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
Ethnocentricity is primarily a western affliction, and it stinks to the high heavens
When you travel as much as I do, you get to visit a great many different cultures. If you keep your eyes open and don’t just eat at restaurants serving food from your own cuisine. If you avoid walking through streets blind-folded, you’ll note that there are often subtle, sometimes big, at times in your face, humongous, cultural differences. To be oblivious to that is called ethnocentricity, to put your own culture at the center of all things, and to value your own culture above all else.
Let me state this as clearly as I can: there is no culture that is “better” than any other. We are all just different. Sure, we may dislike aspects of one culture, but when we criticise another culture, or what a culture endorses, we need to be careful to understand what we do. Even more importantly, we need to understand what we do not! Last week, I’ve seen many of my friends on Facebook share an article about Olympian Gus Kenworthy sharing pictures with cute puppies, decrying the Korean tradition of eating dog. Having just written a book about Korea, and after having spent some time in the country, I’m well aware of the practice.
Here’s the thing:
- eating dog (or any animal for that matter) is completely fine and none of your fucking business! So is being a vegetarian or vegan.
- Focus instead on the treatment of the animals while they are being raised
In the reporting of Kenworthy’s visit, a small sentence of his often fell by the wayside:
“Yes, there is an argument to be made that eating dogs is a part of Korean culture. And, while don’t personally agree with it, I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here.”
I could sign this sentence, too. I would not eat dog. But I could’ve also asked him: then why do you impose your western ideals?
On the other hand, ask a billion something Indian Hindus how they feel about the West eating veal and beef, or ask Jews and Muslims about our practice of eating pork… No, we would never listen, wouldn’t care. Even in the West, some of us eat some pretty ‘weird’ shit: In central Europe, eating horse is still a big thing, some eat cute baby goats, we eat cute little lambs, not to mention bunnies. We eat whale meat, seals, and don’t get me started on eating tongue, brain, penises or testicles. It’s a thing. I’m sure the majority of people on the planet strongly disagree with the practice of any of these. However, I’d never criticise anyone for eating that, as long as the animal is treated well while raised/hunted unless of course it is threatened by extinction (which sadly is the case in some whale cases.)
Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Kenworthy used his high profile to shine a light on how we treat our own animals, rather than shaming another culture? This is not to say that I do not agree that dogs aren’t to be treated well, but maybe we should let the Koreans deal with that themselves? Making them lose face in the eyes of the world is hardly going to go down well…
He who cast the first stone…
How do you feel about eating this? Image: PETA
What really had me riled though was this: did Gus ever criticise American poultry? Does he ever eat chicken nuggets or the colonel’s original recipe? Why does he have to travel to Sochi or PyongChang to find a worthy cause when there are thousands of poultry farms right in his own backyard? Farms where male chicklets (worthless to egg farmers) are ground to death alive (!!!) and where chickens are processed for meat in ways that even the Nazis couldn’t have come up with.
I love chicken, eat loads of it, but I make sure to eat organic products from farms where the animals lived a good life before helping me see the next day. If you decide that you want to eat meat, at least make sure the animals are treated well while alive. That’s hardly too much to ask for.
Ethnocentricity in writing
Sadly, ethnocentricity is a thing in writing, as well. We are quick to dismiss other people’s experiences, lives, cultures simply because they don’t conform to what we are comfortable with, what we know. I’ve just used one example, I could have made many others. Even people from others cultures living among “us” in the West are often judged and portrayed using broad brushes and from our own point of view. Not a good way to learn about the diversity in the world. And not a good way to create tolerance and cultural understanding.
Just as the Kenworthy article is propagated through social media, so is our writing, black and white for generations. Books have a long shelf-life, keep that in mind. Reducing people to cultural stereotypes, attributing them a “certain way” of being, doing things etc., without really knowing them is a big danger and pitfall. Worse, to criticise them for their ways is damaging at best. Maybe we better look at our own ways before we judge others?
One of the best ways of dealing with potentially sensitive topics is to avoid them. I would not write about eating dog in my book about Korea. Not because I’m not aware of the practice, but because – to be perfectly honest – it doesn’t add value to my story. It would disgust the majority of my western readers, and it would be an insult to potential Korean readers. It just makes no sense to raise a topic for the sake of a sensation or a thrill. That’s my point of view.
How do you feel? How do you avoid ethnocentricity?
These are my personal views, of course. I’m sure others have different views, diverging ways of looking at things. Feel free to contribute!
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.
Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games
Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.
As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!
The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.
A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.
Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.
Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)
Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.
Understanding the North…
As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…
When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.
Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…
Sentiments in the South…
Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?
Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?
Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.
What the future might hold
Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.
Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.
This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.
In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.
Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.
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.
Between day and two of my research trip to Seoul, here’s what I’ve learned
Greetings from Seoul, the capital of the ROK, the Republic of Korea, or South Korea as most of us know it. The country’s official name is the very reason (or part of it) why North Korean forces attacked on an early day in 1950: the fact that the United Nations only recognized the southern government as the peninsula’s legitimate government. Eighteen months later, the entire place was up in flames and we saw the first post World War II conflict between the “West” and the communist East, as North Koreans were supported on the ground by China and Russia, while the ROK was supported by the United Nations. The almost unanimous resolution (Russia wasn’t at the table!!!) would be impossible today, as Communist China, not Taiwan, is now considered the legitimate government of all of China. Times change.
