mirrorshard: (Autumn skin)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
Somewhat incoherent - reaction-dumping. Context:

Writers (and fans, by extension) are caught on the horns of a dilemma (or possibly a gazebo): on the one hand, we don't get to write honestly about other peoples' cultural experience, because it isn't ours to write about. On the other hand, other peoples' cultural experience is really fucking cool and interesting. On the gripping hand, most of these Interesting Cultures are actually really poor and deprived and don't have luxuries like time to write, a thriving publishing industry, or even a corpus of work in their own language and cultural idiom to grow up with. Which means that if it isn't written about by privileged white people (or coconuts, or bananas) then it isn't written about at all.

Poor us, what a problem we have.


We don't. It's not our problem. Seriously. The cultural experience of imperialism is not about the imperialists. I don't give a flying fuck what keeping someone in chains, whether steel or economic or both, does to your soul. Angsting about that makes you sound like Cordelia. [Edit: That's as in Buffy, not as in Lear or Vorkosigan.]

It's really tempting to assume that a) for every problem, there's a solution somewhere, if we only work hard at it with good intentions; and that b) that solution is more likely to be arrived at by smart educated people in developed countries.

But I don't see anything to support those assertions in these cases. Problems come in a lot of different domains, which often don't share anything with each other. And I appreciate that Not Doing Anything is a) hard, b) morally problematic when you think you might have an answer, and c) a whole barrel of No Fun.

(No, I don't have a consistent, coherent answer, or a manifesto to set out, or a program of things to be done. I'm neither that naive or that arrogant. Besides, I'm a privileged white Westerner myself, and the nearest thing to an oppressed minority in my bloodline is Welsh.)

Date: 2009-01-20 04:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the-alchemist.livejournal.com
What is "Not Doing Anything"?
- Not writing fiction?
- Only writing about your own culture?
- Writing about whatever you want to write about but ignoring the debate?
- Reading the debate without contributing to it actively, and then trying to write in the way you think the majority of BME people participating it would like you to write?
- Participating in the debate but only to ask questions so you can do the previous thing more effectively?
- Reading the debate without contributing to it actively, and not trying or not succeeding to find a consensus among BME participants and then writing whatever you think it's good/OK/right to write about, having considered the issues?
- Something else?

Date: 2009-01-20 05:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I think what I basically mean here is the equivalent of the Cake Principle - articulated about men joining in feminist debates, but applicable to any privilege-laden debate, really. It was either [livejournal.com profile] libellum or [livejournal.com profile] slightlyfoxed who articulated it, and I can't remember which or where. It goes "If you were going to open your mouth to inform or argue or nitpick, shove some delicious cake in it instead". Um, assuming gluten-free cake, obviously.

[livejournal.com profile] deepad has an interesting post (http://deepad.livejournal.com/29826.html) on white-ally-actions - I've not digested it entirely myself yet, though.

"Nothing" is probably an overstatement. But most of us have a tendency towards finding, or at least looking for, generalizable answers and overarching schemes, and I have a strong gut feeling that those don't exist and would do more harm than good if they did. (Or possibly we just can't see them from here.)

I'm not in the slightest advocating that anyone should stop writing fiction, or stop writing about interesting things - I like reading, I have a fairly high tolerance for rough edges and good intentions. Unless of course they're writing about pink sparkly were-unicorns who steal Captain Jack Sparrow's heart, in which case flamethrowers are too good for them.

One of my default assumptions is that most of us will screw up and get things wrong, and that that's never the end of the world.

From your list of suggestions, I'd pick the last one, I think - with the proviso that basically, we need to write what we need to write, and trying to force something else will lead to a pile of crap. Reading commentary and problematizations and arse-kicking by smart passionate people helps stretch us into something closer to the right shape to need to write something appropriate, I think.

And they also serve who only stand and wait! I've always had a lot of trouble with that one, but I try.

Date: 2009-01-20 07:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the-alchemist.livejournal.com
Yes, I basically agree. I spend quite a lot of time reading activist blogs etc. and have learnt a lot, but don't really feel ready to contribute yet.

Two pedantic points:

1) The Cake Theory (http://xxxlibris.livejournal.com/157177.html) is by [livejournal.com profile] xxxlibris (and was first articulated with regard to anti-racism, not feminism.)

2) Remember that 'waiting' is also what a waiter does, and that this sense was arguably dominant or equal to the other one when Milton was writing!

Date: 2009-01-20 07:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
1) Aha. I did suspect after writing that that you probably knew more about the Cake Theory than I did - thank you for the link.

