Pride month brings up calls for #ownvoices, but why?
June means pride month, not just my birthday. And already, just six days into this year’s June, we have great news from the European Court of Justice, and the Bermudian Supreme Court, along with a Salomonian verdict from SCOTUS. Congratulations, we all get what we deserve!
Pride and #ownvoices
Pride month always means a lot of people talk about #ownvoices. I’ve always been a skeptic of that concept, not just because I often write about minorities other than my own (blacks, Sami, Latinos, disabled people, etc.) but also because I disagree with the whole concept of #ownvoices as a matter of principle. This has gotten me into the hot seat before, with hateful messages and threats on Twitter because I wouldn’t promise and LGBT Maori to never, ever, write about them in one of my books. I refused, for two reasons: a) it is my right, protected by the constitution of Sweden (and New Zealand), to express my thoughts freely, without prior censorship. Freedom of speech is an important right many of us have died for and still do, in countries where speaking your mind can get you killed. Why would I give it up freely just to please someone else, someone who isn’t hurt in any way shape or form by my voice? No, thank you. But more importantly, I believe that b) a great author must be capable of writing about any person, any group. How else could Shakespeare write about Italians? How dare he, Englishman as he was? How could Stephen King write about Annie Wilkes in Misery? Clearly, with the strict #ownvoices argument, a man can never write about women. It couldn’t be #ownvoices.
The (futile) hunt for #ownvoices in LGBT fiction
The struggle for love never ends, and it is in these the darkest of times, that our resolve to love is tested the most.
#ownvoices is a foreign concept to me, even though I’m currently (read “Pride month”) featured on a daily level on Facebook and Twitter by readers and fans as one of many #ownvoices with regards to gay fiction. But let’s look at this for a moment: does the fact that I, a gay man, write gay fiction, make me a better writer than the hundreds of straight women who do the same? Or is it the fact that 90+% of what most consider LGBT fiction out there has NOTHING to do with the reality of gay men? “M/M romance” was never meant to be about gay life, and gay authors are told again and again: “m/m are stories from str8 women for str8 women and you [i.e. gay men] better know your place and shut up! (Not my words, but I, along with many other gay writers, have been told so on numerous occasions.) It’s a genre so filled with preconceptions, prejudice and false assumptions about gay men that I have long ago stopped taking it seriously.
Some readers (men, women, gay and otherwise) understand that, and they look for “realness” (thank you mama Ru!), for genuine stories about the lives we live, to celebrate LGBT authors during Pride month. To find those stories is hard, impossible even, given that we’re just grains of sand on a vast beach. The proverbial needle in the haystack.
Is #ownvoices not fiction?
In one of those discussions, I came across this passage from a straight female author:
I also do not write #ownvoice stories. I consider my books to be fiction.
This had me puzzled because #ownvoices is fiction, unless it’s a biography (and even then… We’ve all read those, and often enough, they seem more fictitious than based on reality.) So wtf did the author mean by that? Is it the fact that she doesn’t do her research into her “male/male” characters? All those “gay for you”, “May/December”, “mpreg” and other stomach-churning sub-genres out there? Or is there actually a deeply held belief somewhere that gay writers only write about their own lives? Or something else? I honestly don’t know. What I do know though is that the only difference I can spot between a writer who writes about his own minority and a writer who isn’t a member thereof is the amount of research that may have to go into a book. And let’s be honest: in real life, things are a lot more complicated. A South Korean who grew up here in Sweden, adopted by Swedish parents at birth, is no more Korean than I am. He simply looks like one, while I don’t. Does that make him more #ownvoices if he had written my latest novel? Of course not. On the other hand, a European who’s spent his life in Korea would (at least in my book) be considered a more qualified expert in the field than either of us, my adopted Korean pal or I. What we are, who we are isn’t so much a function of our DNA (I’d say), but of how we are raised. The difficulty lies in how we are treated by others, how they view us, but that again, is per definition, racism. An entirely different post.
So what’s wrong with M/M and why isn’t it ever #ownvoices
This is just a guess, of course, and one that is very specifically related to the LGBT community, and gay men in particular. Romance as a genre has a bad reputation, always has. This is, of course, a result of the lack of women’s choices being attributed equal value to men’s. Most literary critics don’t take it seriously, and you’ll never see a Harlequin (let alone an m/m) win a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or a Nobel Prize. Duh!
