Monday, 5 November 2012

But but but...You're reading it wrong. Again!

....Or the strange case of Dr Walid's phenotype.

Last week I idly started a fantasy casting blog/twitter thingie which not only provided many happy hours of procrastination but also threw up loads of names that I’d never considered before. But the really interesting result was what happened when I asked for suggestions for the character of Dr Walid.

I got many suggestions for many fine actors, amongst them Ben Kingsley, and the one thing they all had in common was they were all ethnically Asian(1), Arabic or Middle Eastern. Hooray for diversity I hear you say and hurrah indeed were it not for the fact that Dr Walid is neither ethnically Asian, Arabic or Middle Eastern.

Here is the passage where Peter first meets our illustrious Cryptopathologist.

I was introduced to Abdul Haqq Walid, a spry, gingery man in his fifties who spoke with a soft Highland accent. (Rivers of London, p67)

Dr Walid is a white Scot from Oban, his family are observant members of the Church of Scotland, and he converted to Islam when studying medicine at Edinburgh. I often refer to him as ‘Gastroenterology’s answer to Cat Stevens,’ after Yusif Islam who likewise converted in the late 1970s and like Walid he took an Arabic name when he did so.

Readers read books much faster than writers write them and can miss details as they go. Obviously many readers read the name Abdul Haqq Walid and immediately superimposed Ben Kingsley on the character before they’d even finished the sentence. They did this because western culture has a hard time separating Islam, the religion, from a bundle of distinct ethnicities (Asian, Middle Eastern and Arab).

So now a quick digression followed by some waffle.

A Digression
My favourite TV drama example of this kind of stupidity comes in The State Within by Lizzie Mickery and Dan Percival during which the US Government decides to lock up or deport (I forget which) all British Muslims. Now leaving aside the constitutionality of such a move – how the fuck would they know of which British passport holders are Muslims? Religion is not specified on the passport and that information is not gathered for any British (or as far as I know US) form of identification.

There’s a scene where a British Muslim couple nervously approach a checkpoint, we know they are Muslim because they’re Asian and nervous, but how would the officer’s at the checkpoint know they were Muslims. By their ethnicity – they could have been Hindi’s, Jains, Christians, Sihks, Jews or, god forbid, atheists. By their names? Many Asian Muslims have Arabic names but many do not, many non-Muslims have Arabic names – my son for example – you run across many non-Muslims with Arabic names especially if they or their parents are from West Africa.

None of this is raised by any of the characters in the TV series because for the writers and production crew Islam was an ethnicity not a globe spanning religion. Once the US Government had made the decision to deport them they’d be easy to spot – no worries.

Some Waffle
I can't help wondering that I could have avoided the confusion if I had written the sentence as... I was introduced to a spry, gingery Scot called Abdul Haqq Walid. Would the whole gingery Scot stereotype have overcome the Muslim as ethnic group stereotype? I can't tell and that's the problem. 

You see I deliberately made Dr Walid a convert in part to work against that stereotype (in other part because he insisted on looking like Robin Cook in my imagination) so should I have hammered the point home a bit harder? Some argue that a writer has a responsibility to judge their audience reaction when tackling sensitive topics like religion and ethnicity but by what margin of overkill do you need to put into your writing to ensure everyone gets it? Is it even desirable that everyone gets it?

As my friend Andrew says - it'll just be a lovely surprise for everyone if they make a TV series.

(1) That’s South Asian in American English.

28 comments:

randomly-rusted said...

I saw the ginger bit but it didn't really register and the constant use of the name did make me think he was some form of Asian or African or Arabic.

Even the "home to Scotland" stuff made me think he was a 2nd gen immigrant.

Perhaps a couple more references to his colouring? To remind people?

Mark said...

It just has to be Ronald Pickup.

Really enjoying these fantasy cast ideas

Jodi said...

Hmmm I don't remember reading anything about the "converting in med school" thing; fantasy readers are pretty obsessive, we remember these little things. It's also a sufficiently unusual thing to do that it'd stick in peoples' minds. The ginger was only mentioned once, whereas the name is mentioned all the time, so that can't help.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

The stuff about university hasn't been in the books yet.

Leslie said...

Cast David Tennant, he could use his real accent, and he wanted to be ginger...

