Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.40: Researching for Writing the Other

Your Hosts: Piper, Dan, and Tempest, with special guests Nisi Shawl and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Writing stories which feature people who are not like you is, in a word, difficult. In another word? Fraught. But good writers do difficult things, and in this episode Nisi Shawl and Silvia Moreno-Garcia join us to discuss how research can make “writing the other” less difficult, and perhaps even less fraught.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Ross Smith, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Find news article or clipping from before 1980 as part of your research into something that interests you.

Thing of the week: Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Start with your community library. Triangulate between texts and sensory experiences like ethnic festivals. Look for seminal textbooks, and at the bibliographies. Watch for biases! Sit down and talk to people, talk to scholars, too! Universities, art galleries, etc. have events. Go, listen, and talk to people. First read the books, then talk to a specialist. Be aware of when and who wrote the books. Sometimes you can compare sources.

[Transcriptionist apology. I am almost certain that I have gotten some of the labeling mixed up between Piper, Tempest, Sylvia, and Nisi. My apologies for any mistaken attribution.]

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 40.

[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, Researching for Writing the Other.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Piper] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Tempest] And we’re not that smart.

[Piper] I’m Piper.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Sylvia] I’m Sylvia.

[Tempest] I’m Tempest.

[Nisi] I’m Nisi.


[Dan] And we’re super excited to have you all on our show today.

[Yes! Hooray!]

[Piper] So, today, for our special guests, we have author Sylvia Moreno-Garcia and we also have Nisi Shawl, fabulous author and editor and the person who wrote, cowrote the book Writing the Other, which is why we wanted to have her, but I wanted to have you both here because we are talking about research and writing the other. Both of you have written several works that require some research and in which you have written people who are not exactly like you. But first, I would like you both to sort of introduce yourselves. Tell us a little bit about you, and about what you write. So let’s start with Sylvia.

[Sylvia] Hello. I am Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. I am a writer and an editor. I actually won a World Fantasy Award for working on a all woman Lovecraftian anthology called She Walks in Shadows a few years ago. Most recently, I wrote a book called Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is set in the 1920s, in the Jazz age, but has elements of Mayan mythology. So pre-Hispanic, mesoamerican elements set in the 1920s in Mexico.

[Dan] Cool.

[Wow. Yeah.]

[Nisi] I’m Nisi Shawl, and also a writer and editor, and had the extreme pleasure of editing and anthology in which I was so honored to get a story by Sylvia. The research that I engaged in was for a novel called Everfair. Set in the Congo, in an alternate past in which King Leopold was defeated…

[Tempest] That’s always an alternate past.


[Tempest] Any alternate past where King Leopold was defeated is an excellent one. So the [garbled]

[Tempest] Sylvia, you’re actually the one who suggested this topic. So, I also want to say, like, why was it that you were thinking specifically about research when it comes to thinking about writing the other?

[Sylvia] Well, I think it’s an integral part of any writing process. But, of course, an integral part of writing about somebody that you don’t know or a culture that you don’t know would involve a lot of research. I think people are sometimes overwhelmed and they don’t realize the resources that they have available in their community. There are many. We will probably go through some of them. But, libraries, your community library, is a really good resource. I don’t think it gets mined enough the way it should. So some of that. But there are other sources of information, and also how to evaluate how good this source of information is going to be for you, because not every source of information is going to be useful for your research, and not all of them are exactly on the same level of accuracy. We talk a lot about fake news. But this is not necessarily a new phenomenon.


[Sylvia] Where things are colored in a certain way. You have to know that, and think about that a little bit ahead of hand, I think, when you’re engaged in this kind of research.

[Nisi] Absolutely. You have to triangulate a lot. My contribution would be that while you’re doing research with texts, with writing, that you should back that up with other sensory experiences in your researching, and that my favorite way to do this is through an ethnic festival. When you’re not like invading other people’s spaces. You’re actually being invited to experience a cultural phenomenon.

[Piper] That’s very good. A very good note. Yeah.

[Piper] When you are first starting out on research, like you just said, like a lot of people can get overwhelmed. I also think that there are a lot of people who just like literally do not know how to do it. Like, they know how to Google…


[Piper] But they don’t necessarily know how to Google well.