Think this is complex? Yeah, it is, and any historian with half a brain would find at least a dozen areas to fill out the gaps I’ve left in this one short paragraph. But how does this all help you understand my research or why does it matter? For one, being here, just seeing these three letters everywhere, ROK reminds me that the very basis of the conflict is still unresolved. Whether it matters practically in any future talks, as they just seem to have begun re the Olympic Games which are about to begin here in less than a month? I don’t know. But I know from the situation in China that any mention of Taiwan and independence causes convulsions in Beijing. I can only imagine how some North Koreans might react to the claim that their dear leader isn’t really a legitimate representative of his people… As a writer, this gives me perspective. I am literally forced to see things from someone else’s perspective.
I couldn’t have done that from a European vantage point, staring at Google Maps. No offense. Yesterday, and I’d like to share some of my findings here, I spent time in the War Museum (or memorial as it is officially called) and in Buk-chon Village. The latter plays a significant role in the novel. Join me for some tidbits?
Just finding some information about this base, this place that so much symbolized the Korean colonialization, first by the Japanese, now by the U.S., is a place that is difficult to get in to. And to get the armed forces to respond to questions a dead end. They do have social media accounts, but their communication is very one-sided.
But luckily, I found Intel I needed about the base in the fifties from the War Museum. And it seems as if Yongsan is about to finally be a closed chapter for the people of Seoul as this prime real estate is to become available for the local government. The U.S. forces are relocated about an hour outside of Seoul in the near future.
The base plays a role in those aspects of the book that take place in the fifties, during the war, and I needed to get them right. With this, I can safely finish certain aspects. So that was a great thing to accomplish.
Another fun detail I found was this pair of standard issue military underwear. For some reason, I mention this in the book, but the look eluded me, despite extensive research on Google (don’t ask…) Finally, I found them.
Very important aspects of the book play out in Bukchon village, an old part of Seoul, or the old downtown. At the War Museum, I was able to both see pictures of old Seoul, because so much was destroyed during the war, not to mention torn down to make way for the modern metropolis that is the South Korean capital. But I did find a lot of inspiration and potential locations. Here are some photos from yesterday:
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Beautiful, isn’t it? My guide, Jaekwang, later took me to a local market where we were fascinated by a long queue for something. We stopped, I dutifully got in line (Swedes cannot not queue when we see one) and we ended up with a delicious and cheap (500 Won) dessert made from waffle dough and filled with bean curd:
Food stall at Kwangjang Market, Seoul
Fish Waffles, Kwangjang Market, Seoul
This guy was making his fish waffles non-stop for the whole day. And delicious and warming (it’s around the freezing point here in Seoul) they were. Anyway, it’s almost time for me to head out again. Today we’re going to see Itaewon and other parts of Town. I’ve asked Jaekwang to surprise me and to take me off the beaten track, to show me aspects of Seoul tourists normally wouldn’t see. I’m curious. Tomorrow I have a business meeting, I’ll try to visit more local museums and on Wednesday just wander around, soak up the atmosphere. Come Thursday, I’ll fly home, and I’m sure I’ll have given my brain what it needs to complete the book!
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.
A new year: as dark as the outlook seems, from a political point of view, we have it within us to affect positive change
Happy New Year! We’ve all safely arrived in 2018 and I wish you the very best for this year. May it bring you, your family and loved ones happiness, prosperity and your dreams come true. I know this to be a hollow statement, for the most part, something we say countless times in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve and in the days after, but I actually mean it. I bear very few people ill will, and they most certainly aren’t reading my blog. LOL And I don’t wish anyone physical harm, but a lesson in humility wouldn’t be a bad thing…
Funchal, as it presented itself just minutes before New Years and the huge fireworks
My husband, my son and I attended a great New Year’s Eve dinner with a stunning viewing of the Funchal fireworks last night, and at some point during the long dinner, we began to talk about our wishes and – cliché – intentions for the new year. I honestly don’t have any, which doesn’t mean that I’m completely happy with my life.
I don’t really believe in “drink less” or “hit the gym more often” type goals. I began to hit the gym in March last year, and it’s done wonders for me, and yes, I’ll keep that up, New Years or no New Years. But if you feel strongly about setting a goal for this year, make sure it’s a good one, and with that I mean – a smart goal – which means Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-related. No management lesson here, but you can read up if you like.
As for my own goals, they’re less dependent on the fact that it’s a new year per se, rather than my publishing schedule. I try to get two books out per year, and work on Martin is well underway, and I’ll be traveling to Korea soon for my research trip. Enough said about that. After Martin, I’ll try to finish my second short story collection, which is yet untitled. I’ve decided to focus on the letters of the alphabet and first names, writing stories about all kinds of people. I’ve already written a few, e.g. Clara (which was published in the recent Beaten Track anthology Never Too Late) and yeah, Martin, along with Paul and another one. And I’ve had ideas for two more these past days, but plenty of letters left in the alphabet. I’ll be reaching out to readers shortly with a request for names and one (1) additional word to set the creative juices in motion.