Not that there is anything wrong with Romance. I could’ve said the same thing about Thrillers, Sci-Fi, Horror or Fantasy, which are more “male” genres, even though, all in all, women are–by far–the biggest reader category. Clearly, Romance is popular. It’s the world’s biggest genre with more books published in one day than the world probably produces in literary fiction in a year. Readers around the world love to get lost in a world where there is still good to be found and where happy endings reign.
The challenge lies in the rules of romance. As a genre, to be crass, it’s porn for women who read. While guys usually turn to RedTube or Pornhub these days, as they did to Playboy, Penthouse et al before the arrival of the Internet, women get off reading their books. And just as vanilla porn nor longer does it for many guys, many women are no longer content with damsels in distress being fucked to the high heavens by their long-haired alpha males from the eighteenth century. “Two men are better than one” promises better reading and happier endings (literally!) M/M, as are all trad romance novels, is littered with sex. The problem lies with the stereotypes, false or even dangerous, propagating the image of homosexual men as sex-crazed beings who think of nothing else but the next fuck. This isn’t our doing. we didn’t label ourselves. Str8 people did that to us.
So wtf is this desire to read #ownstories all about?
The rainbow flag heralds love and inclusion. It’s the main reason I love it so much. Yet as humans representing the rainbow, we’re not always as loving… We are, in effect, merely human.
And while we may be more sexually openminded than the het majority (or so we believed), that doesn’t mean that we don’t relish the ‘mundane’ aspects of life, that we don’t take our jobs seriously, love our children. But when romance authors describe how we abandon children to fuck our latest love interest, you not only write fantasy, you perpetuate a dangerous stereotype. Clearly, that author did not do her research (or she is simply latently homophobic.) When anal sex is depicted as the gold standard of gay sex, the author has no fucking clue what she is writing about. How could she? Gay porn is clearly not a good source of information.
I use “she” with regards to those authors on purpose because that’s where I think the demand for #ownstories stems from, a desire to read stories that are truly well-researched, stories that showcase men who are “real” men (not merely girls with a penis*), where the sex serves a purpose and is depicted realistically (I could tell you stories…)
BUT, and this is an important but: women, straight women, as well as (gay) men can write those stories. I know so because I’ve read amazing stories written by straight women. They may be romances, following many of the typical norms of the genre, but the characters are flesh and blood, they feel real, even to me as a gay man. And no, they’re obviously not #ownvoices. Who cares?
But in a world, where it is so damned difficult to find the good stories in a sea of “not so good ones”, I can understand that gay men, at least during Pride month, ask for #ownvoices. Because we all know, come July, it’s hetero world again, and the straight women will tell us to shut up and know our place again, for the next eleven months, where we still don’t matter, can be ignored and discriminated against, where it’s okay to appropriate an entire literary genre to once again make a minority invisible.
My beef with “M/M” isn’t primarily about the reduction of human beings to letter combinations, from mm to mmmmmm to mf or mmf etc. It’s not even about the fact that women label the het variety mf rather than fm, putting men first (that says so much…) My beef with “M/M” is how it suppresses gay fiction, how some authors and readers (far from all, just to repeat that!) are trying to push gay men (readers and writers) out of the genre, as stated above.
I don’t think that happens anywhere else. No, women did not invent gay romance. It’s been around for eons. Some women were simply clever to rebrand it. The result we see today. And while I applaud the hundred thousand plus stories out there, as a treasure trove for young LGBT kids to delve into,
I’m also aware of the pitfalls, how we are once again threatened of being expulsed from our own spaces, as so many times before in our history. That is worth thinking about during Pride month.
Hans M Hirschi
Author of Gay Fiction
*I know that trans-, genderfluid, and gender queer people read this. The expressions “real man” and/or “girl with penis” do not, in any way shape or form, relate to the TQ+ aspect of our community, but simply to characters so badly developed that you’d think the author simply changed names. There is of course nothing wrong with female, male, masculine or feminine attributes unless you’re trying to depict something else entirely. I felt it was important to clarify this here. I could go into a lot more detail, but that would mean another post.
