Reality Skimming
25Apr/12Off

Dialogue #3: Lillian Cohen-Moore

Dialogues: Lynda Williams and a guest author tackle the same topic from two points of view.

Topic: Culture, authenticity, and spec-fic.

What’s similar and different about writing one’s own, real culture versus writing an invented one? What are the complications involved in depicting a specific culture in fiction, and does the genre of speculative fiction offer some freedom in that respect?
Lillian Cohen-Moore is a multiracial Jewish writer and journalist based out of Seattle, Washington. Her speculative fiction has been published by 365 tomorrows, Timid Pirate Publishing, The Edge of Propinquity, White Cat Magazine and The Irish Times. She's currently a staff writer for Another Passion, Geek's Dream Girl and Booklife Now. When she isn’t compulsively interviewing people, she acts as the Editor-in-Chief of The Broadsheet, for Broad Universe. She thinks Lois Lane is cooler than Superman. She blogs at www.lilliancohenmoore.com
Lynda Williams Lynda Williams is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). Part 7 of the Okal Rel Saga, Healer's Sword, arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science. She also works as Learning Technology Analyst for Simon Fraser University and teaches a introductory web development course at BCIT.

Q. “Inside baseball” is a metaphor for the details of a subject requiring such a specific knowledge that they cannot be appreciated by an outsider. When depicting a real culture in fiction, how can a writer be authentic without shutting out the general reader with too much “inside baseball?”

Lillian Cohen-Moore: It takes a lot of murdered darlings. As tempting it is to slip in every cultural fact you can think of, there comes a point where readers are going to be able to tell that what you wrote isn’t for people not ‘in the know.’ Michael Chabon is a great example of someone who walks that line with incredible skill. It’s possible for someone who isn’t Jewish to enjoy books like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. There’s a degree of nuance that I think allows for emotional connection for Jews with the book, but it’s an incredible novel for non-Jewish readers as well. At the core of it, Policeman’s Union has an incredibly taut murder mystery at the center. That’s how you build a book that doesn’t shut people out — no matter how many cultural or linguistic details they might not understand off-hand, readers can still follow a strong plot.

Lynda Williams: My mother's rule was never talk about family to outsiders. So writing about topics like the stresses caused by my father's depression were impossible. I started fictionalizing my issues by laundering them through Sci Fi. Throne Price comes closest to portraying the struggle of someone (Amel) struggling to hold the "family" together in a worsening situation. But the sexual abuse elements came from my years at the Crisis Centre and the "slut or frigid" dichotomy of coming of age at the tail end of the sexual revolution. I stripped away details until even I didn't recognize, 100%, what I was talking about through my characters. In the process, I developed my own "inside baseball" in the form of alien cultures and practices which I had to fight to keep palatable to readers. Part 4: Throne Price was written first, and it shows. It needs a re-write to bring it in line with the airier style of subsequent volumes of the saga.

Q. Offending others who identify with the culture: Is it inevitable? Is it a problem?

Lillian Cohen-Moore: You can’t please everyone. I think you run an equal risk of offending those who identify with a culture as you do those outside it. I think that’s a reality of writing, and that the problem of offending others is how it’s responded to. Whether or not you feel that you’ve erred in your portrayal, reacting in a knee-jerk, defensive fashion doesn’t help your work or your readers. It takes a lot to sit down and listen to reader concerns. If you agree with their points, then by all means do what you feel you should in order to address the issue in the present and future. Even if you don’t agree, considering the possibility that you’ve written something from a biased perspective, conscious or otherwise, encourages you to look at your work from a different angle. That’s never a bad thing.

Lynda Williams: When I started writing the Okal Rel Saga it was the adults of my middle-class life I feared offending via my sympathetic portrayal of the Vrellish, with their multiple kinds of sex partners and promiscuous behavior. I never expected to find myself, in the new millennium, worrying about whether the disdain for Vrellish excesses felt by Demish characters might offend friends who act a little Vrellishly.  Likewise, Di Mon and Ranar's affair was so avant-garde when I began developing it in the late 70s, that I was warned I'd never sell a genre book featuring a homosexual romance unless I pumped up the erotica and went for a niche market. Now I find gay-advocates annoyed with me for Di Mon's failure to come to terms, entirely, with his sexual orientation. All I can hope is that the characters are well enough drawn, all around, that they work whether or not people are sometimes offended by them.

Q. What are the pros and cons of working with a real vs. an invented culture?

Lillian Cohen-Moore: Working with real culture presents a lot of challenges that I enjoy wrestling with, but the pros and cons tend to drift across the categories for me. Should I follow historic details, what details need to be more malleable in a speculative setting, how much do I want to break from history and how do I defend those choices. I think that the closer you get to the present day, the more potential you have to offend readers when you make the decision to seriously play with alternate history or speculative explanations for historic events and societal mores. The closer something is to us, to have affected our lives or loved ones, the touchier those topics can be to address in fiction, as a writer or a reader. That’s the fundamental issue to keep in mind in terms of cons, for me. Just because its fiction doesn’t mean it lacks a capacity to hurt.

Lynda Williams: Fiction lets me abstract arguments about what's right and wrong in a way that divorces them from the cultural baggage any reader brings to a story. Nesaks, for example, represent the maddening truth, for me, that good people with wholesome family lives can be racist/sexist/war mongering monsters outside the family circle. I don't have to say whether Nesaks represent the bigoted people of my own life experience, Islamic extremists or far-right Americans. Invented cultures let you tackle issues as pure thought experiment. In Part 2: Righteous Anger, for example, a happy marriage causes death and mayhem. Not because I am against marriage, but because I wanted to experience the issue from the point of view of Vrellish people whose way of life is threatened by it.  Some of these ideas came from reading about culture clashes between Europeans and natives across the British empire and other examples of culture clash where the a majority norm encroaches on the perfectly workable, but very different, norms of others. However, I don't believe in pure cultural relativity so I'm always searching these situations for grains of something universal.

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