[Piper] And they may know that, like, they can go to a library, but they don’t know that they can say, like, actually go up to a research librarian and say, “This is what I’m researching, can you please help me?” So… But what are some of the other, like, things you would tell someone who’s, like, literally does not know, like, where to begin or, like, who they can tap to even, like, begin that research process?

[Sylvia] I mean, books are always a good entry point, but you should look at a good textbook. For example, if you’re doing something like I did, like, say, Mayan mythology, you should look at a good solid seminal textbook. Something that students are studying. Then, look back at the bibliography. Look at all… Is going to be like a long list of texts. Kind of go through them, and see which ones are available to your uni… Sometimes, it might be your university library. Some of these might be available if you have a university library nearby. But also, just your regular library could get library loan. But, just make a list of the ones… First, what’s easily off-the-shelf, you could go and grab and check it out. Really, quickly, just kind of like open it. Take a quick look, look at a few pages, see what it is, might this be something that I might want to read later on. If no, just cross it out, so you don’t go back and like, “Did I see that book already?” Just, with this, construct just an initial pile of things. Every book will have another bibliography at the back, which will lead you down kind of like a rabbit hole, a treasure hunt, more and more. But this is just like initially to get kind of like a lay of the land. Like, what is there available? Like, are there even enough books about the art or the time? Sometimes they might be about some specific aspect of the culture, but not of the other. So maybe there’s a lot of stuff about visual arts, but there’s almost nothing about culinary arts. With that initial hunt, I think you’ll get maybe an idea of, like, kind of, like, how many books are out there on this topic, and that kind of thing. Keep really good track, yeah, crossing the ones out you don’t need or that you’re not going to have access to. But you probably have more access to than you don’t. Because with electronic databases, there are many expensive books that, like, I wouldn’t be able to buy, but they’ll lend them to me through [garbled F scholar, Cisco papers?] and things like that. These books are like $100 books if I went and bought it from the University press. But you can normally get like an electronic part, and just like, really like I say, quickly peruse it. Just flip through if you can. Be like, “Is this something really interesting or not?” And then kind of move on.

[Piper] I think that you bring up an interesting point when it comes to flipping to the back of a book or to the bottom of an article, whether it’s online, for example.

[Sylvia] Exactly.

[Piper] Because seeing the references… That can also tell you a little bit about how much research went into the writing of the current article you’re reading. That can also sometimes inform you as to how much has gone behind this article, or whether this article is more of a personal perspective. Right?

[Tempest] Actually, since you were researching Mayan stuff, I know that Nisi researched a lot of different West African stuff when it came to researching the Congo for your book. I’m currently writing a book that’s set in ancient Egypt. So I know that I have come across this problem a lot, where I’ve discovered that a resource that I have been using is super biased in a really terrible way. It has a lot to do with, like, the way that for Egyptology, the discipline that we have now, that’s the academic discipline, was started by a bunch of men who were from Europe or America who were Christian. Bringing those views into interpreting what was going on in ancient Egypt, and how then what they said the ancient Egyptians did or what they thought or whatever was influenced by that. But, like, may not be actually what the ancient Egyptians did, thought, or whatever. So… And I know Nisi had a hard time finding some unbiased, like, from the perspective of the Africans who lived in the Congo at the time…


[Tempest] Sources. For your book, did you also encounter that? I assume that for the Mayans, also, it’s a very similar sort of situation.

[Sylvia] I think it is, in the sense that most of the Mayan codices were destroyed. We have only a handful left. So we only have… So the actual pre-Hispanic material that we have in codex form is very limited. We do have post-conquest accounts, which are written many times by priests, who went there and wrote down some stuff. So there’s a limited amount of that stuff. When you read the post-conquest documents, yes, sometimes there is that kind of bias of, like, they were doing really bad things, these were really bad people. So you have to… Yeah, kind of, like, make your pile of primary and secondary sources, and also be careful of when they were published. Because… Like, when… I did say that it was good to get an important textbook. Sometimes those textbooks can be quite old. They can be… It can be a seminal textbook from the 1950s. Right? It’s the one we still use, maybe, today for Egyptology or any other material. So you have to also think about, well, yes, but it comes from the 1950s. So what does that mean now that we are not in the 1950s, and maybe our understanding of Egyptian cultures or cultures from the Congo or from the Americas has maybe changed, and maybe it’s because simply we have more information or maybe there was like a really bad bias. In this case, there might be a really bad racial bias.

