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Author Topic: Writing the Other
babygears81
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OK here it goes. You can almost hear the DUM DUM DUM after the title can't you?

I'm writing a story about the Cherokee. And I'm really struggling with the fact that I'm writing this story as a cultural outsider. I really wish I would have thought of this before I finished my 400 page first draft, I might have taken a different route, but now that its done, I can't bring myself to give it up. I have taken special care to not be hokey or stereotypical. For example, here are some things I will not do:

1.)Have my Indians say "How" [Razz]
2.)Have any talking animals
3.)Have any guilty white people in my book who want to save/help the Indians
4.)Have a wise old grandfather.

What I will do:
1.)Write about Modern Cherokee people
2.)One alcoholic and one alcoholic/drug addict (these are real issues faced by Native Americans. Poverty on the reservation will also be addressed in my book.)
3.)A Freedman boy (The Cherokee are currently going through a controversial period. To keep it short, they are supporting legislation that would deny many Freedman people their membership in the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee were slave owners and many African American's walked the trail of tears with them. As a result, many have intermingled in the tribe and now identify as Cherokee. Also, African oral tradition intermingled with the Cherokee's over time and influenced that of the Cherokee. I will talk about this case in my second book and how it effects my Freedman character.
4.)I use characters from Cherokee myths in my story. For the most part they are exactly as they appear in Cherokee myths. But Cherokee myths do not explain the hows and whys, and there are many gaps in logic, so I had to make stuff up to fill in the holes.I also added some attributes to one of them,to make her more relevant to my story.

I know cultural outsiders can write about Native Americans well. I've seen it done although it is rare. And I just want to know what you guys think. What are your opinions about what I am doing specifically, and about this issue in general? I'm not looking for the right answer, but hearing your thoughts might help me sift through my own.

Thanks in advance for sharing.

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Osiris
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I'll chime in, since I've pretty much felt like an "other" most of my life due to my ethnic and religious background and the fact that I live in USA. The one thing I realize about being an other is that the differences between people are much more about perception than reality.

What you've said encourages me that you need not be too concerned that you mishandled the novel. The fact that you are cognizant of stereotypes means you've been able to avoid them. The real issue is identifying the stereotypes you aren't aware of.

I commend you for taking on this subject matter. Last year I visited an Indian reservation, and it left quite a depressing impression on me. I've also heard about the Freedman story on NPR.

So, what I think the best thing you can do is a) continue to do your research and b) interact with as many Cherokee people as you can, and c) see if you can get one of them to be a first reader for you. They'll help you point out any stereotypes or other issues you might miss because you are not Cherokee yourself.

Good luck with it, I hope it does well.

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History
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I would say the best writing is writing what you know.

Writing as an insider while an outsider is bound to have errors no matter how diligent one strives.

What was the extent of your research and experience?
Have you spent time among the Cherokee?
Have you had a Cherokee read the story and give you feedback?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Meredith
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It seems, even as an outsider, that you're fairly familiar with the Cherokee.

I'm divided on this issue. Part of me thinks it's fraught with potential hazards. Part of me says that we, as writers, take liberties with folklore all the time. The distinction, of course, is that when I, for example, include Cernunnos in a story, there isn't anybody alive who can say whether I've screwed up or not.

quote:
2.)One alcoholic and one alcoholic/drug addict (these are real issues faced by Native Americans. Poverty on the reservation will also be addressed in my book.)

This is the only statement that really gives me pause. Not that these aren't real life problems on any Indian reservation, but that it has the potential to be perceived as a stereotype. Are you going to show any Cherokee who are not alchoholics or drug adicts?
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babygears81
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Osiris you are right about identifying the stereotypes I am not aware of. If possible, I think it's a great idea to have a Cherokee be a first reader of my story. I'll have to look into that. I would also like to add, about otherness, that while I didn't grow up on a reservation, I have been an other in life in various ways. Having that experience gives you a different perspective of life I think and makes it easier to put yourself in someone else's shoes, so to speak.

