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Orientalism in literature

To preface this article – I’m not an expert. I would encourage you to seek other, more qualified, voices out, because there is such a thing as too many white voices in a discourse that doesn’t negatively affect us.

In this article I am offering my own personal conclusion to a very short article. All of the below is my personal opinion and I’m always learning and trying to be better.

What is Orientalism?

Orientalism was coined by Edward Said and is essentially how the West (Occident) have chosen to frame the East (Orient) as ‘backward’, ‘savage’, ‘exotic’, ‘erotic’ alongside ‘ill-treatment towards woman’ and being ‘dangerous’ plus many other similar words. Orientalism was about showcasing the West as more advanced (in all things) against a fictionalised and homogenised region of the world (which, in reality, covers many diverse cultures and people).

In his work Said summaries Orientalism as a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” You can extend the term (many have done, and I do in this article) to refer to the entirety of the geographical East including Asia and Russia.

I’m explicitly referring to Orientalism in this article, but it’s hard to divorce that from a range of other phenomenon. I am aware that Orientalism doesn’t happen in isolation and other factors including ‘othering’, colonialism, ‘white saviour’ (it’s not just a troupe, it is genuinely still an issue) as well as racist and religious prejudice feeds into all of this.

There is undeniably a European history of Orientalism through art, literature and film (plus many other areas!). Worse, there is a modern practice of this which is persuasive across every-day life and not just in the arts (Orientalism plays a part in Islamophobia, for example).

If you want some modern examples of Orientalism*:

· Disney’s Aladdin (think about it and have a look at some of the original lyrics)

· Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

· The Mummy film series

· Memoirs of a Geisha

· Ballet! Le Corsair and La Bayadere are both examples

· Reading Lolita in Tehran and Not Without My Daughter

· Elsa Marston’s books

· Also – this ad: http://www.muslimahmediawatch.org/2011/04/13/just-ugh/

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw a firm black and white line about whether something is an example of Orientalism or just a Western voice describing the East. For example, in my favourite series the author (British, white, also a historian) chooses to have her characters travel through a range of 16th Century countries including the Ottoman Empire and Russia. She gives very detailed descriptions of the countries including their advancements on Europe (art, literature, military prowess) as well as their flaws. She is fair and balanced in her descriptions, treating each country (European or otherwise) in the same way. On the other hand, her characters have ‘historically accurate’ prejudices and use offensive language. She also chooses to make the seraglio (a harem) a central part of the plot, which as accurately as it’s described, in the hands of a white author and for a western audience, is inevitably presented as ‘exotic’.

So, should all Western authors stop including narratives of the East in their work for fear of Orientalism? Some would say yes. In truth, Orientalism is so pervasive and ingrained in the psyche of Western Europe it would take a very self-analytical author and reader not to bring a sense of the ‘exotic’ or ‘othering’ into a book that features the East. In some cases, this can be used as a framing device for positive reflection. In others the line is blurry, and in many it’s just plain Orientalism.

I personally think the onus is on both the author and reader to recognise Orientalism. I don’t think it should mean a blanket ban on authors writing characters who are not from the West or including elements as long as it’s done sensibly. It’s also important to acknowledge an ‘own voice’ element here. For example, including a Chinese character (done with proper consideration and research) is not the same as writing a story about an experience that can only be fully realised as a Chinese person. Fiction can be a blurry area (in that it’s made-up) but when writing about a realistic experience, the framing and understanding of it is crucial and it’s very important to do it properly. And that’s where it’s usually best left in the hands of the experts; those who have experienced it.

Well Red Reviews

*Credit to Curtis Chagnon (https://prezi.com/xtpm6edlucdu/examples-of-orientalism-in-western-pop-culture/#:~:text=Examples%20of%20Orientalism%20include%20the,just%20to%20name%20a%20few.) and a general google which helped me out with this list!

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