Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cultural Trespassing

The novella I'm writing (currently at 12,500 words) is troubling me a little. It's not the plot, which seems to be actually coming together (not a thing I can always count on). The characters seem real to me, which is a sign they have at least a chance of seeming real to readers. The genetic engineering behind the plot has been carefully researched. What's troubling me is a meta-concern.

My viewpoint character is a dwarf, an anchondroplastic, which is the most common type of dwarfism. To write him, I read two books on dwarfism, one the controversial In The Little World, by journalist John Richardson. The other was Little People: Learning to See The World Through My Daughter's Eyes, by Dan Kennedy. Kennedy is the average-sized father of a ten-year-old child with dwarfism. I also read a lot of articles on-line, trying to educate myself . This involved by-passing endless articles about dwarf stars, dwarf mistletoe, and Lord of the Rings. My goal was to try to see the world as it looks to a dwarf in twenty-first-century America. What I found, of course, is that it's just as ridiculous to speak of one point of view on dwarfism, held by dwarfs, as it is to ascribe one point of view to any other group. Which gave me a lot of latitude in creating Barry, my dwarf.

But here's my question: I still feel uneasy appropriating a culture not my own as a subject for fiction. Writers do this all the time, of course, and critics and readers then complain about it all the time. (Look up the controversy over Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a non-Asian man.) I don't want to step on anyone's sensibilities. But if I stuck to my own culture -- white, female, middle-aged and middle class -- I would have a very narrow range of stories.

Nobody objected to my Rom characters in "Fountain of Age" -- or, if they did, I didn't hear about it. I hope I get the same reaction to Barry Tenler. Even more, I hope that he emerges as a living, breathing, plausible person who has, and has been partly shaped by, his dwarfism.


Kendall said...

I don't think a SF con panel about your concern has ever concluded, "Nope, make all your characters exactly like you." ;-) So, with respect: You're researching and want to "get it right" (so to speak), so don't sweat it.

But I'm surprised--are there no book by people with dwarfism you could read?! Well, I presume some of the online articles were by people with dwarfism....

BTW I've seen interesting shows on Discovery Health, etc., documentary-style, about people with dwarfism. I probably wouldn't use the (shudder) "reality" show on whatever-network-it-is as research, though. ;-)

Daniel said...

Maybe that's why no one complains about authors misrepresenting aliens (in futuristic SF)... :)

TheOFloinn said...

I've never figured out what the fuss was supposed to be about. I remember Michael Armstrong wondering if he had done wrong by writing about the Inuit and using the legends and tales of the Inuit.

The problem is "getting it right." There was always something a little bit "off" to me about the Americans in Agatha Christie's stories, for example. And of course nowadays there are always those looking for a grievance. I agree with you that the diversity within a group overwhelms any stereotype of the group. Not all Irish are blarney-spouting, heavy drinking fighters who talk like their chin is two feet in front of their teeth. Well, a couple of my cousins... No, never mind that now.

So as long as the character is not a cardboard cut-out -- and that literary sin you have never committed -- all is well. It is not necessary that a dwarf character represent the Universal Dwarf. I remember after my hard SF ghost story ("Mammy Morgan...") I received a letter from a "death researcher" complaining that I had characterized all death researchers as having troubled pasts. No, I had to answer, only =that= one in =that= story.

But you must run, not walk, to your video rental store and try to find a copy of THE STATION AGENT.

Unknown said...

I must say that I personally found the Romani characters and the descriptions of their world that are in "Fountain.." to be among the best features of the work...

Nancy Kress said...

I couldn't find any books written by dwarfs; if anyone can recommend one, I'd be grateful. Mike, I'll try to get The Station Agent today.

TheOFloinn said...

I couldn't find any books written by dwarfs

They are all published by small presses.

No, no. Bad Mikey! Bad.

Kendall said...

Mike: That movie looks great; I've ordered it. Now, time to smack you for your groaner about small presses. ;-)

Nancy: Sorry, I don't have any recommendations.

Kendall said...

P.S. The Little People of America have a library but I can't tell by glancing whether any of the books are by actual little people, versus people with parents or children who are.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

And on the other hand, they'll complain if you DON'T write stories which feature other cultures.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Since you don't get a cookie (to steal a line I've seen elsewhere in the community) for trying, just write it the best you can and to hell with those who want to complain.

S. F. Murphy
Northtown, Missouri

Robert Gus Gissing said...

I just found this link to Little People of America.

They seem to be rather large and their website lists contact information. I guess the real question, or a question anyway, is how significant is the character being a dwarf to the story. Is it exploitative or is dwarfism part of some larger question of acceptance of difference. I am a little self conscious writing this because "what the hell do I know about anything" I do know that you are not an exploitive person so this does not apply, but i do wonder about this. now i am just rambling.

g d townshende said...

It's not been published, but I've had the same sort of feelings when I wrote a short story which made use of a character who was Navajo, as well as some Navajo mythology. I managed to get in touch with a guy who was Navajo, and emailed him on a couple of occasions, but never got a response. The same thing happened when I got in touch with a guy I know in Arizona who graduated from the same high school I attended; he put me in touch with a friend of his who is Navajo. Same thing. I emailed, and got no response. I wasn't sure what to think of it.

The next time I do this, I'll make the Amerind character Ojibwe, and if anyone wants to complain about it, I'll point out that I'm part Ojibwe. :P Enough so, in fact, that I could claim minority status... if I maintained tribal connections. But I don't. I may not take part in any of the tribal culture, but that doesn't nullify the fact of my kinship. My interest in my own roots led me to purchase an English-Ojibwe dictionary, and I also found that Pimsleur has a language course for that language.

I would have no reservations whatsoever about writing a story in which there's a character who's British, since I'm more than half Brit (me mum's from Westham), or even a character who's Scot (her mum was Scottish — hard not to be with a surname like Geddes).

Of course, not being a dwarf, I'd probably experience the same sort of feelings which haunted me when I wrote my Navajo story, were I to try writing a story with a dwarf in it.

Lydia said...

It is so nice to see a writer I admire talking about these sorts of concerns. For some reason I keep feeling that real writers are more brave than I am and just go about researching a different culture and writing it without these worries. Thank you.

James A. Ritchie said...

Have you watched the series Little People, Big World?

Rtaher than reading about little people, it's a chnace to actually watch what they do, how they react, to get inside their world, and see everything from their point of view. It's a series well worth watching.