Stepping on Toes

In F2: Religious Ceremony Michael leads Jay and the others on a tour of the second island. Since this section includes parallels to real religious activities, let’s take the chance to discuss borrowing from other cultures appropriately.

It’s said that good artists write but great artists steal. Sometimes this is true, but stealing elements of a culture wholesale without careful consideration is just appropriation. Of course, it’s possible to write great stories in foreign countries, using real cultures—but such stories require planning, and you can bet their writers were conscious of the concept of cultural appropriation. To see what happens when the writer is lackadaisical, let’s look at my own first draft.

In the first draft of Akayama DanJay, Jay didn’t go to the Islands of Sheridan. He went to Tibet. Instead of witnessing a nest of eggs surrounded by bird-worshipers, Jay visited a temple where monks contemplated a statue of the Buddha. Virgil Blue’s monastery was in the foothills of Mount Everest. These are well-known images, and I could have convinced myself to keep them. I could have decided making a new area was too difficult, or using Tibet’s status as a religious site would lend the story authenticity. I could have kept the Buddha statue, pretending it’d make my story resonate with Buddhists.

But I drew the line at Mount Everest. Mount Everest has hugely religious connotations in Tibetan culture. If Akayama DanJay sidestepped religion, or if Jay visited a variety of holy areas, that might be fine, but since I’m relating religion to giant anime space-robots, I decided not to lean on Tibet. Using Everest in the context I’d planned might be offensive, and referencing figures like the Buddha just complicates the messages I’m sending. To tell my story, I needed to build a proprietary location from scratch.

To make Sheridan I considered two things: what do I need in a location, and how many different cultures can I draw from?

Akayama DanJay requires hills, mountains, and clouds. Sheridan must be mysterious, so its remoteness was a matter of course. I also need the whole tour group to be stuck together. I moved Sheridan from Tibet to fictional islands at Point Nemo, the most remote region on earth, in the middle of the ocean.

I knew I would still reference real-world religions, as there’s hardly a way around that. To prevent inappropriate appropriation I decided to mix so many cultures Sheridan could hardly be seen as disparaging any one of them in particular.

Sheridan’s first island echoes real tropical tourist traps with its commercialization of culture. They package their religion and sell it to tourists in the bazaar; you can’t take pictures of birds, but you can buy facsimiles. Michael and his brothers Gabriel and Raphael are named after Archangels. Michael’s wife Anaita is named after an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, because I couldn’t find any girl Archangels. Michael’s populous, highly structured, and economically empowered family leads the charge in profiting off tourism—supporting the commercialization of their religion. They are like a massive church which has lost its bearing, maintaining only meaningless structure and rules. Meanwhile the fourth archangel Lucifer is represented by Lucille in LLHST.

Dante’s Inferno is obviously present, as the tour takes a ferry from one island to the next and we’ve heard from Anaita there is a second ferry, paralleling Dante’s trips across the rivers of Hell. I don’t think anyone is offended by allusions to Dante’s Inferno; it’s omnipresent in culture.

The islands themselves are clearly the Gardens of Eden. SherIDAN is a tropical paradise-on-earth allegedly created by the Almighty Biggest Bird, who gave some very specific commandments. We know there used to be snakes here, as well. By combining Dantean structure with Eden-like imagery, I hope to convey gradations of religious meaning. If Eden represents God’s ideal for humanity perverted by sin, then Sheridan shows how the superficial elements of God’s message can be packaged and sold to the masses while maintaining a beacon of real, sacred truth (atop the mountain, protected by clouds). To get from the superficial truth to the real ultimate truth, one must undergo training with Virgil Green on the second island. But dare to sneak a peek at the peak, representing the holy light of the ultimate knowledge of the LORD, and you and your possessions will be utterly annihilated—a reminder to be humble. I doubt people will mind allusions to Eden, and I think my Dantaen take is rather fresh.

To transition the reader from the commercialized religion of the first island to the real but surreal religion of the second, masked dancers appear in the forests. The dancers may remind the reader of all sorts of groups: Native American, African, and Australian aboriginals all maintain masked dancing festivals. This might be a touchier practice to borrow, but as long as I don’t specifically reference any particular group, I think it’s a great way to relate Sheridan to primal and powerful imagery.

The Tibetan monks sitting in stereotypical solemnity before the Buddha are replaced by students who sometimes sit around a bird and who sometimes walk in a circle. Supplementing real religious practices (like seated and walking meditations and chanting) with surreal imagery (like an eight-foot pink tropical penguin) ensures my monks are identifiable as spiritual, but simultaneously inoffensively generic and strikingly unique.

The students are led by Virgil Green, a black man with a white beard in a green robe who chased the snakes off the islands. A recognizable and undiluted splash of Ireland distinguishes Sheridanian monastic culture from any other. It also meshes with what we know about the Sheridanians: they worship birds, they must hate snakes. I considered naming him Virgil O’Sean, like Virgil Ocean, but Virgil Green will work for now.

The inclusion of hallucinogens could potentially be problematic. I wouldn’t write a story about people tripping on Ayahuasca, for instance, because that’s a real plant with real religious connotations. I think bugs are the perfect substitute: putting bugs in your mouth is gross, and smoking them just seems worse, so they should instill within the reader a sense of religious taboo without directly referencing existing religions. In America anti-smoking campaigns are so drilled into us as children that cigarettes and bugs can be thought of as occupying the same level of our abstract mental hierarchy of do’s and don’t’s. Plus, birds eat bugs. I’ll bet the Sheridanian Big Birds could swallow a centipede.

The islands we’re exploring are meant to convey meaning without stepping on anyone’s toes. Rather, I step on so many toes that the pressure is dispersed between them. I hope my use of other cultures allows my story to tap into universal themes, rather than alienate readers.

The red card-stock pamphlet suggested featherprints from the Biggest Bird’s act of creation could be seen in all cultures and religions; therefore Akayama DanJay’s end-goal is to re-contextualize the concept of religion as a lingering memory of epic cosmic events featuring giant anime space robots and giant birds. I think universe-sized anime robots are the perfect vehicle for such galactic battles as those in Paradise Lost and the Bhagavad Gita. We’ll talk about those when the time comes!

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