I just came home from my first ever publisher conference in the UK
I think the answer to this post’s heading is almost a given: not much, or should I say “everything”? I’ve never been to a publisher conference before. But when my own publisher, Beaten Track, invited their eighty something authors and our families to a get-together slash publisher conference last year, I quickly said yes. For two reasons: a) Debbie, the owner had been to see me a couple of years ago and we did some amazing editing work together, and b) I had always wanted to see that corner of England, Lancashire, north of Liverpool. We booked our flights early and used miles to save money. The Hirschis were going to Britain, no matter where the bloody isle would be at the time of the meet-up.
I finally got to pick up my first copies of my new novel. As always, a special moment.
A quick hello and books
We flew to Manchester and rented a car, got stuck in one of the endless queues that plague British freeways (The M25 is also known as Britain’s largest parking lot) before we pulled up in front of Debbie’s house. I had a box of books to pick up and I wanted to say hi. We flew in on Friday, but the meetup wasn’t to begin until Saturday afternoon.
I got my books and we left Debbie to finishing her master thesis in psychology, nerve-wracked as she was about combining a master thesis with organizing a publisher conference, all in one weekend. Some people are better left alone at certain times. We’d see her again within 24 hours anyway. The publisher conference started laid back with a dinner. Of the eighty something authors in Beaten Track’s stable ten showed up, plus families, which gave this a very familiar setting.
Some had driven in from the neighboring town, others from across the UK, some from Europe and some all the way from the US. But as indie author finances go, most couldn’t afford the time or the trip. Hopefully, next time we’ll be a bigger group.
So what actually happens when you DO sit down and talk?
I’m always amazed just how introvert most of us are. Even I, who usually labels himself an ambivert, gets all shy and quiet in this sort of setting. It’s almost as if we amplify our own discomfort. Sure, as an empath I tend to mirror other people, but it was almost painful in the beginning, and poor Debbie (an introvert herself) had to fight hard to kick things off. So we started with legal discussions which quickly went down rabbit holes of physical v virtual postal addresses. After that, the group had relaxed enough to talk about all sorts of things and the time allocated to us went by in no time.
So what was on our mind? Marketing, of course, is always on indie authors’ minds, and Amazon’s seemingly erratic behavior in trying to cull fake reviews and review trolls can drive any small publisher and author to an early grave. Roe Horvat, our resident graphic designer and a brilliant author in his own right, gave tips on what to think about to make a stunning cover, one that appeals to readers, and we all agreed to open up a blurb clinic.
Blurbs, every author’s bane
This was just one of the countless topics of the weekend. Note: an internal joke
Some publishers write the blurbs for their authors, but when you have a publisher who believes that blurbs are Satan’s afterbirth (in spirit, not her expression though) then authors are on their own. And we rightly think it’s torture, because if you could summarize our novels in 200 words, why on earth did we just spend months and tens of thousands of words writing the bloody story? But maybe by helping each other, we can all get better blurbs.
Blurbs and great appealing covers are important if you want to be noticed on Amazon’s (and other online retailer’s) sites, where a reader might see your cover scroll by for a few seconds before it’s gone. The cover must make you want to click on it so you can read the blurb. The blurb must be the closer of the deal. If it doesn’t make you want to read the story you’ve lost a sale. I’ll be honest and admit that my own blurbs aren’t exactly deal closers. I’ll be a happy user of the blurb clinic.
In a way, picture our readers as flies… Your cover is the honey or the nectar that attracts it, wants it to eat, while your blurb is your pitcher plant, closing the deal. And if this picture doesn’t help you, what about the elevator pitch? No? Okay, move on… LOL
We all want to sell more, but how?
No, you don’t become an (indie) author to make money. The number of people who can live off of their writing alone can be counted in the thousands, worldwide. It is what it is. But we’d all like to sell more, and I was reminded of something (and I shared it with the group), particularly given recent events with authors beginning to trademark words (the idiots!), that Elizabeth North, CEO of Dreamspinner, said at a conference a few years ago: “Publishing isn’t a finite market. It’s not a finite cake we’re sharing. Authors don’t compete against each other. Great books will entice readers to buy more, similar books.”
