1. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    Mythology Inclusion vs Appropriation

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by ManOrAstroMan, Jun 9, 2016.

    So, my current project is centered around faerie mythology, but I'm looking to include more beings than what is found in the lore of places like Germany and Great Britain. I figure I'm pretty safe with creatures like the nymphs and monsters of Greco-Roman mythology, and some types of Japanese youkai slot in nicely with the mythology I've set up, but I'm a little stymied beyond that.
    I'd like to include beings and creatures from other parts of the world, but so many have specific descriptions and functions. I don't want to twist something from another culture to fit my needs.
    Does anyone have any recommendations?
     
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  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    My recommendation is not to concern yourself with this. "Appropriation" in this context is a fiction. Authors are, and should be, entitled to draw upon the entire spectrum of human experience, myths, and legends for their creative output. Just write it.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can understand what @Steerpike is saying (or at least, I think I can) but I don't think I agree with it. To me, it sounds like saying that art is important enough to trump other concerns, our writing is art, and therefore our writing trumps other concerns. (note: I've become unable to write the perfectly useful word "trump" without negative images in my mind...)

    For me, art is more important than some things, for sure. It's more important than empty outrage or scoring points off others. But I don't think it's more important than people, and I think that if art is hurting people, we need to look at it really closely.

    So then the question, obviously, is whether cultural appropriation hurts people. And I think it can, yeah. I think it can cheapen things that are really important to some people, and if those people have already put up with a lot of shit and been trampled on enough, then I think we should work really hard to avoid trampling on them any more.

    But that doesn't mean you can't include mythology from diverse cultures in your story. Just do it respectfully. Take the time to really dive into the original material/ideas and if you're going to borrow, take more than just the convenient parts. Don't, as you say, twist things around to meet your needs. Can you twist your needs around to meet the thing? If not, maybe make up a mythology that suits your needs better, rather than taking just the surface of someone's cultural icon and discarding the really important parts.
     
  4. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Personally I avoid things that people still believe in, because I'm not into singling out someone's actual belief and fictionalizing it. So old religions (say the ancient Egyptian pantheon) are fair game, but I wouldn't say "this character is literally Shiva" or something. I have a Christ-like character in one of my projects but I treat it as 'inspired by' the Biblical figure because I find the story compelling, which is another way to treat mythological references - not stating "this character is Jesus" the way you might state "this character is a wood nymph" but having characters/creatures with similarities to existing religious without trying to come across as an authority on them. And I mean, I also don't use my Christ-like character to try to be all edgy and be like "secretly Jesus was the worst" because I'm not interested in roundabout insulting or making fun of people's beliefs, but that's me.
     
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  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @BayView that raises other questions though:

    How many people have to complain about your use before it matters (we know as writers that no matter what you do, you can always find at least one person, and likely many more, who don't like it)?

    If one person is offended, is your art more important than that one person's sensibilities?

    Define "respectfully."

    If all you need is a surface level 'flavor' of the mythology, why change your work to include more? If the surface level use is positive, does that change things? Can you ever use such things if your portrayal is negative? And if not, what does it mean to have a set of ideas, imagery, etc. that are off limits to writers in terms of critical commentary?

    Does it matter what culture you're writing in, or writing from? If person from ethnic group X writes the exact same book about ethnic group Y that an author from ethnic group Y would have written, is it suddenly a problem?

    I could go on in this vein, but I think you can see why this sort of thing becomes problematic so quickly.
     
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  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    So, you could never write a book like To Reign in Hell. That's unfortunate (not that I mean, personally, you wouldn't write it, but that you've created a set of arbitrary rules that wouldn't allow it to be written).
     
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  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    They're just my 'rules' (ie 'the things I'm comfortable with doing'). Other people can do whatever they like; I'm not preventing them from writing anything.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Ah, I see. I thought you meant that it was a sensibility that others should adopt. My mistake.
     
  9. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I literally couched that post in as much 'personally' and 'this is what I do' and 'that's me anyway' as I could :p
     
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  10. Mumble Bee
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    Mumble Bee The writer formerly known as Chained. Contributor

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    If you're not sure if you're misrepresenting a subject then you're not done researching yet.
     
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  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Unless you're writing non-fiction or, I suppose, historical fiction, what does it mean to "misrepresent" it? This often comes up in the context of a fantasy novel, which by definition takes place in a world that is different, in one degree or another, from our own world. There's no way for me to "misrepresent" the real world mythology if it's not meant to be the real world mythology in the first place. It's just fiction that is inspired by the real world mythology, the way Game of Thrones is inspired by medieval Europe, or American Gods is inspired (in part) by Norse Mythology.
     
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  12. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    I think part of what I'm trying to avoid is something I've seen in shows like Supernatural. It was one thing when they riffed on ghost stories and urban legends, but then they started taking apart actual religions and rearranging the pieces until only the name was the same. Stories about the Phantom Hitchhiker are memetic by nature, and every storyteller is meant to leave their fingerprints on the tale. But that's a very different thing from the religious beliefs of a whole culture.
     
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  13. Mumble Bee
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    Mumble Bee The writer formerly known as Chained. Contributor

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    That's kind of like having a drink in your book called Coca Cola, except in your reality people think its delicious and don't care it can clean corrosion off of a car battery.
    Game of thrones may have kept the general ideas, but the names were changed.
    If you're going to take the name of something that exists, and twist it, then why not just make your own thing in the first place?
     
