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30 April 2010 @ 08:30 pm
As we're looking through our prison bars do I see mud when you see stars?  
This is cobbled together from IM conversation with tithenai and kirizal, and grounded in recent lj-discussions, me thinking about my own writing, and my brain being rearranged by one of my advisor's papers on viewpoint (she does this.) So it's sort of about Everything, as understood by Shweta.

ETA: If this sparks a response post of any sort, I do hope you'll link it here! I have no energy/focus for more than the minimal necessities at present (appearances are deceptive!) and have not been following my f-list.


We learn as writers that we need to know our fiction's point of view, and be consistent, and think about how things look like through a character's eyes and brain.

(This has always been pretty weird to me, in the "but what else could we possibly do?" sense. Not that I've always done it (or always do it) well, but it never did occur to me that there was an alternative. I don't think this is just me, and want to get back to it in a bit.)

Anyway, as writers, we don't seem to talk so much about why that matters to readers. As a cognitive linguist, I've got a thought about that: it's that it matters to humans. Viewpoint* is the combination of physical/social/cognitive givens that underlie and structure of everything we think, everything we say, every gesture we make, every understanding we have of anything. This is true both for physical viewpoint (consider what on earth "here" or "that" or "the" or "yesterday" might mean without an assumed physical viewpoint) and cognitive viewpoint (consider what "our" or "scary" or "if I were you" could possibly mean without an assumed cognitive viewpoint).

So if it's fundamental to human cognition, why would it be hard for writers to get right? I think because it's implicit, and it's very seldom conscious. This stuff is invisible, precisely because it's everywhere. So when do we notice?

Not just when we get it wrong. When our noses are rubbed in the fact that we've got it wrong.

- When someone says "your point of view is screwy here," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When someone says "Wow, your representation of [CULTURE] plays into racist stereotypes," or "No way anyone who was really from [CULTURE] would do that," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When someone says "Picking and choosing from oppressed cultures for your pretties is appropriative," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When the voices we have been socialized to ignore and belittle grow too many to ignore and belittle, and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- For those of us from non-dominant cultures, every hour of every day when someone just blithely assumes that of course we know that [SOMETHING ALIEN TO OUR VIEWPOINT], unless we assimilate enough that the dominant viewpoints surrounding us don't grate and jar and hurt, every hour of every day.

- For those of us who live between cultures**, every hour of every day when "our" people from different cultures blithely assume that of course we know that [CONTRADICTORY THINGS]. No matter what we do to assimilate to anyone/everyone.

So yeah, viewpoint errors and conflicts? REALLY REALLY SUCK. Defensiveness and anger aren't exactly surprising responses.

But know what sucks more? Always having to deal with the dominant culture's point of view, and finding, when you finally get to read a story about a non-dominant culture you're invested in, that it's written from the dominant culture's unconsidered viewpoint.
That's what.

So is there a simple or painless way to figure out other viewpoints, and to make our own assumed viewpoints accessible to conscious thought? I don't think so. -- I do think fiction can help -- it can give us a less painful way to do so than reality; readers get that buffer of what we're experiencing not actually happening to us. But readers don't have to fully understand a character's viewpoint, assuming they're reading for fun. Readers can stop reading. or find characters unsympathetic (ignoring the fact that sympathy is a thing that happens between people, not a characteristic of one person); and readers can be avoidant of stories that are really fundamentally about (or by) Others -- and have plenty to read, so long as they're of a dominant culture.

And if there's an easy way to live a viewpoint enough to write from it - or a way that doesn't leave me wondering who the hell I am anyway - I don't know it. I think that might be part of why we as humans only do it to the extent we're forced to.

And I think a certain amount of racefail in writing involves getting the (explicit) facts right and the (implicit) viewpoint just wrong.

Implication 1: Losing a viewpoint, losing a self

This is a spinoff from kirizal saying: And I think gives me some insight into why so many people are so fiercely resistant to engaging with Other. They're afraid of losing their viewpoint, and therefore their sense of self?

I think this is exactly right -- losing viewpoint, even temporarily, is a scary thing. And I think it's why some of us who are assimilated to a dominant culture are so resistant to recognizing what we've lost thereby and engaging with even the Other that is Us. It's not just borrowed privilege we have to let go of to find our own viewpoint, it's a sense of self that has been damn hard to get to. Sometimes it's a sense of self we've been bullied into, with our differences picked on till they're invisible.

And the underlying assumptions we've learned aren't just unconscious, they're what lets us make sense of everything else. And they're what lets us feel like whole, coherent people. And gods, if that's true -- well, it is so hard to feel like a full person as a non-member of dominant groups; no wonder we cling to the bits we have. No wonder sometimes people from oppressed groups have a hard time even acknowledging the fact.