I believe that Elizabeth is onto something. Sure, readers will always choose a book over another, first. But who’s to say they won’t come back for seconds, thirds? As authors, we shouldn’t view each other’s success as something bad, particularly not within a genre. It’s a good thing, because if the readers like that story, chances are indeed they’ll want more, and yours could be next.
If you are contracted by a small publisher, we all sort of pitch in. Someone helps with covers, someone else does a newsletter, a third person does proofreading, a fourth one coordinates with bookstores etc. It’s inevitable, since not one person can do it all, not in the long run, and no chain is stronger than its weakest link. I think it was a great initiative by Debbie to organize this publisher conference, and I hope it will return, in some shape or form.
While we’ve all worked with each other on projects such as anthologies or our own books, most of us had never met in person. It is that element that is crucial in human culture and communication. It smoothes our future collaborations. That alone was priceless.
As always, if you like my blog or my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great day and don’t be shy: your experiences and comments are valuable and most welcome.
Hans M Hirschi
Happy Release Day to me: Opus XV is now available in stores around the world
Happy Release Day! Sing along with me, will you? 🙂 It’s a strange sensation, not just because I think it’s a bit of a dirty word, this whole “release day” thingy. It’s just strange that we make such a big fuzz about something as simple as a new book in a bookstore. Yeah, I know, it’s all about marketing, PR, drumming up excitement, selling and what not. On the other hand, release day also means that I, the author, have to let go, physically release my characters and their adventures into the freedom they deserve.
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm – Cover
Every release day is different
No to release days are alike. I’ve been up two hours, so it’s still early, but I can already feel that it’s going to be different, for more than one reason. First, I’m not as nervous as I used to be. And it’s not just the fact that, by now, I’m used to releasing books. It is, after all, my fifteenth book, my twelfth novel. There’s a different reason. I feel I’m done somehow. Difficult to put my finger on it, but I don’t see another novel in the near future, not from me anyway.
I’m smarter than saying “never”, I won’t, but for now, I think I’m done. I want to do something else. What? We’ll see. A day job, some hard-earned money would be nice. It’s been a while.
Martin’s story is an important one
Let’s not dwell too long on me, I’m irrelevant. Let’s focus on the book. While it’s “happy release day to me”, it’s really all about the story, the characters, and I think Martin’s story deserves telling, it deserves reading. It highlights a generation of gay men that we don’t read much about. They are the ones who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, they were at the forefront of the LGBT organizations in the sixties and onward, the ones threatened to their lives. Martin may not have been on the barricades, for many reasons. Instead, Martin’s story is the one of why the struggle for equality and inclusion is so important.
No, writing about Korea wasn’t part of some grand scheme of mine, despite how “in” Korea seems to be right now. It’s one of the longest wards in human history, still ongoing, with a very long cease-fire. And even though we’ve seen some tiny steps (as we have in the past) toward a detente on the peninsula recently (all happening after I had traveled to Korea for research in January), events in recent days show just how fragile progress is, and how easy it is for North Korea to retreat and clam up again. Given the American regime’s split tongue messages, I can’t really blame them. Who would want to end up like Ghaddafi? Deserved or not, Kim isn’t that stupid. Stay tuned to see this unfold in the coming weeks and months. Or not.
The reason why Korea became a topic was simple: given Martin’s age and the fact that he was conscripted into the armed forces, Korea was the logical choice. It was the big conflict the US was involved in at the time. I just hadn’t really done my homework and needed to do a lot more homework than I could’ve bargained for… All good though, it’s a much better story for it.
My books span across many genres, including erotica and science-fiction. Then I write YA and contemporary, family sagas and dark stories about child abuse. What are the things that bind all those books together? Two things: they are all about gay fiction (which incidentally is not the same thing as M/M romance, I feel the need to point this out, since some people seem to believe that) and they all leave you with feeling good at the end. Here in Sweden, we have a genre called “feelgood” which is odd, an English term in Swedish, but it is what it is. I’ve made it my own because it helps me to accurately describe what my stories are about. Like an elevator pitch.
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is a good example of that. I invite you to get to know Martin, Ji-Hoon, Kevin, and Eugene. You can learn more on the book’s own page here, with a trailer, buy links and a short narration of the first chapter.