History- as far as writing what I know, you are right, but I am. I'm writing about a young woman who is trying to find her place in the world. Her journey includes discovering her personal identity, as well as her cultural identity, and I know all about that. Also, I'm writing about complicated relationships between women in a family, and I know all about that too. The Native American aspect of it is not as foreign to me as it might otherwise be if I had not experienced otherness myself.

Meredith- You are right about the alcoholism and I've thought of that as well. The way I will address that is by making sure the mother, who is the alcoholic is seen as a real person and not just an alcoholic. She breaths and bleeds and loves and laughs too. The same with the drug addict.

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extrinsic
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I think you have the challenges of writing the other well in hand. Certainly, one particular challenge: that of stereotyping hazards. Stereotypes aren't far from stock characters, which aren't too much further from archetypes.

Stereotyping is insensitive and demeaning when the stereoptype dehumanizes entire culture groups. Both stock characters and archetypes are essential character types for writing. They do duty as auxillliary characters and nonspeaking extras that fill scenes for verisimilitude's sake. Nonetheless, they need individual specificity to avoid stereotyping.

Idiosyncracy and idiom are the meat and potatoes of character specificity. Specific personality and behavior traits identify individuals. No funny hat guys, please, unless funny hats are identity markers, re: personality, behavior, and status marker signals.

Writing the other is as much about writing what one knows as writing about what one doesn't know. Television weather broadcasters send new correspondents to dangerous weather sites because new reporters add their dramatic reactions to the reporting. Veteran weather reporters don't report as dramatically as the circumstances demand, both for production values and to give the circumstances the levity needed so viewers aren't complacent about dangerous weather.

Another reason for writing about what one doesn't know centers around biased reporting. Outsiders are less prone to be biased in favor of subjects. I don't see what good it is to have a fanatical fan review a favorite novel. The review will be strongly biased, not balanced, and probably more a vanity review than a conscientious analysis of the novel.

In terms of less than favorable traits for characters, like substance abuse, specificity to individuals is paramount when writing the other. That way a writer is less subject to cultural malappropriation accusations, though not immune.

The more sensitive a culture is to social dehumanization, the more likely the culture will be to take offense. In other words, the more marginalized from mainstream culture a culture group is, the more unsympathetic the portrayal, the more likely offense will be taken. If the portrayal is specific to an individual, the less likely the group will take offense, and maybe even follow along, knowing someone who is just like that but who definitely doesn't represent them.

[ March 17, 2012, 09:13 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Osiris
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quote:
Originally posted by babygears81:
Having that experience gives you a different perspective of life I think and makes it easier to put yourself in someone else's shoes, so to speak.

Absolutely! I find experience with otherness helps one write more nuanced, and therefore more believable antagonists.

While I agree it is good to write what you know, particularly for beginning authors, the point of doing thorough research is to know what you write. Expanding your knowledge means you can increase the number of topics in which you can write with authority. There dozens of examples of people writing acclaimed novels outside of their area of formal training. And as someone who has experienced otherness in your own way, you will draw on your own similar experiences and apply them to the novel you are writing.

Also, extrinsic makes many great points. The flip side of being an outsider is objectivity, so don't lose sight of that as an advantage. He is spot on with his analysis that the more marginalized a group of people are, there more sensitive they will be, and hence more easily offended.

[ March 17, 2012, 09:15 PM: Message edited by: Osiris ]

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Pyre Dynasty
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This is a tricky one. There is a lot of rage there. There is also a lot of acceptance. There is an awesome sense of humor. There is a dynamic that takes no small effort to understand, much less work with.

You are going to offend someone. But I don't think being offended is the worst thing. It helps us work through our values.

The best advice I can give has already been given, get to know actual people. More than just gathering data for your story, sit down with them and get to know who they are.

Oh and enjoy this from Graham Green:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3QOM4JxZQo

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Barbara Hambly has experienced quite a lot of flak over her Benjamin January novel series, because she has committed two "writing as other" sins: she's a woman writing about a man, and a white writing about a black.

And yet, I would strongly recommend that series as a wonderful example of research and insight in writing about "the other."

Her books have explored aspects of being a free black in a time and culture of slavery that I submit most readers would never have imagined.

If you can do it even half as well as Hambly has done it, you'll be fine.

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