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Non-Western Fantasy: not really a Minicon panel report - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Non-Western Fantasy: not really a Minicon panel report [Apr. 26th, 2011|09:28 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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When I was on the Non-Western Fantasy panel at Minicon, I told the audience that I'd post a list of the books mentioned in the Non-Western Fantasy (and Sometimes SF) vein. I want to make it absolutely clear that not all mentions were positive and that inclusion on this list is not endorsement of a book either as a book or as a portrayal of a particular non-Western culture; some of the panel was specifically intended to talk about problems that might arise. Some of these are not set in a non-Western culture but were instead influenced by one or more in ways the panelists or audience felt were clearly visible. It was a pretty far-ranging discussion, but it's also not meant to be comprehensive; people should feel welcome to add good or bad examples in the comments.

Judith Tarr, Alamut
Minister Faust
Jessica Salmonson
Karen Healey, Guardian of the Dead
Jenn Reese, Jade Tiger
Nnedi Okorafor (-Mbachu)
Diana Wynne Jones, Castle in the Air
Tobias Buckell
Nalo Hopkinson
Karin Lowachee, Gaslight Dogs
Sarah Zettel, Fool's War
Nancy Farmer, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm
Naomi Novik
Colin Cotterill
Alaya Dawn Johnson, Racing the Dark
Guy Gavriel Kay, the Sarantine Mosaic books and Under Heaven
Lian Hearn
Daniel Fox
Amanda Downum
Chaz Brenchley
Kylie Chan
Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
Larry Niven, Dream Park
Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt
Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
Steven Barnes
Barry Hughart
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
Frank Herbert, Dune
Hunter's Run

?Patricia Wrightson? Someone in the audience was trying to come up with an author of Australian aboriginal fantasy, and the guess someone else could come up with in an internet search was Wrightson, but we have no confirmation that this was correct.

Books from Haikasoru were also mentioned as a category to explore, and also anime and manga in general (not that all anime and manga are speculative, but some are--I would prefer someone who is more expert than I am in this field to get into specifics), some types of movies from Hong Kong, and the Tekumel RPG.


One of the sub-topics on the panel was supposed to be about pitfalls of writing from a non-Western culture (particularly one not one's own, I think), and there were some things I didn't think of until later, and I wanted to put them here.

First of all, I think it's much harder to see what's an interesting twist on a story when it's from a culture you're not intimately familiar with. On the one hand, there's the failure mode of the twist that completely misunderstands the culture in question--making it more like your own culture of origin, or just wrong in a way that someone who knows that culture better can spot immediately. And on the other hand, there's the failure mode of being utterly, utterly boring: of a twist ending that has already been done a million and one times and no longer reads like anything of a twist to people who have grown up in that culture.

The second thing I thought of was a problem with the authoritative voice. We talked a lot about research and getting things right so that the story felt smooth to the reader, and that's absolutely important. But the same things that can give a reader a feeling of assurance that the writer knew what they were about can lull the reader into that sense mistakenly. "Sit back, relax, I'm telling you a story, and I know how it goes," is only a good thing if you actually do know how it goes. The real-world consequences are larger if you use the authoritative voice to give someone a mistaken impression of Iran than if you use it to give them a mistaken impression of Arrakis.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: rezendi
2011-04-27 02:40 am (UTC)
I am saddened that no one mentioned Wizard of the Crow. Although to be fair I've never heard of half of that list.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 02:41 am (UTC)
Yah, it's really good that the field has come along far enough that there's not an obvious short list everyone knows and then a silence.
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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2011-04-27 02:53 am (UTC)
I like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten--maybe though he's been exiled to lit land. And maybe the same is true of Amitav Ghosh, though I suspect a lot of people would like The Calcutta Chromosome--his other books probably not in this genre for sure.
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From: dsgood
2011-04-27 03:23 am (UTC)
Next question: What about Western fantasy by non-Westerners?
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2011-04-27 04:21 am (UTC)
The Kalevala-derived series (which is Western, but not traditionally Franco-Germanic) that got referenced which folks could remember the titles of but not the author was written by Michael Scott Rohan, and the books were The Anvil of Ice, The Forge in the Forest, and The Hammer of the Sun.

I've only ever read The Anvil of Ice, and was obsessed with it as a teenager, but I kept on only being able to find The Hammer of the Sun, so I never actually finished reading the series.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2011-04-27 04:33 am (UTC)
Also, Dream Park and its two sequels (The Barsoom Project and California Voodoo Game)were co-written by Stephen Barnes, and each one deals with a non-western mythology structure (Polynesian Cargo Cults, the Inuit Mythos, and Voodoo, respectively).

What I didn't say when Dream Park got brought up during the panel is that all 3 mythologies have been folded, spindled and mutilated in order to make them work with the plots of various LARPs, and that layer of distance from the source material means that anything "learned" from reading said books should be taken with a shakerful of salt.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2011-04-27 06:26 am (UTC)
Interesting -- I wonder if I would classify Finnish material as Western. My knee-jerk reaction was not to, but I think that's because for some reason I defaulted to a linguistic taxonomy in my head; Finnish is not Indo-European, ergo is not like the rest of Europe, ergo is not Western. Which applies in some respects (Finnish folklore and mythology: not built on the same motifs as Germany, yo), and not in others (lots of historical ties to Norway and Sweden, influencing various aspects). It's just a reminder of how fuzzy and culturally-determined of a term "Western" is.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 11:50 am (UTC)
Right, well; as I said below to Jo, I made a fairly conscious decision to attempt to talk about books more than argue definitions. The idea that Russia existed in opposition (culturally or literally) to The West or that Poland was the last outpost of The West certainly exists in some circles (especially historical Polish ones!), but I knew that if we went there, we wouldn't spend time on a great many things that were indisputably non-Western and worth discussion.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2011-04-29 12:10 am (UTC)
Oh, certainly. It's the kind of argument that can easily go nowhere, and even if it does go somewhere it will use up a lot of panel time that could more profitably be spent elsewhere. I was just musing. :-)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 11:51 am (UTC)
Have you got The Anvil of Ice? Our library only has it in its system as a connection with a local high school, and they don't want to lend big monkeys things from there.

(It appears to have a good collection, though, so yay for the high school students and their opportunities to read stuff.)
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2011-04-27 02:22 pm (UTC)
I don't, though I see copies of it floating around the used bookstores around here periodically. I'll keep an eye out for it and its sequels.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 02:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-04-27 04:22 am (UTC)
The first thing I thought of when I thought of non-Western fantasy was that whole kitsune thing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 11:46 am (UTC)
And we didn't mention Kij Johnson's work and probably should have. Yah.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 11:45 am (UTC)
It's the Eastern Church, seemed to be the person's logic, and therefore Eastern? If that was the case, we almost certainly should have done the Russia Vs. The West thing, but whatever; one of my goals of this panel was to focus more on talking about books than arguing definitions.

Haikasoru does fantasy, SF, and horror. I've only read their SF, but the fantasy and horror are in fact there.
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[User Picture]From: jry
2011-04-27 07:07 pm (UTC)
There's Michaela Roessner's Walkabout Woman in the aboriginal vein. One of my favorite under-loved authors.

The topic also makes me think of Kara Dalkey's eastern fantasies, the Blood of the Goddess series and her Mitsuko books in particular.

Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-Shei.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-27 08:48 pm (UTC)
Aaaaagh, I specifically meant to mention Alma Alexander, and I forgot.

Also: Michaela Roessner has a book I didn't know about? Really? Must go look!
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