Alma Alexander: Writing the Other

Alma Alexander (Twitter, LJ) is a Pacific Northwest novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. Her books include “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, “The Hidden Queen”, “Changer of Days”, the YA Worldweavers series, and “2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens”; short stories have appeared in a number of recent anthologies, and “River”, the first anthology where she wore an editor’s hat, is out now.

The novel “Embers of Heaven” is now available in the USA for the first time – initially as an ebook at Amazon and at Smashwords, with a paperback edition to follow soon


Almost exactly a year ago, novelist Kari Sperring wrote a blog entry entitled “Other people’s toes.” You can go and read the full entry, but there are a few things I would like to pull out of there – to wit –

[on Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear]

… the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and — as an Oxbridge historian — I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently… Then I read [Connie Willis’s] short piece in the Bulletin. Here’s the key excerpt. ‘That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating — the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What’s not to like.’

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, ‘How about all the dead civilians? That’s not to like at all.’Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun.

Here’s my point. History is not a theme park. It’s not a story, either. It’s people’s real lives. If you’re going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because — as Ms Willis did with me — otherwise, you’re going to find someone’s sore place, someone’s vulnerability, someone’s sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you’re going to do damage. Other countries aren’t theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They’re homes to millions, they’re people’s lives, too.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it’s not fun, it’s not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all.

I guess what I’m saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people’s things, histories, homes. We don’t all understand the same things in what we read, we don’t all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It’s far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It’s far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

Kari Sperring was talking about an interesting and not a little unsteady position for the contemporary fantasy novelist – writing about a period in history which is still very much in living memory (if not the people who have lived through the period themselves then certainly through their direct descendants, sons and daughters whose connection with that particular era may not be direct experience but certainly first-hand accounts thereof). It is something that I myself have had cause to think about in my own work.

My novel “The Secrets of Jin Shei” was based on a time and place very remote from its target (Western, English-speaking) audience – a dim-past Imperial China, reimagined to suit my purpose. Because the original of this vision was so very very long ago, and because it was geographically and culturally so removed from my readers’ own experiences, I had a bit of wiggle room here. I researched things diligently to make sure I could get what details I COULD get right straight, so that the setting would gain in believability and verisimilitude. But my research was of necessity limited to secondary sources and things I read in translation because any records of the time (if any fragile original ones still existed) would not be in a language that I could hope to understand. I did my best, created a world which I called Syai, a land that was “like” Imperial China and not the place itself.

The follow-up to this book was a different story.

“Embers of Heaven” is a standalone novel which takes place in my China-analogue land, Syai, some 400 years after the events of the previous book… and places the action, here in my pseudo-China-that-never-was, directly in the path of what in THIS world was to become known as the Cultural Revolution.

And here I collided with a little bit of the drama that Kari Sperring talks about concerning the Blitz. The Cultural Revolution LIES WITHIN LIVING MEMORY. There are many, many ways of trampling on people’s feelings and memories here, a huge potential of messing up royally, particularly since (once again) my research, while copious, was confined to translated works of every stripe and I had no means of doing direct original-source research on the matter. Yes, I read thirty seven books to write one. No, I don’t know if this was remotely adequate. Because of what I found in those books.

The truth is that before I began doing this research I was aware of the Cultural Revolution in the manner in which an outsider who is interested in culture and history of the world might be aware of it – in global terms, with one or two specific incidents where memory hooked and held. I knew the principal players and (in broad strokes) their roles and involvements in the events of the Cultural Revolution. But when I began to look at the finer detail of the era I quickly realized that there was a good reason why few people have tried to set a fantasy in this particular time period – because the TRUTH reads so much like horror fantasy that it is almost impossible to deal with in a fictional construct. If I had just used some of the things I found out, verbatim, I would have run afoul of not one but two separate and distinct traps.

The first was that the fellow outsiders, like myself, the Western audience of the book, would never have believed that any of it could possibly have happened in exactly the way that it did because the things that people are capable of doing to one another are frankly mind-bending.

The second was that those insiders who might have lived through the era themselves, or their descendants who know about the time through family stories, would have known the truth which I skirted, and for them it is quite possible that I did not go far enough, that they might feel that I had taken a cruel and vicious moment of their own history and hung a fantasy narrative on it, thereby arguably cheapening the experiences of the survivors (much like Kari Sperring feels about the Blitz and Connie Willis’s treatment of it).

