Putting the Toxic in Exotic

Yesterday, Lavie Tidhar at The World SF Blog linked to a smart blog post by Tori Truslow on the use of the word “exotic” to describe her fiction that takes place in Thailand:

Thailand almost never gets portrayed in the West as anything other than Oriental Exoticland. From early travelogues to The King and I to The Windup Girl, travellers and expats sideline the actual characteristics of the place and the experiences of the people that live there in favour of self-fulfilling fantasies about how weird and different it is. This is so much the norm that many Western writers probably don’t think they’re doing it at all, and nor do their readers. But the assumption that an expat must be able to write Thailand well – by virtue of having lived a privileged life surrounded by imported home comforts and culture – is total nonsense. Living somewhere for a long time doesn’t make you exempt, but it might make you think you are, which is a problem in itself. Just because I grew up in Thailand doesn’t mean I don’t need to constantly educate myself about Thai culture and the way my own culture promotes damaging representations of it.

In Imagining Siam, Caron Eastgate Dann writes about the circular effect of the Western construction of the exotic East: “because it is presented in this way by writers, readers expect to receive an exoticised description, and because it is expected by readers, writers feel encouraged, and perhaps even obliged, to fabricate tales of the weird, the exotic and the erotic.”

As both producers and consumers in Western culture, we reward this kind of behaviour, and throwing the word “exotic” around as a positive in reviews feeds the circle, as does pandering to the desire for exotica in writing. How do we break the circle? Not easily or immediately, for sure, but by listening to people whose cultures have been exoticised when they say it’s shit, by looking long and hard at how and why we use the word, by refusing to use it uncritically, and not getting defensive when we do and are called on it – we might have a chance.

This discussion dovetails with the remarks I recently made on the use of “exotic,” “native,” and “Oriental” in an otherwise positive review of my book at Grasping for the Wind. I disagree with The Windup Girl being included here, but this is otherwise very cogent to discussion of the Western representation of Asia. Read the post in full.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Putting the Toxic in Exotic

  1. uncurl

    Great post and necessary discussion all writers need to have when writing about Asia imo, whether they are Asian or not. Doesn’t help that publishers based in the West (or even in India, as I am told) would rather put money in books that cater to these orientalist discourses. Met quite a few writers in India frustrated that they have to be writing about caste or “Indian” issues to even get a publisher’s attention or time. Not that these aren’t important issues, but the vicious cycle of exoticism and exoticisation (supported by the literary structures that be) described by Truslow is definitely something to be wary of.

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