N. K. Jemisin has become one of our favourites Fantasy authors (check out our reviews of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms and we are delighted to welcome her to the blog today to celebrate the release of (the MOST EXCELLENT!) The Killing Moon, the first book in her Dreamblood duology.
Please give it up for N. K. Jemisin!
The Unexotic Exotic
That was what I needed to know about, as I researched the books of the Dreamblood (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun). Both books take place in Gujaareh, a secondary world society that shows obvious ancient-Egyptian roots.
So how the hell did people in ancient Egypt brush their teeth? Or did they all just go around with terrible breath and piano-key smiles? How’d they do their hair? If someone was going bald, did they do the comb-over? What did they do before dinner — was there an Egyptian equivalent of saying grace? Or did they just all flop down in front of the ancient equivalent of TV without speaking?
And how’d they go potty? Seriously, I spent like three days on that one.
Mind you, there’s no scene in either book featuring a character cleaning her teeth. That would be immensely boring, except maybe to nitpicky (or toothpicky, ha ha) historians — and since I’m writing fantasy and not history I’m not really feeling the need to show off the breadth of my research. (Just because I’ve suffered for my art shouldn’t mean anyone else has to.) Likewise, there are only a few mentions of food — mostly used as exposition for other things. A male character offers to wear a condom at one point, since those were (debatably, per the nitpicky historians) invented in ancient Egypt. I think there’s one line in the second book about a guy wearing a bad wig to hide his bald spot. And I mention a toilet once, in passing.
So why did I need so badly to understand all these things about the minutia of daily Egyptian life? Because I needed to be able to depict the books’ characters as ordinary, not exotic, people.
See, “exotic” is a loaded word. It sounds complimentary, mostly because it’s usually paired with positive things: beauty, tasty food, cool architecture, whatever. But there’s an insidious undercurrent to the word that most people don’t consider. To quote this excellent examination of the usage of “exotic” and its shift over time,
Exotic is there, not here; them, not us; you, never me. Exotic is warm — hell, exotic is spicy. Exotic is Carmen Miranda, Lola Falana, Lieutenant Uhura. Exotic is Cleopatra, or is it Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? Exotic is dark and mysterious, but the threat is contained.
Calling something exotic emphasizes its distance from the reader. We don’t refer to things as exotic if we think of them as ordinary. We call something exotic if it’s so different that we see no way to emulate it or understand how it came to be. We call someone exotic if we aren’t especially interested in viewing them as people — just as objects representing their culture.
When I decided to write an epic fantasy set in a vaguely ancient-Egyptian world, I knew the biggest problem would be “selling” that world. One of the reasons so many epic fantasy writers go for the medieval Europish setting is because it’s familiar. After generations of D&D and Tolkien clones, Robin Hood and endless reiterations of the King Arthur mythos, the trappings of medieval Europe are pretty much mainstream knowledge now. We know what knights are, how they fight, how they dress, what their purpose is. We know what serfs are, and fools, and cutpurses. We know that every elegant medieval noblewoman we see is probably wearing several pounds of underwear, and we might even know what that underwear looks like. Many of us, especially fantasy fans, have gone so far as to try on some of that underwear; I’ve got a lovely whalebone corset at home myself.
We get these people, in other words, despite ethnic, class, language, religious, temporal, and every other kind of possible difference that exists between their lives and our own. Because their customs and attire and lifestyles so familiar, we can see past their differences and start to identify with them as “just people”. Not extraordinary. Not incomprehensible. If a fantasy writer can successfully “de-exotify” her setting, that’s at least 50% of her character development done. Readers can then spend less time fetishizing the characters, and more time empathizing with them.
The protagonist of The Killing Moon is a big dark-skinned black man who’s killed several thousand people over the course of his life. He has ties to the nobility. He’s fanatically religious. He’s a delusional schizophrenic, although his condition is controlled through magic. He’s also quite possibly the most compassionate human being in the whole nation.
The protagonist of The Shadowed Sun is a light-skinned black woman who will eventually save several thousand people over the course of her life. She was born a farmgirl, though she’s been raised to think of herself as figuratively a man. She’s religious too, but she believes just as firmly in the power of skill and will and intelligence to dictate human fate. She is capable of killing with a touch — and she does so, on occasion, to innocents.
People who read these books may be able to identify with a few traits of each of these characters, but no one will match them all. And that’s fine — because in theory, readers can identify with any character who’s written well enough. In theory. We see the uglier truth in reality, however. We see that boys balk at reading books with girl protagonists. Publishers hesitate to put characters of color on book covers for fear white readers won’t buy them. Even those characters who make the cover are almost never fat, or queer, or old, or visibly disabled. There is a crisis of connection in English-language fiction, and it exists because we — speaking as a lifelong book lover here — have been conditioned to have trouble relating to people substantially different from ourselves.
Instead, at best, we exoticize. At worst, we hate.
This is what the Dreamblood books face. And although I really just want to write a good, exciting fantasy tale about ninja priests, I’d be stupid if I didn’t acknowledge this reality and design my worldbuilding accordingly.
So, toothbrushes. Such small things. But if by including enough small, familiar things I can transform Ehiru and Hanani into people in readers’ eyes, then the toothbrush becomes a powerful tool. A weapon, in fact, holding the threat of exoticism at bay.
I guess we’ll see soon how it all works out.
If you want to know more about the Dreamblood Duology, make sure to read our newsletter interview with the author HERE. You can find out more about N.K. Jemisin by visiting her website www.nkjemisin.com or following her on Twitter.
And come back later today to read our joint review of The Killing Moon.