Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diversity in Fantasy: Spire City, Season Two

Here's another guest post from my good friend and fantasy city architect,  Daniel Ausema:

Diversity and Appropriation

I'm thrilled that Nick is hosting this series of posts again this year. I loved reading the interviews last year and hearing how others approach the questions of diversity in fantasy. And I'm looking forward to the various posts this year as well.

Looking back at my interview last year (, I said much of what I would say still today. Spire City has allowed me to step outside myself, and the diversity of characters and the often messy interactions among the various people are some of the things that keep me coming back to my own characters (and to those in the books I read). I continue to try to bring in the views of people with different experiences and to be honest about how those people contribute to the city and are treated by it.

All of season one is now done (and collected in two bundles, Contagion and Epidemic), and we are now several episodes into season two, with episode 5 coming out on February 20. Since last year, the core group of characters has expanded to include two friends from a different city, each of them very different in how they react to their infections and to the others in general. There are also new characters from different levels of Spire City's society—a deeply religious girl whose infection is very advanced, a woman who used to be a dangerous enforcer for a subterranean gang of infected people. Chels remains the central focal point of the series as she grows into her realization that she can do something to stop this infection, if not for herself then at least for others.

So that's just a quick update. I wanted to focus this post, though, on a companion issue to the idea of diversity, and that's cultural appropriation. So say, like most of us participating in this series of posts, that you completely agree that diversity is valuable and that works of fantasy ought to embrace the reality of the interplay of many peoples throughout history, all ages, ethnicities, religions, genders, orientations, and identities of all kinds. You're all set, then, to go borrowing from all over the place, right?


There's still the tangled issue of appropriation. The danger here is in blindly crashing through a complex culture and just grabbing a few things that seem exotic or cool. It's an understandable impulse, and it can lead us to a smug sense of having got it, but when you dig down and look at what's going on, it can be just as insulting as simply white-washing history.

I forget where I first came across it, but a good mindset when incorporating and drawing inspiration from other cultures is the paradigm of conqueror, tourist, and guest. The blind crashing and stealing is the conqueror mindset. As writers we might be tempted to tear away a mythological creature here and a historical kingdom there and weave it into our stories. To a certain extent, this is what all creative writing is, weaving together all the influences we have and letting them affect each other in their own ways. But much better if we understand those influences first and how they work(ed) in real life.

So a second approach is as the tourist. We see these cool, fascinating things. We take snapshots, post cool pics to Facebook, say “isn't this so (exotic, quaint, fascinating).” We bring in those elements to our own stories out of admiration. OK, that's better than the conqueror, but it still sets up a sense of difference, of emphasizing the other-ness of this distinct culture.

So the real goal, in writing diversity, is to first be welcomed as a guest. Approach the culture with an openness that doesn't rush to quick judgments. Understand how the different parts of the culture work together. Look for things that you find fascinating, sure, but then try to recognize how those things fit in with everything else. Get to know people who identify with that culture (at least we can do this through books, and for some historical groups that may be the most we can do as well, but the internet makes meeting people from many contemporary groups much less of a challenge than it once was). Don't quiz them or treat them as a source at your personal disposal, but do your best to get to know them and understand how their culture affects the way they see things, especially the things that you don't even think about to question. And do all this with respect for the people and cultures you meet along the way.

This is a huge topic, and there are others out there who can speak much more eloquently and in depth (and from a point of expertise) about the issues involved. So don't take this as a final and complete exploration, but rather as a reminder for us all, myself included, as we seek to create diverse and amazing secondary worlds for our stories, to be aware, respectful, and open-minded about all the influences that come our way.

Please visit Dausema's blog here: Twigs and Brambles

You can purchase the first episode of season 2 of Spire City by clicking on the image above or on the following link here (other episodes are linked there as well): Spire City, Season Two: Pursued

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again, Nick.

    I've been wracking my brain trying to remember where I first saw the conqueror, tourist, guest breakdown. My first thought was it was Nisi Shawl--I have her (and Cynthia Ward's) Writing the Other book on my shelf, which is a great resource...but I didn't see it there when I quick re-skimmed the book as I wrote this post. I was thinking maybe it was an online essay by her.

    A second look just now...and there it is, the last chapter of the book. It's possible that I first saw it online and only later in the book, but credit Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, regardless.