Welcome to my Self Publishing Spotlight!
This month I'm very pleased to say my spotlight has landed on author Rachel Forde and her gripping high fantasy Lastborn.
Lastborn is a complex and engaging story set in a fascinating fantasy world. This is a definitely a story for you if you love feisty, independent heroines because Lastborn has one of the feistiest of them all! You can read my full review of Lastborn here.
For now, Rachel Forde has very kindly written me this brilliant guest post about world-building, creating cultures and avoiding classic mistakes when writing a world of your own.
An important aspect of world-building in any book is culture. Unfortunately, it's also one of the trickiest things to get right, mainly because we all have a bias toward the culture and context we grew up in. We understand that world and its forms and values, and we judge other worlds by that standard.
We see the world around us through a filter - I'm a Euro-American, middle-class female, so I have a certain set of assumptions through which I interpret the world around me: I favor freedom over stability, individuality over conformity, equality between men and women, and even though I'm religious, I feel more comfortable with science than I do with magic and the supernatural. I'm not claiming any of these things are better or worse than the other - it's about what works to create a happy, stable society, not about what one powerful, wealthy society can force on another - but it does create a challenge when trying to depict village life in a Native American-ish society, or develop the inner motivations of a character from a pseudo-East African culture.
There are some mistakes that writers and storytellers frequently make:
1. Stereotyping and oversimplifying culture because of a lack of research. Not all Native Americans live in tipis. In fact, one tribe can be as culturally different from another as Norwegian culture is from Italian culture. The Daniyaasi tribe in Lastborn, (very) loosely based on the Ojibwe, has a different way of life and social structure than the Hakchi, Wakanka or Kidasa tribes, and their languages are mutually unintelligible.
2. Ethnocentrism, or assuming that one culture (usually our own) is the standard by which all should be judged. We all do this to some degree, no matter how tolerant we think we are. And please note that this doesn't mean we have to approve of everything that another culture does - I think the character of Faduma was being needlessly mean by calling Ayuma a "whore", but I also know how the actions that spurred the insult would have been understood in Faduma's home culture, and what the consequences would have been to everyone involved. I can empathize with Faduma's fear and frustration without agreeing with it.
3. Denigrating one's own culture as "inferior" compared to others. This one happens a lot, either by non-western authors who are overly enamored by Western culture, or by western authors in a misguided attempt to avoid sounding racist. Ethnocentrism is ethnocentrism, regardless of which ethnos is at the center. Ephola takes a pretty strong hit in Lastborn, because it's based on my home culture and I feel more free to criticize it, but the Makedans are not saints either, and there is much that is good about Ephola. Balance is key.
4. The "Noble Savage." Avatar. Ugh. Not a book, per se, but the most blatant example I've seen of this in a long time. In a nutshell, the "Noble Savage" stereotype claims that so-called primitive cultures are superior because they are so simple, while our (western) culture is needlessly complex. Once you unpack it, this is a very back-handed compliment. It treats indigenous people as if they were children, and underestimates the complexity and depths of the world they inhabit. Anyone who thinks "primitive" cultures are simple should try conjugating a few Ojibwe verbs, or untangle the web of kinship and clan connections in rural Somalia.
I don't claim to be an expert at this. Speaking candidly, one of my biggest regrets about Lastborn is that most of the protagonists are culturally "in-between". This was certainly easier for me to write, and probably reflects my insecurity about writing believably from another's culture point of view. Even so, I can't recommend it enough that every writer at least try to write character POVs from another culture's perspective. Even if the result is imperfect, it's an exercise that can benefit us outside of our writing, as we live and work among those who may not see the world in quite the same shades as we do.
So there you have it! A huge thanks to Rachel for participating in the Self Publishing Spotlight, her book Lastborn is available now - and I highly recommend it - from:
To find out more about the Self Publishing Spotlight feature or to submit a book, click here. I'm especially interested to hear from authors planning to publish in the new year.