But this was a story that called out to me, and needed to be told – and so I read and I read and I read and I researched, I have tons of scribbled notes, I have a library of books on contemporary Chinese histories and biographies and memoirs and poetry and coffee-table books with incredible photographs. And in the end, when I was ready to write, I had to tell myself that I had enough. And believe in the material, and my own ability to deal with it, sufficiently to launch into the story that I wanted to tell.

“Embers of Heaven” turned out to be… more of a love story than I had anticipated, and between an unlikely pair of lovers, at that. But the background of that unexpected romance was pure raw chaos of revolution, of ideals at their worst (when they’re being pursued regardless of the cost to anyone who stands in their way, however inadvertently), of harrowing tragedy, of joy scrounged from scraps where one could and treasured for its very rarity in time and place, of hard lessons learned the hard way. It was a book where the smiles came from beneath eyes brimming with tears, and were all the more precious for that.

When a writer turns to material such as this, material not innately familiar and yet still viscerally accessible to other people, to strangers, whom the author might never cross paths with in this lifetime, it’s like crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope while carrying someone else’s child on his or her shoulders. It’s exhilarating, yes, and if achieved without tragedy it’s a potential source of great pride and accomplishment. But it’s also fraught with potential drama and even tragedy.
And this, the latter, is something that any writer worth their salt is constantly aware of.

In the end, writing the Other is a basic and fundamental question of respect. You take someone else’s life and experiences and you mold it all like clay and make from it something rich and strange – and there are plenty of traps that you can blunder into. You either make it all into something bitterly familiar but twisted out of true to the people who lived the original, or else transmute it into what is to those people an alien thing that they cannot identify with at all. And it is difficult to say which of those I would call the greater failure of story, and of writer.

And yet… without trying, without telling the stories that call out to you, you cannot achieve anything at all, and in some senses even a failure is better than silence. Respect also means that if you have made a blunder and it is pointed out to you by someone who knows better you don’t defend the wrong choices you may have made but you accept the fact that you may have erred and learn how better to find, learn, and express the truths which you somehow failed to grasp at first pass.

To those who choose to make their way into non-familiar near-contemporary cultures and contexts and make them a setting for a rich new fantasy world, to take their chance and write the Other to themselves, I say this. You will make mistakes. This is inevitable. The way to deal with them if pulled up on them is to admit them, accept them, and learn from them.

The key word here is grace – and you may have to raid your stockpiled reserves of it, because accepting rebukes from those who have a right to mete them out requires grace, sometimes a great deal of it, on the writer’s behalf. But grace and respect will take you a long way… and the rewards of writing the Other, and meeting with at least some degree of success, are magical, indescribable.

The jin-shei books provided those rewards to me.

There was the dignified, white-haired Chinese woman who sat in the audience at my first public reading event, and made me quail – here was somebody who would know, with an instinct born of the simple fact of being a bona fide part of this culture which I had inspired my story, if I had screwed up. At the end of my reading she brought her copy of the book for me to sign and said, with a sigh, “A part of me WISHES that you were Chinese.”

There was the day that I was met at a book signing by a woman with a Chinese adopted daughter for whom she wanted a copy of “Secrets of Jin Shei” signed. I was humbled and proud to do so – but I cannot begin to tell you about what filled my heart when the rest of that encounter played out, when the mother thanked me and told me that she would treasure the book and give it to her daughter to read “when she was old enough to understand her heritage”, and I finally asked how old the child was now… and the mother said, “Four.” She had bought my book to hold in trust and treasure for a child barely more than a toddler, who had maybe a decade to go before she could be considered old enough to read and understand a book such as I had written. But the fact that her mother considered the book valuable enough for this to even be a consideration… well, I cried. It still remains one of the proudest and most treasured moments of my entire writing career.

It showed me that I had met the Other, and that a measure of mutual understanding had been achieved.

That this was POSSIBLE.

The next time I face this particular task, it will be no less daunting a prospect – and yes, I will marshal Grace and Respect once again as my wingmen. But even then, even when I understand the things that need to be done and achieved in order to produce something worthy of its own existence there will always be that small voice of warning – you are boldly going where nobody dared go before, and here there be dragons.

And yet I will go. And I will brave the possibility of being greeted by something breathing fire.

Because this is what we do, those of us who live with words and ideas and dreams.

We make them into Stories.