[Nisi] Or there might be someone who made their reputation, their career, based on a certain bias.

[Sylvia] Exactly.

[Nisi] I’m thinking of E. Wallis Budge. I’m thinking of Evans-Prichard, who wrote a book that I used, but at arms’ length, called Witchcraft among the Azande.

[Sylvia] I read that. I read that.

[Nisi] There’s really not too much hiding the bias there. I’m wondering…

[Piper] Let me just pause you for just a second for the book of the week. But hold that question. Don’t forget it. Okay? So. Would you please tell us about the book of the week?

[Sylvia] Oh. The book of the week is the one that I was talking about, about Mayan mythology that I wrote, set in the Jazz age. It’s called Gods of Jade and Shadow. It takes place in the 1920s. But it does have Mayan gods interacting with my character who is a young woman, gets sent on a sort of a quest, she opened the box, a chest, and a splinter of bone goes into her finger which restores to life the Death God, the Mayan Death God, Hun Kame, who needs then to find some pieces of himself that are missing and reclaim his throne. So that’s the book of the week.

[Dan] Sounds awesome.


[Piper] All right. Thank you. Let me see. That question?

[Nisi] So the question that I was thinking of asking is as you go through bibliography after bibliography, are certain titles repeated…

[Sylvia] I think so.

[Nisi] And what do you do with… When you find that they’re basically talking about the same five books, say?

[Sylvia] That tends to happen. If you’ve ever done any kind of academic research, you also find… That can be quite true. The other thing that happens, and why it’s good to go back… Try to find the source, the original source of something, is that many times they are paraphrased or quoted, only certain segments are quoted. If you go back and you read the first book on that, you realize sometimes that it’s not exactly what the others… The other people said it was and interpreted it. So I think trying to go back to the first time that that was said in that book, because we do tend to… As Jane Jones said, in her seminal text, whatever whatever. Some academics don’t read everything either.


[Sylvia] But sometimes they think they know what Jane Jones said. You go back and you find a different picture. But if you do have, I think, a text that keeps coming up over and over, which is the reason that looking at the bibliographies is so good, it should be marked as something to look at. Because if five people are quoting this, maybe it’s something to look at. You may find out it’s like not very good, but…


[Sylvia] Then, at least, you know. Well, not very good, and five people quoted it.

[Thank you]

[Sylvia] One of the other things that we also talk about we tell our students about research is the value of actually sitting down and having conversations with people.


[Sylvia] And sometimes it’s… I’m writing a character who is a black American, so I’m going to sit down and talk to some black Americans about their experience, to sort of, like, make sure that I understand certain elements of whatever. This is what sensitivity readers are for good for. But I’ve also found it really invaluable finding scholars in that particular discipline that I’m actually writing in to talk to as well, because then they can… I can ask those questions, like why does everybody always quote Jane Jones. 


[Sylvia] From the thing. So is that something that you would also just suggest to sort of like every writer, or is that something that maybe should happen after a certain amount of research, or…

[Nisi] Yeah. I think once you’ve done a certain amount of research, there may be some natural questions that will start forming in your mind. It may include like why is so-and-so such a scholar on this kind of monument or that kind of stuff. When you have that, if you can, talking to a specialist can be very good. Also, sometimes, universities will naturally put some type of programming that may be useful for you to explore. Not all of them. But the history department of a local institution, you can check what events they’re having. If they’re having something that is slightly related to something that you might be interested in, Egyptology in this sense, it might be a good idea to just kind of go, sit, listen to a lecture, and then when it’s done, maybe talk to the professor. They’re always really glad. Not a lot of people kind of show up for these things. So if you show up and you’re interested and you’re like, “Oh, I know today you were really only talking about this aspect, but I’m interested in this other aspect. Could we maybe have a chat later on?”

[That’s brilliant]

[Dan] Yeah.

