Greater minds: Lauren Beukes on writing the other

  • Lauren Beukes wrote an article on writing diverse characters.
  • She described the reading and conversation she used to research Zoo City.
  • To write a character from a different culture or subculture, we need to vicariously experience it.
  • It would be ideal to have a cultural critique, but it’s not always possible to find someone to do it.

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Lauren Beukes in 2012 (happy.apple [CC / Flickr])

If cast an eye around this site, you’ll have gathered that I read a lot. Books, articles, blogs, stick some words in front of me and I’ll probably sit there until I’ve read them. The downside is that my memory can’t always keep up with my intake, so only a few things I read leave a lasting impression on me. One novel that did was Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I read a few years ago. I can still remember Zinzi December’s quest for the truth through a Johannesburg in which magical creatures sharpened the commentary on modern South Africa.

Last year, I had the honour of being published in the iconic Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology. Dizzy as I felt at getting in at all, there were several authors who I was particularly dizzy to be sharing pages with, one of whom was Beukes. I’d just read her next novel, The Shining Girls, at the time and when I got the chance to read Slipping, the story about a dangerously likely direction for athletics to take that was in that anthology, I could only hope my story didn’t let the anthology down.

On Zinzi December

The protagonists of both Zoo City and Slipping, Beukes’s protagonists were very different characters, but what they had in common was being young black South African women, which led her to describe the process of writing the ‘other’ for the World SF blog.

As ever with my greater minds posts, this is a set of thoughts inspired by what Beukes

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The 2011 Clarke Award winner, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (Mark Simpkins [CC / Flickr])

wrote, and I’m not trying to repeat or reply to it. Please have a look at her much more concise writing on the subject. I’m calling her a greater mind for a reason.

I’m not usually nervous when I start writing one of these posts, but this subject does it: anything that touches on identity politics risks bringing out the worst of the internet but it’s an important subject so I’ll take my chance, if only because so many of my own protagonists are very different to myself. If I only wrote protagonists like me, I’d have got bored of writing long ago. The protagonist of Beside the Dammed River, the story published in that anthology, was a Thai man several decades older than me. So far, no one has complained that I portrayed him inappropriately, but I’d rather avoid the accusation for future characters as well.

Beukes starts with the obvious point that any fictional character is ‘other’, in that they are not us:

Unless you’re writing autobiography, any character you write is going to be The Other.

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Contemplating the Other (Kim Seng [CC / Flickr])

But that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the authentic portrayal of someone with very different life experiences than our own. Even if we create a completely fictional culture, our characters’ experiences are likely to reflect experiences of real people in the real world. If we don’t portray them authentically, someone who knows better than us is going to lose their suspension of disbelief when they read it. That alone is a good reason for getting it right, but it can also lead to being slated by reviews or on social media for being insensitive.

Subculture and culture and superculture

If the ‘other’ is someone with life experiences we do not share, then we have to accept that many of those experiences are derived from their culture. Culture is something of a fractal concept, in that the closer you look at it, the more complicated and harder to define it gets, but let’s at least try to come up with a working definition.

Most of us have a set of memories that we share with essentially similar people and shape a shared set of attitudes and opinions that we may subscribe to or reject. A culture is made up of overlapping subcultures. Everyone in the culture will be a member of several of those

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Subculture or superculture? (Ron F. [CC / Flickr])

subcultures, but not all of them. Further confusing the issue are what we may call supercultures that span members of many different cultures.

Supercultures are nothing new, but access to them has always depended on how well connected someone is. Thanks to the internet, the number of supercultures available to us has exploded in recent years, and they tend to influence but not displace cultures rooted in the geographical and social groups we inhabit.

If I use the example of a woman I knew a few years ago in The Gambia, she described herself primarily as being Gambian Wolof. Hence her mother tongue was Wolof and her religion was Islam, both of which brought with them a set of beliefs and cultural practices. However, she was also educated to high school level, which brought with it a command of English and a certain amount of knowledge that placed her in the subculture of educated Gambians, which she shared with her Mandinka, Manjago and Aku classmates, who spoke different mother tongues and, in the latter two cases, were Christian. She was also an enthusiastic member of an online superculture she was passionate about: Aresnal supporters’ club.

Every subculture, culture and superculture is made up of people with individual

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Individuals make up a culture (Zoi Koraki [CC / Flickr])

personalities, that are themselves defined in unpredictable and undefinable ways by gender, sexuality, region, genetics and, for all we can be sure of, probably shoe size and eye colour.

