horror, syncretism, and writing about other cultures

I've spent the last two weeks talking about world-building in fantasy, and while I may seem to wander off-topic here, bear with me. This post is about some things that I learned when writing a short-story and confirmed my own realization that there is much, much more to writing about different cultures than just giving a character brown skin.

This is kind of long, but stick with me, if you will.

Horror, back in the day--I'm almost 49, so pardon me while I wax philosophical for a moment here--horror used to be about mood, desire, and atmosphere, not the amount of blood that can be spilled in across the pages. The object was to build suspense through the interplay of shadow and light and frighten the reader more with their own thoughts than with random patterns of blood spatters. Think Sarah Waters, who is the master of building suspense as she insidiously creeps inside your head to stimulate your worst fears. Likewise, Stephen King guides you through the moments of horror, not with flayed bodies but with the pacing and the rhythm within each scene.

I'm not that good, by the way. I'm just using Waters and King as examples and like them, I'd rather use words than gore to frighten my readers. I can easily write a scene that grosses you out--it's much more difficult to write a story that draws you in then releases you to your own fears.

Several months ago, I decided that I wanted to exercise my writing skills on a horror short-story. I thought about telling the story of an addict who becomes haunted through cocaine tainted by innocent souls murdered in the drug wars. Okay, my brain is weird and medication does not help--get used to it. Anyway, I emailed Sabrina Vourvoulias and brainstormed my ideas with her. She gave me some great information. She mentioned La Santa Muerte, and I talked a little about that exchange here.

La Santa Muerte fascinates me because this is syncretism in action. Rather than an abstract thesis, I have the opportunity to watch an ancient goddess assimilated into a more modern religion. This excites me the way Higgs boson excites scientists--I just find people infinitely more fascinating than particles.

Which brings me to the most crucial part of this little post. In order to understand why La Santa Muerte is so meaningful to some portions of Latino culture, I had to make an attempt to understand the economic and social development of a group of people that I thought I knew something about. It turned out that I was really much more ignorant than I ever dreamed.

When writing about other cultures, it's easy to slip into the default mode of "because it is true where I live, it is true everywhere," but that is lazy writing. In order to avoid that mentality, I watched documentaries about immigrants who cross the border and why they risk their lives to come to the United States. I didn't need to watch documentaries about extreme poverty--I'd experienced that in my own life. I also know that without an education, or some kind of external help, poverty is impossible to escape.

I know that I was willing to do anything to change my circumstances, and I took the necessary steps to move forward, but I am lucky. I live in the United States where I was able to acquire the help to change my life. Not everyone is so fortunate.

I compared my own experiences with those of the immigrants. I also watched a lot of Latin American movies and deliberately avoided Hollywood representations of either immigration or La Santa Muerte. I wanted to experience someone else's culture through their eyes, not through mine.

As I watched these movies and documentaries, my attitudes changed and so did my story.

Stories are lies designed to show us a truth. In order to tell a convincing lie, I must first understand the truth. I am extremely fortunate when these facts lead me to re-examine myself.

Once I completed my short-story, I emailed Sabrina, who so graciously offered to read it for me. She picked up on several things, such as names that carried different connotations to Latinos than they carried to me. She helped me pick a city that would accurately reflect the family I chose to portray. Without her help, my story wouldn't have been bad, but it wouldn't have been accurate.

I didn't have the full truth, you see, so my lie rang false.

Here are a few tricks that I used:

  • Watch films and documentaries about the culture and avoid Hollywood misrepresentations (for my project, I only watched films by Latino directors)
  • Read everything you can about the particular culture you want to represent
  • Contact someone from that culture who is willing to read your story and be honest with you about any cultural errors you might make

It was a lot of work for a short-story, but at the same time, I had the chance to educate myself. What I learned changed my attitudes and gave me an opportunity to grow as person. I put myself in someone else's skin for a little while, and that changed me.

In this story, there is horror, syncretism, and another culture. I've told you a lie that is designed to show you a truth, because that is what stories are. I'm going to submit this one for publication. If it doesn't sell, I'll rethink my options, but regardless of what happens with the story, I've learned quite a bit about myself and the takeway from that is invaluable.