Worldbuilding your own culture

I love worldbuilding. This is why I read and write speculative fiction: strange food? Unusual flora and fauna? Fun festivals and sinister rituals? Yes, please.

But the reason why I’m particularly attracted to worldbuilding is the fact that constructing new cultures around familiar concepts allows us to create a distorted mirror of our own world. To examine our prejudices and biases in a space removed from the real world by several degrees.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been building worlds inspired by the culture I grew up in, Bulgaria. This wasn’t a conscious decision, any more than an American author basing their settings on the US would have been. Truth be told, I find it difficult to escape the common ‘Slavic’ literary tropes even if I try to: from my jaded, unemotional protagonists to my charismatic but unhinged villains; from card games with the Devil to Baba Yaga-esque secondary characters.

When I decided to make the transition to writing in English, I found myself in a pickle (coincidentally, a favourite Slavic snack): do I try to sever myself from that Slavic literary tradition I’d grown up in, just to make my work more accessible to Anglophone readers? I had no illusions I can start setting my stories in small-town USA, featuring people called Bob and Sally. I had tried writing vaguely Western settings before, and my characters were all unmistakably Bulgarian. My Sally rarely smiles, my Bob always has a salad with his rakia.

I quickly realised that de-Bulgarianising my stories would not only be a ridiculous challenge, it’s something I don’t want to do. We have such a rich history and culture, so much literature virtually unknown in the West—and it’s something that deserves to be shared.

Luckily, I write fantasy, and fantasy readers are used to exploring foreign and unfamiliar places, be it Middle Earth or Narnia… or Bulgaria. However, one big difference between completely made-up settings and real-world ones soon became obvious: the need of real settings to stay authentic. I found myself struggling with this delicate balancing act—how do I make my settings recognisable to people familiar with my culture, while also keeping Anglophone readers engaged?

If I wrote completely invented worlds, I’d have the freedom to pick and choose what aspects of my made-up culture are different than the pseudo-Western European fantasy setting we’re all familiar with. But this is a real, living culture. Any Bulgarian reader would sniff out inconsistencies and mistakes, and it would affect their enjoyment of the story. At the same time, certain aspects of Bulgarian culture are difficult to explain to outsiders, especially without breaking the flow of the story—I can’t pause a tense fighting scene to wax poetically about the history of Bulgarian-Ottoman relations, for instance.

Some of it was easy. Saying ‘cold yogurt soup’ instead of ‘tarator’ is a small sacrifice to make. Adding the word ‘cheese’ after ‘sirene’ would probably make Bulgarian readers laugh (it literally translates to ‘cheese cheese’) but I feel like they’d forgive me. One often repeated tidbit about Bulgaria in tourist guides is that we nod for ‘no’ and shake our heads for ‘yes’. This is not entirely true (we do a short upwards nod for ‘no’ and a sort of wavey shake for ‘yes’) but in any case: do I still have my characters nod ‘yes’ and shake their heads ‘no’ just to make it easier for Anglophone readers? Yes. Would that read unusual to my Bulgarian readers? No, because we’re so used to Western media. Worldbuilding, like pretty much any aspect of writing, is about picking your battles.

It’s battles I didn’t even know I was fighting that made me stumble: certain aspects of culture that feel natural to me but read foreign to Anglophone readers. This is most obvious in the way characters communicate and carry themselves, small gestures, facial expressions, the way the dialogue is structured, what they choose to say out loud and what they keep to themselves. It creates somewhat of a paradox—describing your own culture from within seems to be more difficult than doing it from the outside. My interpretation of my own culture depends on many years of being immersed in said culture, of consuming Bulgarian media and living in an Eastern European country. Tangled within it are unconscious biases, literary influences, high emotive topics like nationalism and marginalisation. It’s baggage foreigners don’t have, making my Slavic-inspired worlds more complex and authentic, but also more opaque.

These are, coincidentally, the sort of cultural differences that can’t be explained away with footnotes and appendixes. Things like items of clothing or types of food are easy to describe in a short, concise manner, outside the main body of the story. That can’t be said about fundamental differences in how the world works and how the characters interact with it.

In classic fantasy, the protagonist often serves as a surrogate for the reader: the hobbits in Middle Earth, the Pevensie siblings in Narnia. This way, the reader and the protagonist explore the new, unfamiliar world together. However, like many other underrepresented authors, I want to write protagonists who are like me. I don’t want to write outsiders. And, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure if I can even if I wanted to—I have too many unconscious biases as a Bulgarian to write someone outside my culture believably.