Happy Release Day to me! Happy reading to you…
The Nobel Prize is the world’s biggest and most important prize. Or must I say ‘was’?
Most people know the Nobel Prize. If you’re a scientist, it’s something to aspire to. Who wouldn’t want to be mentioned along with the likes of Marie Curie or Albert Einstein? Thought so. There are five plus one prizes: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology & Medicine, Peace, and Literature. The sixth prize, the Economics Prize, isn’t originally mentioned in Nobel’s will but was instituted by the Swedish Federal Reserve in 1968 to honor the memory of Alfred Nobel.
You never satisfy everyone…
There is always criticism against the prizes, and who they are awarded to. From a generic criticism that the prizes come far too late in a researcher’s life (which is not what Nobel had in mind), to specific criticism of particular winners. In recent years, it was particularly the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee which has been criticized for their choices. Many voices mentioned the political dimension of the prize and how the Norwegian committee has been tainted by local infighting among Norwegian politicians. Here in the Nordics, we read a lot about that, but from what I gather, most people abroad don’t seem to be bothered.
The Literature Prize, however… It is debated far outside the immediate circles and the winners are questioned pretty much every year. Why not him? Why not this country/language/culture? Why no woman? Why not Bob Dylan? Well actually, that one was answered in 2015 and raised even more questions… Now picture this on top of the ongoing discussions about the winners themselves:
Sex, wine & a “jolly good fellow”
This isn’t the first time the Swedish Academy is in the news. In 1989, when the Academy refused to criticize Iran for the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, three members “quit”, which until this week was not legally possible. Their chairs remained empty. One has since died, but Kerstin Ekman‘s chair #15 is still unoccupied, after all these decades. This week, the King changes the rules (which is also subject of some debate in Sweden) and now allows members to leave the Academy or – if they haven’t been there for two years or more – to be tossed out.
The current crisis isn’t necessarily homemade, although it’s been made worse by the members of the Academy. In the wake of the #MeToo debate, eighteen (!) women retold Sweden’s largest newspaper their stories of how they’d been sexually abused and even raped by the husband of one of the Academy members. The wife is a very well respected poet. Her husband, however, has had a reputation in artist’s circles for decades as being a pig, a real chauvinist (or “Savoir Vivre” as one of his friends and Academy members puts it). So it wasn’t a long shot for the journalist to seek out these women. There are countless more than the eighteen who finally told their stories and broke the news. Just this week, it was reported that even our own Crown Princess had been assaulted. He put his hands on Her Royal Highness’s ass, all the while the King was apparently seeing it happen. They escorted him out, but nothing happened beyond that, which is in a way women’s story of #MeToo until last year…
The secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, began an investigation and asked a law firm to look into the allegations. There were also rumors that he’d shared the names of previous winners with outsiders (apparently all spouses always know the winner beforehand, which isn’t really a surprise.) There were also allegations of economical winning and bias, which are currently being investigated by the authorities.
The Academy falls apart
Within the Academy, how to deal with all this created a huge rift and as the scandal blew up, three male members left. Since then, the secretary and an additional member have left the ranks, leaving it a sad bunch of ten people rather than the usual eighteen. And among them are only two women. The average age is high, some of the members are in their eighties. The oldest will be ninety-four in a month’s time. Some of them suffer from dementia or are extremely senile.
The infighting is extremely public these days, and the members have been very public, despite their credo of “what happens in the Academy stays in the Academy!” Which is detrimental to their many tasks. They’re a rich organization, with tons of real estate and they hand out many prizes every year. The Swedish Academy is also responsible for charting the Swedish Language, and the Swedish Vocabulary, charting hundreds of thousands of Swedish words and how they were/are used in our language. As a linguist, and having worked near this project as a student, I can’t express how important that work is (it’s no coincidence that Casper, one of my protagonists, is a professor in data linguistics at the University of Gothenburg, where much of the practical work was done.)
What about the Nobel Prize?
Apparently, there are only five names left for consideration for this year’s prize which is announced early in October. However, the Academy announced this morning that they will not hand out a prize this year, after consultation with the Nobel Foundation, who is overall responsible for the prize and the prize money (roughly one million USD.) Instead, they will hand out two prizes next year.
