As a follow-up to the various discussions of race in SF/F, I wanted to talk about one of my own stumbling blocks as I was writing Red Hood’s Revenge. This book takes place primarily in Talia’s home country of Arathea, described in earlier books as a desert culture with a vaguely middle-eastern flavor. (Similar to the pseudo-European flavor of Lorindar.)
I wrote a scene in the first draft that I wasn’t happy with. It involved the Arathean attitude toward homosexuality, which basically amounted to “Lesbian, outcast, unclean!” I didn’t like the scene because it felt like I was getting preachy and building a big core conflict out of it. While the characters’ sexualities are a part of who they are, it’s not the point of the book.
On the other hand, I wanted to keep it believable. And here’s where my stereotypes screwed me over in my first draft, because we all know Arabs are hardline conservatives and terrorists who’ll stone you at the slightest sign of sexual “deviance.”
I’m pissed off that this crap was in my brain, and more pissed that it made its way onto the page. It’s completely at odds with my own real-life experiences with people of middle eastern descent. But it’s a message that gets reinforced every time I turn on the TV or catch up with news online.
So when it was time to rewrite, I took a step back. True, some Arabs are extremists. So are some Christians. So are some Girl Scouts. My job as the writer is to get past the cliches and the stereotypes and think about what’s right and true for these characters and this particular culture.
This is when I realized I was being an idiot. Arathea is heavily influenced by fairy culture. Read Sleeping Beauty — this is a land where fairies pop up at your kid’s birth to bestow blessings and curses alike. I’ve established that fairies are all over the place in Arathea. I’ve also hinted that fairies are … a bit more sexually liberal than most humans.
Put those two factors together, and Arathea is likely to be more open when it comes to sexuality. Thanks to the fairy influence on Arathean culture, a woman who prefers other women is going to get about as much notice as a guy who prefers blondes to brunettes.
I’m not saying the book is now perfect. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to construct a logical, believable desert culture, building on what’s out there without simply stealing the “shiny bits” from other cultures. But I’m still a product of my own culture, and I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, mistakes and assumptions that have survived into the current draft.
I just wanted to put this particular example out there as one instance of my own struggles while writing the book.
Recommended reading: Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, by Nisi Shawl