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Nonny
07-23-2013, 02:14 PM
So, I had this book idea pop up in my head about a year back. The basic premise is that it is set in Afghanistan. It will be a YA urban fantasy. The idea is that a girl is chosen (because all the kids are daughters) to take up the family fight against an ancient supernatural enemy. I read online the Afghan cultural phenomenon of the bacha posh, which is a practice where a family will essentially choose a daughter to live as male until she reaches adulthood, normally in cases where there is no boy child to escort sisters or work, etc.

The Middle East has always fascinated me, and I hate how Islamaphobia colors everything we hear about the region. Certainly, there are horrible things that happen, but there are horrible things that happen here in the US, too. I would love to write this story, and if I did, I would try to contact women's organizations there and ask for any assistance or direction they could give, because there is an active feminist movement in Afghanistan; it's just different than it is in the US. The idea I have involves a number of important women characters. I really want to show that there are powerful women in any culture, because the view that Americans have of Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries is that of the perpetual victim.

Which comes to my question! I am American. I am concerned about cultural appropriation, and it has been suggested to me that it would be unlikely for an American to be able to write this without falling into the trap of colonialism, which is something I definitely do not want to do. However, I have not actually gotten opinions on this from actual Middle Eastern or Muslim people, hence my asking here (because I believe there are some members here that fit that category?).

I have been thinking about it, too, and that I could have the characters migrate to the US at some point in the MC's childhood, and I could work that in... but, the issues I would be dealing with are different, and it would be a very different story. I have had some people say that I should just give this idea up but it still stays with me and I want to find a way to make it work.

Does anybody have any opinions or suggestions based on what I've said? Thank you very much.

Rachel Udin
07-23-2013, 08:04 PM
I would go with what we've been saying in all the cultural appropriation threads. Research, research, research.

Beyond that, going with a non-immigration story is risky, but I'm the type to do it (In terms of sales). I'd also hit up Muslim fiction in general to get an idea of self representation versus the mainstream attention. (Granted, thin, but it is out there.)

There was a really good book about rugs which had a strong female protagonist, not necessarily in Afghanistan (I think in Iran... historical). "Blood of Flowers" Women-centric. I really liked that.

I'd also think it's worth reading the Qu'ran back to back and interpretations. http://www.islam101.com/quran/yusufAli/

As for plotline, usually when researching, I like to find a niche plotline that fits into the culture that outsiders might not know without exoticizing it. Make sense? In another words, cultures produce various things and sometimes the mainstream drums on something that they find "other", but I tend to like to find something that is unique yet the "same".

So for example, I may hit on politics in the Kushan Empire, but at the same time I also hit on weaving--which was also done in Europe. But you know that it's going to be different so familiar, yet different. Rather than going with the nail on the head elephants and raising them. Music, too, I'm hitting on... and showing the differences in text... but it doesn't mean other parts of the world don't know what music is.

That sort of thing... a different way to deal with a similar problem. I favor those plots so people don't get distanced by the other, yet still feel like they could know them because the plot and the objects can be familiar.

That or completely familiar... Such as they play basketball.

lolchemist
07-23-2013, 08:41 PM
Of course you are allowed to write this story! Don't ever feel like you are stepping on anyone's toes for doing so. But besides researching the heck out of this thing,I would also highly suggest you find an Afghani person to beta your story to make sure all the content is accurate. Like find one on Craigslist and pay them $100 or something. This is important and worth the money!

slhuang
07-23-2013, 10:06 PM
Seconding what Rachel and lolchemist have said.

Definitely write the story! But know beforehand that writing it will be hard, and will require a lot of work and research to do right. If you're not afraid of that, go for it! (And I agree, moving it to the U.S. would make it a fundamentally different story.)

I'm not Middle Eastern, but here are the parts of your post that worried me from a cultural appropriation standpoint:


I read online the Afghan cultural phenomenon of the bacha posh, which is a practice where a family will essentially choose a daughter to live as male until she reaches adulthood, normally in cases where there is no boy child to escort sisters or work, etc.This sounds like you only have the barest knowledge of how this works. (Sorry if I misinterpreted! It just sounds a little like, "I read it on the Internet once!" and I think before writing this book you need to be more on the "I could practically do a graduate thesis on this" level of cultural understanding. And yes, I know you're probably already planning on getting there, but I wanted to mention it. :)) Know exactly how all the cultural practices you're going to portray work, what pressures people might be under, what fundamentally different understandings (compared to American understandings) they might demonstrate. Something that annoys me no end is when authors write about other cultures with underlying assumptions that the cultural practices are wrong or limiting and that the more familiar Western cultural practices are what everyone naturally would want instead, and that's often not true. Make sure you can put yourself in the brains of your characters without having any subconscious judgments about the culture in how you characterize them. (It's hard!)



