Interview with Simon Morden–East of the Sun

Welcome back to East of the Sun! This week we’re reading in Celtic Europe, and we’re talking to Simon Morden about the importance of cultural diversity, and things to keep in mind when writing about other cultures.

arcanum

Let’s jump right in and talk about diversity. Why is cultural diversity important in fiction? Why is it important to you? Why should it be important to readers?

There’s a couple of qualifiers I need to mention before I answer: firstly, that no writer is under any obligation to create diverse characters, and secondly, no writer is under any obligation to make any particular book as diverse as every reader wants.

So, with that out of the way, why do I think it’s important to consider the proper cultural context of a story? It’s not to pay lip-service to ‘political correctness’ or ‘social justice’, or to fit in with one group or other, or even to avoid criticism that you’ve populated your world entirely with white westerners. It’s because it’s better storytelling.

A really simple example: say I was writing a story, set in Roman times, about soldiers posted to Hadrian’s Wall (which is just the other side of the river to where I live). Who are these soldiers, and where do they come from? The senior officers – the legate, prefect, and the tribune – will probably be actual Romans, but the rest could be from anywhere in the vast empire. We know from historical records that some of the legions that were posted to the Wall were from North Africa and Middle East, and that they wrote letters asking their families to send knitted socks because it was – and remains – cold and wet in this part of the world.

If, as a writer, I write about a tents’ worth of auxiliaries – eight men – all who come from Rome and speak Latin, I’ll have got the story wrong from the very start. Much more likely they’re a bunch of lads from some fishing village on the coast of Syria, or Berbers from the Atlas mountains, who’ve signed up in the hope of surviving and becoming Roman citizens, for the opportunity to travel, and the regular pay. Their NCOs are the ones who’ve already had a few years service, and might be bi- or tri-lingual. The locals will be a mixture of Celts and Picts, possibly retired soldiers, merchants from Gaul or Germania or Iberia, worshipping the Roman gods, or Mithras, or the Celtic gods, or Christ. That’s the background, before you even start on page one. And isn’t that simply more interesting than a mono-cultural army in a mono-cultural setting?

So it’s important to me because I want to be known as a good writer, someone who doesn’t ignore the diverse nature of populations, someone who can write a convincing and complex suite of characters who aren’t carbon copies of each other. A diverse cast is an interesting cast, a believable cast, a cast with individual motivations and behaviours which can cause their own sub-plots, a cast that reacts in different, often contradictory, ways to any given situation.

And it’s important to the reader, not just because it’s a better story, not just because it’s a more believable story, but because once I’ve written a book, I have no idea who’s going to pick it up and read it. If someone reads one of my stories and sees no one they recognize – or worse still, sees only people like the author – then they’ll find it hard to relate to the characters. If the people I write about are someone the reader might know, then there’s a connection. They’re invested in the story. They get more from it. And there’s the added bonus that they, in turn, know they can write about something other than white westerners. It must be incredibly dispiriting to always read books where you’re either non-existent, or if you’re present at all, part of the expendable scenery. I don’t know what that’s like, because I am a white(ish) western man. But I can use my imagination.

There is an old writing adage to ‘write what you know.’ This fear of the unknown may be what holds a lot of writers back from exploring other cultures. How do you authentically portray a culture that is not your own? What marks the difference between being culturally diverse and culturally insensitive?

Given that science fiction authors can spend a lot of their time creating fascinating alien races, you’d hope that they wouldn’t have a tin ear when it comes to their own species, yet here we are. ‘Write what you know’ is lousy advice for authors anyway. I’ve no idea what it’s like to fall from the top of the atmosphere, or travel at almost the speed of light, or fight giants, but I’ve managed to write about all those things, hopefully successfully. ‘Write what you love’ is a much better maxim.

Why do writers not write about other cultures, or describe their own cultures in their full diversity? I think it’s partly because of the fear of doing it wrong: in this internet age, a tone-deaf stereotype is going to attract instant criticism. When I said at the start that there’s no obligation for an author to create diverse characters, there’s also no obligation for readers to put up with caricatures of their own culture. They shouldn’t have to educate an author who’s been crass and ignorant.

