In which I blather on about the nature of the Other in urban fantasy, cultural appropriation, and modern Western alienation

I’m thinking again about the mythology of my “spirit beings.” I really need to nail down the details of these beings to move forward with my novel, and I’m finding it difficult. I’m still trying to figure out what my spirit beings are–their history, their current lifestyle, all that stuff, and research isn’t necessarily helping much. But at least I’m beginning to understand why.

I’d very much like to base my spirit beings on the spirits of actual myth and legend, but finding the right critters to fill the bill is a challenge. Not just because what we call “spirits” covers such a wide variety of creatures from a wide variety of cultures, but also because the spirits of actual myth and legend are, on the whole, understood in very different ways from how I understand my spirit being characters. For example, I imagine my spirit beings being an independent “species” that have little or nothing to do with humans unless it is by personal choice. In my story, I imagine them getting sort of dragged into interaction with humans.

Most spirits of actual myth and legend, on the other hand, are defined by the role they play in human life. Which makes sense, since they are creatures of our imagination. Spirits were invoked to explain natural phenomena such as storms or falling rocks or meteor showers. The spirits of a particular culture might have formerly been the gods of a religion that is no longer practiced in that culture. Spirits are sometimes the personification of human fears such as the fear of physical harm or the abduction of loved ones. Spirits are often revered ancestors or heroes of a culture who have been immortalized both figuratively and literally. There are spirits that personify things that are important to a culture, like its local animals, plants, or natural landmarks. Spirits may serve a protective role, such as guardian angels, or can be called upon for favors or to perform certain tasks. And the stories we hear about such creatures are mostly about what happened when they came in contact with humans.

There are very few actual mythological and legendary creatures who don’t play a role of some kind in human society, even if it is just harassment. There would have been no reason for the culture to invent creatures whose existence didn’t in some way revolve around human existence.

Contemporary science fiction and fantasy (what I’m trying to write), on the other hand, is full of creatures whose origins and central concerns don’t revolve around us lowly humans.

I was talking recently to shadowkat67 about contemporary urban fantasy, with its witches and wizards, vampires and werewolves, etc. These supernatural creatures, I speculated, are “post-modern aliens.” In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you saw a lot of science fiction with aliens from outer space. They were very rationalistic bogeymen or fantastic beings, in that it was easy for a rational person to believe there were aliens out there somewhere in space. The “others” of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century urban fantasy, on the other hand, appear to be a return to the supernatural creatures of ancient myth and legend. But only on the surface. Joss Whedon, Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, Camille Bacon-Smith, etc bring back faeries and demons and vampires, etc, but they present them in modern, rationalistic terms, usually as “aliens” from “other dimensions,” or humans transformed by processes, natural or supernatural, we can comprehend. Joss Whedon’s demons are usually mortal, come in biological species, and breed their own kind, regardless of whether they also have magic powers. Whedon’s “demon dimensions” and Butcher’s “Never Never” are places a human can travel to, and are rightly understood in terms of the concept of “other dimensions” developed in modern physics. And these creatures usually come into conflict with humans the way humans come in conflict with other humans or animal species–we get in their way, or they get in ours.

I am, for better or worse, a product of my time like these authors. I want my spirit beings to be an independent species which can interact with humans, but are not defined by them. I want them to be mortal, if perhaps longer-lived than humans. I want them to be capable of having their own offspring. And yet I still want them to be rooted in an actual myth or legend. So I need to find a legend I can adapt and rework to fit with modern sensibilities, the way other urban fantasy authors have.

But here’s where I hit my other sticking point. Adapting legends from actual cultures and changing them to suit my modern American sensibilities is dodgy ground, to say the least. Vampires come from several cultures, but the culture Bram Stoker adapted his vampire mythology from was Romania. And he did it over a hundred years ago before anyone really had any sensitivities about “cultural appropriation” and distortion of the same. I have found myself, for example, being drawn to what I’ve heard about the Djinn, better known to us as “genies,” another supernatural creature we’ve taken and molded for our own purposes. I want my creatures to be like the Djinn (not the Hollywood version, but the actual legend), but I don’t want them to be the Djinn themselves, because that involves, to my mind, taking what I’ve learned about how the Arabian cultures see/saw the Djinn, twisting it around to suit my purposes, and calling the resulting creatures “Djinn,” no matter how much they may or may not resemble the Arabian conception of the Djinn.

Of course, I could just lift the legend of the Djinn wholesale from middle eastern legend, and in that way honor it, but that involves also lifting large portions of middle eastern culture with it, and essentially writing a story with a middle eastern flavor. But then how far away are we from, “write what you know”? Furthermore, I don’t want to write a story with a middle eastern flavor; that doesn’t interest me. I want to write a story about people and places I am familiar with. And that really is the essence of urban fantasy, isn’t it? Showing the supernatural side of modern Western life.

And that gets us to the crux of the problem for many Modern Western (white) writers. The creatures of myth and legend in the places we are familiar with usually belong to the indigenous culture we are not a part of (and which has, frankly, been ripped off and distorted enough). The creatures of myth and legend from our own ethnic backgrounds belong to distant places we may never have visited and local cultures there we have only passing familiarity with; they are no longer ours, either, and we feel no emotional connection to them.

