On the last podcast, Fay brought up the problematic trope of the killing of disabled people, especially if they’re disabled during the story. This made me think. If you’re writing historical or historically inspired fiction where this is something that did happen ([Malcolm provided several examples of cultures where this took place]) how could one address this? Does inverting the trope just draw attention to it and/or misrepresent the culture you’re inspired by?
– Malcolm Heredia-Langner
Thanks for the question! The issue of how to address the more egregious forms of oppression in historical and historically inspired settings is complicated and worth talking about.
To start out with, just getting accurate information on many historical cultures is difficult. In particular, the many years of European colonialism were destructive to cultures around the world. This time period has also created many distorted and inaccurate views of non-Western cultures, many of which have proved persistent, despite clear evidence to the contrary. For example, many people still think that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slave labor, when there is clear evidence that the people who built the pyramids were paid laborers who were permitted the great honor of having their tombs located near the pyramid and the pharaoh.
It is not just the mainstream view of history that has been warped. The biases that were rife in early anthropology and archeology also continue to impact us today. One specific example is a Viking skeleton that was discovered in the late nineteenth century and assumed to be a cisgender man because it was buried with weapons. This false identification lasted for more than a hundred years and wasn’t discovered until just a few years ago when that person’s bones were examined for a different project.
Another important factor to be aware of is the role that racism plays in discussions about oppression in non-Western cultures. Narratives about these cultures being “backwards” and “inferior” were central to historical colonialism. These condescending narratives are continued today in the way that oppression in non-Western cultures continues to be talked about through narratives of “saving” or “civilizing” them, all the while the ongoing oppression in Western countries is ignored.
Oppression needs to be addressed in every culture, but it is important to recognize that great harm has been done by privileged people from Western cultures who’ve decided that they know what it is best. Real change needs to be led by people who are part of the culture they are changing. People from Western cultures who want to support those efforts need to start by listening to leaders within the culture and help in the way that they are asked to.
I believe that a similar approach should be taken when addressing historical oppression in fiction. Because racism is so deeply entwined in portrayals of oppression in non-Western cultures, it should be left to members of those cultures who are also members of the oppressed group to decide how to depict and address that historical oppression. This is especially true for anything that is particularly egregious, like the killing of disabled people.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t have historical fiction about disabled people, women, queer and trans folks, and people with other marginalized traits. History is full of amazing marginalized people that did incredible things. The trick is to carefully choose what you are representing and what you are leaving out, so that the portrayal is respectful.
When writing fiction, writers are always picking and choosing what to show and what not to show. Writers choose the exact time and place that they are depicting. Uneventful moments are skipped. Long tedious journeys are summarized in a sentence. Many difficult or unpleasant aspects of historical life are left out. This means that it is entirely possible to leave certain cultural practices out of a story by just not including them or not including situations where they would come up.
Depicting egregious forms of historical oppression feeds into racist narratives that are continuing to cause problems today. In addition, depictions of such intense content are hard on audience members who are part of those oppressed groups. Unless there is a compelling reason to include these egregious things in the story, they shouldn’t be depicted. For those times when they are going to be depicted, then a person from that culture who has that marginalized trait should be involved in creating an accurate and culturally sensitive portrayal that avoids reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
I hope that this helps,
–Fay from Writing Alchemy