While Martin is scheduled for a late spring release, probably May, I hope to have the short story collection out come GRL in October, either before or after the event, but if you intend to travel to Virginia, I am sure you’ll be able to get it there… Enough for today. I need to feed my family and then we’ll head out for some fresh air and a walk, to get the vapors of last night’s freely flowing booze out of our systems. Not that I drank much, but I still woke with a headache.
Be well, and talk soon. 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 first great week of the year.
Soon, I’ll fly to Korea to do research for my coming novel…
Merry Christmas! I wish you and your family all the very best on this auspicious day. On to today’s topic: I know what you’re thinking: “a great excuse for a vacation…”, “he probably chooses topics based on where he wants to travel…” I wish it were like that, or that easy. And honestly? I couldn’t give a flying fuck what others think, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to fly to Korea for four days, just days after I return from vacation with my family. But, deadlines and the need for the research to be done, don’t give me much choice. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done their research properly, and I just need my books to be factually accurate. Let me try to explain why:
I’ve been to Korea before, on business and on a private trip with my husband. A beautiful country and very friendly people.
I’m currently writing Martin, a novel about a man in his eighties, living alone in a retirement home in upstate New York. What started out as a project for an anthology of older LGBT characters grew. Martin had things to talk about, and his story grew. Back when I began, a looong time ago, on June 3rd to be exact, it was supposed to be a short story, and I honestly don’t remember why he had this love story in his youth, and why my brain concocted up this thing about him being drafted into the Korean War. Remember, this was June. I booked the flight to Seoul two days ago.
As the story developed, and as Martin told me more about himself, particularly this week, as he was talking about his time in Korea to friends over dinner, I realized there are a great many things I need to know to describe them, what Seoul looked like in the fifties, where people would meet, what the American military bases looked like, where G.I.s would eat etc. Lots of things I have no idea about. Sure, there’s the easy way out, avoidance, just to ignore certain details, improvise others, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t do that. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done even the most basic research.
Seoul is only a few miles from the border to the North, and the conflict is omnipresent. To see the giant flag poles of the two opposing nations is chilling…
Gone are the days where I could just make up a city (The Opera House) where a novel could take place. Even Jonathan’s Hope, playing out in an imaginary mid-western city, needed to become more ‘real’ in the sequels, hence anchoring the story in Chicago. For Willem of the Tafel, research was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because I didn’t have to travel to Cape Town because it doesn’t matter what the city looks like now since the novel plays out five-hundred years into the future. Difficult because I had to do a lot of math, trying to compute how long it would take to sail or walk places without modern technology, difficult because I had to try to use documents from the seventies about nuclear fallout to try and assess what warheads a century into the future could do.
Should is a huge city, but despite its modernity, there are still neighborhoods with old buildings and architecture.
A turning point in research
Last year, writing Last Winter’s Snow, I had to take a completely different take on research. I was writing about a culture I didn’t know (the Sami), a landscape I hadn’t seen in person. Hence my trip up north in January and then again in August (a pure pleasure trip with my family, as I’d loved it so much up there.) I take my writing extremely serious, and I feel I must do my characters justice. I simply feel that I have no choice: either I write great books or I might as well not write at all…
Is it financially viable to do all this? No, of course not. I have no grants to help me, and no sales I make will ever compensate for the cost of a week in Korea. This isn’t about money either. It’s about credibility, about being able to deliver a book into the hands of my readers that I can be proud of, a book where readers can learn about what the world looked like, maybe learn about another culture, other people. Besides, and this is my other take: should my books ever become a success, isn’t it better to have written a factually accurate book than being trashed for errors?
Just a couple of hours outside Seoul you’ll find great natural beauty. Actually, you don’t even have to leave the city. But this lake is about a two-hour drive from Seoul.
“But most people wouldn’t know the difference…” I hear the objection from you, and true enough, the same is true for editing, proofreading and what not. Most people read books so fast these days, they don’t seem to care about such details. However, all it takes is one person who’s knowledgeable enough to notice something to get a bad review. Get a bad review for lack of proofing, lack of editing, bad research etc., and readers quickly get a pretty comprehensive picture of a crap book… Not sure that makes sense. I’m a bit of a quality freak. I work with great people, from Natasha Snow for my covers, Debbie McGowan who’s an amazing editor, and Beaten Track Publishing for proofing and publishing a high-quality novel. Bite me!
Planning my research
I’m currently planning my days in Seoul, trying to find a guide to help me around, as I don’t speak Korean, trying to find all the places where I need to go to find the pictures and information I need for my book, not to mention the inspiration for scenes I haven’t even written yet. I have a couple of weeks to get ready, and then a couple more to finish work on the novel which is scheduled for a spring release.
What is your working process? How do you do research? How do you handle things you can’t find online or in a local library? Alas, I need to get going. I’m writing this post ahead of time, as we’re leaving for our vacation tonight.
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