The streaming panel “The Silk Road Bringing Culture and Influence into Fantasy” premiered on the FanTrack channel Thursday, September 1st at 6PM. Moderator Cisca Small sat down with guests Davis Ashura, Julie Vee, and Tao Wong to discuss the ways that individual, non-Western experiences can influence fantasy and other fiction writing.
The panel opened with a discussion of what kinds of multicultural tropes they have tried to bring forward in their books. Vee described her work as showing the push-pull tug created by “having a foot in two worlds.” Ashura dished on his interest in language, particularly the individual ways characters talk to different people, such as parents and siblings. And, according to the author himself, the work of Tao Wong takes on societal views that have characters exploring their value and their place—for instance, asking whether it is better to be a genius or a hardworking person. Their conversation examined the idea that these unique contexts, revealed through a story’s themes, give insight into where and how the writer experiences the world, in ways that readers can identify with and enjoy.
The panel discussed the prevalence within Western stories for the “Chosen-One saga” and explored how this trope could be treated differently. “I do feel like it’s relatable, right? Like if this person can do it, then there’s the notion that the average man, the average woman, can also attain these gifts,” said Vee.
While they appreciate the trope and embrace parts of it, the writers do see it shifting within their work. The conversation turned quickly to the idea that the characters must first learn how to accomplish what they were chosen for.
Ashura pointed out that there’s an interesting challenge in that sort of responsibility. “I like the notion that the heroes can be chosen, they can be gifted, but the gifts are useless without the work that you have to put into being worthy of being the hero,” he said. “That’s what I want my characters to have. That sense that, without work, without trying, it’s not ever going to come true.”
Highlighting that part of the process, Vee pointed out that characters must always be faced with a moral dilemma, to choose to do the work or not, in order to grow. “They’re usually presented with an opportunity where they could take the easy way out, or join the dark side, or take a cheat,” she said. Wong agreed, adding that there were almost always consequences to the quick way. The consensus seemed to be that these challenges and consequences were the tools used to shape a character and direct their story.
All of the authors on the panel referred to their lived experiences in different countries and cultures while also making it clear that they were not definitive experts in any other person’s experience of those same places. That perspective of being both outside of- and inside of a community was accented by their discussion of the formative impressions from older media like kung fu movies on their modern view of the cultures their families came from. However, stories about a place where a person doesn’t live anymore can’t reflect a recognizable picture of who they are.
Vee acknowledged this discrepancy when asked to expand on whether or not her multicultural background consciously shaped her writing. “I decided it was missing in things that I was reading. A lot of times, you write what you want to read, so you’re looking for it. So it makes sense to put it in as an author.”
Ashura pulled direct examples using the social structures from his own fantasy novels. “The question that I raise is: Well, you’re surviving with this caste system, but is there a better way? And so that’s part of, I think, what pulled me into wanting to write something like that, is my own background because, obviously, India— one of its greatest flaws is, I think, the caste system and how it locks you into different—it just locks you in. It doesn’t allow you to live your truest life, even as a society.”
Real-world questions like these can sometimes more easily be approached through fictional narratives through that familiarity. Adding universal texture to the world building is important, the panel agreed. And it is reasonable that every reader can identify with a character who needs to eat proper food from time to time. Something as seemingly ordinary as food offers an enriching quality to any story. It’s a “love language.” It’s regional. A lot of things can happen in a cafe or a restaurant. Dining and eating habits are useful world-building tools for any fantasy tale and culture illustration for urban or historical fiction.
“I think it was a lot of the customs. It’s small things, right? Food is a huge thing for me as well. I write about food all the time, in all my work. Because I love food as a person.” Wong, as a foodie, was able to get more detailed about what cultural staples and traditions are brought to the fore in writing. He used the example that the same meal can be prepared differently from place to place, even with something like rice. “Different stages in food between classes makes a big difference to me. And on top of that — small things in the culture. How you greet people, where you greet people, how you speak to people.”
Ashura offered a lighter take on the subject, joking, “Why are you going to go fight some great evil on an empty stomach? That would suck. Or just hardtack? Come on.”
“Nobody wants to beat the bad guy and eat Taco Bell,” added Small.
Interactions and rituals, around food or otherwise, are used to illustrate the full story, to add depth and realism to even the most fanciful characters. The panel discussed how these details are easily overlooked, even by people who experience them every day, within their respective culture. The writers face the challenge of portraying these interactions without fully explaining them, which Wong says is always tricky.
When asked about the growing diversity in published fiction, the panelists offered their theories as to why readers are more receptive to the genre’s expanding boundaries.
“I do feel like, because of COVID, we did become armchair travelers,” said Vee. ”I don’t think we’re going to give that up even though we’ve resumed regular travel. I think most of us love to go somewhere new, and experience something deeply. A book has a way of sort of taking you in, so deep, so that you get really immersed.”
“I think with indie publishing being such a force nowadays, in fantasy, there’s no requirement for there to be gatekeepers. So people who want to write are able to,” added Wong.
Ashura also mentioned that there are many universal elements in storytelling that can be understood by people who aren’t necessarily of the culture the story emerges from. He said that, with indie publishing, there’s not a barrier to entry except being able to write. “And if you can write, you love your culture, and you love where you’ve lived, you know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be where your family is from. If you feel like incorporating NASCAR into your fantasy, why not, you know? I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’d like to see it continue.”
That being said, the panel had an important piece of advice for the writers out there.
“I like to pull from a lot of different sources. But I also want to be respectful of these sources. Which is why, you know, I don’t include anything from Hinduism because, to a lot of people, that’s a religion,” said Ashura. The panelists all encouraged writers to choose their sources conscientiously, with awareness and care towards the real people who are inspiring their fictional worlds.
“It’s so common to us, and we don’t think about it,” said Wong. Writers should think about it, the panel concluded, because a writer taking ideas and experiences from a culture that isn’t theirs could be seen as “wholesale theft” of these religious spaces. It creates a lot of opportunities to get things wrong and accidentally hurt their readers.
“There is a distinction between mythology and religion,” Vee said. She went on to add that it’s important for writers to research, ask the right questions, and become familiar with any cultural terminology or contexts that may overlap with their work.
You can find this panel in the DCTV library here.
Aside from the panelists’ own novels, a few books were recommended to panel viewers: Paternus series by Dyrk Ashton; The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri; Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan; Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, and Jade City by Fonda Lee.