Here’s my question as an author: who would’ve wanted a prize this year? Any female winner would be accused of being the token #MeToo winner, rather than a worthy literary genius. A man would be seen as “typical” for such a backward organization where rapists are considered “having a good reputation” and whatever literary qualities a winner would bring to the table, they’d be questioned, as most writers have left the Academy. Those who are left are linguists, priests, and philosophers. And they’re only TEN. And they’re old. Not to mention the fact that what some of them have said in public in recent weeks would have any decent author run the other way, rather than accepting a prize from them.
Would you want the Nobel Prize this year?
I think this is the question at the core of it all, and while it’s a sad day for literature, this was a good decision. Personally, I’d have scratched the prize for this year altogether, rather than handing it out next year, because the 2018 Prize will always be tainted. Among scholars of literature, the Nobel Prize isn’t “equal”, some are regarded as ‘secondary years’, even in Sweden. The fact that one of the very first prizes was awarded to Selma Lagerlöf was impressive, although it did little to help the prize abroad. But she was an amazing writer and a woman. The fact that she was later voted into the Academy also decreased the value of her prize. The worst ones? Probably the awards in 1974 when the Academy rewarded two of its own, again! But there are definitely others, just read the linked Wikipedia article. You can’t really compete in art, so… Even the modern approach to award the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan backfired in 2016, as Dylan didn’t give a flying fuck about the award and didn’t come to Stockholm to meet the King. He finally accepted the Prize money by giving the mandatory lecture at the last minute. But it was an embarrassing moment for the Academy.
So would you want one? From a splinter Academy who thinks that rapists have a “good reputation”, a “sense for Savoir Vivre” and “lots to teach our young”?
Is there hope for the future?
This is really the big question. Will things quiet down? Abroad most likely. Here in Sweden? We’ll see. Eight members must either be re-engaged or replaced. This will need to happen before the end of the year. There’s a lot of protocol around this and new members are only admitted once a year, in early December in what is a bit of a ceremony. So finding eight new members, or to get the six who recently jumped ship to re-engage? Given all the bad things that have been said, I doubt that. Plus there’s always the chance that mother nature swoops in and weeds out some of the older members… 94, 91… This isn’t the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are mostly figureheads with hundreds of staffers doing the real work. The Academy is a small organization, and the members pull a lot of the weight. Just saying…
I think the Academy has done what they had to, under the Damoclean sword of losing the privilege to award the Nobel Prize altogether. The real work starts now, and given the ten remaining members, I for one remain skeptical. I just don’t see any progress in most of the ten “remainers”. But who knows? This article was just about the Nobel Prize, not the Academy itself. I could write a lot more, but I won’t bore you with that. Not today.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend and don’t be shy. Your experiences and comments are most welcome.
Hans M Hirschi
How do you deal with reality, when it trumps your fiction? When it threatens to make it obsolete?
Three weeks left to the release of my next book. Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is a story where Korea plays a major role, not just the Koreans depicted in the plot. When I first began to write about Martin, an octogenarian in America, you realize quickly that people in his age were very likely to have been conscripted, or “drafted” as we normally say. Given his age, the Korean War was also a given, not that all drafted young Americans would’ve ended up there, but Martin did, and the story took its course. Mind you, at the time I began to write the book, Korea was in the news almost daily. And not in a good way.
Trump v Kim
One was called “dotard”, the other was insulted with regards to the size of their “buttons”, and for a while, it seemed as if the fragile seize-fire at the 38th parallel was seriously threatened. North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles even had some of my friends in California afraid for their personal safety. I remembered the eighties and our fear for Russian missiles raining over Europe. War, a world war even, seemed suddenly possible. Having visited Korea in the past, I was afraid for my friends in Seoul, who live less than fifty miles from the border and who can be reached by conventional artillery fire from the north, let alone nuclear weapons. I later learned what Kim’s grandfather did to Seoul during the first days of the Korean War, and it scared me.