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  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You can. But there's no reason you have to. Depends on the story you are telling. For example, if you're writing alt. history, it makes perfect sense to take the real world subject matter and work with that. But since it is alt. history, a genre that presupposes that historical events or development took a different path than in the real world, you might run off in any direction with it. If you're stuck using the real-world events, mythologies, beliefs, etc. as they exist in our world, then you're not really writing alt. history anymore.
     
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  15. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I think I see what you mean. I can really only advise doing a lot of research into your chosen topic to make sure you keep all the pieces in sensible if not identical places, so to speak. Is it still recognizable, or if you slapped a different name on it would people just think it was an original ip? You'll probably need feedback on that, because once you've read about something extensively, you're able to see it everywhere. I have a short based off of a somewhat obscure Norse myth and to me it's like "This is obviously about Hjaðningavíg! All the pieces are in there!" but uh ... no one else even knows what that is, hahah. You need other perspectives - both from people who know the source mythology and don't. Because you want it to make sense without the mythological context, but also fit within the context.
     
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  16. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, it's not necessarily about people complaining, and certainly not about the number of people - more about the validity of their complaints. Quality, not quantity. If one person complains and, when I look at the issue I think they have a point? Then one person is enough. If a million people complain, but when I look at the issue I still disagree? Fuck it, at least a million people know about my story!

    I think the rest of my paragraph explained what I mean by the word - was there something specific you disagreed with or wanted clarification of?

    Well, if you think your work is more important than its potential effects on others, then there's no reason to change. If you think the effect of your work is something you should consider, then... I think you should consider it. That simple, I guess.

    I would say no and yes. I mean, most appropriation is, at least on the surface, fairly positive. Like, pop stars wear bindis because they're pretty and accentuate their eyes. That's positive, I guess, but only on a really shallow level that ignores the deeper significance of the symbol. So I wouldn't say it's respectful. And in terms of negative portrayals - if you take the time to really dive into things and understand them, then I don't think there's any problem at all with being critical--but I also don't think it's appropriation. Because to me, the term "appropriation" suggests a surface-level adoption of things, and, no, I don't think it would be appropriate to be critical of much if all you have is a surface-level understanding.

    This feels too hypothetical, to me. I'm not sure it's possible for two writers from different groups to write books about the culture only one of them belongs to. But if it were possible and did happen, I would assume it happened because the writer from outside the culture did whatever it took to have a deep understanding of the culture, in which case, again, according to my understanding of the word, it wouldn't be appropriation.

    Is it possible that we're defining "appropriation" differently? To me, it's a fairly value-laden term. It doesn't mean absolutely all borrowing by a dominant culture from a disadvantaged culture. It only means the surface-level, thoughtless borrowing we see so much of. Is that how you see it?
     
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  17. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    But alt-his is more about divergent timelines and logical progression problems: What if the South won the Civil War? What if Hitler had had a brain aneurysm before kicking off WW2? What if Rome hadn't tried to conquer Europe? Even historical fantasy is still rooted in familiar reality: Shakespeare was a wizard! The American Revolution with dragons!
    It's not the same thing as saying Moses was potato and the Inuits prayed to Martians.
     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2016
  18. Mumble Bee
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    Mumble Bee The writer formerly known as Chained. Contributor

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    I don't know what you were writing, but I think we can all agree that this is what you should write.
     
  19. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the key word there is logical progression problems... because, again, it suggests a level of thought and understanding that I don't think is part of what I consider cultural appropriation. If someone has done enough research and has a deep enough understanding to create a logical alt-history story, then I wouldn't consider their story appropriation, even if it involved a culture other than their own.

    (For clarity - I'm building on @ManOrAstroMan's ideas, not trying to contradict them!)
     
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  20. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    I made a note of it as soon as I typed it.
     
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  21. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    It would be quite easy to write an alt. history where the "gods" the Inuit prayed to were actually extra-terrestrial travelers. But it is even easier than that to envision an alt. history where you are completely changing a cultures beliefs and mythology. For example, suppose a Mesoamerican alt. history where the Aztec come down from the north but aren't able to establish a completely dominant empire at Tenochtitlan. Maybe the Maya kept going and have a strong civilization near there when the Aztec arrive. So they end up having to co-exist as neighbors. The history of Mesoamerica is rife with cultural exchange - Olmec/Maya, the Maya and Teotihuacan. The Zapotecs, what have you. So your alt. history could very well end up with an Aztec mythology and culture that is very heavily Maya influenced and retains a lot more that is attributable to the Maya than they already did. What's more, now your Maya culture is going to change, because they're going to be influenced in turn by the Aztec. Oh no, now you've gone and screwed up both of these Mesoamerican cultures, and the Spanish haven't even arrived yet!

    Based on what a lot of people seem to be saying about appropriation, you couldn't write the above. It is changing fundamental historical beliefs of a group of people. I disagree that you can't or shouldn't write it.
     
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  22. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Too bad for you, because we ALL made note of it! I just downloaded the audio version of His Majesty's Dragons a couple days ago, and if I end up writing dragons in the US Revolution, I can claim I stole from THAT series, not from you...
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks for the clarifications, @BayView. We may be using the terms somewhat differently. I think surface-level borrowing falls within the scope of cultural appropriation, as I most often see it used (and I don't have a problem with surface-level borrowing), but I see it used often to extend beyond that to incorporation of any elements of a cultural not ones own, particularly if there is a historical power differential, no matter how well researched, etc. That starts to take a lot off the table.
     
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  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Sadly for both of you, Mike Resnick has already written this exact story :)
     
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  25. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    BASTARD! THIEF! APPROPRIATOR!!!
     

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