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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Your Orientalist Genre Anthology of Exoticism (or, WTF, Ticonderoga?)

Ticonderoga Publications is currently reading for an anthology called Dreaming of Djinn.  All well and good, right?  Things get rather strange, however, when you read the description:
This anthology, with the working title Dreaming of Djinn, will look at romantic Orientalism through a speculative fiction lens. You might find lost cities, magical lamps, mummies, thieves, intrepid explorers, slaves, robotic horsemen, noble queens, sorcerers, outcast princes, harems, dancers, djinn, assassins and even smart-talking camels and cats, set in exotic Persia, Egypt, Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, or a modern incarnation of these.
Oh boy, here we go!

The Middle East isn't exotic.  The oceans of Europa are exotic, because fuck-all lives there; if you stuck someone in them, I suspect their first reaction would be "Holy shit, I'm miles under ice in an ocean on another planet."  Hell, even the oceans on Earth are exotic for the same reason ("Holy
shit, I'm inside a submarine in the Marianas Trench!").  People live in the Middle East, that oh-so-exotic place with all the different countries and peoples and histories (it's a country like Africa, right?  Right?  Ha!).  I know, that's shocking, right?  Maybe I should say "people."  That's better.  That way you can question whether they are people, since they're all exotic and whatever.

Unless, of course, if you take your head out of your ass and you realize that, hey, people from the Middle East live in this country, and other Western countries, and many of them have kids, so to say "oh, hey, those weird people from Persia are exotic weirdos" is sort of like saying "My left arm is strange, but my right one is el normal!"  And that's really the problem.  Are there "exotic" cultures on this planet?  I don't know.  I don't know about all the cultures on this planet.  I'm sure there are cultures that seem strange to me, but I'm in tune with my own reality enough to know that that opinion is not relevant because it is subjective.  Other cultures are exotic because they are not my own culture.

And this is really the problem of Orientalism as Edward Said articulated it, and as so many academics and non-academics alike now understand it.  The moment we start producing these binaries, in which one culture is "normal" and the other is "exotic" (read:  savage, wrong, not-us, etc.), then we are engaging in orientalist behavior.  That the editors used Orientalism in the description without noting this profound irony is disconcerting.

I'm sure they mean well, and that what they really want is to find are stories which show pulpy adventures taking place in the Middle East and other places once identified as part of "the Orient."  There's nothing wrong with that; it's even a pretty good idea.  But I certainly hope they think through the implications of their call for stories, or they might end up with an actual anthology of Orientalist Romances, chock full of racism, ethnocentric stereotypes, and so on.  Something like this:


What does everyone else think about this?

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  1. I'm calling overreaction on this one. Most Westerners have never been to the middle east, and there only exposure to middle eastern culture is what they show on the news ie not flattering. There was a time when the "orient" conjured up dreams of silk, spice, and adventure, which is the feel this anthology seems to want. I probably will even pick up a copy because I love that setting.

  2. Hate to say it, Adam, but you're far too wrong on this one. The history of orientalism as a Western practice of differentiation cannot be dismissed just because most Westerners are ignorant, ethnocentric imperialists. This is precisely why orientalism is not something to be taken lightly when it arises.

    The setting isn't the problem. There is nothing wrong with placing adventures in the Middle East or the "Orient" or places other than the U.S. or other Western spaces. There is a problem when the setup is an explicitly ethnocentric perspective (i.e., orientalism and exoticism) which does not tear apart its own foundations from the inside.

    To the people who have suffered for hundreds of years from the very perspectives orientalism provides, this is not a small deal at all.

  3. Still think you're overreacting.

  4. And you're still wrong. Too much history here. It would be like including a racial epithet in the description.