The OF Blog: A few, brief thoughts on oriental fantasies

Monday, September 13, 2010

A few, brief thoughts on oriental fantasies

Ever since I was a child growing up in the 1980s, I have been fascinated with tales similar to those of The Thousand Nights and One/The Arabian Nights/whatever else you want to translated these Indian, Persian, and Arabic tales that were translated and transformed in Western and Central Europe from the 18th century onward.  There is something enticing about the similarities and differences found in these stories, from how women and men are treated compared to my own culture, to how religion and philosophy are interwoven into several of these tales, and the mysteries involved in the locales and in the personages who people these fantastic places that are at once both real and mythical.

The so-called Near East/Middle East has served as a muse for several European writers.  From William Beckford's Vathek (which I just received in the mail today) to George Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat (which I read this weekend) to Richard Burton's translation of the French rendition of the Nights to even much more recent efforts such as Italian graphic artist Sergio Toppi's Sharaz-De, the settings and motifs found in these ancient tales have resonated with Western audiences for three centuries now.  Yet in these tales, the "otherness" of the setting and the characters often carries not just the "exotic," but also the exotic as being something that could be safely judged from a distance as being not just fantastical, but often nonsensical, if not "inferior" to those of the presumed more cultured West.  Such an ironic turnabout from a millennium ago. 

Today, oriental fantasies may be labeled as being "politically incorrect."  In using the scare quotes, I am not making judgments, but rather noting the controversial nature of using such labels in discussing works.  I would have to admit that there is some dissonance in my reading experience, reading older texts that are simultaneously among the most sumptuous and imaginative works that I have read, while also being (at least in some tales) extremely racist in their depictions of Arabic, Persian, and Indian societies.   Certainly this is something that was not a major worry for the vast majority of these works' original audiences.  How times have changed!

But rather than dithering over the perceived qualities and deficiencies in these tales, I am more interested in those stories that subvert these older orientalist fantasies, just as several of the earlier steampunk tales twisted the old Edisonades to make postmodernist critiques of the presumptions found in those 19th and early 20th century tales.  When I was doing readings for Best American Fantasy 4, one of the stories I highlighted was Amit Majmudar's "Azazil," which is the first part of a multi-part short novel appearing inside the pages of The Kenyon Review.  In reading it, I was struck by how Majmudar re-appropriated elements from these older fictions to create a powerful tale that does not feel like a distortion of the older story cycles imported from the Middle East and India.   Saladin Ahmed's "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela," from Clockwork Phoenix 2, is another story I highlighted for possible inclusion in BAF 4.  I have the sense that these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a reaction to the older orientalist fantasies and I am curious to discover more.

Perhaps you have stories to suggest that are reactions to the casual racism of the Georgian and Victorian orientalist fantasies.  If so, perhaps you can suggest some below.


Anonymous said...

Robert Irwin's Arabian Nightmare pretty much kicks ass any way you want to look at it.

Jeff Ford

Lsrry said...

That one is in the reading queue already. I did read the first chapter last week and was suitably impressed that after I finish a couple of reads/re-reads (Crowley's last two Ægypt novels, Beckford's Vathek), I plan on finishing it, with a possible review. But good call on Irwin's book, as it does seem to fit the criteria well.

Dave Cesarano said...

You're aware of Said's Orientalism, I assume? This post made me want to go back and read it again.

"The past is a foreign country." As a historian, I find it frustrating how people who otherwise exercise sentiments of moral and ethical relativity can be so judgmental of the cultural artifacts of bygone eras. The "political incorrectness" of The Arabian Nights and other works (Little Black Sambo and "Gunga Din") come to mind.

Amy said...

What an interesting post! I (unfortunately) have no suggestions, but just wanted to chime in here. I have Orientalism by Edward Said on my to be read pile and from the introduction it seems to talk about similar topics - how the Orient is defined and studied not as it was but as we imagine in. And I see that another commenter mentioned it too, so I'm glad I have the right idea! (I'm only partway through the introduction).

Saladin Ahmed said...

A couple of thoughts here: Said's Orientalism, which has probably been praised and damned and just plain read more than any other piece of literary scholarship in the past 30 years, is often misunderstood. Said's main point is not that Victorian writers got the 'authentic' Orient wrong -- it's that any attempt to capture an 'authentic' Orient is probably doomed to failure, and we should instead ask what has been IMAGINED/invented by various authors. In the case of the west looking eastward in the 19th c., Said argues, authors mostly imagined and invented a despotic, overly luxurious, sexually perverse, superstitious land. The corollary of this argument is that many of these writers were thus knowingly or unknowingly providing justification for western imperialism -- even if the Orient had an exotic charm, it was a barbaric place in need of forcible correction and good governance.

What Said's fans and critics alike get wrong, though, is that the main thrust of Said's complaint was not that this depiction was 'inauthentic,' but that, even as some of the writing is beautiful or entertaining, it was imagination and invention deployed to nefarious purposes.

The corrective to this is, partially, to be more 'accurate' -- to know more about Islam when writing about it, to watch for massive generalizations, etc. But more to the point it's to look at what we're imagining and why.

One place to look if you haven't already is Husain Haddawy's (sp?) recent translations of the 1001 Nights. In Haddawy's more accurate translation, they're markedly different stories than in Burton's half-invented versions.

Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel prize Laureate is another good source -- His 'Arabian Nights and Days' is great, though the English translation's a little stiff.

I also like Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is at least as good as the deservedly famous Midnight's Children.

Oh, and thanks for the kind nod to my own story :)

Lsrry said...


No problem! I will look for that new translation in the very near future. I'm also a fan of Mahfouz's works, although I'll agree at times he seems a bit "stiff," as you say, in translation.

By the way, am currently 2/3 through Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia. I think his reinterpretation of the Middle East's history along philosophical/Lovecraftian lines is fascinating. Don't know if I'll do a formal review of it (the concepts may be beyond me in places), but it is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Arabian Nights and Days is one of my favorite novels. Interesting to hear that it's somewhat stiff in the English translation. I wish I could read it in the original. It begins so simply and then begins weaving these stories together until it becomes beautifully complex. Said's argument could be applied to a whole genre of African adventure novels as well from the 19th century. I have to admit, though,as reprehensible as they seem now in the face of actuality, when I was a kid, I dug Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and She.

Jeff Ford

Dave Cesarano said...

Man, all I said was that I wanted to go read Orientalism again. That's all.

The corollary of this argument is that many of these writers were thus knowingly or unknowingly providing justification for western imperialism -- even if the Orient had an exotic charm, it was a barbaric place in need of forcible correction and good governance.

I wouldn't agree entirely, but certainly several authors evidenced this sort of sentiment, such as Sax Rohmer (although his stories focused more on the Chinese than Near Easterners).

I don't believe everything was written out of a conscious desire to civilize and exploit. Many wrote out of sheer fascination and curiosity.

As someone who lives in a foreign country (Far Eastern), I see Western culture and stories viewed in just as distorted a manner. I could argue that such distortions and stereotypes fuel anti-Westerner/anti-foreigner racism, but if I did so, I would be oversimplifying something much larger and more complex. I think that's my own gripe with Said--I believe that he ignores writers who put pen to paper simply from sheer curiosity and inspiration.

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