(I'm not excusing anything failtastic I've said in the past, here, mind. What I said, I own, even if I am a different person now. I'm just trying to make sense of it, and, heh, of my own viewpoint on it all.)

Thing is, the coherent self is in fact an illusion; humans have Very poor global coherence in our thoughts, reasoning, and beliefs. But it's an emotionally important illusion (heh, cognitive science meets Buddhism again).

Implication 2: Mysterious Others

We're forced to shift viewpoints when we run into someone (or some dominant culture) who we a) have to understand, who b) has a fundamentally different viewpoint (which is to say fundamentally different experience and structuring of the experiential world) from ours.

When you have (b) without (a) then you get the Mysterious Other - Women are Incomprehensible, Orientals are Inscrutable, the Resentment of these Natives Makes No Sense, Heathens are Ungrateful, etc.
And you get their modern descendant -- Why Are You So Angry.

When you have (b) with sort of partial (a) - you have to figure out some of what the other person's viewpoint is, but you don't have to live as though it's valid - you get the cute all-is-subjective-everyone-is-wrong philosophizing. You get the blind men and the elephant, you get every-interpretation-is-equally-valid-and-I-like-mine, or you get some other blithe and smug form of subjectivism. These all have a fundamental lack of respect for other viewpoints, a lack of work to understand them and why they are what they are; they have no room for "Hey, I might be wrong and might need to learn something here." It's sort of like "people can be brown yellow or purple for all I care" in the way it throws the doors open -- it's... acknowledging the fact of the difference but refusing to internalize its implications.

When one is part of a non-dominant culture one has to do (a) and (b) and some of us (most of us?) lose our own viewpoints to some extent in the process.

This is why we get so angry when members of the dominant cultures complain about being "screwed either way" when it comes to Writing the Other - cause we're stuck Being the Other. So treating our viewpoint as an inconvenience or an irritant is dismissing us as human beings.

But I think it's different again for those of us who are in-betweens; we have to do this with both or all the cultures we're immersed in (but not fully part of), and it leaves us good at translating but bad at figuring out wtf our own viewpoint IS. We're chameleons; we're mimics. And when a member of an established culture does what they think is gracious, and treats us like we're them -- well, if we're aware of this at all we can get resentful as hell.

Implication 3: The in-betweens are good at in-betweening.

Part of what this all means is that those of us who are trying to find our viewpoint, in between established cultures and subcultures, are Others to every side. Yeah, we're good translators and we're good at taking points of view other than our own -- not because it's easy but because we've always HAD to; we are expected to pass in order to be accepted by every side. But (not speaking for everyone but it's been true of the people I've talked to about this) if we try to find our own voices and think out loud about this stuff we will fail, failtastically, on the way, not just because it's hard but I think cause we've lost our starting point.

And we have to do it ourselves, perhaps even more than other Others, because the problem with believing one group all the time is that it's just another point-of-view alignment, not a real own point of view. And we are so used to doing this that we have to deliberately refuse the option, or we're screwed.

And that is an issue once one starts to think about it, with any argument from authority or peer pressure.

And here's a tricky bit - I think sometimes we in-betweens sound to each side in an argument like the other side, no matter who we really agree with to what extent, because we're trying to sort out our own points of view and we can't really do that by agreeing. And of course everyone has a default idea of who they're talking to, in the absence of other information, and we're never that default.

And since telepathy doesn't work so well, it's really hard to tell the difference sometimes between Between-struggling and unconsidered privilege; but some actions that might poke at unconsidered privilege (like citing bingo cards) have the opposite effect on Between-struggling. Not that it should stop people from voicing their frustration, and I certainly know I can be very frustrating. I just think it's worth knowing that what we're often struggling to do is to have a point of view at all.

And, non-betweens? It's not yours. It really isn't, no matter how good we are at sounding like you. Even to ourselves. I'm not A Designated In-between Spokesperson or anything, but I think I can validly say this much: we are, fundamentally, not you. If you treat us, or write us, as "just like you", you are erasing us. Even if you get every explicit fact right.

* Oh yeah -- writers say Point of View (POV), linguists say Viewpoint (VP.) I'm using Viewpoint here because I mean the pervasive, underlying, unconscious stuff, and I do not mean what person one is writing in.

