travel, one of my favorite things is to just get lost and see where I end up. Wanting something completely different was one thing that brought me to Japan to live and teach in spring of 2010. I’d studied Japanese off and on, and though circumstances prevented me from my dream of living Japan for many years, when I had the opportunity, I jumped in whole hog and had the time of my life.

As a foreigner living in a place where English was often not spoken, I had to learn to live and work in my second language (and second culture). I was also partially illiterate and the system of measurement was in metric, which really messed me up because I never knew how faraway things were or what the temperature really was. Much of my daily life was about picking up thing from context and challenging my own assumptions about how the world was supposed to work. In short, I was living estrangement. To add to the fun, after three years when I went home in spring, 2013, I was once again a stranger in a strange land as my habits, assumptions, and life were out of step with that of my family and friends. Within a month or so, I had adjusted back to my life in the States, but the experience lingers.

Now, a year later, I’m sitting under a kotatasu in a hostel in Sapporo, Japan, having returned for a one month visit. Returning to a country with a vastly different culture has gotten me thinking again about estrangement and how it works in fiction, and like someone who makes stuff up for a living and expects random strangers to believe it at least for some time and pages, I’m going to spin some theories about estrangement and then give some ideas on how to apply them to your own writing. Disclaimer: like much of my life in Japan, I’m winging it. There are two types of estrangement that I think are important to discuss and apply when thinking of how to construct cultures and societies different from your own in fiction. I will call them Category 1 and Category 2.

Category 1 has to do with taking an extreme or opposing viewpoint to a binary that exists in your culture.

For example: Cultural assumption: Woman are biologically made to bear and raise children and have to struggle to be equal to men in non-domestically related work.

Response: I will write a world where men are seen in that light, whether it’s by a change in male anatomy or an idea that women bear the children and the men stay in the house to raise them, etc. Or I’ll make my main character exist in a culture where this assumption doesn’t exist so you see about 50/50% division of careers (either in or out of the home). This is often done to great (and not so great) effect in SF, Fantasy and even Horror fiction.

Living in a world where there is a core cultural assumption that exists on the opposite of a binary than your own is quite estranging. For example, in my second year of teaching at Japanese Elementary schools, I came head to head with this sort of cultural binary when I decided that I wanted to incorporate phonics education into my work with the students. Though my classes were conversation based, because I worked at six schools and taught grades 1-6, I didn’t get a lot of time to work with my students, especially grades 1-4. I knew that after elementary school, they would be moved to a heavily reading and grammar based Junior High school educational model, and it seemed to me that the faster I could get them reading, the easier time they’d have retaining what they’d already learned, interacting with written English outside of class, and in their future education when they left me. I’d come to this thought both through training at my company and other reading I’d done on EFL education. At five of my six schools, I had a great deal of flexibility in lesson planning and execution, so incorporating phonics wasn’t really a problem (beyond my own learning curve in presenting it).

At my sixth school, however, they had a well-established and excellent curriculum for teaching English, and I was actually and only an assistant. I’d assumed, with this school’s really strong commitment to teaching English, that once I presented the benefits of incorporating five or so minutes of phonics pronunciation education into what they were doing, it would be a no brainer and I was really excited to see how the students at this school, who already had an intensive English curriculum, would improve with this addition of phonics.

Alas, it was not to be. I was frankly bewildered at the abrupt rejection of the idea and assumed it was because my Japanese wasn’t strong enough to effectively present the idea. I had a moment with one of the school advisers, a woman who spoke perfect English and whose opinion I deeply respected, and presented the idea again. She also said no, and when I asked why, she said, “and if our students improve so much from learning this, what about their Junior High school teacher next year? How will she be able to handle the difference in skill level between our students and her other students? That will be very difficult for her.”


I realized suddenly that this was a clear example of a cultural assumption coming in at the opposite side of the individualism vs. collectivism binary that we often see in writings about Japan (and we often see over-romanticized and oversimplified in my experience). I’m an individualist, raised in an individualist culture. Those kids were “mine” and I wanted them to be the best, period. I didn’t (and still don’t, tbh) care about how difficult it makes the Junior High School teacher’s life, and my cultural assumption was, “if I can teach my students to do something better, then this makes me a better teacher and thus I am successful at my job.”

