On Writing the “Other”

Photograph by Johan Ordonez, AFP/Getty Images

This blog post, 12 Fundamentals Of Writing “The Other” (And The Self), by Daniel José Older is timely.

Almost all of my stories are at least partially about people not like me. As an anthropologist I worry a lot about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it, but I still have moments of fear. I ALWAYS assume that I suck (see #2 on his list) at writing/understanding the other, but it is still a risk and so I enjoyed reading this post a hell of a lot.

I especially liked this one:

“7. Ritual ≠ spectacle.

I recently edited Long Hidden, an anthology of speculative fiction from the margins of history. My co-editor Rose Fox and I received a number of submissions that had no speculative element at all but featured non-Christian ceremonies. Other people’s cultures/beliefs are not fantasy. It’s one thing if a demigod or spirit is out walking around, interacting with the world, and even that walks a complex line, but to have people simply celebrating their beliefs be a “fantastical” element is racist cultural imperialism.”

My academic specialization focused on religion and, over time, I came to believe very strongly that ritual and religious belief is something that should always be held in respect (barring abusive beliefs, etc). I’m not Catholic, but I would never feel comfortable doing what PZ Myer did to a communion wafer. I don’t believe the cracker is actually the body of Christ, but some people do. In my opinion, religious belief is, for many people, a central, emotional, visceral, authentic part of who they are. Religious experiences aren’t just something fabricated, they are deeply felt and genuinely important. Which is why I always cringe when I see depictions of non-Western ritual as some kind of cool, weird entertainment.

Ritual does a lot of important things (helps individuals genuinely feel part of a group, verify and vivify their belief systems, etc) and so I always hesitate to represent ritual of the “other.” However, in the book I’ve just finished I do depict a few Maya rituals, and so I’m very glad to see this post from Daniel José Older, because it reminded me to always be thinking about these things.

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