** I am not bi-or-multi-racial, and I have no insight into issues specific to being bi-or-multi-racial. I and all my formative experiences are multicultural, and I'm certainly trying to figure that out.
brainwane.dreamwidth.orgbrainwane.dreamwidth.org on May 1st, 2010 04:57 am (UTC)
This is very thought-provoking; thank you for writing it.
Allison Lonsdale: bookishcaprine on May 1st, 2010 06:16 am (UTC)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - poeticalpanther on May 5th, 2010 05:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 5th, 2010 06:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - poeticalpanther on May 5th, 2010 06:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 5th, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:43 pm (UTC)
I think most of this stuff is different for different Betweens; the version I am is third-culture kid, from a culture that's privileged if not dominant where I come from, and I know that that limits my viewpoint - sort of half-hoping someone who is a different sort of Between comes in to say "Actually for my type it's different again", so we can figure out the limits of my faffling.

But yeah, I guess here I'm trying to make sense of what I've gotten from conversations with several other Between-people, things we all have such a hard time talking to people aligned ith one culture about, and the cultural differences span race, religion, sexuality, and other, I think.

If you post to lj, I do hope you'll poke me and let me know! I do not have the energy just not to follow my f-list.
...I should say that up top.
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 04:37 am (UTC) (Expand)
Tithenai: zuma sunsettithenai on May 1st, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)
My love for you is a deep moonlit sea.

shweta_narayan: happyshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:47 pm (UTC)
it's a great life, if you don't weakenmatociquala on May 1st, 2010 10:32 am (UTC)
Yeah, this.

What you call "betweening" I have been referring to as "third culture kids," and another funny thing is that so many of us are Invisible Others. It's hard to find an identity that includes that.

My culture--the culture I was raised in--doesn't even exist any more, and I've rejected most of its tenets anyway. But I do find myself envious, sometimes, of people who have a place where they fit, where their acculturation lines up. I think that's why I'm so drawn to characters who are in some way fish out water.

dawn_metcalfdawn_metcalf on May 1st, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
But I do find myself envious, sometimes, of people who have a place where they fit, where their acculturation lines up.

Wow. You nailed this.

This is something I feel on issues of faith (as well as culture) and is always present in my attempts at understanding people as well as characters.
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf on May 2nd, 2010 01:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 01:12 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matociquala on May 1st, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matociquala on May 1st, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
dawn_metcalfdawn_metcalf on May 1st, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)
I read this twice.

As someone who consciously writes Other while simultaneously knowing that it "cannot be done", (old responsibility training from anthropology and evidently the current trend on the subject, even in fiction), all I can hope to do is to write honestly about the human experience and to do so respectfully. There is no delving that hasn't changed *me* if I get present to the fact that every person I meet -- whether friend or adversary or stranger -- is a miracle that happens once in forever. Of course, that's the hermeneuticist in me and I'll admit I'm not always present to it.

And I totally get not being the "voice" for bi-or-multi-racial; I've often been the first "Other" people have met in their lives and some have questions that I preface with "This is my opinion, please don't think of me as a representative of all X." Sometimes, it even works.

Thanks for sharing this. There's a lot here and even more doors opening... I'm still chewing, but I definitely got something this first round. Thank you.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to what your chewing produces :)
I think I've been very badly needing a conversation on all this, and have been trying to figure out how to even start for the last year or so, and so I ended up blorping out an awful lot of accumulated thought...
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf on May 2nd, 2010 01:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matociquala on May 1st, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matociquala on May 1st, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matociquala on May 1st, 2010 11:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vvvexation on May 2nd, 2010 12:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 12:12 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey on May 3rd, 2010 12:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 3rd, 2010 12:30 am (UTC) (Expand)
cherie: lots of keysnalathilion on May 1st, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
This is amazing. I must go & process this now.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
I look forward to anything that comes out of your processing :)
This is the result of an awful lot of off-lj flailing on my part, and probably the cause of more.
joycemocha on May 1st, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
This is really, really good. I hope it inspires further unpacking of the subject, not just from you but from others. I think you've nailed something about the "in-betweens" and perhaps even a touch of some of the anxiety that is emerging in some of these discussions.

And the subculture piece--mmm, yeah, that resonates personally. Must unpack that one.

The chameleon piece is also a good thing which needs further thought. I've jokingly called myself one, but with regard to the dominant culture, I've been in that role....but further exploration will take place on my blog because it derails what you're exploring here.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
I'm very much hoping to start a conversation, and that other people help me make more sense of all this :)

Do please link here when you post on your blog? I'd love to see it but I'm really not up to following the f-list just now...
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on May 1st, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
I'm adding this to my "memories" here, so I can find it again.

Maybe one reason why writers have to be told to consider viewpoint is that the (any?) dominant culture implicitly and repeatedly teaches that there is one valid viewpoint, its own. Combine that with third-person-omniscient and the idea of the movie camera as showing "reality," and there's room not to recognize that the camera must be somewhere, and that someone is deciding where to point it.

