Writing Excuses 15.38: Depicting Religions That Are Not Your Own
Key points: Mainstream religion, historic religion, made up religion? Widespread? In the open or hidden? Beware of exoticizing and making them evil. Respect their beliefs. Research, practitioners and texts. Try to get into the head of someone who believes that. Understand it and respect it. Don’t just default your characters, think about how they see their relationship to the cosmos. Religion also sets morals, ideals, ethics. Do they practice it, or do they just live in a culture where it is practiced? How does the religion stand in the community?
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 38.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, Depicting Religions That Are Not Your Own.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Tempest] Because you’re busy.
[Nisi] And we’re not that smart. Clearly.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Nisi] I’m Nisi.
[Tempest] And I’m Tempest.
[Tempest] And I called it.
[Tempest] [garbled] gonna miss this one up.
[Dan] That’s okay. Because they are busy.
[Dan] That’s why they’re in a hurry.
[unclear] They’re so busy, that’s why they’re in a hurry.
[Dan] It’s still accurate.
[Tempest] It’s all true.
[Unclear] Oh. Okay.
[Dan] Okay. So we went back and forth on this one as to exactly how we wanted to title it, and we like… Depicting religions that are not your own.
[Piper] Right. But really, because this is a writing the other episode, it’s also going to be about depicting religions that are not necessarily mainstream ones. Or at least not mainstream ones…
[Dan] Where you live.
[Piper] Where you live, right. So, for us, our context is mainly Western and American. But for… In other places, that context may be different. But for whatever context you’re in, there’s some things that are important to remember when depicting religion. That includes, like, a living religion, a religion that maybe people have worshiped in the past but may not be worshiped at this time, and, I think, a little bit about religions that we make up. Because a lot of the religions that are come up with in worldbuilding, some of the same problems with inventing religions comes up in depicting religions that are not your own.
[Tempest] A lot of the time when you’re building your own religion, you’re not just creating it out of thin air, you’re building it from factors and events that you have drawn from other religions. Religions, as you were saying, that are living religions or religions that are no longer being practiced but that perhaps have contributed somehow importantly to a living religion.
[Piper] So we’re here with Nisi Shawl, again, who is the co-author of the Writing the Other text and the person who came up with the idea for the seminar that became the text. One of the reasons why I especially wanted to talk to you about this is because you practice a religion that is not a mainstream religion here in America, but is a religion that often ends up in fiction depicted badly.
[Nisi] Yes. Well, I’ve been thinking about whether it was a mainstream religion or not. I would have to say it’s not familiar, but it is widespread. Because my religion is Ifa, and it is related to Santeria,Vodun, Lucumi… Which is very widespread in Brazil. So there are a lot of practitioners of my particular religion. The thing is that they may not be out in the open about it, and that you may not know that you’re hanging out with someone that practices this religion. Actually, I remember I got on the bus once and I was talking with someone I know about whether or not we could keep up with our religious duties when one of us was suffering from a broken arm. Then my friend got off, and the bus driver started singing one of our sacred songs. It was an Ifa bus driver. So, you never know. So I would say that person was a practitioner, but not out in the open. They weren’t like wearing regalia for it or anything like that. When it comes to the depiction, my least favorite is the movie Angel Heart with Lisa Bonet. Yeah. It was supposedly taking place within New Orleans. There are like people with like goat eyes, it was like all this devil stuff. I’m thinking, “This is Christianity. This has nothing to do with anything that I have ever experienced.” When I think of good depictions, I immediately think of… First of all, I think of Tananarive Due’s Good House. Because that is a horror novel, and the temptation often in horror novels is to exoticize the other and make them evil. She did not do that with my religion. She had problems going on that people were trying to solve with my religion. Thank you, Tananarive.
[Piper] So, of the good examples that you can think of, what are some of the other hallmarks of what makes them good? You mentioned not exoticizing or making the religious practitioners the evil ones.
[Nisi] Respect. And research. Respect in that often people are trying to think of my religion as magic, and trying to play it down, lessen it, belittle it, because it’s unfamiliar to them. They would classify it as magic rather than religion. So to flip that, I would say respecting any kind of traditional practice and realizing that what is magic to some people’s religion to other people. So there’s that. Doing research and finding out from practitioners as well as from texts, how things actually went. In the bad example that I keep thinking of, they have people sacrificing babies, they have people like stabbing pins in dolls. Nah.
[Nisi] You could just go to a very open ceremony and you would not find any of that going on. You would think, “Oh, well, maybe they’re just hiding that from me.”
[They’re not doing all that.]
[Piper] I’m going to pause us and ask you for the book of the week.
[Nisi] Oh. Okay. My book of the week is an anthology that I edited that came out in 2019. It’s called New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. 17 stories from writers of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. From as many places around the globe as I could get.
[Piper, Tempest] Awesome.