Confronting a world where individualism wasn’t naturally favored was highly estranging for me. I also realized that there had been a lot of very subtle things that were truly different in my daily life as a part of coming at the binary from the opposite side that I simply hadn’t noticed. It was shown in how decisions were made at the school, for example, which students in each grade were selected for having produced the best calligraphy in the new year (a complex, time consuming group effort that had bewildered me at the time).

The individualism vs. collectivism binary is something that we understand culturally, though we certainly skew strongly to one side of it in the US and many Western cultures. Because it’s a binary that exists in our culture, which is why I placed it under Category 1. Here’s some good approaches for writing Category 1 estrangement in my experience:

Step 1:  Take a binary that you take for granted in your culture. If you’re American, just watch any political speech during a Presidential campaign season if you’re stuck for ideas.

Step 2: Challenge it. For example: Democracy is the shining light of freedom (what if it’s not?); We want all of our children to be well educated (what if your made up culture doesn’t; what if they only want certain types of children to be educated or what if they don’t want anyone to be educated?); In order to lead a county, you must be the most patriotic (what if it’s the opposite?), etc. If you don’t like politics, you can always look at fashion magazines instead. What if thin isn’t attractive? What if light skin and long hair isn’t favored? Etc. All of these things are different and create a feeling of a different world, but all of these things exist within your own existing assumptions and cultural binaries, hence they are Category 1.

Category 2, in my mind, is bringing in cultural assumptions that exist out of established binaries. In truth, these aren’t any different to write than challenging Category 1 assumptions, but they are more difficult to find because you really have to think OUTSIDE of your own boxes. For example: the binary Men vs. Women doesn’t take into account the concept of fluid or different genders outside of male/female. The moment you create a third or a fourth gender, or a period of life where people are not seen to have gender, you are no longer taking a position within an existing binary, but instead creating a truly different cultural assumption. Note, I’m saying gender here and not sex, though you can certainly create a sex based biological difference between non male/female genders, I think it’s equally, if not more, estranging to create multiple genders outside of obvious (to us) biological differences.

An example from my life in Japan that really brought this concept to life for me was the experience of living for three years in a place where monotheism was not the norm. If you grow up in the US, whether or not you are polytheistic, you live in a larger culture that assumes (Judeo/Christian) monotheism as the norm. Further, this binary’s opposite in the USA is atheism. In short, there is literally no room made for polytheism or animism (or other ‘isms’) in everyday life in the States. This assumption of monotheism (and its opposite being atheism) permeates every aspect of our lives. When we sneeze, we don’t say “Gods bless you.” Only one God blesses America. When you’re surprised, it’s “Oh my God!” or “My gosh” if you think the first one is blasphemous. Do you want to enjoy a feeling of estrangement? Try explaining the meaning of these expressions to a classroom full of students or a group of friends who have no assumption of monotheism (and no particular interest in it beyond the academic). Try explaining curse words and the Devil. Then listen to your students explain their cultural and religious traditions and their relationship to their Gods. Try living in a world where Christmas is a dating holiday and people rush to KFC for their Christmas chicken dinner.

One very interesting cultural experience I had here was attending church with my Brazilian friends. As members of the minority religion, my Brazilian Christian friends had to travel an hour to find a church that was their denomination, which happened to be in a building in the middle of a rice field. (Lots of buildings are in the middle of rice fields where I lived in Japan.) Contrast this to temples, which are a dime a dozen (there were two within walking distance of my apartment) and on Japanese holidays they are packed with young and old alike. The Church was also full, mostly with foreigners whose religion was as thought about by mainstream Japanese culture as often as we in the States think about Shintoism. Fantasy novels often have polytheistic cultures, but I can’t think of that many we see in SF, though Battlestar Galactica, the TV series, comes to mind. In my SF reading experience, if you have a religion in SF, especially among human beings, it’s monotheistic (and generally recognizably Judeo-Christian). This is in part, I think, due to another Western cultural assumption that society moves from animism and polytheism to monotheism and then with the introduction of technology, to secular atheism. Not everyone believes this, but I think it’s an assumption we see a lot in SF, and like all assumptions, we chose it and other cultures have chosen different ones.

