01 July 2018

Game Over. Would You Like to Restart?

These are thoughts a long time coming, and I think they grew out of two things; the climate in which we live, and the fact that I've gotten more mature as a thinker and writer as the years have passed. 

When I went to graduate school, I had to write a novel as my graduate thesis. From 2010-2013 I started and finished my first book (ever!) and people loved it, and I loved, it, and so... immediately upon graduating, I started querying agents in order to get the book published as an intended trilogy.  I got rejected - as expected - but the rejections were personalized and offered advice, so I took it as a fortuitous sign that I was close, but needed to rewrite the book per their recommendations. And the agents' advice made total sense, so I had no issue with making changes to the manuscript. I thought for certain this would take me maybe a year or so, and I'd be out querying once again, and voil√†! Book deal.

Obviously, it didn't turn out this way.

I started writing this book when I was 27. I finished just before turning 30. Until recently, I sat on it for years due to my teaching job and life getting in the way, but I never stopped thinking about how to change the book for the better. I'm 34 now, soon to be 35, and I've continued to mature and see the world in a different way, and I realize how glad I am that the book did not get published. 

I am grateful that I liked what I made, and so did many other people. But now, it's time to say goodbye. The novel is problematic in that despite what I thought were my best efforts to avoid this, I can only conclude that the book is culturally appropriative. The only solution is to tear what I have down and start completely from scratch. 

In a way, it's not entirely surprising it came to this. I've struggled with these problems over the course of rewriting the novel, as I've shared in the blog posts "I write fantasy and I'm worried white privilege will infiltrate my books" (Part One and Part Two). To recap: 
Source - "Cultural Appropriation: The New Trend"
at The Odyssey Online.

  • As I child, I fell in love with "gypsies" (coming from seeing Esmeralda in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), not realizing that the thing I adored was a harmful stereotype based on centuries of fear, bigotry, and ignorance.

  • I tried to reconcile fantasy with reality and learned as much as I could about the Romani  culture, but aspects of the literary stereotype stayed with me and it came up in my writing. The characters in The Name and the Key were inspired by the Romani, but in hindsight some of that stereotypical "gypsy" stuff leaked into the story anyway. 

  • At the time, I thought I was working very hard to not appropriate culture or write about it untruthfully, but in the end, it hit me - I would just be another white writer cherry-picking the elements of the culture that appealed to me, and leaving out the parts that didn't. I mean, isn't that the very definition of appropriation?  Anyway, I don't want to be this type of writer or this type of human being. 

How did I reach my conclusions about my writing? Through listening to the opinions of other people. 

  • The first epiphany came from a Facebook conversation over a year ago between science fiction and fantasy authors in response to this article. Initially I disagreed with the blog author's stance, but after listening to feedback from African American speculative fiction authors, I changed my mind. Because of the system of discrimination sewn into the fabric of our culture (in this instance, the publishing world), essentially when a person of privilege (a white person) tells the story of someone who is underprivileged (a person of color), we're taking an opportunity away from them to tell their own story. It's not an attack on authors who want to write diverse characters. It's more an attack on how the system favors white writers, and that system would rather publish a white author writing about diverse characters than diverse authors writing about diverse characters. Because the system functions this way (and is therefore broken), what white authors can do is step back and let the opportunities so easily given to us go to other authors. If you want an example of this in action, see Ed Skrein stepping down from Hellboy. 

    My realization: As a white fantasy author appropriating elements of Romani culture, I still have a likelier chance of getting published than a Romani writer writing about Romani culture...and this is bullshit. I need to step back and let a Rom write Romani.

  • The second epiphany came from Tumblr. Whatever you may think about this platform, Tumblr is a great resource because of its diversity of opinions and creative nuggets of wisdom. When I started rewriting The Name and the Key, I followed bloggers who identified as Romani to make sure I was always connected to their perspective. The first punch in the face were posts that tore apart books and authors misrepresenting Romani culture. While I think I'm capable of discerning sources that are problematic (and some on the list were obviously terrible), I was still shocked that some of these were sources I consulted when writing The Name and the Key. 

    My realization: some of my research was based on lies, and by using these resources, I was just continuing to perpetuate stereotypes in my work. 

  • The third epiphany also came from Tumblr in a simple post that I favorited but cannot locate (because I've favorited over a thousand things on Tumblr). A couple sentences, paraphrased here: "f--- you stupid gadje with your gypsy soul wanderlust fashion crap stealing my culture for your profit."