But seriously, for maximum impact, go with an audience-viewpoint character about half-way through who does a comical 'but...but...' double take at being introduced to the Dr. Bonus points if Peter admits to being amused every time it happens. This is one way to cement Walid's actual ethnicity in people's mind's eyes. (Stops, counts apostrophes.)

Just for the love of god do not do as one fantasy novel I had the misfortune to read did. This author had apparently been told to use adjectives as often as possible, however he only had a limited number of said adjectives, which got very repetitive and tiresome within two pages. "The little queen" "the tiny queen" "the petite queen" OVER AND OVER AND OVER, OH MY GOD, I get it, she's TINY. Christ almighty, give it a rest.

Sorry to rant, I'm better now.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

That was Cenedra in the Belgariad and I claim my prize.

Leslie said...

Did I mention she had red hair? *mimes shooting self in the head*

Mark said...

Oh and if not Pickup, persuade Sylvester McCoy to go ginger for you ;)

fhtagn said...

I confess, a Ben Kingsley-alike was what I imagined. Growing up in Scotland, accent and ethnicity are not particularly coupled there *at all*. Katie Leung (Cho in those daft Potter films), were you to hear her voice shorn of her image, would doubtless put you in mind of a the stereotypical Weegie. For some reason, Scotland is blessed by wiping the slate clean that way. Besides, yon ghostie refers to him as a Mohamedan and since he's from a period and social class which would be more likely to perceive Islam as an ethnicity ...

Ben Aaronovitch said...

All that is true and yet I thought the ginger aspect would be a clue. I'd forgotten about the other use of the word gingery.

LauraJ said...

It's been MANY years since I read the Belgariad and I knew that was CeNedra after the second epithet. She worried about being perceived as flat-chested too. (Sorry. Entirely agree with ranter. ) Rather unusually for me, I think I actually took all the descriptions of the characters to heart (and about half of the suggestions for Peter are too dark, since we know he looks like Obama).
I'm not much help even with American actors, but more of your lot look like people instead of Botoxed cybermen. And are allowed to have regional accents, despite the UK being smaller than the US.

Hold a good thought for the elections tomorrow, I'm left of left-of-center (I believe that makes me a damp Tory in your money, I know) and miserably worried.

Kate said...

The "gingery" registered as "gingerly" and I imagined him to be a small, wiry and animated Arab who had been adopted as a child into a Scottish family, hence the accent. :-) The stories our minds immediately make up to explain a contradicting perception are really interesting.

Ian Monroe said...

It seems like a world with overt magic would end up having a 'one true religion'. As-in all matter spiritual can be scientifically verified. In this case I'd say Shinto and other similar religions win, the rest sorry, try again next continuity.

So in other words, why the heck is Dr. Walid a convert? Though I suppose Sufism might jive pretty well the reality of this universe. Maybe it's a tradition of magic even. But it certainly isn't the obvious choice.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

1. I'm not sure your central assumption -->'As-in all matter spiritual can be scientifically verified.'<-- holds in the Follyverse.

2. Dr Walid converted when he was a student (spoiler) time before he discovered the existence of Newtonian magic.

3. Lack of evidence does not seem a bar to belief in this universe I don't see why it would be different in the Follyverse.

Paul Martell-Mead said...

I registered "gingery" and understood he was ethnically Scottish but religiously Islamic. Possibly you needed to have a character do a doubletake to reinforce this though.

As an (ex) Londoner converts to Islam are not alien to me, though none of the ones I'm met have changed names. Perhaps less cosmopolitan readers found it harder to understand?

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Like you Peter is used to converts, Nightingale has known him for ages, Seawoll wouldn't do a double take if you paid him and Lesley follows the lead of Peter.

I overestimated the obviousness of the point I was making. That's life I suppose.

Danica said...

I listened to the audio books. Instead of my eyes running over words and getting ahead of myself, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's excellent narrating lets me pay attention to the little things. I've never imagined Dr. Walid as anything but a ginger.

Annie Demosthenous said...

I missed the ginger reference, but then again I got so hooked on the novel that I read it all in one sitting and finished at 6am, so I doubt that helped. I did have the sense that I didn't know what Dr Walid looked like when I was reading the later books, I guess it's because he is a supporting character so he isn't around that frequently. But I like the fact that none of the characters are excessively described, it means there is actually space for the plot to go somewhere :)

Unknown said...

