Monday, September 21, 2009

Strangers in strange lands

I read an article about these kinds of characters, and wondered for a moment why I hadn’t written about this before. Just for a moment, though, because then I realized that I’ve been an expatriate (and sort of exile) myself. More than once, too. No surprise that I’m so close to the topic that it never occurred to me to write about it.

Also, I haven’t read too many speculative fiction novels where the main character has been exiled from his homeland or has left it voluntarily. The first examples which came to mind were R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy and Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn. I’d like to find more (or write more), because now that I come to think about this, there’s a lot of potential in this setup.

1. Different customs

Characters in a very different society and culture are fish out of water. They have strange ways of thinking, alien habits and beliefs, all of which can cause problems. One of the disappointing aspects of Jean Auel’s The Shelters of Stone is how easily the heroine fits in with the Cro-Magnons despite being raised by Neanderthals.

When I went to Sri Lanka for a visit, my extended family told me not to eat cucumbers while I had a cold (I ate them anyway). We won’t get into all the things I should or should not have done three days out of the month.

2. Assimilation and adaptation

How do exiles and expatriates feel about this? Do they cling to what they once knew, or do they embrace all or most aspects of their new land? I fall into the latter category, which of course means that I don’t fit in with my original culture. Can’t have it both ways.

On the other hand, in speculative fiction, it may not be so easy to fit in. The biological or social differences may be too great to bridge. What if the refugees or expatriates were not fertile with any of the people of their new land? The two races would always be distinct – and there would be no sub-class of half-breeds – but what would happen to people who fell in love with a member of another race anyway?

3. An equal and opposite reaction

I love seeing how people securely established in another land react to foreigners who are there to stay – and how the governments of those lands respond as well.

There’s no need for them to value diversity; they’re not twenty-first century First World countries. Maybe they place much more of an emphasis on absorbing these new people, and so they make exiles and expatriates change their names to sound more native. These could be major changes or small adaptations. For instance, my first name is Marian, but perhaps if I moved to France it would be Marie and if I went to ancient Rome it would be Maria.

Maybe they insist that fugitives convert to the state religion, or at least pay lip service to it. I have an idea for a future story where a character moves to another land that has a powerful and controlling state religion; he refuses to convert to it even though he knows that will ensure a lifetime of menial work for him. But there’s a certain secret order of guards that is always comprised of twelve of the Faithful and one atheist…

4. A place in society

Exiles and expatriates might have a much-needed place in a new land. When I lived in the Middle East, for instance, most of the blue-collar work was done by people from the Subcontinent. And it probably still is.

These people might not be given the kinds of rights or privileges that one would expect in a First World country – for instance, no matter how long or hard they work, they’ll never get citizenship in those countries – and they’re sometimes treated badly. But they earn better money than they’ll get in their native countries. My parents could never have afforded to send me to college in the States if they hadn’t worked for years in Dubai.

In my world of Eden, Iternans are never expatriates, since their native land does not permit any of its citizens to leave its borders unless they are tracking fugitives. However, because Iternans have powerful magic, other lands hire them as sorcerers (until of course they’re hunted down and dragged back to their homeland to face trial for leaving it).


Hazardgal said...

A meaningful thread to be sure. I have lived in many states in the U.S. and know all about assimilation. This gives me something to ponder for my writing on a dreary Monday.

A. Shelton said...

I have a highly formal country which "adopts" the foreign spies and navy members who are caught. These "adoptees" are placed in rural locations and left to their own devices while under pretty much constant surveillance by the local native populace. The thinking is that every "adoptee" they capture is one less man able to invade the country later, but the "adoptees'" lack of interest in embracing their "adoptive" country's ways makes for many enemies, which sometimes include not only the "adpotees" themselves, but their half-breed children. As a result, there's a higher number of these foreigners and half-breed descendants of them who are in the Convict Army.

I should probably write the story of one of these men.

Randall said...

In my current WIP, I have the heroes encounter a group of refugees who need directions to the heroes' homeland. They pretty much just pass through the story, but the heroes are left speculating what will happen to them . . .

fairyhedgehog said...

One of the things I love about Doris Egan's The Gate of Ivory is that she includes at least three different cultures in the experience of the main character and shows how difficult it is to adapt to other cultures and what happens when you do.

Mary Witzl said...

Ooh, you're singing my music here! I love stories about expatriates -- or stories about people who look out of place even though they really aren't -- or who look as though they belong when they don't. One of my WiPs is a story about adult expatriates and how hard it is for them to figure out where they belong and why.

As for your parents working in Dubai, I remember reading in one of V S Naipaul's books about the dearth of capable people in some Middle-eastern countries, neatly filled by sub-continentals who knew what to do with things like rawl plugs and light bulbs. I've heard of electrical engineers who got jobs in UAE doing simple construction work. Sad, but perhaps not if you can send your kids to college on your savings!

Marian Perera said...

Hi Marge,

I lived for four years in Georgia and then in Texas. In both states, though, I was in very cosmopolitan cities where I didn't feel any pressure to fit in or change much about myself.

I'd really like to see what kind of subtle or not-so-subtle influences are applied to immigrants in that regard.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Mary,

Yes, I thought the topic might appeal to you. :)

When it comes to jobs, Dubai is... Dubai. Basically, don't expect fairness and don't expect to get something suited to your education if you're from Asia.

But you can expect to earn a lot of money. I was able to make enough to pay my way to Canada and support myself here until I got a job, so in the end things worked out. One reason I'm pursuing Canadian citizenship, though, is because I never want to be in the powerless position as I was in Dubai.

Marian Perera said...

Hey fairyhedgehog, thanks for the recommendation. Will check it out when I have a moment.

I like the title of the book as well.

Randall, what will happen to them? I'm kind of curious now...

Barbara Martin said...

I found your post very interesting, as in my WIP I have a human who has unknowingly entered into an alternative universe where she thinks she is mingling with other humans. Marian, you have nicely provided me with more fodder for my manuscript.