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This is something of a companion question to How does one write from a minority culture? A question on cultural references

I have recently had a somewhat unpleasant experience reading Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver. (Loved the book, but still.) My first response upon meeting the Jewish protagonist was "ooh, finally! A fantasy book about me!" However, very soon I saw that the book might be about me, but it is not for me. For example:

My people didn't make a special virtue of dying for our religion -- we found it unnecessary -- and you were supposed to break Shabbat to save a life, including your own. (Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver, chapter 11)

The first-person narrator isn't speaking to me when she says "my people", though she is speaking about me - she is speaking to a presumed Christian audience. The explanation would indeed be needed by the non-Jewish audience, but when the narrator says so loudly "this story is not for you", it's jarring.

In other instances, Novik over-simplified Jewish ritual to make it easier for the presumed Christian audience to grasp, but making it in fact patently wrong in ways that are very obvious even to an unobserving Jew. (She states she is half-Jewish, so this has to be a conscious choice rather than a mistake.) Again, this does make the story more accessible, I can't deny it, but at the same time it says "you're not the target audience of this story". When the story is about a Jewish girl.

How do I avoid this in the story I'm telling? How do I provide the majority-reader the information they would need, without suggesting to the minority reader that I'm not talking to them? How do I avoid "here we observe the common Jew in its natural habitat"?

(Question is not restricted to the Jewish minority, but about any cultural minority. This one just happens to be mine.)

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You should be able to use memory (or flashbacks, but I dislike them); or tell it from the Jewish girl's POV, but give her a reason to have conversations with a non-Jew, e.g. a teammate, an ambassador's daughter she befriends, or an American businessman's daughter. Or son, if you are inclined in that story direction.

Listening to the poor fools on TV, she thought, How blind a faith! She was reminded of her lessons; there was no special virtue in dying for your religion. Even Shabbat should be broken, to save a life, including your own. Should you be forced to choose between sins, avoid the worst one!

Having a conversational partner (that doesn't already know the religion) is even better, because they can provide friendly disagreement, misunderstanding and sometimes friendly laughter, along with setting (like walking, or playing a game) all of which provide conflicts and distraction for the reader from a block of exposition on some ritual that is important to her.

Another way of accomplishing that might be volunteering at her synagogue to teach children, they may not know anything either. Then your exposition can be framed in a children's story, like on the origin of a ritual. The reader feels like the MC is not talking to them, she is teaching the children. Again (depending on the traditions of Judaism, which I don't know) there might be room for interruption, by children or adults, or other minor conflicts. And the stories can be embellished to make them stories, so it is not "just the facts" of the ritual, but a longer and more entertaining version of it.

A lot of this is "show don't tell", which is always longer. But anytime you need to convey some facts to orient the reader, conveying them in an entertaining fashion is going to take more text. I personally embrace that. If the facts take half a page, dilute them into four pages of story, and nobody will even notice they learned something!

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Amadeus and Logan's answers are already good. I'd like to expand a bit about the "no explanation needed" that Logan presented.

Your assumption is that the majority-readers needs explanation. This is not true: as humans, we are good at drawing lines between dots and dealing with missing or partial information.

If a read of a jewish character performing a ritual, I actually wouldn't expect to understand everything, nor to grasp all the intricacies of a religion I don't know. If I wanted to understand everything about jewish culture and/or religion, I wouldn't be reading narrative. I would be reading essays, historical sources, and guides on the topic.

Compare this with how a lot of eastern culture is alluring to the western audiences exactly because it feels foreign.

So, if a character does X in a certain minority cultural context, majority readers are likely to accept it no explanation needed, while minority readers will understand and feel represented.

You need to explain things to majority readers only if your plot and character development heavily relies on the cultural background you're portraying. If your plot revolves around the rules of Sabbath, you want your majority readers understand them enough to make the plot effective - and in this case, Amadeus' suggestions come in handy.

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There's no reason you can't do it the same way you would for a completely fantastical culture. These usually have the same problem - you need to write for the majority, who are completely unaware of the made-up culture, and although they don't have the downside that you find problematic, they nevertheless handle exposing that culture in ways that do not alienate.

The method I prefer is to just dump the reader in head-first without explanation - explicitly avoiding both narration and a stand-in for the reader's ignorance to allow in-story exposition. It is generally confusing at first, but the reader eventually figures out what most things mean, even if some of it remains mysterious.

Some other methods I've seen used in fantasy that potentially handle your problem include:

  • Using the author voice instead of a character as the narrator - your problem is then less alienation but potentially patronising people who already know what you're talking about. YMMV, you might find this alienating too!
  • Footnotes (e.g. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Discworld) or appendices (e.g. Lord of the Rings) to explain points - this also allows people who don't want to read it to skip it entirely.
  • Any of Amadeus's suggestions in this answer.

The style in Spinning Silver seems (I haven't read it!) to be using the protagonist's voice for exposition for literary effect; and in this case, although the narrator's voice felt alienating to you, it's also revealing something about the narrator herself - that she perceives herself as a minority that needs to explain these things more often than not, and that most of the time the people around her will not be fellow Jews who will understand.

  • The rest of the paragraph expands on what I mean - some fantasy just dumps you in the middle of a sea of alien words and customs and expects you to figure it out on your own. – Logan Pickup Jun 4 at 6:52
  • @linksassin I've edited it to try to show the support for the OP's problem better; is it clearer now? – Logan Pickup Jun 4 at 8:19
  • Yes, that's great! Thanks for joining the site! – linksassin Jun 4 at 9:11
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I find it somewhat problematic that people seem to desire fantasy books not merely about relatable protagonists, but them in particular. I personally shrug it off; I don't think there's ever gonna be a tale about a quarter-Brahmin Indian, three-quarters-British undergrad with a career completely unrelated to his degree and hobbies alike, but that's neither here or there.

