the specter of orientalism


As I explore my place in the fiction-writing world, I find there are many writers from marginalized walks of life–a tragic fact, but I’m comforted in knowing people like me are telling their stories to the world. A question I see on Twitter (quite often, in fact) is how to have discussions about other races, cultures and communities you’re not from. In marveling at the possibilities of writing about anything, the best question a writer can ask is, “Should we write about anything?”

As a sci-fi writer, my first thought was to ask William Gibson, writer of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.¬†The book is based in the future Chiba City, Japan; as I’ve learned from our brief Twitter exchange, Gibson hadn’t been to Japan before writing his book, but saw its futuristic affect in the changing city of Vancouver. I’m currently writing a story based in future Seoul, Korea, and I’m concerned about how relevant the setting is to the narrative. Do I risk fetishizing a country I quite enjoyed, making it seem strange and flat and Oriental? Can I see Seoul as the “city of the future” and still respect its rich history, culture and people? Do years spent filmmaking with my Korean-born professor, years spent dining and forging friendships and learning under his tutelage, grant me a unique perspective on some elusive Korean-ness? And how can I, a black Hispanic, translate those experiences into a respectful narrative that doesn’t typify all Koreans?

Despite newly discovered European ancestry, I’m not “white” by anyone’s standards, so the fear of cultural appropriation or white guilt is far from my mind when I write. But I do have other privileges: I’m male, and I’m American. I can write a character and designate them whatever gender I want, but there are some embodied experiences I lack because gender politics informs a lot of behavior in society. By the same token, writing about cultures I don’t belong to is entirely possible, but there’s a sensitivity to some topics I inherently lack. Even the best intentions don’t always translate well on paper.

For me, writing involves using plots to force characters to change, making critiques about my own relation to the world in the process. If during my lifetime I encounter people from cultures different from my own, and I choose to write about those experiences, I should recognize that no single person represents their culture, and precedents and stereotypes have staying power. After all is said and done, the best course of action is to share my work and see what people think. Good ideas are never formed in vacuum, and I can’t determine what others find offensive. But I do care if people are offended, and I’d hope to learn from such mistakes if and when they’re made.

Featured photo by Eugene Lim.