I’ve read two diverse YA books this past month — one great and one less so — and the difference was all about culture.
Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is billed as Japanese steampunk. With a kickass, tatted, hunter, Japanese female protag I looked forward to the character but was wary because the author was a white male. The mentality was echoed when starting Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, with an Indian-American YA novelist teen, pre-adult girl trying to make it in the world.
The portrayal of the characters in their cultures is what made Afterworlds amazing and what had Stormdancer fall a little short for me. To be fair, I am much more familiar with Japanese culture than Indian and these opinions are completely subjective.
I went into Stormdancer a bit wary after running across a goodreads review bashing the world and the language. I found, however, these acceptable and non-offensive. The saturation of the folklore completely charmed me and the heavy influence of the culture in the world brought it to life. There were a lot of cool ideas that weren’t quite realized, but being part of a trilogy, I assumed the author knew he had time. I was able to let the minor mis-usages of words fly past. Though there were two glaring things that threw me into a fury.
The first was the fact that all characters, when bowing (which is frequent in most asian cultures), pressed a fist against a flat palm. This is something that those in Japan most definitely do NOT do. If used infrequently, I would be able to ignore it as I had with the language, but it was brought up every single time someone bowed.
The second, and more glaring error was the way the protag thought. This is rather hard to explain, but I’ll try my best.
Honor, in the book, is based upon bushido. Bushido is a Japanese code of conduct specifically for Samurai dictating virtues. It clearly outlines beliefs that continue through today including absolute deference to superiors, elders, and rulers.
The protag goes through the whole book rebelling against the idea of honor that her father is trying to uphold. Her father is doing his best to follow the unreasonable wishes of his Shogun. The idea that his honor is anything but of the highest caliber of loyalty and bushido is something that is very prevalent in western interpretations of old Japanese culture and was what ruled the protag’s thought. It’s something that those raised in the Western world find hard to fathom, but following through with the orders of a wicked ruler was seen as most honorable. The story of the 47 Ronin, where they kill their unjust lord, is both revered and seen as a glaring dishonor in Japan. In the Last Samurai, when Tom Cruz walks away from battle, my parents scoffed. If he truly understood the idea of bushido, he would’ve never lived through the humiliation of being the only one left alive — he would’ve committed seppuku.
It is this lack of cultural understanding in a world that is heavily influenced by Japanese culture that leaves Stormdancer as a less than great book in my opinion. It was so close, though.
Afterworlds is a completely different setting, taking place in our world. The protag is Indian-American and the reader is constantly reminded of this in an effortless way. We experience the culture, foods, and ideas that an Indian-American family might have. The protag also finds a relationship with a fellow female writer in a way that was refreshingly undramatic.
We start off with a crisis brought on by an offhand comment by a white author to the protag about cultural appropriation. This part was hilarious and so relatable because the culture she was afraid she was misrepresenting, was her own — one that she loosely practiced and was raised around. The protag wrote about a Hindu god and had a freak out because she isn’t a practicing Hindu. This is something I’ve thought of and had struggles with on my own as a Japanese and Okinawan-American. I’ve always avoided writing about an explicit Japanese and Okinawan presence because I’ve always felt that I wasn’t sure what was offensive to the larger community and what wasn’t. (On that note, as an Asian, I have no idea how to describe Asians without being racist…) The protag eats slightly different from the rest of her family — she eats meat, but it is directly addressed. She also goes home to celebrate Pancha Ganapati, not Christmas, which is great because it gives the reader a look at different traditions around the holiday season.
The protag is writing a story which is also part of the book. I found it amazing how they were completely different narratives in alternating chapters, but both captivated me. The naivete in which the protag approaches ‘adult’ life was very familiar to me, having been there a few years ago, experiencing things like rent and bills for the first time. Budgeting for nothing in the future and spending all money on food. Ah, the pain of growing.
It also shows a glimpse into the new age of the YA publishing industry which was a lot of fun and quite inspiring. And as a bonus, I had this constant image of Scott Westerfeld doing all the flirty teen girl things he was writing about.
Both books were good in different ways, but cultural understanding is what really made Afterworlds stand above and beyond a lot of the books I’ve read recently. It is good to note that both were written by white men though both stories were about POC teen girls — when writing about people from cultures that aren’t your own, there can be failures, but there also can be successes. It is important to remember who your characters are and where they came from.
Have you read any books where the author wrote about a different culture and got it right? Tell us about it in the comments below!