Because frankly, if you're going to do the representation thing for any culture, minority or majority alike, you should ideally strive for accuracy. I would actually go as far as to say 'fuck the majority readers' in this case; they wanna read a book with a Jewish protagonist, welp, they should expect to be exposed to Jewish culture. Maybe they could learn something, heaven forbid.

So my advice is thus: Don't be afraid to challenge the reader. I'd much rather get an accurate, albeit harsh depiction of, say, a woman's life in Saudi Arabia, than have it whitewashed to make it better adhere to western romanticism.

All I can say is thank God I write fantastical cultures, because the representation debate is a tangle of legitimate concerns (such as misrepresentation and lack of research) and illegitimate concerns (like believing that readers only want to read books about themselves).

  • Really on point answer. I wish I had written sentences like "they should expect to be exposed to Jewish culture. Maybe they could learn something, heaven forbid.","Don't be afraid to challenge the reader." in mine. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Jun 4 at 8:36
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So I kind of see this from the "Other Minority" aspect in a similar vain. As a Catholic, I'm well aware of the fact that the most likely thing people associate with my faith outside of the scandals is the Sacrament of Confession, as it's a common device in many a works that allows the character to discuss his feelings out loud and receive wise advice from a sagely priest who is rarely depicted as a bad one. The device is so familiar to U.S. audiences, that in another thread on Stack Exchange, one person mentioned that they were sure that watching TV and basing it on that is a good way to screw up a proper portrayal. Except the sacrament is pretty well portrayed as is on tv... there are some prayers that are said at the end like the Act of Contrition which is often dropped from these scenes as from a writing perspective its' not important. That said, this same prayer is said in one of the most powerful sequences in the Disney Animated cannon.

If you've ever seen Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Latin Chanting following the "Heaven's Light" sequence and continuing into the "Hellfire" number... the two songs are actually meant to be taken as one. In fact, most of Frollos' lines are countered by each Latin chant, and it's especially obvious in the part with the guys in red hoods: Frollo justifies his sins as not his fault because of the gypsy girl is a witch and it was God's plan all along. The chanting he receives back from the monks (Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa) is the most famous line of the prayer and translates that the contrite person is acknowledging his sis are "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault". If you don't know the whole Act of Contrition, it's a prayer that is meant to be said in front of other people as you are acknowledging you have sinned to the community, hence why the priest is stating it while leading a crowd of faithful, but Frollo is confessing to no one with a physical presence in the room. If you're not Catholic, it's still the best villain song in any Disney movie as it's terrifying to watch as a kid, but as a kid who grew up in the faith, I was well aware of just how terribly Frollo was screwing up his faith and his soul (the red hooded monks always creeped me out as I didn't know who they were supposed to represent as a kid... they looked like demons from hell but given that Frollo was a Catholic saying God planned for him to sin, they could have been sent by God who is pissed that he's being blamed for this by the guy who actually should be blamed for it... and the guy is trying to invoke Jesus' literally Sainted Mother to help him commit further sin). People are so used to seeing a Catholic Confession portrayed correctly, they don't realize that Frollo is doing it wrong, or why... but they can certainly tell he's not in the moral right at this moment.

  • I always figured Frollo was depicted as decidedly 'wrong in the faith' throughout Hellfire. From the first line, 'Beata Maria, you know I am a righteous man, of my virtue I am justly proud'. As if there is a just form of the deadliest sin there is. – Matthew Dave Jun 4 at 14:20
  • Which goes to my point. It's pretty obvious that he's distorting Catholicism to justify his evil... but if you're aware of what's being said in the Latin Chanting and what that chant is assiciated, it point for point is calling Frollo out on his BS. By the way, the lines that are sung by the priest are the only lines that are not spoke against Frollo's lines. The translation is basically the list of the entitities present to confess that you're a sinner too... (God, Mary, St. Michael and the entirety of the saints).+ – hszmv Jun 4 at 14:36
  • +The Modern verson of the prayer includes the congregates of the Church (there is a public portion of Confession... it's not that a priest is sitting in the booth at all hours waiting for some poor guy to saunter in and confess) so it would call attention to Frollo's lack of public acknowledgement. to his sins. The first line sung comes as a bit of forshadowing (he invokes marry but the Latin invokes God the Father... the same person he's about to blame for his own sins)... Pride is also putting your own deeds as greater than God's. – hszmv Jun 4 at 14:41
  • I ain't disagreeing with ya, just pointing out how Frollo's wrongness is efficiently portrayed in a single line. It's a favourite villain song of mine. – Matthew Dave Jun 4 at 14:58
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You don't necessarily need to target the majority audience at all. Niche publishing has always been "a thing," but these days minority audiences have a stronger influence because it's easier for a motivated niche audience to find a given book. And there have been recent, uncompromising books for niche audiences that have reached a wider mainstream audience without selling out.

You can target the majority audience via inclusion, instead of adaptation. Issa Rae helped ensure a diverse audience for her pioneering web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by including main characters who were white (and also main characters of other races as well!) but the viewpoint of the show was still firmly centered in her own experience and perspective as a black American.

You can adapt your work for a majority audience without pandering. You can over-explain things that a Jewish person would probably already know, without making them fake, and you can present real-three dimensional non-stereotyped characters in a narrative presented for a mainstream audience. It's possible that your work may be passed over or rejected by people who demand to be pandered to --but you don't want that audience anyway.

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