    My realization: as careful as I thought I was being when I wrote The Name and the Key, if I want to be honest with myself, I'm kind of doing the same thing the OP was complaining about. I'm writing a book that I want people to buy. There you go.
Yeah...this is problematic.
So much of my book's worldbuilding and fictional cultures came from the Romani, and so I have to rebuild the entire book from the ground up. Here's all the fun stuff I get to do (and I'm not being sarcastic, I think this will actually be fun):
  • Rename the characters (first names are OK; last names need to be changed)
  • Cut words and phrases that "borrow" from the Romani language or belief systems (such as "The Mullow,"  taken from mulo)
  • Completely redo the language I created in January  
  • Cut things in the book inspired by cultural beliefs (like romanipen
  • Invent a new origin story for this group of people - and don't make it about race
  • Tweak some of the magic systems
  • The book is mostly low fantasy, but I'd like to add more high fantasy elements to the novel (this will allow me to be more creative with my world and culture-building, I think)
All in all, while I am proud of the book I wrote in graduate school, I think the time and place for it is over. My friend described what I'm going through with the novel as an "amicable divorce" in that we were there for each other and great at the time, but now have irreconcilable differences and have reached a mutual understanding. 

There are still great characters and great ideas from The Name and the Key, and I'm not saying goodbye to them - I'm excited about putting them in new situations and storylines. I'm going forward with this restart and I can't wait to see how it turns out in the end.


A note about comments - This would be considered a sensitive post, given its themes and topics. If you want to comment on this post, be forewarned, I'm policing them a bit more.  In particular, 
  • Unsolicited advice will be deleted. 
  • Arguments that cultural appropriation or white privilege don't exist, or attempts to defend or rationalize it in any way will be deleted. 
  • Personal attacks will be deleted. 
  • Attempts to persuade me to reconsider any aspect of my position on this topic will be deleted. 
  • It's my website and I DO WHAT I WANT (lol but not really)

24 January 2018

Well. I made a language.

Klingon Success! (c) KEB.
Vintage woman by Freepik
Qapla by Carlos Francisco Cruz Fierro.
I've continued to break rules as I write, and this includes some of the self-imposed limits I made years ago when it came to worldbuilding. I wasn't really into some of the traditional epic fantasy tenets, where authors included introductions or glossaries containing pronunciation and language guides,  vocabulary, maps, histories, family trees and lines of succession, full appendices, and so on and so forth. 

As fun as it is for writers to invent these things when you plan out your speculative fiction series, I never felt like any of it should actually be included in the book (see "A Personal Treatise on Maps and Fantasy" 1 & 2). A huge chunk of this was because I felt like if readers needed all of this extra help to understand and become immersed the story, then the story just isn't strong enough to stand on its own as it should. (I still mostly believe this, but am finding exceptions to the rule, and I'm slowly becoming more sympathetic to why writers and readers dig these tropes.)

The other issue: the long, dark shadow of Mordor stretching across the realms of the fantasy genre...the behemoth known as J. R. R. Tolkien. Middle Earth was and is the framework for modern epic fantasy worldbuilding.

Maps? Check. Detailed histories? Check. Constructed languages? Check.

Brief confession - I like and appreciate LOTR a lot. The movies are what introduced me to the books. And I liked the books enough that I wrote a critical analysis of it my senior year of undergrad after my professor kept insisting there was no academic merit in covering Tolkien's masterwork. As soon as I produced an essay by W. H. Auden as one of the sources, that shut him up. 

Here's the thing, though. I will probably NEVER read the books again. They were difficult to get through in the first place, partially because you have to wade through so much worldbuilding that doesn't contribute to the immediate plot or scenes. There are certainly lovely things in the books, but there were many times when I glossed over songs, sentences with other languages in them, most of the scenes with Tom Bombadil, etc. Maybe if I reread the books I'll find something new and richer in the pages therein, but it'll take quite a bit of effort on my part.
OMG Namarie! (c)  KEB
Vintage Woman by Freepik;
Quenya Example by TigerTj√§der.
Because Tolkien really set the tone for modern epic fantasy, I also burned out on Tolkien-esque books by other authors. And the largest indicators to me that a fantasy would strive to be like Tolkien were books that included maps and original languages, so I avoided them. For decades. 