The Middle East has always fascinated me, and I hate how Islamaphobia colors everything we hear about the region. Certainly, there are horrible things that happen, but there are horrible things that happen here in the US, too. I would love to write this story, and if I did, I would try to contact women's organizations there and ask for any assistance or direction they could give, because there is an active feminist movement in Afghanistan; it's just different than it is in the US. The idea I have involves a number of important women characters. I really want to show that there are powerful women in any culture, because the view that Americans have of Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries is that of the perpetual victim.
It sounds like you're thinking about this very sensitively -- the only part of this that worries me is your first sentence, that the Middle East has always "fascinated" you. I am absolutely sure you didn't mean it in any way other than an interest in learning about the history and culture and people of the region, but saying it that way smacks a little of exoticizing. Academic research is fascinating. Historical events are fascinating. Living people and cultures, on the other hand, are mutable and diverse and striving and ugly and human, no matter what culture they come from. And yes, culture is fascinating; I don't mean to say that it isn't -- I just want to stress that Middle Eastern people are people first and foremost, with grungy daily lives and inane conversations and stupid mistakes and insecurities and little personal victories and all different sorts of funny complicated loving relationships and humor and all the other things that make us human. And I'm wary of any description that sounds like peeping at a zoo exhibit rather than interacting with people way more like us than not.

^^I don't mean to sound harsh here, by the way -- you're obviously thinking very hard and very deeply about this and I love that! And like I said, I know you don't mean your word choice that way. Just trying to warn of potential pitfalls.

Rachel Udin
07-24-2013, 12:10 AM
Not the same country, but a good read for me was Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics of the Turkish Headscarf.

I hadn't realized before reading it how much people really thought about their headscarves. I knew *why* people wore them and I knew the political atmosphere of them, but I didn't realize how much they varied and how much people thought about how one wears a particular style and why.

While it doesn't apply to Afganistan, obviously, what I did realize is through reading it how similar the worries were to Western women and women everywhere when it comes to clothes. Such as making your face thinner, or wider, how susceptible to fashion these head scarves were and the styles that were involved in the selection.

I think that's where you really want to hit when you're writing a different culture from you. Someone may start out thinking "exotic" in caps, etc. But if you are skilled, you will be able to show that what they thought was different is only a different flavor of the familiar and a way to deal with problems all humans deal with.

See outsiders think auto fetish/hate land on something like a headscarf, but with skill, you can show the insider's view and the reader should be able to relate it to their own life. I'm aiming for that middle ground, which defeats both extremes.

What made that paper really interesting was showing how much the women thought about it and what it would take away if you took it from them, thus making them truly feel naked. (Kinda relates a little to something I'm writing.)

Kim Fierce
07-24-2013, 01:16 AM
I think your story is important enough that it should be told . . . like the others said, research, and try somehow to find someone to talk to in person or online who has experience with Afghanistan to help out!

Nonny
07-24-2013, 05:20 AM
This sounds like you only have the barest knowledge of how this works. (Sorry if I misinterpreted! It just sounds a little like, "I read it on the Internet once!" and I think before writing this book you need to be more on the "I could practically do a graduate thesis on this" level of cultural understanding. And yes, I know you're probably already planning on getting there, but I wanted to mention it. :))

Yes, I am absolutely aware I need a greater level of understanding before I can write about it. I mostly was trying to keep the post concise, because I have had some people complain about "TLDR" if I go into too much detail. Sometimes this isn't always the greatest. :)

Having pretty much exhausted what is available online that I have access to, my next step is likely to contact people in appropriate organizations or fields of research... which I have not done yet, because if the overwhelming response from people was that this is something I should not take on, then I would not want to waste someone's time. It is definitely in the long list of "things to do before actually settling for sure on a plot and writing this." (I am a big pre-writer, to begin with.)



It sounds like you're thinking about this very sensitively -- the only part of this that worries me is your first sentence, that the Middle East has always "fascinated" you. I am absolutely sure you didn't mean it in any way other than an interest in learning about the history and culture and people of the region, but saying it that way smacks a little of exoticizing.

Another issue with trying to be concise. The way you explained it in further detail is along the lines of what I mean. For me, I am easily fascinated by cultures, but to me, the most important thing is to get the human element right, and that includes all the things that people might not consider -- I'm just as interested, as you say, in the grungy daily lives and personal victories, and for some reason that's becoming the hardest area to research. I definitely don't want to portray an "exotic" culture; I want to portray a culture that is first and foremost human, and if I do it right, that people can emphasize with and hopefully take a second look at their own preconceived notions.