My trip to Korea
When I began to write the story about Martin, it was not meant to be a novel. I quickly realized that there was more to the story and let it take its course. I also realized that my knowledge about Korea wasn’t good enough, that I needed to know more. When I set foot in Seoul in Mid-January, things were quickly changing on the ground. All of a sudden, North Korea seemed to be interested in detente with its southern neighbor, and as I watched the Olympic torch being carried through the streets of Seoul, we learned of North Korean delegations coming to PyongChang to attend the impending games, and eventually, even Kim’s sister showed up, and Mike Pence was glad his wife never left his side…
Kim Jong-Un surprises the world
A historic meeting? Only time will tell. IMAGE CREDITS: KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL/GETTY IMAGES.
As I was watching the images on my TV screen last week, of the quickly arranged summit between the two leaders of Korea, of Kim crossing the border (last time a leader from the north “visited” the south was Kim’s grandfather, when he rolled into Seoul after more or less having flattened the city in four days) at Panmunjom, I had tears in my eyes. Yeah, I’m a softie. I watched on as the two men shook hands, all smiles, how Kim – unscripted apparently – invited President Moon to take a step back across the border into the north, have pictures taken before they anew crossed the border to the south for their meetings.
At the end of the day, the two leaders had agreed on a range of topics, including negotiations to finally put an official rubber stamp to the war, which officially was never ended at the ceasefire in 1953.
How this affects my novel…
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm – Cover
I finished writing my book in February, which says a bit about just how fast things are developing on the Korean peninsula. Because when I wrote the book, the Olympic Games had ended, and the symbolic visit of Kim’s sister had been a success. But the thirty-head cheerleader group had drawn more chuckles and head-shakes due to their weird behavior, than being perceived as a serious step toward detente. The story ends in early April, just a few weeks ago, and I don’t mention any of this in the book. And just last week, we worked through the edits and sent the book into proofreading.
Now I’m wondering if I need to rewrite it. Not a lot, but do I need to mention the detente? It may not need more than a sentence or two, but on the other hand, we’ve seen this political tango in Korea before, two steps forward, two steps back. But Kim Jong-Un is a different person. Raised and schooled in Switzerland (his Korean accent raising eyebrows in Seoul), he is the first dictator in the family, only the third leader of North Korea, to be “protected” by a functioning nuclear deterrent. He’s young, he’s healthy, and he knows about the west in terms of how much better our lives are compared to what his citizens have to live with. Who knows, he might even miss walking the streets of Berne…
It’s the uncertainty of it all that is the biggest dilemma…
Not knowing what the future holds is making this so difficult. Not that we ever know what the future holds, but here in Europe, we can at least assume that the next years will be similar to the ones we have behind us. Development, not revolution. In Korea though, right now? I honestly don’t know. I’m always a skeptic, but even I have to be honest and admit that Kim’s moves have me surprised. Is he serious or what is he up to? Motivation in the south is different. The official stance of all politicians in the south is unification, just as it was in West Germany before 1990. That the population in the South, particularly the young, see things differently, is a different thing. They see just how big a sacrifice from the South would be needed to bring the North up to par. I’ve written about this before.
So what do I do? What if I write the detente into the novel only to have reality suffer another setback? As a writer, I want my books not just to mirror my time, I’d like for my stories to be “timeless”, not primarily for commercial reasons, but because timeless stories are more relevant. It’s why we still read Shakespeare. His stories, the conflicts he describes are truly timeless.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know what to do. I’m still thinking, talking to my publisher. If you have any recommendations, thoughts, please let me know. We have about a week or ten days to come up with a solution to this conundrum.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week and don’t be shy. Your experiences and comments are most welcome.
Hans M Hirschi
Cultural superiority: good intentions often pave the way to hell
First of all, what do I mean with “cultural superiority”. It’s this idea that “my” culture is somehow better than someone else’s. It’s similar to the term ethnocentricity but differs from it in that you actually DO know about other cultures and still think your own is superior. Let me exemplify the difference: ethnocentricity is e.g. studying psychology at a western university and not seeing the name of a single researcher from China or Asia, not reading a single book about the history of psychology on different continents. Cultural superiority is when you think that the way your culture handles certain aspects of life, e.g. the number of vacation days, is better than that of another country. Both may have common roots in preconceptions, racism even.
As a writer, I often come across cultural superiority in the books that I read, and in my own writing, I have to be careful not to judge other cultures based on my own views, but to be balanced in my views. That isn’t always easy. Allow me to exemplify with a couple of examples with regards to my coming novel Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm which plays out in the United States and South Korea.
