Exploring the “Exotic”: Is It Possible to Avoid Orientalism in Fantasy?
Let’s be upfront and frank: I’m a white, middle-class, Canadian woman. I was born and raised in Canada. I speak English and English alone. My hometown was almost entirely white when I was growing up. Even the university I attended was largely white. I work in publishing, which is also rather white.
I studied English literature in school, which can be an exercise in “the works of dead white guys.” While many of my courses pushed away from that, there was still a lot of “oh, yay, dead white chicks,” or “living white people!!!” We didn’t necessarily get a lot of opportunity to study the works of POC or Asian authors or Muslim authors or Indigenous authors.
I did take courses on postcolonial writing, however, and we did explore the works of Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and, perhaps inescapably, Edward Said. Said’s theory of Orientalism is pervasive in exploring Western literature, particularly once we enter the age of imperialism: Is it possible to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness without looking at the exoticism he presents? Conrad refers to Africa as the dark continent in the first few pages, so we, as readers, already have preconceived notions about what’s going on there.
This isn’t unusual; Conrad is the rule, rather than the exception. It begs the question of whether a Western writer can truly escape Orientalizing tendencies in writing.
I’ve already spelled out most of my cultural milieu: white, middle-class, English-speaking, university-educated, white-collar Canadian woman. I’m fairly ensconced in Western cultural notions. Through my education and my job, I am actively working to unseat myself, to unsettle many of the notions Western culture takes for granted and presents as normal. Right now, I’m working on “blackening” or “de-whitening” my own writing. The books I’m editing are about black history and black communities.
Nonetheless, I can’t deny I was brought up in a world with certain notions about certain types of people and bodies. I hardly recognized it when I was a kid, but take a look at Disney’s portrayal of the two Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp or virtually anything about Aladdin. Even Mulan has Orientalist tendencies.
Thus, I have certain ideas about the places and spaces that exist on this earth, and the people who inhabit them. I’m going to focus particularly on Aladdin’s presentation of Arab culture, the Middle East, and “the desert,” since this is the “mythos” I’ve drawn on in creating Arubio in A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale.
Yes, “Arubio” is purposely similar to “Arabia.” The city (and country) is situated in a vast expanse of desert. The culture is decidedly reminiscent of Middle Eastern notions: I mention the bazaar and the camel caravans. Tarquin and various others are mentioned as wearing kifyah and kaftans. Tarquin himself is brown, although he notes he’s “paler” than many of the citizens of Arubio, particularly the day laborers.
Perhaps the most obvious allusion to stereotypes of Middle Eastern cultures is the inclusion of a harem. While this makes sense in context of the story (Tarquin is an incubus, who feeds on sexual energy), the harem is one of those tropes that gets deployed in Western fiction over and over again.
Why? Because it’s weird to Western, European notions. Because it’s “so exotic!” Most presentations of the harem in Western media, however, fall quite short of presenting the truth of a harem, of course. The concept has been corrupted and wildly exaggerated by most Western sources over the centuries, specifically for the purpose of exoticizing Arab and Middle Eastern culture.
The Orientalist Lens
When Western culture depicts “others,” it rarely does so with accuracy and sympathy. For most of history, the entire point of writing about other cultures was to titillate readers. We find this tendency even in medieval European manuscripts; illustrations of the “strange and monstrous races of the world” are pervasive.
When we move into the era of imperialism, the same tendency follows. People venturing to new lands wrote home about the “strange” peoples they were encountering. Some accounts focused on the novelty of cultures. Others went straight for the gross-out factor. Some writers did want to foster something akin to sympathy, although they usually took the tack of “oh, these poor babies, they don’t even know what they’re doing is wrong!” Other writers wanted to advance the imperial agenda, so they depicted other cultures as “savage” and “brutish”.
We can see the effects of colonialism today. Peoples around the world have had their civilizations corrupted, disrupted, uprooted, transplanted, rearranged, and even ended by the European colonial project. We cannot deny the violence done to these peoples over centuries.
Cultural (mis)representations are, of course, part of the colonial project. They simultaneously romanticize and demonize difference, both reductionist and judgmental. The harem is symbolic of that. It’s sexually intriguing to European sensibilities and speaks to, perhaps, a supposed “Arab” love of women, of bodies, of indulgence and excess.
It can also speak to sin, to the dangers of the Arab world as they indulge and are excessive. Extravagance becomes embedded in Western notions of what it means to be Arab or Middle Eastern or even Muslim, to a certain extent. When we see the princes of Sudan or the United Arab Emirates or another rich Middle Eastern country, we chalk their extravagance up to Middle Eastern culture.
The Problem of Orientalism
It should be apparent by now what the issue is with all of this. Instead of trying to accurately understand what “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” or anything else, really, actually is, Western culture has developed a shorthand for these cultures, which rely on antiquated notions packed with morality judgments.