So how do you take step away from Category 1 estrangement (taking a position on an existing binary) and step into Category 2 (creating another option)? I think a good way to do this is to take an existing binary and ask yourself what exists outside of it. Instead of taking a binary like White vs. Black, why not have some other colors too? Why not have a cultural assumption that through science, one gains a better comprehension of the various Gods that exist in the universe? Why not have a culture where there are four natural genders that people pass through as they age, in varying order depending on other cultural factors? In my opinion, both Category 1 and Category 2 estrangement can be used to create great speculative fiction. However, it’s easier to work within what you already know. Like a fish who has lived its entire life at the bottom of the ocean, the concept of running is not obvious. It’s weird and wonderful and estranging in the best way. It’s something our readers are looking for when you take them to strange lands in their minds.

Next question: How do you step out of your own assumptions? Well, you can go live in or at least travel to a different country for a while. I recommend it, but it involves you uprooting your life and it isn’t so cheap. Another thing you can do is meet and talk to people who are from other countries. Learn a new language and make some new friends. (believe me, as someone who has lived and traveled abroad, the help and insight you can provide will be invaluable to their lives). You can also read books by people from other countries and cultures. Autobiographies and realist fiction is great from other cultures is great. What assumptions are common to other cultures, and how are they different from yours both within your own cultural binaries and outside of them? Work to get your mind blown. It’s uncomfortable, unnatural and downright weird. Isn’t that the point?


The Problematic Approach of Colorblind Writing

In her last post (It’s the Skull, Stupid), Naima raised the question, “If in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader?” Naima’s post focused more on how to describe a character of color in fiction, particularly when writing a fantastical world that might not have the same historical and cultural shorthand that exists in our world. For this post, though, I wanted to get back to that question of why those kinds of details matter in the first place.

Sometimes I hear other writers (almost always white folks like myself) mention how they try to be “colorblind” in their writing—in other words, purposefully not describing a character’s skin color so that readers are free to picture the characters however they want. There was a time when I naively thought that was a good way of striving for inclusivity in fiction. Unfortunately, while colorblind writing generally comes from a place of good intentions, it’s ultimately a flawed approach.

The first problem with colorblind writing is the underlying assumption that, if a character’s skin color is not described, readers will default to imagining characters who look like them, thereby making the story inherently more inclusive and diverse. Sadly, that assumption just doesn’t hold up. My wake up call to that fact occurred several years ago when the concept of colorblind writing came up during a discussion I was having with some other writers. It surprised me when two of the writers, both people of color, said no, they actually didn’t default to picturing characters who looked like them. They had grown up in a world where white was the societal default and where they were frequently bombarded with the message that their skin color was not ideal or, worse yet, a sign of inferiority. So when reading a book, they assumed a character was white unless told otherwise. Because that was what dominated the society around them.

Another major problem with colorblind writing is that you’re not just erasing skin color; you’re erasing all of the culture, identity, and history that comes with that skin color. What we look like and where we come from plays a significant role in shaping who we are, so let’s not ignore that by embracing this Pollyanna-ish “I don’t see race, I see people!” idea of equality. Equality doesn’t mean being oblivious to differences in race; it means not hating or discriminating against people based on those differences.

Of course, some people will make the argument that, if you’re creating a fictional fantasy world, that world need not be saddled by the same racial dynamics and tensions that exist in the real world. True. But in order for me to lose myself in a fantastical world, it needs to have a sense of realism to it, and racial homogeneity isn’t something I find to be realistic (unless you’re writing about an engineered society or something like that). I think one of the best ways to achieve a realistic fantasy world is to create one that, like our own, has a rich diversity of races and cultures and people who have been shaped by those backgrounds. Those cultures can be different than what we have in the real world, and they can have a different history with each other (though there are still plenty of Save the Pearls-style pitfalls you can stumble into with that approach, but that’s another post). But even in a fictional world where people aren’t judged by skin color, I imagine people would still notice skin color in the same way we notice hair color or eye color. That’s the thing—noticing skin color doesn’t have to be negative or combative or racist. It can just be one element among many that makes up a full person.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling from me. Here’s what some other folks have had to say on colorblind writing and reading:

On writing diversity

The Sirens are singing in a shiny new year, one full of dreams and stories and magic. We hope you’re brimming over with ideas you just can’t wait to write about!

As you know, diversity and respectful representation are very important things here in the Star-Dusted Sea. So I’d like to talk a little about how to do it well—and how not to do it.