2) Absolutely!

Date: 2009-01-20 09:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
Unfortunately (sorry [livejournal.com profile] xxxlibris, as I believe it was yours), I *loathe* 'The Cake Principle', as it is a means, however justified, of limiting dissent. Yes, I get tired of all the "but what about teh menz???" too, but *sometimes* people really are genuinely ill-informed and might learn something from asking the question (and hell, aren't we trying to educate?). And, more than that, I think stifling debate is something fundamentally anathema to me and I won't promote it.

From your list of suggestions, I'd pick the last one, I think - with the proviso that basically, we need to write what we need to write, and trying to force something else will lead to a pile of crap. Reading commentary and problematizations and arse-kicking by smart passionate people helps stretch us into something closer to the right shape to need to write something appropriate, I think.

Yeah, I agree there.

[livejournal.com profile] deepad's post was interesting too, and I agreed with much of it. The fact that it can be written almost identically with the Other as female, queer, disabled, etc, doesn't diminish its usefulness, but does mean, I think, that we may want to question whether approaches to tackling unconscious biases are best enacted specifically or generally.

In this, as in so many thing, I have to come back to the wonderful Harvey Fierstein, and his famous quote from 'The Celluloid Closet' (about gay characters in Hollywood fillums);

"I'd rather have negative representation than no representation, because negative representation can be challenged."

This is applicable to pretty much any disenfranchised group, IMHO, and is a way in which tackling the problem by turning from the general to the specific works. Critiquing *can* lead to refinement. Of course, women writers and readers have been working on this one for centuries, and we're not out of sexist stereotypes yet, so it's clearly a bit of a long haul....

But *hearts* Harvey anyway!

Date: 2009-01-20 04:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
I'm afraid I dislike your expression, "We/you/they don't get to do such-and-such." It sounds as little as if you're forbidding it, on authority which you trivially lack. Authors can write about whatever they like. Whether they write honestly (whatever that means in the context of fiction) is largely a matter for them. Whether they write perceptively or interestingly is a matter for us: if their books are rubbish, we won't read.

Fiction (and especially fantasy) necessarily involves the author in describing what they haven't themselves experienced. (Which is one reason why I'd be very bad at it: I have to constantly remind myself that other people's perspectives don't coincide with mine.)

"Most of these Interesting Cultures are actually really poor and deprived and don't have luxuries like time to write, a thriving publishing industry, or even a corpus of work in their own language and cultural idiom to grow up with."

I realise that you are not intending to be entirely serious here, but I do feel it reflects an uncomfortable perception that people "over there" are "poor and deprived". There are no countries at all where everyone is poor and deprived. In the case of India, which is where we started, they have more billionaires than the UK, and a large class of people who are as prosperous as you or I. I know plenty of people who have been to Mumbai and report that it's just like the City of London (only hotter). Of course, we know (and they know) that there's another India, but it's a mistake to think that one is more real than the other.

This relates to my discomfort with the terms "developed" and "developing". Surely we're all developing? And we've all developed in the past? I've seen people recently referring to China as developing, and really, it's the third richest country in the world.

Date: 2009-01-20 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I appreciate your point about the general wealth and number of rich city-dwellers, but you have to remember that the gap between rich & poor is extremely wide, much more so than in our country, and that the floor is lower overall. You're right that we're all developing, but some of us have a much higher baseline to start with (partly because we spent a couple of centuries wandering around their countries stealing their stuff). Would you prefer "majority world"? One widely used academic term is North/South divide, but that can be misleading.

If you take a look at the first post by [livejournal.com profile] deepad linked above, she talks in the main post about the comparative poverty of the Indian publishing industry and the linguistic hegemony. (I should say that I'm not using "poverty" in a financial sense here, but in the sense of a lack of diversity and richness.)

There's also a dynamic whereby the richer any given member of a majority-world culture grows, the more likely they are (statistically) to become more globalized and homogenized. This is of course a good thing in many respects, but a lot of cultural roots need soil to thrive.

When I say "we don't get to do that" I don't mean that we don't get to write about any particular thing - you're right that that's trivially wrong. (Of course, "don't get to" is a colloquialism rather than an imperative, but that's natural language for you.) What we don't get to do is assume that our empathy with their experience gives a true view of it, and present it unproblematically.

Regarding China... take a look at this (http://www.indexmundi.com/china/infant_mortality_rate.html) and tell me they don't need to "develop". "Developing" is a bit of a weasel word, but it's better than "backward" or "barbaric", which are what we used to use.