And to make matters worse, no cultures’ legends have had more ink spilled in the fantasy genre than that of Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland. So borrowing from some of my own roots would just be cliche.

So yeah, there’s a solution to all this, I just haven’t figured it out yet.

28 thoughts on “In which I blather on about the nature of the Other in urban fantasy, cultural appropriation, and modern Western alienation

  1. It’s funny. If I were to write a urban fantasy about the place I am familiar with, middle eastern flavour would definitely have its place, as well as Chinese, Celtic, French, German and African legends.
    Last november when I was at a SF con, there was a panel about mythology and fantasy to which Ellen Kushner was invited, and the first question that was asked to each guest was what kind of legends and folklores they had been raised with, and she mentioned Celtic legends and European fairy tales, and she didn’t say anything about Jewish folklore, and I felt a little bit disappointed about her not mentioning it.
    You know, I think even in folklore from Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland there are bits of myths and legends which were not explored yet, and worthy of more exploration.
    I also think that it would be worse to take the Djinn and transform it, and remove every bits of middle eastern origin in that myth for the purpose of a Western flavoured story, then to take the Djinn, transform it, but keeping the flavour of what it came from (without exoticising it).
    In any case, all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, when we want to write fantasy and sometimes SF too, we have to face some complicated and problematic issues about the material we draw from, and about how we transform it, and about how we use it.

  2. Heh. I don’t have time to respond in detail (not that I have anything witty or meaningful to say) but it’s cool you’re thinking about it and trying to examine what’s respectful and what’s true to your writing.
    The more I read about cultural appropriation, the more I realise how white-washed we are (“white-washed” being a term my sister and I have used jokingly for years, but which I now realise is quite sad) because I know nothing about my own culture and way too much about America. Hell, I know more about America than I do Canada, let alone China.
    Anyway. I’m sure you’ll figure it out as you go 🙂

  3. One of the things I’ve thought of doing is based on noticing some broad similarities between the middle eastern Djinn and Celtic faeries. Like inventing a race that “actually existed” upon which these local legends were then based. That way, both cultures can keep their interpretation of them for themselves.
    But that will take a lot more research into these different legends. Because me myself, I wasn’t raised on the legends of any culture. The fairy tales I got as a child were White-washed Disney adaptations, pun intended. I know very little about the legends of my own ethnic background, and when I read about them, I feel no emotional connection with those stories.

  4. It is sad we know so little about the stories and legends of our native cultures, isn’t it? It’s just one of those things about modern Western life–we’ve been cut off from those stories if we didn’t grow up there or have relatives who carried on the traditions of story-telling. As a result, I feel no emotional connection whatsoever when I read the stories and tales of ancient Scotland or Germany; it might as well be the Middle East or China, for all the connection I feel to it. On the other hand, while I feel a deep connection to California, its ancient stories and legends are something I really have no right to. It’s really sad, and I think this disconnection is part of the appeal of urban fantasy to many of its writers and readers–the development of “myth with modernized sensibilities.”

  5. Walt Disney adaptations are very… dominant, I was certainly raised on them as well. But I loved fairy tales and got quite a few books of both European and from all-across-the-world fairy tales – not to mention Greek and Egyptian mythology – in terms of what I grew up with. My parents certainly never passed down any folklore as such, although I do feel a connection to it when I come across Jewish folklore, or even North African and Eastern European folklore, perhaps only from self-awareness.

  6. I think you have to have an emotional connection to a particular part of your own background to really connect with its cultural stories. I never felt any strong connection to anything in my background like you might to being Jewish.
    I did read a lot of myths growing up–Greek and Roman, of course, Norse myths, and Aztec/Mayan. I liked them all, but none of them in particular hit home with me. I think that’s part of the danger of not just being raised in Mainstream culture, but being ethnically part of the group that is most influential in deciding what becomes Mainstream culture.

  7. I’ve had thoughts much like these in pondering writing original work. I want to write specifically Southwestern urban fantasy, using the legends and myths found around here, which are usually a hodgepodge of Spanish, native American, and later white-folks stuff like the Lost Dutchman. Eventually I decided that if I ever do it, I’d just have to go for it, do my best to treat the source material respectfully, and take my lumps if I got it wrong.

  8. I suppose that’s the best approach. I am currently contemplating inventing a sort of supernatural creature that incorporates some of the similarities between the middle easter Djinn and the Celtic Faerie, but I am not sure Native American spirits share in those similarities, since they tend to have a more animistic conception of spirits, that is, that spirits are things that inhabit/entail natural creatures and formations, rather than being a separately created “race”. I have, admittedly, not done thorough enough research to know, however.

  9. If you are interested in the Djinn, I suggest you check out Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series. (actually even if you aren’t I highly recommend the series.)
    There are two types of Djinn in her books. There are the early ones that were created as Djinn by Mother Earth. These want little if anything to do with humans. Then there are the Djinn that were once humans. They help humans manage natural disasters.