Cultural conversations

We can gather a lot vicarious experience of different personalities without going out of our way to find them, and we can use that experience to write different characters. Unless we go out of our way, our vicarious experience will be limited to people who share the same cultures (sub or super) as we do. That won’t stop us writing characters from other cultures, but the limits of our experience will make it very unlikely that we’ll get them right. We’re going to have to take that step out of our way.

As Beukes says:

The only way to climb into that experience is to research it, through books or blogs or documentaries or journalism or, most importantly and obviously, talking to people.

As an introvert and worse, an Englishman, the idea of spending ‘a week just walking round Hillbrow and talking to people’ is terrifying. That’s not because I lived in Cape Town long

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The best way to understand a culture (DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

enough to absorb the capetonian conviction that Johannesburg is one step removed from a war zone, but because I didn’t live there long enough to dislodge my own cultural indoctrination that taught me you don’t just walk up to someone and start babbling at them.

So it’s with some reluctance that I admit Beukes’s point. Conversation is the best way to access experiences other than our own. The written word can only go so far, even when people write about themselves. Very few writers can resist a bit of self-curation, subconsciously or otherwise. The same problem arises if we simply ask someone to tell me about their culture or subculture. When talking about the mores of their own culture, people often lead with the absolute ‘rule’ that is most often broken. They’re not being intentionally dishonest, it’s just that it’s at the front of their mind because there are constant arguments about it. Other mores that may seem more strange to an outsider and are more rigidly followed don’t get mentioned because people don’t give them much thought.

The only way to develop an understanding of such things is to get to know someone from that culture.

The hunt for the perfect critiquer

Beukes cites something else that I’ve found enormously helpful, which is being part of a writers’ group with a diverse range of experiences to tap into. When I wrote a Muslim

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Johannesburg, the setting of Zoo City (Julian Schroeder [CC / Flickr])

protagonist that sparked off an argument about Islam among two Muslims in my own group, I knew I’d done something right.

There are limitations to depending on input from people who culture with my characters. It’s difficult enough to find critiquers without demographically profiling them. There is a big difference between a critiquer and a good critiquer. Horror stories abound of cultural dogmatists who say ‘no one from that background would ever do that’, though I’ve found you’re far more likely to hear that from someone talking about a culture they think they know about than from someone talking about their own culture. The more familiar you are with a culture, the more aware you are of the personalities that comprise it and the less homogenous it seems, so the less likely you are to believe no one would break its rules. Cultural transgression is central to a lot of fiction after all, though it only works if the characters acknowledge that there has been a transgression.

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The Mekong River is not yet dammed (Jody Sticca [CC / Flickr])

As with any other aspect of critiquing, a far more common problem is that a lot of people are too polite to say when something is egregiously wrong. That’s why writers often make the best critquers: not because they’re any more insightful than anyone else, but they understand the value of honest and constructive critique.

For Beside the Dammed River, I was drawing on what I learned by working at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University some years ago. I talked to a lot of people, I learned Thai to a conversational level (and have since forgotten most of it) and I felt I came away with a passable grasp of the culture of at least the educated, urban sub-culture of Thailand. I did not, and do not, know any Thai writers I could ask for a critique, and I’ve lost touch with the friends I made while I was in Thailand. I had to decide whether I was confident enough to write the story without that feedback, and be prepared to take my lumps if someone noticed any cultural clangers after it was published. So far so good, though I have no way of judging whether that reflects a lack of clangers or a lack of readers.

Authenticity and universality

When talking about the authenticity of a character, we need to be clear that we’re not talking about universality. The differences between individual personalities within cultures is greater than the differences between cultures. Throw together a bunch of people from different cultures and watch most of them get on with each other and some form close friendships, while most of them will be able to name plenty of people from their own culture that they can’t stand. Cultural differences are rarely battle lines.

As Beukes says about Zoo City, developing a character is bound to require more work than placing a character in culture:

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It’s all about doing this better (Lua Ahmed [CC / Flickr])

In the end, I think my question should never have been “Is Zinzi black enough?” but “is she Zinzi enough”? Because it’s not about creating one-trick ponies that reflect some quintessential property of what we think being Other is about. It’s about creating complex, deep, rich characters driven by their own motivations and shaped by their experiences.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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