You don't sound harsh at all. I understand the concerns you have, and the word "fascinating" probably would have been a red flag for me if someone else had written it, so I thank you for double-checking. I hope this explains better. :)

Nonny
07-24-2013, 05:28 AM
I would go with what we've been saying in all the cultural appropriation threads. Research, research, research.

Oh, I have a lot of research planned. LOTS. It is just that I have had people tell me that no matter how much I research, a white American writer can't do this story, or other people saying it is not my story to write (and the reason I am still left with questions there is because these have mostly been other white writers saying this, with the exception of the woman who had concerns about colonialism).



Beyond that, going with a non-immigration story is risky, but I'm the type to do it (In terms of sales). I'd also hit up Muslim fiction in general to get an idea of self representation versus the mainstream attention. (Granted, thin, but it is out there.)

Definitely plan to do this. Unfortunately, language is a barrier, because I need to find works translated to English, and what often seems to be English published is works that are American focused (on Americans in the Middle East) and not so much books written by actual Muslims. I'll have to look around more, see what I can find.

(Honestly, I sorta expected this idea to just ... die down, because I have many, many, many where that was the case. The fact that it is still here tugging at my skirt a year later, well... I am seeing a lot of research in my future!)

Thank you very much for your book suggestions; I will look into them! :)



As for plotline, usually when researching, I like to find a niche plotline that fits into the culture that outsiders might not know without exoticizing it. Make sense? In another words, cultures produce various things and sometimes the mainstream drums on something that they find "other", but I tend to like to find something that is unique yet the "same".

IME, I like to focus on character emotions, so that even if details are different, there are still similarities, things for readers to emphasize with. The more you focus on something as "different", the more you exoticize it. I have read a good number of books by authors who presented something that was technically different but the emotions attached or the way people responded to it were such that it was very easy to emphasize.

Nonny
07-24-2013, 05:31 AM
Of course you are allowed to write this story! Don't ever feel like you are stepping on anyone's toes for doing so. But besides researching the heck out of this thing,I would also highly suggest you find an Afghani person to beta your story to make sure all the content is accurate. Like find one on Craigslist and pay them $100 or something. This is important and worth the money!

I had not thought of Craigslist! That's not a bad idea, and I would gladly pay someone to make sure it passed muster!

snafu1056
07-25-2013, 09:47 PM
I would recommend doing some general overall research on the culture just to get the lay of the land, and then narrowing your focus as soon as possible so you can do efficient pinpoint research. What kind of Afghan is your character? Rich? Poor? Urban? Rural? Are they even Afghans? That country has ethnic minorities too. They could be Hazaras, the descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongols still living in Afghanistan, for example. Or Pashtuns. Zeroing in on these questions can help you avoid doing lots of needless reading about stuff that won't even factor into the story. You want to define the parameters of your character's world and then become a micro-expert in it.

Nonny
07-26-2013, 12:16 PM
I would recommend doing some general overall research on the culture just to get the lay of the land, and then narrowing your focus as soon as possible so you can do efficient pinpoint research. What kind of Afghan is your character? Rich? Poor? Urban? Rural? Are they even Afghans? That country has ethnic minorities too. They could be Hazaras, the descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongols still living in Afghanistan, for example. Or Pashtuns. Zeroing in on these questions can help you avoid doing lots of needless reading about stuff that won't even factor into the story. You want to define the parameters of your character's world and then become a micro-expert in it.

Yes, definitely. My thought was that they would be somewhat well off, and living in Kabul, but I'll have to do more research into the various ethnic groups; not only for my primary characters, but because of secondary characters that are important to the MC. I suspect I will be raiding my local library a lot :)

snafu1056
07-27-2013, 12:14 AM
This forum might come in handy too. Probably plenty of folks here who can answer any questions.

http://www.afghanforums.com/forum.php?

Yorkist
07-28-2013, 08:04 AM
I just wanted to pop in to say that this sounds really cool and I want to read it, like, yesterday.

I do think there's a chance it would be marketed as women's fiction instead of fantasy (like this book was (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/204279.The_Secrets_of_Jin_shei)), but that's a huge market anyway so probably not a problem.

Kitty Pryde
08-12-2013, 07:42 AM
This English dude just wrote a magical realism novel set in Afghanistan with British, Afghani, and American characters. It's supposed to be good but I am waiting to get it at the library: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16270143-torn