Eating cats and dogs
Last night I read an article that the United States Congress wants to officially make it illegal to eat cats and dogs. So far so good. I’m sure felines and canines across the U.S. will all sigh in relief. Congress is finally taking action on something. However, the legislation has a catch, not just because it’s not really needed. It’s not about making sure that poor Americans who’ve been denied food stamps won’t turn to their pets instead. No. It is a signal to South Korea and other countries, where the consumption of cats and dogs is still a thing. This becomes a thing for a few months before and after every major event in Korea, before the world moves on again. And with Korea currently being in every news cycle, it’s not likely to go away any time soon. But seriously, if you think about it, why is eating a dog different from eating a chicken? Or a calf? A lamb? Or a piglet?
Imagine the uproar in America if Muslim countries and Israel suddenly decided to chastise the U.S. for its consumption of bacon and ham? Or if India, where the cow is considered sacred, began to pressure the U.S. to outlaw hamburgers? Surely, 1.4 billion Indians outweigh the views of 400 million Americans?
Equality and marriage laws…
As a gay man, I’m all for equality, and I will voice my views wherever I can, including this globally (except Russia when Putin’s angry with me) available blog. And yes, I’d love for every human being to be able to get married in every country on Earth, not just nineteen or twenty. Wouldn’t it also be great if countries who do not allow single-sex marriages to accept such unions entered in other countries (as the EU demands of its member states), the way we accept unions from other countries which may greatly differ from what we allow here? But no such luck.
Most Western countries will accept marriages between children if the was legally married in their home country, and we’ll also not consider wives two to four “single” if they were legally wed in a Muslim country, as difficult as it may be to stomach for us. There have been calls to stop such unions, but I’m afraid it would only make it more difficult for us to work with those countries to accept our views of the world. Cultural superiority goes both ways.
Criminalizing behavior elsewhere
Last week, Swedish lawmakers decided not to pursue a proposed legislation that would’ve made buying sex illegal even abroad, at least for Swedes and residents here. Norway is currently the only country with such a law on the books. In Sweden, it’s been illegal to buy sex for many years, while it’s perfectly okay to sell it (in an effort not to stigmatize sex workers.) The reason for the abandonment was simple: fear of retribution.
Imagine if countries suddenly felt they could prosecute their citizens and residents for actions in other countries. It would be a serious breach of a state’s sovereignty. Please note that we are only talking about democracies here. Non-democratic regimes have no respect for the rule of law anyway… The country that has most such “elsewhere” laws on the book is the United States, with their taxation laws at the forefront. As a Swiss living in Sweden, I don’t pay Swiss taxes here. Americans in Sweden, however, get to pay twice, forcing many to give up their citizenship because they can’t afford it.
But it goes beyond financial means. What if Ireland (where e.g. abortion is still illegal) were to punish women for getting one in the U.K., or in Sweden? Or what if an LGBT person from Russia were to be thrown in jail for going to a gay club in New York while on vacation? Borderline case, since Russia isn’t a democracy, but still. You get my point.
The risks of cultural superiority
The biggest risk is of course that it can backfire, as the example with the meat shows. But more than that, it also shows a lack of in-depth knowledge, of why some cultures do things differently. Why is child labor still a “thing” in South Asia? Hardly because parents think it’s a “good” idea… Severe poverty along with different definitions of child- and adulthood are more likely the real reasons behind this phenomenon. And when you look at the bigger picture you’ll also be able to do something about it in a way that doesn’t make it worse or aggravates people. Child labor is a great example of how our western views make things worse for millions and millions of people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think children should work either. They should go to school. But we’re doing it all wrong today, simply cutting off suppliers who use child labor.
In my coming novel, I ran the risk of being guilty of cultural superiority as well, and it was an effort to make sure to depict both American and Korean society on equal footing, despite my personal convictions. This also affected the story itself, the plot, and how the book ultimately ends. Not that I can go into any details here (spoiler alert!)
What are your experiences? A problem? How can we address it? Let’s hear it…
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week and don’t be shy. Your experiences and comments are most welcome.
Hans M Hirschi