Edited at 2010-05-01 12:52 pm (UTC)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
I think it's more yet - that any culture teaches implicitly that its own viewpoint isn't a viewpoint, it's just the way things are.

I wonder if there's any link between the popularity of close-third viewpoints and cultural grapplings with viewpoints, or if it's just that it's easiest to make close-third immersive?

And it's funny, isn't it, that camera views are seen as "reality" when visual images are so strongly viewpointed, so much so that our metaphor for the cognitive state is a visual one?
Sherwood Smithsartorias on May 1st, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
I think I need to read this several times to really understand it. You already gave me a good wakeup call when we were discussing a certain book a couple months ago--opened a window that I hadn't even known was there.

It's going to take some rereads.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
You already gave me a good wakeup call...

That went both ways, and almost certainly fed into this.

I hope to see your thoughts about it :)
Estaraestara on May 1st, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)
Being an in-betweener who wasn't raised or perceived in-between
Well, while I'm bi-racial, I was raised monoculturally white except for food (and I also look like that side of my family), so I would never dare formulating definitive statements of how the Arabic mentality works.

I never had to deal with being perceived as Arabic in real life. I do think the little bit of contact with that side of my family has made me somewhat more sensitive about my privilege of being perceived as part of the dominant culture and the way others view Arabs - especially since my brother does look like my Dad and has experienced racial discrimination.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Being an in-betweener who wasn't raised or perceived in-between
I'd hesitate to say any group has a mentality, even, though there are shared aspects of viewpoint and assumptions within any culture, having to do with how outsiders perceive one (as you're saying) and also to do with... what makes that culture a culture, I guess...?
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shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading it. I think I'm still flailing, and will surely modify my (heh) view on all this as I go, but it's still a major revelation to me to look at online social networking and go "I don't actually have to do this all alone".

I think I'm having to learn that one over and over :)
Alan Yeealan_yee on May 1st, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
This makes me more aware of my own problems with being in-between and so many kinds of Other (bi-racial, non-neurotypical, non-straight), and yet still having trouble with writing other viewpoints. Even though I'm half Chinese and have dark hair and eyes, I'm also very light-skinned and often get mistaken for being fully Caucasian. Having been born and raised in the U.S., most of the culture I've experienced is (dominant) American culture, with some exposure to Chinese culture via my dad and my other Chinese relatives. Despite being bi-racial, I still feel like my own experience is non-typical for in-betweens. I don't know what it's like for other bi-racial people who are more visibly "Other." I can imagine, ask them about it, but I don't *know* their viewpoint. I don't speak for all bi-racial folks, not even for all people who are half white American and half Chinese.

Being non-neurotypical undoubtedly makes handling other viewpoints difficult for me. It's not a lack of trying or wanting to know a non-dominant viewpoint that's different from mine, it's not being able to accurately extrapolate the viewpoint of someone with a different background and different kind of Otherness. I suppose that's what research and interviewing friends are for, I guess.

I still write non-white, non-straight, and non-neurotypical characters, but I often feel like my own experiences with being those types of Other is not representative of most people in those categories. And the thought that I might be Doing It Wrong is an ever-present voice in my head.

I might write a post about this some time when I'm a little more coherent. You've given me a lot to think about.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on May 1st, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see a post on this from you :)

I have been nervous about writing characters whose cognitive processing is Other from my own, because I know that (asthma aside) I am entirely among the privileged of the privileged there and have a lot of stuff to work through before I can really have a chance of not failing badly...

Being non-neurotypical undoubtedly makes handling other viewpoints difficult for me.

And it is already hard for everyone, so it must be really daunting for you.

I still write non-white, non-straight, and non-neurotypical characters, but I often feel like my own experiences with being those types of Other is not representative of most people in those categories.

I have this same issue with regards to Indian/Desi characters, but to pass on what certain Wise People tell me when I'm panicking: just remember, you don't have to be representative for your viewpoint to be a valid and interesting and worth writing :)

(no subject) - dawn_metcalf on May 2nd, 2010 01:13 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 01:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dawn_metcalf on May 2nd, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to shift your viewpoint, and look forward to whatever you do with it :)
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on May 2nd, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful post. Thank you.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading!
b_writes: dickensb_writes on May 2nd, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
This is really good and I'm going to be mulling on it for a while. I think you've tapped into another reason people can get defensive-- as geeks, or women, or non-whites, people have had to fight hard against the majority viewpoint to define themselves, and so having that hard-earned identity challenged is doubly threatening.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on May 2nd, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
This ties into something else that I've been wondering - whether there is a difference in that reaction between people who are Othered in one way, or one compound way that has a community to go with it, and people who have had to interact with multiple Othered communities as a member.