This past weekend I was on the following panel at WFC:
Urban Fantasy—Beyond the Usual Suspects
It seems as if most urban fantasy uses the familiar European myths. What other possibilities are there? Which authors have successfully exploited them?
A number of us had grievances with the direction the panel ended up going in, so I'm officially hosting Take Two right here. We hammered the "cultural appropriation" angle to death -- again -- so I'm not looking to hash that one out. Instead, here are some of the things I wanted to talk about and didn't really get to. I'll put my questions up front, then my personal views behind a cut (for length); feel free to respond to the questions and/or pose your own in the comments.
1) What are the benefits of going outside "the familiar European myths"? What do we gain, as writers or readers, by looking to other parts of the world?
2) What are the downsides? Aside from the issue of appropriation, what drawbacks or challenges result from going further afield?
3) I posited briefly in the panel that you can imagine a spectrum, ranging from American Gods-style globalized, multicultural cross-over, to setting-specific approaches that firmly ground the supernatural and mundane elements in a locality. Benefits and drawbacks? Preferences, and if so, why?
4) Who has done this well? What other cultures do they draw on, and why do you say they're done well?
5) Who's done it badly? Even if you don't want to name names, what kinds of mistakes bug you?
6) If we're moving away from European sources, where are we moving to? (We touched on this briefly at the end of the panel, but I'd like to discuss it in more detail.)
1) It's hard to find a way to phrase this that doesn't sound like I'm fetishizing the exotic, but I want something different, dammit. There are other modes of belief, other ways of viewing the world, other ways of creating symbolic meaning, than just those originating in Western Europe. I think it's good for me to seek out that kind of mental flexibility, rather than resting comfortably in my defaults.
2) You may not get your readers to follow you. The names and terms will be unfamiliar; the concepts may be hard to grasp, or even repugnant. I'm working on some Mesoamerican-styled fantasy in short stories right now because it's alien enough that I'm not sure I could get a reader to stick with me the length of a novel. (I don't think Marella Sands' books sold terribly well.) But if I push the envelope a bit on a shorter scale, hopefully I'll make some headway toward it.
Also, the more unfamiliar something is, the harder it will probably be to research it. I can get my hands on a book about British faerie lore by sticking my hand blindly on a shelf at a bookstore; if I want to talk about sub-Saharan Africa, my task will be harder.
3) As much as I like the globalizing approach, I would dearly love to see more localized urban fantasies set in other parts of the world. Of course, the difficulty there is that you probably need to live in a city, or at least give it an intensive visit, to represent it fairly and plausibly. But I'd gladly shell out money for an Indian urban fantasy set in Mumbai, or a Japanese one in Kyoto, or a Kenyan one in Nairobi. Don't just rip the interesting concept out and stick it in America; leave it there and show me what role it could play in modern life at home.
4) and 5) Honestly, I'll leave these for other people to answer. I haven't read a broad enough range of urban fantasy to have a list at hand. The most I can really say is that I was disappointed Lukyanenko's Night Watch et al used such generic supernatural creatures, and that I really need to find the time to read fellow panelist Ekaterina Sedia's A Secret History of Moscow, which I have suspected for months now is exactly the antidote I'm looking for.
6) China and Japan. I don't think these trends operate independently of what's going on more broadly in our lives; as those countries continue to grow in importance to American pop culture (as I think they will), I expect we'll see more Asian-based urban fantasy, specifically those countries. After that? I don't know, but my money and hope would be India. Especially since it's got such a high percentage of English speakers. A good urban fantasy based on Indian materials could, I imagine, sell like hotcakes, and I'd buy one in a heartbeat.
I'd love to see more African/Caribbean material, but I fear the political tensions surrounding such books here in America mean I won't really see it happen any time soon.
Pitch in. We don't have a time limit here; we can go as long as we like.