Date: 2009-01-21 12:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
I'm not in a position to argue with [livejournal.com profile] deepad's experience, but I note that an Indian won the 2008 Booker Prize, and that an Indian also won the prize in 2006. I've seen at least one article maintaining that India is currently the place where exciting English prose is written. So the position that Indian literature lacks diversity and richness does not seem to me to be obviously correct.

Now, one might ask why all these Indians are writing in English (which you say is not their language). Clearly, that is a consequence of colonisation, but who are we to tell people what language to write in? (Similarly, I remember a Catalan writer complaining about people saying he should write in Catalan (as opposed to Castilian), when that would drastically reduce the potential readership of his books.) I suspect that there are plenty of Indian writers writing in Indian languages, but that they fail to come to the notice of British readers for obvious reasons.

Coming to the other point: it's easy to pluck out a statistic and say, "This is too low/high", but what is the standard for acceptable infant mortality? From the handy map attached to your link, I see that Sweden has an infant mortality rate of 2.75, whereas the US has an infant mortality rate of 6.3. Does this mean that Swedish people can reasonably call the US a developing country?

I think should say what they mean in any particular instance, rather than try to establish a once for all division of the world into "people like us" and "other people", which is what the easy dichotomy seems to me to amount to. If they mean countries with low GDP/person, they should say that (or simply "poor countries"). If they mean countries which do not belong to the world-dominant culture, they should say that. That seems to me to be what this particular discussion is about, and if the definition raises obvious difficulties, then these are real difficulties, which ought to be addressed.

"Majority world" is not very satisfactory, because it doesn't tell me who you mean, other than that there are a lot of them! Similarly (as you say), North and South are hardly satisfactory as descriptive of the groups in question (if only someone would move Australia!).

Date: 2009-01-22 02:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I think there's a basic principle at work there, though - you can never judge a large sample by a few statistical outliers, which Booker Prize winners are by definition.

Agreed, it isn't up to us to tell people which language to write in, especially since we can't read most of them and have very little idea what's out there without an organised programme of translation and importing.

To be honest, I'm happy with "as low as possible" for infant mortality - I'm not sure I like what saying "x is acceptable" says about us. I quite agree that we're all developing in our own ways, at different points on the classic sigmoid graph - and of course each country's graph is a different shape in any case, because we all have different circumstances.

And yes, easy dichotomies are always a bad idea, but I do think it's worth dividing countries into two fuzzy sets based on clusters of correlating variables. There are always edge cases, or ones that fit in one set from one viewpoint but not another, but that's the nature of real-world data for you.

Date: 2009-01-22 03:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
I do think it's worth dividing countries into two fuzzy sets based on clusters of correlating variables.

I think this where I fundamentally differ. It seems to me that a set of countries which contains, to pick a random example, both India and the Democratic Republic of Congo (two countries which are completely different politically, historically, economically and culturally) is just too amorphous to be a useful analytical tool.

Date: 2009-01-24 04:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
I thought of this reading this column (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/24/oscars-india-slumdog-millionaire-ian-jack) by Ian Jack. Although I don't agree with Mr Jack on many issues, I think he makes some good points here. Firstly, I think he is right to observe that poverty everywhere has nearly always been written about by people who were not themselves poor. If Indian poverty is usually (as Jack suggests) written about by rich, anglophone Indians, then the problem is not so much one of imperialism as one of class.

Secondly I think the following is spot-on (and props to Jack for his self-awareness):
Still, even as I write that sentence I see in it an old-fashioned attitude, dating from the time when India was filled with conversations about what could be done, when the poor were fretted over and documentarians such as Malle put anger into their work. Much good did it do.

I can put it no more simply (and here I think I am agreeing with you) than to say that Indians are perfectly capable of solving Indian problems, and are best placed to do so.

Date: 2009-01-24 07:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I think we're basically in agreement there, indeed, but I'd add that sometimes we really do need to make more effort to get out of the way and let them solve things. A lot of what we do (the classic examples are IMF and WTO policies) systematically structure the Way Things Work against them. (We see exactly the same thing on a national scale - consider the time taken up claiming benefit, or the way it's so much easier to borrow money when you can prove you don't need it.)

Regarding poverty written about by the rich - this is mostly true. I'd recommend Mark Steel (http://www.marksteelinfo.com/writing/default.asp?id=88) and John O'Farrell as a contrasting view. Terry Pratchett also presents a very cogent argument through Vimes's mouth (Guards, Guards is the best example, I believe). In a specifically Indian context, I'd recommend Vandana Shiva (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva).

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