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'Exploring the Other'

Posted On : September 15 2018

Writer : Shelley Schanfield

Shelley Schanfield reveals to Bookaholicanonymous sources of her inspiration, her research, how she was able to write about a culture, region, religion, which she has not visited or experienced first-hand. If you read her books 'The Mountain Goddess' and 'The Tigress and the Yogi' you’ll surely be astounded by how accurately she could achieve this…


Exploring the Other

 “Write what you know” goes the clichéd advice.  So what made me, a white American woman, think I could create an authentic world based on India’s mythological/historical past? One of my characters is an oppressed, dark-skinned outcaste girl who experiences horrific violence. How could I, raised in sheltered Midwestern affluence in the 1960s, write from her point of view, not to mention the POV of a multitude of supporting characters such as the child stolen from her, an irascible yogi, a beautiful courtesan?

Twenty years ago, passionately interested in telling the stories of women of the Buddha’s time, the insanity that infects all novice writers seized me.  Filled with confidence that I could create a believable world peopled with three-dimensional characters, I ignored controversy over whether writers should even attempt writing as someone of a different gender or ethnicity or era or religion.  After all, I’d spent a lifetime as a reader of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy and believing wholly in characters who existed far from the lived experience of their creators.

But then doubts arose, first just a few, then a flood.  Friendships with writers of colour opened my eyes to the issue of cultural appropriation. I realized that over a lifetime of interest in Asian history my sources had largely been Western scholars. To avoid Orientalism, I added Indian sources, among them historian Romila Thapar and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. I was already familiar with retellings of tales from the Mahabharata from Pattanaik, R.K. Narayan, and C.J. Rajagopalachari. I found dance concerts, Indian films, and a wide range of Indian authors (Kavita Kané and Chitra Divakaruni come to mind) reimagining their rich mythology and history. An Indian physician and a Sanskrit scholar were among my early critique partners. They became friends who have continually provided essential feedback.

But one of the most useful resources in imagining these “others” who populated my books came from a pithy and handy guide, ‘Writing the Other: A Practical Approach’, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, (Find more information about their books and courses here: http://writingtheother.com.)

I highly recommend the book. It has many useful exercises, but my favorite part is Shawl’s essay, “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.” In it, she categorizes trans-cultural writers as:

Invaders, who ‘arrive without warning, take whatever they want to use any way they see fit;’

Tourists, ‘generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way.’ They may not know much about the culture they’re touring, but they may be intelligent and therefore educable. If they begin to understand they may be invited back and become…

Guests, whose ‘relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are reciprocal.’

I have striven to be a good guest as I wrote Books I and II of the Sadhana Trilogy. Hopefully readers won’t see traces of my Minnesota childhood in their mythical landscape or its inhabitants. (Though it is where my fascination with India began, curled up during long winters with books on its history, mythology, and religions.) Readers may visit my website (http://shelleyschanfield.com) to leave their opinions on how well I succeeded.

As I write Book III, I’ll revisit those exercises from Shawl’s and Ward’s book and add Siddhartha’s POV as he pursues enlightenment.  Who knows? If I work hard enough to understand this extraordinary ‘Other’, I may find enlightenment too.

About Shelley Schanfield: She has had a long love affair with India’s rich mythological and philosophical traditions. It began during the cold winters of her Minnesota childhood, when she came across a book of Buddhist legends set in warm, vibrant India. In later life, this led her to write novels about women of Buddha’s times. She has published the first two books in a historical fantasy trilogy whose characters include Siddhartha’s wife Yasodhara, the infamous outlaw Angulimala re-imagined as a powerful woman, and one of his earliest followers, the nun Kisagotami (or Kirsa Gautami, in her books), as well as Siddhartha himself among many others. She is onto her third novel in the series.

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