If you don’t believe this, take a look at Aladdin’s Sultan, who’s bumbling and almost incompetent, but then look at his palace again. Take a look at Jasmin’s dress. Take a look at early sketches for Genie. And, most importantly, take a look at all the scheming and underhandedness going on in the movie.
One Western stereotype about Arab people is they’re all liars and cheats. Aladdin doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. Despite the fact he’s our hero, Aladdin’s entire ruse is predicated on lying to Jasmin about what he is.
If even the hero can’t escape it, the other characters in the movie don’t fare much better.
Adopting the “Exotic”
I’ll say when I started A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale, I was a little enamored with the idea of a desert nation, and of making one of my MCs a non-white character. Some of the story focuses on a clash of cultures: Tarquin is dealing with his cousin Aleks, the Grand Prince of Rus. Viridian has a clash of cultures between his homeland of Fiddach, land of the fey, and Rus, where he’s raised. Viridian and Tarquin clash over cultural norms.
Perhaps the difference is Viridian—the ostensibly white, “European” character—is always presented as the outsider. He is exotic and strange. Tarquin doesn’t understand Fiddach or much about Viridian at all. People whisper rumors at the breakfast table; some people in Arubio believe that the bug-like fey “crunch” when you hug them. (They don’t, as Viridian confirms.)
As much as Viridian is thus presented as the exoticized, othered character, I still haven’t escaped the powerful narrative of Orientalism, because I’m a white, Western writer concocting a cultural setting evoking the “exotic” Middle East.
Fantasy as a Problematic Site
In the eighth grade, we were asked to pair up and create novel studies for each other. Each student selected a book, which the other then had to read. We also had to create questions for the other student to answer.
I picked Sunwing, by Kenneth Oppel, which is about bats and draws on Aztec influences. Re-reading it now, I can see the “othering” at work: the villains are portrayed as coming from a sick and abusive South American culture. The Aztec mythology is presented as evil.
The book I had to read was potentially even worse. I don’t even remember the name of it now. My student-partner went to the library, picked out the first thing he saw that looked even remotely interesting, and based the novel study on that.
It was a bad book, we both agreed. (We both enjoyed Sunwing more.) Nonetheless, even though I’ve forgotten the name and most of the plot, I do remember a bit about the book. I know it featured a princess (a hoity-toity, ugh, princess). At one point, they traveled through the desert! There was a lot of sand in this book.
I place it as being a fantasy for that reason. There were some strange beasts; there was, I think, an orb; the princess, obviously; and the non-earth desert setting put the book squarely in the realm of fantasy. (I’ll go out on a limb and say the book was definitely the product of the 1980s or early 1990s.)
Fantasy has many, many problems. A big one is the portrayal of women. Another is the portrayal of POC and others. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece, Lord of the Rings, is widely acknowledged as a particularly white sausagefest. Other fantasy tends to follow suit, if only because they’re mimicking the blueprint.
The Desert in Fantasy
The desert is not necessarily an unusual location for a fantasy book. As I mentioned, the book I read in my peer-mediated novel study was a fantasy with a desert setting. My own work in A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale obviously draws on the desert. I can’t tell you how many TV shows and movies draw on the desert. Star Wars infamously has a desert set.
The desert is shorthand, in Western media, for “Arab.” As soon as there’s a desert setting, we’re picturing brown people on camels, probably with (potentially magic) carpets and strange lamps.
Choosing the desert for A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale immediately evokes this paradigm. I’ve attempted to subvert it in many different ways, but whether or not I’m successful is another story altogether. Tarquin and his family are not Muslim; they’re pagan, which could just as easily situate us in ancient Egypt as medieval Saudi Arabia. The harem, the convention of veiling, and more suggest we’re not in ancient Egypt.
Is Tarquin a sympathetic portrayal of a syncretic culture in a fantasy world? I hope so. My intent wasn’t to portray Arubian culture as strange or exotic, although some readers will no doubt find it to be such. The fact of the matter is Tarquin wouldn’t find any of this strange.
The problem is more whether I’ve just picked up the most stereotypical facets of a culture and slapped them in there. Tarquin has a harem. Yes, he has a harem for a reason, but am I not merely perpetuating stereotypes about Middle Eastern cultures? Perhaps. (I also drew on notions of concubinage at the court of the Chinese Emperor—although this could compound the “exoticizing” tendency of what’s been written.)
Can You Escape Orientalism?
What it boils down to is this: I’ve never lived in the desert. I am not Arab or Middle Eastern. So no matter my intentions, what Arubio ends up being is a synthesis of the stereotypes and romanticizations rampant in Western media. Yes, I’ve maybe been conscious of where I’m drawing on a stereotype and attempted to subvert it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done my job.
It’s one reason I hesitated to write the desert in the first place. The flimsy excuse of “this is fantasy!” doesn’t hold up, nor does it excuse insensitive cultural portrayals. All one can hope is to have done something perhaps somewhat more subversive, to take on those stereotypes and begin undermining them, inch by inch.