Monday, March 27, 2006
  Moderation and Character Development
Today I auditioned for a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. We had to perform a song. (Which in my case went horribly -- the piano was so out of tune I couldn't even tell if I was singing the melody correctly, let alone worry about details of intonation and delivery! And the pianist apparently wasn't familiar with the song I performed -- Cabaret -- because rather than the driving beat that is called for, she was using full pedal and a lush, romantic style. Picture a cross between Amazing Grace and Liza Minelli. Agh!)

Anyway, when it got to the reading part, the director asked for a Jewish accent. (I assume he meant a Yiddish accent, but we won't nit pick here.) As the people in front of me read (with noticeably MidWestern accents, lol) I debated whether to lay it on thick -- the stereotype of a Jewish mother -- or whether to paint the accent with a lighter brush -- noticable, but not a caricature. I chose to do the latter, which is, of course, not only harder to do, but which also leaves open the possibility that you're being so subtle the audience doesn't notice it.

I find the same dilmena in writing characters from other cultures. It is easy to make them a caricature of that culture, but tricky to write them subtly and with nuance, and often people think that you just haven't bothered to try to make them different or that you aren't aware of the stereotypical images.

For instance, I've written pieces about Muslims only to have people tell me, "Don't you know, Timothy isn't a Muslim name." It is if your character happens to be a convert who didn't change his name. Similarly, when I wrote about a Catholic character who was quite extreme in his beliefs, people told me, Catholics aren't like that. Sure, most of them aren't (which was mentioned in the piece) but some sure are, like, say, Mel Gibson.

I find that a lot of sci-fi that draws from other cultures or which depicts alien species and their cultures tends to gravitate towards the more caricature-like renditions -- the characters tend to be boldly drawn, the cultures very rigid. Kind of like the Jewish mother-in-law from Planet X.

I wonder if my attempts at subtlety will be perceived as a weak characterization or a nuanced one. I wonder if my audience, like the director, who didn't think about the fact that a lot of Jews don't have Yiddish accents, won't appreciate or even understand the subtlety I'm trying to create. I have a nagging feeling my audition would have been better appreciated if I'd put on the broadest accent I could muster, rather than confining it to a few words with appropriate gestures. I hope my writing won't suffer from the same fate!

This is SO exciting. I love plays and can't help but wonder when you will know.

I wish I could have seen that audition. LOL.

Well, as a reader I can agree that the reader's sense of believability must be respected. If you want a Muslim character named Timothy, why not tell your reader he is a convert.
Nochipa, we'll know by the end of the week!

Peacock, lol, in the case of Timothy, he wasn't a convert, he was actually a fourth generation Muslim... the great-grandfather converted, and between living in America and marrying other converts, etc, his mom chose to name him Timothy. I hadn't decided if her first crush/forbidden love was a boy named Timothy or if it was a family name, but either way -- I was trying to depict a future America where Timothy was as acceptable as a Muslim name as Ahmed or Mustafa. Not all of that history was laid out -- it just didn't fit into the story to suddenly go and explain the family history of the character (talk about your info dump!), but given that a ton of other ethnic names, including American last names, were mixed in, I thought it interesting people didn't think Timothy was believable. As turned out, I agreed with some of the other critiques which said that Timothy didn't fit the character's personality (it really didn't!) and so he's now Arsalan, a name that won't raise any eyebrows for being Muslim and which fits his character a lot better.

Still, I wonder about how far one should go to appeasing the audience. If I want to show a future with a fully integrated American Muslim community, names can be very important as an indicator of assimilation. Would anyone balk at a Chinese character named Dave? I don't think so, we all know Daves who are Chinese (or Adams or Johns...). I know Muslims who have changed their names -- Liaquat who became Lee, Muhammad who became Mo, Sami who pronounces it Sammy, etc, etc. I know Muslims who have named their kids names that sound American - Mona, Nora, Sarah -- but also have Islamic roots. Should we pander to the ignorance of the readers, or try to present new ideas and landscapes to them? In science fiction, especially, I think the latter. Anyway, one never knows how the reader is going to react until they read it!
Whoa! I'm not sure you are being kind to us "readers." Is it pandering to readers if you change something like a name that would require too much explanation of your created culture? Obviously not, as you did it.

Playing Devil's Advocate, maybe you are in danger of creating a culture that is not realistic, or maybe it is only unrealistic for say, American or Muslim readers. Would readers more familiar with Muslim societies accept a wider range of names? Or would they indeed expect more traditional names to be used based on the country of origin?

Just having fun. One of my pet peeves is parents who make up spellings for their children's names befuddling those of us who try to pronounce them.

Needles to say I agree an author must not write constantly worrying about what the reader's or the critic's or the publisher's response is -- within reason! Enjoyed your response.
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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