I tried to avoid them in my writing, too. 

But as I've been writing for a while, and especially through the inspiration blitzkrieg of this past year, I realize I've been a bit of a writing snob and my perspective is too narrow.

Anyway, just as I did a 180 with my worldbuilding philosophy and made a World Book, I sat down over the weekend and threw together the foundations of a constructed language.

I was in the middle of writing The Step and the Walk and realized I needed to put a simple sentence in the text, but it could not be English. It was a strong pull in my gut telling me I had to figure this out before continuing on. 

Part of this is because for a long time in the series, especially with The Name and the Key, I was writing a culture based off of the Roma. What I didn't want readers to think was that I based the culture off of gypsies. My plan was to build up description of the characters and drop cultural hints here and there without being on the nose about it. Then I had a couple tough epiphanies.
  • It is incredibly difficult to describe things without ultimately giving it a name, whether it is a language or an entire people.
  • Excellent discussions with authors about points from this article taught me that "if you truly want to discuss issues of race, tell the stories of an oppressed people, or just want to write a multicultural story, it’s best to create your own world" (Naz).
  • Another quote that is true: "DO NOT write ethnically vague characters [...] Everyone will assume your character is white, so don’t pretend otherwise" (Naz). Look no further than my "Lily and Andresh" project--all artists were given the exact same descriptions of the characters, but you can see that when it comes to Andresh's skin color, there are a wide range of interpretations. 
Now that I had a better understanding as to why I needed to make changes in my approach, I went ahead and invented my own culture: the Koradza. Over the weekend, I constructed their language.

I wanted to go about language construction from a more academic standpoint, and use the book The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson as a resource. I own the book, but left it in America. D'oh. Too lazy to reorder the book from Amazon Japan, I straight up Wiki How'd language creation. It was pretty helpful, actually! On top of that, I tried to use what I knew about languages from the experience I have teaching EFL in Japan.  

Queen Koradza (c) KEB.
Vintage Lady and Background by Freepik
Koradza text (c) KEB.
First I wanted to figure out a sort of history and cultural basis for the Koradza language.  Since the Koradza is Roma-inspired, their language is, too. The Roma's true origin is India, not Egypt (and many point to Rajasthan). There are linguistic traces of Sanskrit and Hindi in Romani languages, which helped place India as the origin. Most of the sounds and spellings in Koradza are inspired by Hindi and Romanian; Hindi due to the Roma's origin, and Romanian due to the Roma's long, tumultuous history with that country.  I've also consulted Romani dictionaries for stylistic influences, too.

Rounding out the language are influences from Welsh and Japanese. I lived in Wales for a term abroad and studied the language, and now I am in Japan. It was hard for these not to pop up in Koradza somehow. 

After choosing some stylistic influences, I hammered out a mini guidebook to the language in these steps:
  1. Create the alphabet and pronunciation guide 
  2. Create the sentence structure - I started off with a simple subject + verb sentence and then complicated the grammar from thereon. I also chose not to use articles in this language.
  3. Create an honorifics system and names for titles
  4. Create conjunctions and prepositions
  5. Create directional phrases
  6. Create numbers and quantities
  7. Create verb tense forms
  8. Create subject forms
  9. Create singular and plural conjugations
  10. Add a small glossary of words that are culturally important to the Koradza
These are the bare bones of the language, and I'll probably add to this as I go, but it was important to lay down ground rules so that way if I need to make something else up in the future, I have this as a guide. 

Now the next part--how much of this language will appear in the books? 

Probably next to nothing. I want to follow my goal of including only 15% of my worldbuilding directly in my writing. The rest is just for my reference.

And if I remember my personal preferences as a reader (as well as my experiences with Tolkien), I know I'll skim or skip the parts I can't understand anyway, so who's to say the same thing won't happen to my readers if I plunk Koradza sentences in the middle of a scene? I definitely don't want to be the type of fantasy writer who goes, This isn't immediately relevant, but woohoo! Look at what I can do! I made a thing! A thing called LANGUAGE! And then the scene derails and the reader stops reading. 

I'll file language creation under really cool things that should be used sparingly. It was a ton of fun to create Koradza and I'm weirdly proud of myself (because it was hard), but I'll do my best not to beat my readers over the head with it. ☺


How do you feel about constructed languages? Have you ever tried to build a language? Feel free to share in the comments below!