Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing Past the Stereotypes

Not long ago, I read an article on Mulholland Books’ website: a conversation between mystery authors Zoë Ferraris (a past guest on this blog) and David Corbett about “the invisible hero,” the protagonist in fiction who breaks down cultural stereotypes. Both these authors know what they’re talking about: Ferraris writes a series featuring a conservative Muslim man in Saudi Arabia (Finding Nouf and City of Veils), while Corbett’s novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, is about illegal immigrants in California. Their discussion centered around the idea that stereotypes get reinforced by the power of repetition. And so you end up with the grim Muslim fundamentalist, the slick Colombian drug lord, the bigoted redneck.

Or the Iranian terrorist.

I understand where the negative Iranian stereotypes come from, in the United States at least. Images of hostages parading across our TV screens, day after day, for over a year, have left persistently negative pictures engraved in our collective psyche. It’s little wonder that many Iranians would rather refer to themselves as Persians, a word that paints pictures of beautiful carpets and fluffy cats, rather than crowds of angry people yelling “down with America.” It’s that old power of repetition.

I see culture as a series of layers, with the “weird” stuff on the outside. Each time you peel away a layer, you get closer to that core where we are all the same—that place where we fall in love, grapple with insecurities, fret over jobs, money, and our children’s future.

When done well, fiction is ideal for peeling away these layers because it places readers right in the head of a protagonist who may eat unfamiliar food and speak a language we don’t understand, but who also struggle with the same universal emotions we all feel.

If you’ve followed my posts on Novel Adventurers for long, you’ll know that I write fiction set in Persian culture. The protagonist of my series is a female private investigator, born in Tehran, raised in California. In creating her, I wanted to explore the world of a woman who lives in two cultures yet doesn’t feel entirely at home in either one. She feels more American when she’s in Iran and more Iranian in California. This reflects how I’ve felt for much of my life, because I’m not a casual traveler. One week in a foreign city is not enough for me; I need months or even years. Which means that returning home can bring a cultural adjustment I never bargained for.

But I’m not Iranian, so I worried about stereotypes. I write crime fiction, after all, which means that criminals, thugs, and other nasties crop up from time to time. Am I just reinforcing the negative view of Iran?

In writing Bad Hejab, the novel I recently turned in to my agent (and set in Iran), I broke two rules I’d set for myself in writing about Persian culture: no politics and no religion. Both could easily trap me into perpetuating more negative stereotypes. Yet, I had a villain who just wouldn’t quit: a fanatical Basij militiaman who is confident that his powerful political allies will always help cover up his crimes. He had all the makings of an Islamic thug with very little to redeem him. But without this villain, I didn’t just have a weak story. I had no story at all.

For several drafts, I searched high and low for some way to make this man more complex or at least a bit interesting, a task further complicated by the political protests that followed the 2009 Iranian elections. Real-life Basij militiamen wielding clubs, and sometimes Kalashnikovs, were beating up protesters and shooting into crowds of unarmed people. It became even harder to see my villain as anything but a government-approved thug.

Until I looked past the images on my TV screen and remembered the Basijis I’d seen on the streets of Tehran, handing out free pastries and tea on religious holidays. And they are often the first responders in natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Nothing is ever as simplistic as it seems at first glance, and I found ways to make my Basiji complex, conflicted, and something more than a religious fanatic with a heavy baton and hard, cold eyes.

Whether or nor not I’ve accomplished this is for others to say. But I hope I’ve peeled away enough cultural layers for my readers to see past the stereotypes and enjoy a good story at the same time.


  1. Yours is an interesting dilemma, but as I've always said, your books are must reads because they open up all the humanity and complexity of this fascinating culture we need to understand beyond the headlines. Can't wait for everyone else to get to read your books too.

  2. This is an interesting topic. I think there is a way to use stereotypes to our benefit. If you have a character who is meant to merely do his part and never be seen again in the story, an "extra" if you will, then make him stereotypic. This way, the reader will pay less attention to the character and more to his function in the story. If you want a character to be memorable, then it's ok to start with a stereotype provided you shake him up a lot and give him a twist - a really good twist that makes the reader pause. We don't pause for stereotypes. We don't read on for stereotypes.

  3. Interesting, Rebecca! I actually do stop reading when I come across stereotyped characters, even the minor ones, unless they are turned around lickety split or are used in a unique way (such as to be ironic maybe). Maybe I need to lighten up. :)

  4. Very interesting point, Rebecca. I think you're right that not every character needs to be fully fleshed out and humanized, depending on the author's intent. I meant something slightly different, though. I see Middle Easterners portrayed as negative stereotypes in popular culture, and it's an image that doesn't fit with the way I see Iranians.