[Thank you chorus]
[Dan] Cool. I wanted to ask you a question really quick. The… A lot of what you’re talking about, Nisi, is this idea of letting… Treating that religion on its own terms, rather than trying to see it and therefore portray it through the lens of your own beliefs. I think we see that a lot. Especially here in the West, which is very, very predominantly Christian and all of these other things that come along with that. So, if somebody wants to present a religion, whether it is a real-world one or just one they’ve invented for their own fantasy novel, what are some good ways that they can kind of break out of that mindset they grew up with and really see that new religion for what it is rather than some… I don’t know, altered version of Christianity or of whatever else it is?
[Nisi] That is really hard. That is what separates a writer from someone who’s just kind of fooling around with words.
[Dan] Well said.
[Nisi] I mean, I myself have tried to do this in my own work. I was very conscious of doing it with Christianity, actually. Because that is not my tradition. Actually, I was taken to a Christian church as a child, but my mother told me we just go to this place because people will talk about us bad if we don’t. So I had a basis of skepticism to work from. So I had to write a missionary woman in Everfair, and I had to make sure that I was respectful of her take on things. I think if I can do that, then anybody else that wants to be taken seriously can try.
[Tempest] I think though… What I find interesting is that with religion, that’s the one that I have noted that our students have the most resistance to, in part because of there being so much emotionality bound up in religion and religious choices. You say to them, like, you need to get into the head of the African-American woman if you’re going to write her. Okay. You need to get into the head of the deaf person if you’re going to write them. Okay. You need to get into the head of a person who believes this about angels. They’re like, “Yeah, but that’s not true.”
[Tempest] But they’re… But that’s wrong. You’re like, “You can… I’m not telling you that you have to believe what your character believes about angels.” But you need to understand why your character and people like them believe what they do and respect that in order to then depict that in a respectful way. But it just seems like that’s one of the places where people catch, that makes, like, this particular identity category different from the others that we talk about.
[Nisi] I think so. I think another thing came to mind when you were talking about our student, is that we have a spreadsheet of characteristics, traits for different characters in a book. You have students fill this out. They almost always leave the religion column blank. They have not thought about are their characters atheists, are they agnostics, are they practicing Buddhists, what are they? They just… They deliberately, or more likely, unconsciously, don’t think about how their characters see their relationship with the whole cosmos.
[Piper] I would actually challenge that a little. Not a lot, but a little. In the fact that I think that sometimes, rather than not think about it, they default. Well, of course, it would be this way. There’s nothing other or different about what I have in mind for this character when it comes to this topic. So they default. Right? Because there’s so much about thinking about religion that also sets your morals and your ethics and your ideals. There’s so much that’s ingrained, that when a person is developing their character, if they leave religion blank, they’re defaulting to the set of morals and ideals and ethics that may have been established. They may not recognize or they may compartmentalize, but it is bound up, often, in your religion. Right? There are certain tenets, or there are certain values that, unless they’re atheists or unless they’re completely agnostic in some way, deliberately so, they’re unconsciously defaulting to the religion they’re most familiar with whether they technically practice. Right? Because there’s a difference between being a Christian and living in a Christian culture, and the defaults that come with living in a Christian culture. Like, in America, we live in a Christian culture, not because, like, everyone is Christian, but because Christmas is a federal holiday.
[Piper] Like, that’s an artifact of the fact that we live in a Christian culture. Like, so Christmas is a national… Or a federal holiday. Like Rosh Hashanah isn’t. But then I always think about the fact that when I lived in New York City, the New York City school system, Jewish high holidays were days off from school. That was a reflection of how much there is a Jewish culture in New York City, and how much that has to be respected because of the fact that it’s a large community. You can’t just ignore their high holidays, so they get incorporated. But that’s one example in one place. I don’t know of other places that have that. But I’m sure there are, I just don’t know about them. It was a thing that I keyed on to specifically because it was so very different from what I was used to growing up.
[Nisi] Yeah, I agree. I think that that brings us to another point that’s really important in representing a religion that’s not your own. That is to think of how that religion stands in the community that your writing about. Is it like the majority religion in that community? Is it a minority religion? Are there sects? Are there different kinds of… Is there a historical curve to it? To the practice of this particular religion? Are there insiders and outsiders, orthodoxies, heretics? So you definitely have to think about that in depicting my religion or a religion that you make up or any religion that is not familiar to you as your own.
[Piper] Exactly. That actually brings us to our homework for this week. Which is that I want you to choose an aspect of culture that ties in with religion. My favorite example of this is how do people in your culture deal with those who have died. What do they do with the bodies? What kind of ceremonies are done around them? Whether you are writing and what we will call mimetic fiction, present-day America, whether you’re writing in a secondary world fantasy, sit down and write 500 words about what happens when a person dies, what happens to their body, what happens to their soul, according to the religious or cultural values, and how does that play out with people in the family, in the town, in the immediate area.
[Dan] All right. That’s really cool.
[Piper] Okay. Well. All of you. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.