I think writers don’t write about other cultures partly because they’re unaware of their presence or importance in their own society. I was recently traduced in a review of Down Station in a national newspaper for my protagonists being ‘dutifully multicultural’. What I think the reviewer was trying to say was that she didn’t recognize my characters within her social setting, when in reality, those characters are exactly the ones who live and work in her city, doing the jobs they’re described as doing – it was just that she never sees them.

And partly, I think writers don’t write about other cultures because they’re lazy. Finding out about people who you wouldn’t normally meet or consider takes time and effort. It’s easier to write about people you know, or see all the time in the media. It’s much more difficult to write about lives that are rarely portrayed or badly portrayed.

Given all that, how does a writer portray a culture that’s not their own? They put their fear and their prejudices to one side, and they put the work in. To put a writer’s take on Martin Luther’s injunction to ‘sin boldly’, we have to ‘write boldly’, trusting more that our story will save us. Yes, we’re going to get things wrong. Yes, we’re going to face criticism. Yes, we’re always going to be learning. I would contend that being timid here is the greater evil.

The Lost Art has a flying carpet. In Arcanum the day is saved by Jews, who were previously considered outsiders. What are some other examples of culturally diverse characters you’ve written? Do you have any favorites?

Sometimes I think that the characters that are most like me are the Artificial Intelligences I write about: Michael, from the Metrozone books, and Corbyn, from a soon-to-be-published novella. In my very first published novel, which was set in contemporary Britain, one of the investigating police officers was Detective Inspector Torsten Neubauer, a West German from Berlin (the story was set before the re-unification of Germany). It was there, straight out of the blocks, so to speak. I’ve a great fondness for him, his compassion, his determination and his preciseness. But pretty much all my novels have a broad range of characters: those that aren’t set in Britain tend not to have any ‘British’ characters at all.

Benzamir from The Lost Art is full of wonder and is a wise, gentle soul, and Sophia Morgenstern from Arcanum is fierce and proud and brave. Dalip from Down Station is smart, inquisitive and more than a little vulnerable. And this list wouldn’t be complete without Samuil Petrovitch, everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed Russian genius, who’s a hero despite his best intentions. As for a favorite, I’d go with Benzamir, if only so I could have a ride on his spaceship…

What are some of your favorite books that feature other races and culture?

There are so, so many. But favorites: Dune has to be here somewhere prominent, for the Fremen of Arrakis. The Moties from The Mote in God’s Eye have to be some of the most completely and exactingly described aliens ever. Stephen Lawhead’s retelling of Arthurian legend in the Pendragon Cycle in proper post-Roman Celtic Britain was a spur for me becoming a writer.

But English language original stories are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a wealth of literature from other cultures and times available in translation – Beowulf, the Norse Sagas, A Thousand and One Nights, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Jules Verne, Umberto Eco. I’m not going to tell you what to read, just go ahead and pick something!

Is there anything else you’d like to add that I’ve neglected to touch upon?

Not so much add as reiterate. Everyone reading this is highly likely to live in a neighbourhood which is diverse and multicultural, whether that diversity comes from immigrants from different countries, differences in religion, differences in wealth, differences in politics, differences in sexual orientation and gender. A good writer will pay attention to the world around them, soaking up all those differences, observing how other people live and work and talk and interact. Then when it comes to writing a story, they’ll already be primed to reflect that diversity, delivering a deeper, richer, more satisfying experience to the reader than if they simply wrote about people just like them. Or they can choose not to. I know which kind of story I prefer.

simonmordencolDr. Simon Morden, B.Sc. (Hons., Sheffield) Ph.D (Newcastle) is a bona fide rocket scientist, having degrees in geology and planetary geophysics. Unfortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly prepare a person for the big wide world of work: he’s been a school caretaker, admin assistant, PA to a financial advisor, and a part-time teaching assistant at a Gateshead primary school. He now combines a busy writing schedule with his duties as a house-husband, attempting to keep a crumbling pile of Edwardian masonry upright, wrangling his two children and providing warm places to sleep for the family cats.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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