[Nisi] I think a lot of them will be very willing to have it. If you live in a large city, I would say, take advantage of that. Art galleries, also, tend to have sometimes things that are open to the public where you can interact sometimes with curators and things like that. It’s a good point to be like, “I love it. And, by the way, could we talk more about this kind of thing?”

[Dan] I do think it’s a really good point to bring up, that going to a primary source, talking to a specialist, is maybe the second step rather than the first, because they don’t want to hear the same 15 obvious questions over and over and over again. You can kind of get those out of the way by reading the books and doing the articles and all of that, and then, when you need to know more, that’s when you go to the specialist.

[Sylvia] I think that’s very true across the board when you’re doing any kind of learning or researching. How often have we, as authors, also said to people who are aspiring authors, like, “Hey, do your research first?” If I can send you a “let me Google that link” to you…


[Sylvia] That answers your question, perhaps you shouldn’t have wasted that time, both yours and mine, on that question asking it directly from me. But rather show me that you’ve done this foundation of research, and you’re taking a question and asking me a question that’s interesting and stimulating for me, because it’s a question for the next level. And it also gives you deeper insight that you wouldn’t have gotten if you had spent all of your time on that foundational 101 set of questions that you could have googled anyway.


[Piper] My last question for the both of you is, we talk a lot about own voices fiction, and how important it is. But I’ve also found that own voices is really important in scholarship as well. You’re going to get a different view of say women in ancient Egypt from a woman Egyptologist. It doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s going to, like, always be the best, and she doesn’t have her own biases. But like women writing about women in ancient Egypt are going to say different things, or are going to notice different things, then, like, man writing about women in ancient Egypt. Do you find that that is true, like, in terms of any of the stuff that you all have researched, like, the people who are closer to it, who actually come from that culture or are descendents of the people who are from that culture tend to bring something different, that are deeper, to their scholarship, and that may be something that a writer should seek out?

[Sylvia] Want to go first, Nisi?

[Nisi] Okay. Well, I actually have been thinking about that book, Witchcraft among the Azande, because while I was really skeptical of what this anthropologist had written, I was able to compare it to practices, contemporary modern practices, by people who were doing these so-called witchcraft themselves. So that was how I was able to triangulate it. So it wasn’t that I was necessarily buying what they said wholeheartedly, either, especially because they were 100 years removed from the time I was writing about. But it did help, it did, I think, provide some depth, and, yes, a very valuable different take on what was going on.

[Sylvia] So I read… I had already read the Popol Vuh in high school, and then I read it again. I ended up reading three different translations of the Popol Vuh. The last one that I read, I think the translator worked with an indigenous author or a member of the indigenous K’iche’ community. It came with footnotes, I think, that one. It was very interesting to see how the translations were different, one from the other. But also, in this case, what the footnotes, what these footnotes… And each one of those versions had different footnotes… What these footnotes were like, because he was tying it to the local community and to contemporary practices and things like that. So it was a different experience. So I’m glad that I read all three versions. It was kind of like reading the extended… Seeing the extended cut of a movie and the directors talking in a certain part. So that was very, very useful, I think. If I hadn’t done that, I might have missed out on some stuff that I ended up feeling and thinking about during my writing process.

[Dan] That’s really cool. I know that we’re over time, but I just wanted to add onto that one point that I wanted to make. We are accustomed, in research, especially in sciences, that the most recent work is the best. When we’re researching culture, that’s not always true. It may be that the translator that worked with the indigenous communities and really did this really detailed study of this one particular aspect, might be a very old book compared to some of the others. So, making sure that you are looking for the unbiased sources, or as unbiased as they can be, it may be that the book that has the right information that you’re looking for might be very old. So don’t discount something just because it’s old.

[Good point]

[Piper] At this point, we’re going to ask you to recommend to us the homework.

[Sylvia] The homework. I want you to find a news story, news clipping, from before 1980 about a topic that you’re interested in researching or learning more about. So if you’re interested in learning about feminist discourse, find something before 1980 in a newspaper and take a look. See what it’s like.

[Piper] All right. Thank you. Well, listeners, you are out of excuses. Now go write.