Moreover, while fantasy readers are used to foreign cultures, there are certain stereotypes a lot of classic fantasy defaults to: the cold barbarian from the North and the lazy drunkard from the South; the savage nobles from the desert and the nomadic tribes from the steppes. When it comes to real cultures, those often come with stereotypes attached, too.

Historically, Eastern Europe has been misunderstood, misrepresented, and exoticized in Western media. We’re geographically close but we’re undeniably ‘other’. For several decades we were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and this created even more barriers to cultural exchange. In the Cold War era, we were presented as enemies and spies. During the turbulent 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union, we were gangsters, mafiosos and mail order brides. Nowadays, all these impressions and stereotypes have created a mishmash of misrepresentation; a vague impression of snow, bears and fur hats, rolling r’s and stern gazes, grey buildings and communist statues, onion-domed churches and vodka.

This is little like the Eastern Europe I know. I’m from the Balkans: we’re about as passionate about our coffee as the Italians and as proud of our yogurt as the Greeks. The truth is, cultures are complex, a mixture of many different influences and traditions, which don’t often tie together to form a cohesive, predictable ‘aesthetic’. Bulgaria is as influenced by other Slavic nations as we are by our Mediterranean neighbours and the other countries from the former Ottoman Empire.

It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes, to use imagery already built in readers’ minds rather than attempt to create your own, albeit more authentic one. It feels familiar and comfortable. There’s no conflict in your readers’ minds between their preconceived notions and the truth; between perceived authenticity and real authenticity. It’s tempting to convince yourself that this lack of conflict is a good thing, that it makes you feel closer to the reader and the reader—closer to you. That relying on stereotypes creates a worldbuilding shortcut and solves all those pesky problems discussed above.

As an immigrant in the UK, I’ve occasionally caught myself playing to the stereotypes, downing glasses of vodka and demanding that Brits don’t know what a real winter is, in a sort of caricature of my own culture. (We don’t even drink vodka in Bulgaria. We drink a fermented fruit brandy known as ‘rakia’, but this is one of those asides breaking the flow of the text I was talking about earlier (also, we have quite a moderate climate, particularly near the coast where I’m from)). This can just as easily sneak into your writing—throw a fur hat on a character and you’d never have to explain what the hell a ‘kalpak’ is. Have a character order a vodka and you won’t need to type out the clumsy phrase ‘fermented fruit brandy’.

The issue with this is that it presents us all as an amalgam of misconceptions and half-truths rather than as real people; it reinforces stereotypes. And the issue with reinforcing stereotypes is that they can quickly, almost imperceptibly turn harmful. From jokes about drinking vodka to the stereotype of the Eastern European drunkard vomiting in the street. From friendly rubs about being hardy to Eastern European workers getting forced to work in unsafe conditions.

And the issue with it in literature, in particular, is that it makes Eastern European readers feel like outsiders. Like our cultures are being used to inspire a particular story, but the resulting story isn’t for us—it’s for the Westerners. It’s written with what Zen Cho calls in her excellent essay ‘the Western gaze‘.

Luckily, in the last decade or so, we’ve had a real shake-up in SFF: diversity has become cool. Stories inspired by underrepresented settings are now common. Eastern European fantasies? There’s, all of a sudden, an abundance of them. Naomi Novik’s Polish-inspired Uprooted and Lithuanian Spinning Silver, Hungarian-based The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid, a number of Russian-inspired fantasies—and even some translations, like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and many, many more.

This isn’t to say that writing books inspired by non-Anglophone cultures intended for Anglophone audiences has become completely tension-free. Some readers will be more comfortable with the sprinkling of foreign words and names than others. Some would misinterpret elements they haven’t encountered before. It all comes back to that friction between accessibility and authenticity, between saving yourself the frustration of people unfamiliar with your culture misinterpreting you and staying true to that culture.

But ultimately, the more underrepresented cultures we represent in our speculative fiction, the more we pave the way for further books about underrepresented cultures. Every new ‘Eastern European’ book has a slightly less steep hill to climb. Unfamiliar food and clothing will slowly become familiar; unfamiliar gestures and figures of speech will soon be recognisable. I believe SFF readers are uniquely equipped to understand foreign societies—both real and invented—with minimal handholding, which makes SFF the perfect environment for dismantling harmful stereotypes and building authentic worlds.

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