Given that red hair is found in parts of North India / Pakeistan, I hadn't seen 'ginergy' as necessarily excluding a South Asian ethnicity (and I'd evidently missed the other references). While I'm happy to have been corrected, I'm not happy to now be seeing Robin Cook. I think I'll endevaour to see Colin Tierney instead.

Caro said...

I think, for Americans there are several factors. One is, until Harry Potter, many people (and most of the kids) had not been exposed to ginger as a a concept. Not the hair color, and not the negative stereotype. What the kids have done with it in the Harry Potter fanfiction is amazingly horrifying--it's like Rowling gave them a new stereotype which they are prone to overuse. Anyway, ginger might have not registered as a hair color. If you's said red or strawberry blond, it would have imprinted.

Next is Oban. I'm old, and I had to go look it up, as geography is not one of my strengths. Coming cold onto it, a good many people might assume it is a Middle Eastern sounding name. I mean, for most Americans, the task of 'Name three cities in Scotland' is probably not possible unless you include Hogsmeade.

And frankly, there are probably even a few younger American readers who might not know that a Highland accent is a reference to Scotland.

So your description included enough clues for readers on your side of the pond, but not this one.

The details of the cultural mix of London/England/United Kingdom make fun and tasty bits in your novels. Sometimes we don't have enough cultural background to get all the references. I tried to imagine all of the characters while ruminating about this and decided that the other character folks might have trouble visualizing was Peter's dad. Are there cultural markers I've missed there, too? I just assumed he was white or partly so,but I could be wrong, eh?

Susan the Neon Nurse said...

Chiming in on Caro's comment. I accepted her challenge for thinking of three towns in Scotland. The only ones I could manage at first were Muir Island and Brigadoon. :/ She said she meant ACTUAL places. (Librarians are so picky.) I did finally think of Aberdeen and we figured Loch Ness had to have a town nearby....

Robert Harris said...

Hmm.. Couple of comments. I too thought he was a Middle Eastern or Pakistani Scot. Go to Edinburgh (yes, I realise not the Highlands), and there are tons of them with good Scottish accents. Took my American girlfriend quite by surprise! (Although not as much as the Brummie Indians). Even after the reference to all his Kirk-going relatives it took me a while to figure he must have been a convert.

Secondly - and this is probably not your fault - there are a few typos in the US Kindle version, but more irritatingly, in the first two books your character is Leslie, and in the third book she is Lesley. As you can imagine, it REALLY REALLY bothered me. What happened? I assume the US spelling police unilaterally decided to change it (until the third volume?).

OK rant over

Ben said...

I'm going to have to raise my hand and admit that I had completely missed him being white.

Living in Scotland, I'm used to second/third generation migrants with Scottish accents. And I took "gingery" to be in the vein of "Spirit and liveliness; vigor." (Dictionary.com).

Angel Jem said...

I think I liked the idea of him being a scottish accented asian more than the idea of Robin Cook. But Authors get to choose, while as a reader I can mentally edit the character to suit my preference and there's nothing authors can do about it; so I'm going for Hardeep Singh as being wrong both religiously and ethnically, but having a great character that would make Walid a really good screen presence when the TV series happens.

Unknown said...

It doesn't help that in the Italian translation Dr. Walid is described as a "lively and energetic" - or something like that - "man in his fifties"...

T Dibbler said...

I saw the Middle Eastern name, plus ginger hair, plus Scottish accent, and was a little confused, as gingery hair plus Middle Eastern names is not a combination I've encountered before (the Scottish part was fine). I figured he must have been bi-racial, or potentially had changed his name upon converting, or had parents who just liked the sound of the name, or any of a number of possible reasons, so I've been waiting for an explanation to crop up (admittedly, I'm only about halfway through book 2 so far). But now I know the reason; thanks for explaining. :)

whitehound said...

Eh, well, there's a significant Gaelic-speaking Asian community in the Hebrides so Scots would tend to assume Walid was one of them.

roisindubh211 said...

I missed the "ginger" bit when I read the description of Dr Walid, and assumed his race based on his name (I kind of pictured him like chef Tony Singh, who's Scottish with Indian parents). I was veeery confused by his conversation with Peter about going back to Oban for Christmas!

I think if the doctor had changed his first name but not his last I'd have picked it up sooner.