Speculative fiction lets us talk about complex issues in our own world, but it’s also a wonderful way to shine a light on countries and cultures that are underused in the genre. I’d love to see many more novels and short pieces set in India and China and Mexico and and and . . . Or even with characters from those countries who live in the U.S., in a way that honors their background and heritage while allowing them to have the same kind of fun adventures other characters get. (“I’m brown; where do I belong?” is far from the only story to be told!)

Sounds easy enough, right? Not so much—I’m thinking about a few books I’ve read that fit the above description and still fall down in some crucial way. Let’s take a look at the mistakes they made, individually and as a group.

First, the authors failed to do the research that would result in an accurate, rounded depiction of the country and the people who lived there. They often fell back on stereotypes, faulty information, and in one case, even demonized a religion that’s already the victim of misunderstanding here in the West.

Think here of a movie: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie portrayed the Hindu goddess Kali as a bloodthirsty monster and her followers as eyeball-eating creeps. And of course the white characters (Indy and his friends) were the heroes and justified in everything they did against the Thuggees. Do I really need to say that is hurtful and terribly biased, not to mention ridiculously inaccurate?

Our job as writers is to tell a good story, yes, but we are also in search of truth, big Truth and little truth, which we sprinkle through our work. One thing we really owe it to our readers not to do is to continue spreading harm through stereotypes and patently wrong ideas about the people we’re writing about. Research does matter.

The second thing these books did wrong was to appropriate their settings and cultures. What I mean by that is, they grounded their stories in a supposedly “exotic” location, but the story itself actually starred white main characters from the West, often in savior roles. Imagine a book set in China that had almost no Chinese characters; the setting just acts as a backdrop for the Western characters to play out their journey. Any actual cultural trappings only exist insofar as they serve those characters. This happens far more than you might think, and it’s often never even called into question.

Erasure is a huge problem. It’s far too easy to think that the straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical point of view is the default one, the way of seeing everyone should be able to relate to, and thus that character deserves to be the star of every story. But that’s a fallacy, and a very harmful one.

A third error is the use of the Magical Negro. Basically, if there is a person of color (or a queer person, etc.) in the story, this character exists solely to further the journey of the white main character and has no real role/arc of their own. In fact, they often die in service to the white main character. Please don’t do that. That’s another colonial idea, that everything and everyone exist for the sake of white people/characters, particularly those from Western Europe and America.

Finally, the authors of these books don’t appear to have taken the time to examine their own prejudices and the filters on their worldview. We all have ideas given to us by the society we live in and the media we’ve been exposed to, ideas that are so deeply entrenched that they’ve become mental wallpaper to us. We don’t even see they’re there until someone else points them out, but they do shape how we think and see things. And that will always bleed through into our work.

So how do you do diversity right? How do you tell stories about people not exactly like you in settings unlike your own? Research, research, research. Then research some more, and read books and watch movies about the culture/country you’d like to write about, but make sure those media are by people from that culture. Also, talk to people from that culture. Internet forums are a great way to do this, and you might make a friend, too. It’s so important to step outside your familiar circle of friends and fellow writers, because they very likely share your notions about things, and the same things that slide by you will slide by them.

Most importantly, don’t forget that you’re a reader, too. Read and promote work by the people from that culture!

Know that writing truly and respectfully takes hard work, and yes, you may get something wrong, but it’s also an important thing to do. As writers, our job is to put ourselves in others’ shoes and report what we find. All the stories of all the people in the world deserve to be told, so let’s tell them with compassion, respect, and love.

Happy writing!

My Precious: On Killing Your Darlings

As writers, we’re often given the advice to “kill your darlings.” The general interpretation of this (in my mind at least) is not to get so attached to a sentence, plotline, or character that you allow them to take away from instead of add to your story. In short, nothing is precious.

Pic of Golem from LotR:

I generally like this advice, especially when it comes to plotting. If one of my characters has a secret that will destroy my story if discovered, I make sure that secret comes out as quickly as possible. In my mind, it’s impossible to create something new if your mind is all cluttered up with your initial plot ideas.

That said, some people take this advice too far:

  • So you think it’s your best sentence – cut it immediately.
  • You think that subplot is important – EXTERMINATE!

This is how I ended up rewriting the first sentence of my very first novel (a 150,000 word monstrosity of magical martial arts battles and epic swordfights that will never see the light of day) over 20 times. One of the most difficult parts about (re)writing is knowing what to save and what to kill. And the harder truth of it is, this never gets easier. Well, maybe it does for some people, but it hasn’t for me.