  10. I found your write up and the comments very fascinating. I understand what you’re saying, especially writing in urban fantasy myself. Writing the mythos for a fictional world is hard work. I often find myself going back to the beginning and changing things as the novel grows and those aspects flesh out.
    There’s a wealth of folklore to chose from to base things on or you could just ground it in none of them, forge your own path. Is it entirely necessary to your story to have it rooted in some culture’s mythos?

  11. I know I will go on my own path, but I have a story kink (again with the story kinks) about being able to have my characters be the origin of legends like the Djinn or Faeries. And I want this so that they have a real connection to the world, a history that could have actually happened in the real past. Does that make sense?

  12. You name it. Faeries, Djinn, whatever. There’s a LOT out there on both, but who knows what you can trust? I found this interesting article on a type of Latin American spirit being I wanted to learn more about, but the entry on it in wikipedia couldn’t be any more different than the entry on it I found in a book.
    I want academic sources by folklorists, but who knows if any of that stuff is condensced enough?

  13. i have plenty of that on my shelves. It’s out there in abundance. Nancy Arrowsmith’s a field guide to little people has been a bible for 30+ years (though in all h onesty, while i own it, i don’t find it that helpful)
    Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The encyclopedia of Vampires Werewolves and Other Monsters is just that, an encyclopedia but the bibliography has a lot more indepth books
    encyclopedia mythica online has decent but condense articles to get you started

  14. Some interesting stuff here…you are reminding me of my own attempt to write and create an urban fantasy with supernatural beings. I based mine on Celtic Folklore – which I had studied more or less in depth. Specifically the Welsh and Irish branches as opposed to the Scottish and Gaul (French). It’s also my own heritage – I’m about 60% Celt and 40% German.
    But even what I was doing was tricky, because I did not want to stay true to the legends – nor did I want to write fantasy that was swords and socerers and middle ages. I wanted a more urban horrific tale – a la Donna Tartt and Elizabeth Hand sans the silly rituals in Hand’s novel. So I did research on art fraud and incorporated a bit of Jonathan Carroll’s take on vampires (the idea of something stealing other’s lives not blood) to live forever. From the mythos – I took Celtic relics – descriptions I’d found in museums and artbooks complete with their hidden meanings. It was a lot of work and my sources contradicted one another. When I revealed my finished product to readers – they were either confused by the plot or questioned my accuracy. I got fed up, finally, and decided to give up on urban fantasy completely – it required far too much precision and attention to detail for my own sensibility. I’m an intuitive writer.
    The difficulty with the modern reader – as opposed to the reader in Bram Stoker’s era – is they can google everything.
    And the modern reader is a bit smug about their expertise due to the fact that they have information at their fingertips.
    The information revolution has made it in some ways harder to write intuitively. People expect you to fact check, to be precise. And are less patient with errors. Also, cultural misappropriation is more of an issue – because the world has become smaller. In Stoker’s time – Romania may never have seen Dracula or if they did, it may not have been translated well.
    Today, that’s not the case.
    So I can see why you are worried. Heck, I am procrastinating sending my poor little novel, the one I’m currently revising, out to the world – for fear of the reactions. And it is based in reality and has no elements of fantasy, urban or otherwise.
    I wonder sometimes if my own difficulties with writing ficiton now, stem from my interactions online? IF people have unwittingly with their sensitivity caused a writer’s block to emerge. And think maybe I don’t want to share what I write and keep it myself. Of course that makes writing it feel sort of pointless.
    My suggestion is to try and read some Djinn myths and books about it, see if anything grips you, then alter it a bit, make your own thing. And not worry too much about pissing off the congregation in the process. You will most likely piss someone off regardless of what you do, we live in touchy times, but I think…you can to a degree avoid going overboard.

  15. I think part of the reason I want to look into actual myth and legend is my own imagination fails me–a lot. My first instinct is always to do my own thing, I can mold the story the way I want it to go that way. But garbage in, garbage out. The imagination of writer is only as good as what they themselves are exposed to. The more I know about actual myth and legend, the greater store of ideas I have to build from.

  16. Ah. That makes a lot of sense. I’ve done the same thing.
    Off-Topic: Do you still want to read the Angel After the Fall series?
    Because if you do, let me know and I will send you my copies of it and First Night – just need your address. Everything but the Spike:After the Fall (which I want to keep and can’t imagine you being that into anyway, you don’t need it to understand what’s happening in Angel After the Fall. At least I don’t think you do.)

  17. No. It’s the individual issues – ie, comic books. I bought them as they came out, because didn’t have the patience to wait for the TPBs.
    Have issues 1-17, plus the First Night issue that I can send.
    A couple have the variant covers (if you care about that sort of thing – I don’t).

  18. The book is Narcissus in Chains by Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. These teesar sentences are from page 156. He kissed his way down my face to my neck, biting gently at me, and it make my knees weak. He came back up to my lips, and when he kissed me I could taste the soap from my skin. Try out her series. I think the best series of books that I have ever read. She has a new book coming out in May.

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