Okay, stand back, this revelation will paralyze some of my readers.
I have been a curmudgeon about the concept about diversity of authorship in the speculative fiction realm; in other words, I have never quite bought into the notion that just because someone comes from another culture that they are automatically able to provide a more authentic voice than I can. For example, if I were to write a fantasy tale set amongst the Maori of New Zealand, that I could not provide as authentic a tale as someone who grew up in that culture. (Oddly, this concept never seems to be applied in reverse.)
While I am still not convinced the above is true, I am re-jiggering my thinking on the subject just a bit.
As I have posted earlier this year, I am currently in the middle east on a one-year paid vacation, courtesy of the United States government, and not for the first time. However, for the first time, I am having daily, extensive interaction with the locals and I have had to alter my mode of thinking to do so.
One thing that helped was a series of seminars I attended while here. An Army officer by the name of Brian Steed has been in the Middle East for about 75% of his career and has learned a few things about dealing with the people of this culture. He likens it to the difference between bees and spiders. (Here is a link to a pamphlet on the concept.) It specifically applies to the military cultures but works on the larger societies to an extent. Bees (westerners) have a regimented society: orderly, everyone knows their role and performs, everyone works as a team, and count on other members of the hive without knowing them individually. Spiders (Arabs) survive by strengthening their web (social ties) and interact through the various strands that tie them to other webs. Bees seek out and conquer chaos, spiders do what they can to ensure they are situated to survive the chaos that comes at them.
All of this is interesting but somewhat beside the point. I don't necessarily buy the concept wholesale, but I did have an "Aha!" moment during one of the seminars: that understanding the culture involves more than the superficialities of the culture but the root motivations and causes.
(I can hear at least two of my regular readers slamming their hands on their desks as they read this, yelling, "No shit, jackass! We've been arguing that with you for five years!" Sorry, ladies.)
Back to writing.
A few years back, I wrote a story called, "Sidra's Folly," concerning a young girl's foolish dalliance with a genie and the bad things that result. (I know it's poor form to admit it about your own writing but I liked the story. Never found a published home for it.) Though it occurred "off-world," the tale definitely had an Arabic flair. As I look back over it, I see that it resembles an Arabic tale only on the surface. Sure, I got the trappings right. But the cultural contexts beneath the surface evaded me. In modeling my culture against the obvious facets, I captured some elements of the Arabic ethos. But like an illiterate scribe who can only copy the letters in a book without reading or understanding them, I did not capture the substance. And it shows.
Armed with new knowledge, I want to go back to this tale and re-write it. I want to start in the mindset that I have now, with a better understanding of how such a people might think – and how I can relate it to how my readership will think. I am now keen on reading some spec fiction written by authors specifically from this region. I think it will be interesting to dig into the psychology of their culture and how they perceive the world. Does that mean my Arabic-flavored fiction will be less authentic than theirs? Not necessarily; if anything, I think a better understanding of how both our worlds function. And while I enjoyed my split-second of clarity for the simple joy of discovery, selfishly, I was most interested in how it will make me a better writer.
Can I be an authentic writer of the culture? I believe I can, since I recognize that it is not a matter of understanding the symptoms of the cultural mindset but understanding the eddys and currents beneath the surface. One thing is for sure: it simply isn't enough to look and go, "Huh, I get that." I really need to understand.
On the other hand, it is almost daunting enough to make me stick to fictitious cultures.