For example, I’ve already scrapped two ideas for this blog entry alone. I even wrote three paragraphs about Nelson Mandela and they aren’t terrible…just wrong. The thing is, writing walks that terrifying razors’ edge of complete passion and necessary objectivity. This is why many (most) of us join writers groups. Sometimes we need someone else to tell us when an idea’s got to go.

But there are other things that we take on as precious that we don’t even think about. Stereotypes (the hero is tall, muscular and male). Assumptions (education will be the same 100 years from now, resembling a 21st century high school drama). Western ideas of plot structure and design. Which of these darlings should we kill or keep?

Image of Anissa Pierce aka Thunder:

I’ve been thinking about killing darlings lately because in spite of the fact I’m well familiar with the concept of not letting my writing become too precious to me, I’ve managed to fall into that trap anyhow. In the past six years, I’ve drafted at least 10 short stories and a fair number of novels and novel parts, all of which are currently fossilizing on my hard drive. I keep saying “I’ll revise this” and “I’ll send that out when I get this thing done” but ultimately, I’m not doing anything. And so my work stagnates, precious and unread.

So I’ve decided I’m going to put one out there, for free, and collect the most salvageable of the rest for $.99c in a kindle ebook this month. By doing this, I’ll reduce the clutter in my brain so that I can create new things. And who knows, someone might even like it.

On Social Justice and Writing

As a woman of color and a social justice activist, I’m always happy when I find fiction that accurately represents the world we live in. You know, fiction that shows all kinds of people as people, not as stereotypes, not as tropes, not as Other in comparison to a white Western Christian default. Stories that don’t assume everything outside that small framework is strange and exotic, whatever that even means.

But because our world—and for us Sirens, our North American society—is full of assumptions about people and the way they supposedly are, of course we’ve all internalized them. It’s hard to go against that, harder still to do so successfully in an industry that often doesn’t recognize its own problematic ideas. (See this post as an example of what I’m talking about.) So I applaud people with the courage to try to go against the grain and tell other stories in other ways, stories that challenge the ideas we all have. Because it’s hard! So hooray for that.

But. (You know a but was coming, right?)

But the thing is, we’re all human beings with our limited viewpoints, and we all do and say insensitive things from time to time. Even when we try to examine our biases and root them out, we’re still subject to many we don’t even know we have. Which means we’re going to get things wrong.

Our cultural narrative insists on many things,  whether it’s that blond people with white skin and blue eyes are the epitome of what is normal and beautiful, or that all disabled people must be cured to be “whole” or even want to be cured, or that dark skin equates to evil and shadowy, or that a marriage must be between two people, a man and a woman only. Until someone points them out to us, or we’ve experienced the fallout from those faulty assumptions being turned on us, it’s far too easy not to question them. They’re the wallpaper in the house of our worldview, surrounding us all on every wall, but ignored.

And just like when we take a picture of our living room and the wallpaper’s there, those assumptions are going to show up in any story we tell, even if we don’t notice.

Readers will, though, and they’ll call us out on the way we’ve done harm. It was completely unintentional; most of us don’t want to hurt others. But intent is not the same as result, and so I can see why some writers would avoid taking that risk of messing up—and getting called out for it. No one likes getting yelled at!

But to me, stories are not just entertainment. They are relatable ways of telling truth, of allowing us to experience empathy for others and step into new situations, and we actually do more harm ignoring the reality of the world around us by focusing on the stories and voices of only one group of people. Then we’re erasing a good chunk of humanity and saying they just don’t matter, and we have nothing to learn from the stories we read.

If you write a character not just like you and later get told you messed up, it’s going to sting. You’re probably going to feel defensive and ashamed, and maybe even angry. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, right, and yet they’re attacking you! But take a step back and breathe. The best thing to do is to hear the criticism, see if there’s anything you can learn, and promise to try harder next time. To fail better, as it were. Most people just want to be heard and acknowledged, and if we know we’re just as prone to mistakes as anyone, we can truly hear them and what they have to say.

We can also listen to people telling their own stories and learn to replace our assumptions and grow in the process. We all make mistakes along the way—including this writer—but we can also learn to do better, too, and become better people and writers.

And isn’t that the most important thing?