books · discussions · shanti

Wanted: Settings from Elsewhere (ideally, ownvoices)

Good day, Virtually Readers! (I’m trying to mix up the greeting, clearly at risk of sounding like a stuck up 19th century nobleperson) I love love love talking about settings (did The Bookish Planet or my guest post at The Silver Words clue you in?) so today I thought I’d talk about why I’m sick of some settings. (I kind of alluded to this in my North of Happy post) Also, why setting matters so much. I kind of did this in my ‘exotic’ post, but you know, it’s been a while and I’ve had more ideas. So.

ownvoiceset.jpg

Firstly, some settings I’m sick of

  • small town America
  • New York
  • LA
  • Medium sized town America
  • Boston
  • Rural America
  • actually anywhere in America
  • London
  • anywhere in Europe if the character is not European
  • Cruise ships
  • magical islands
  • magical forests
  • Medival European fantasy worlds

These settings aren’t inherently bad. There are a lot of people who live there—in fact, that probably includes most of the people who read and buy YA. But for me, who has never been to America, who hasn’t spent much time in Europe, I find that these settings don’t describe my lived experience. That’s fine. I have a vivid imagination; I can imagine myself in those places. In fact, at this point, I basically feel like I’ve been there. But I wish that there were more settings outside these narrative boundaries.

What makes me really sad is when stories bend to these expectations. A story doesn’t have to be #ownvoices for setting, but I’ve seen New Zealand, Australian, British, Mexican and Indian writers set their stories in the US, when the settings could just have been the countries they come from, which I’d prefer. I don’t know why this is; maybe they write it that way, maybe the setting proved a point, maybe the publisher asked for it. But it seems like a power imbalance to me.

When you belong to the setting you’re writing, it’s going to be more authentic. It’ll have details that generic, nameless settings won’t. That makes a difference to me, even if it’s not a setting I’m familiar with.

So I’m going to segway into part two: some settings that I do want to see more of—or that I wish existed.

  • South American settings/inspired tales. There are an okay number of Latinx characters in YA books, but very few Latin settings. Give me a story in the Yucatan peninsula or Bolivian highlands or Colombian coffee plantations or Atacama desert.
  • Sci-fi and dystopia that is outside of the US and is international. Something that always troubles me about dystopias like The Hunger Games and Divergent is that they never mention other countries. I want more stories like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (futuristic South Africa).
  • Contemporary Middle Eastern stories. This goes for China as well: there are lots of fantasies that use elements from these cultures, but I want more. (I’m very demanding)
  • More #ownvoices fantasy, with Pacifika people, or maybe Caribbean, like Brown Girl in the Ring.

I don’t really know what this post is about. The need for #ownvoices settings, I suppose. And that’s really on the publishing industry, what they decide is sellable. But readers are the ones who buy, and if I don’t buy bland American settings, if I buy ones like the ones I’ve described, or even ones I can’t imagine, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi or dystopia, I can make a difference.

I’m a good like individualistic capitalist. The corporations are fond of me. (Sorry, I’m reading Beauty Queens right now and anarchy is on the mind)

I have a lot more to say about setting and why it’s important to me but I have a lot more time to say it, so I’m going to leave this here.

Do you like your settings to be ownvoices? What’s a setting you’d love to read about? (and yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘the place where I live’) Tell me in the comments!

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35 thoughts on “Wanted: Settings from Elsewhere (ideally, ownvoices)

  1. YES!
    I live in America myself but I get SO BORED of the constant settings in America. Like pick somewhere else! Literally anywhere else is more interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So true! I don’t really read for setting, so it’s not as noticeable to me, but in my last post, I even snidely side-mentioned that almost all the books are set in semi-small-town America or New York. 😛 It would be really interesting to get some of these other cultures and places into YA.

    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbosityreviews.com

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    1. Setting is definitely just a part of a story and diversity, but yeah, anonymous small towns and New York are really disproportionately represented in all novels (at least ones in English), not just YA. Oh, and London as well. I guess this just means that I need to actively seek out books with different settings a bit more.

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  3. I’ve read more than once where an author had an interesting setting & they were told to change it before it was published to make it more “accessible” to a wider audience :/
    I live in small town America and I’m perfectly willing and happy to read a book set somewhere else. And I don’t need dialects and colloquial language Americanized for me either publishers, thank you very much.

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    1. I’ve never heard about that because it’s ridiculous. It’s a good reminder that publishing works as a business not a art form, and sometimes books have to change to fit ~the industry~ But that also means that as consumers we can seek better models, which is good. Language is part of setting too, but I thingk that some words (e.g. y’all in the American South) are overused.

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  4. I’m curious to see how this might be accomplished, especially if we were to talk about settings in South or Central America, for example. From what I am aware of, it takes a little time to get books spread around between the United States, Britain, and Australia, but it isn’t too difficult because the books are likely already in English. Meanwhile, if we’re picking an ownvoices book from South America, the book likely began in Spanish or Portuguese, and I don’t know what the YA industry looks like down there. I’m sure it’s easy to get a hold of translations from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but he’s a literary phenomenon and all that. It’s something I’d need to research more, but diffusing literature from language to language has always struck me as a complicated process unless the writer in question is already bilingual and spends time between cultures. I dunno.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you, it has a lot to do with the publishing industry. From people I’ve tlaked to and what I know, Indian publishing works quite differently (you very rarely would have an agent for one thing), and there doesn’t really seem to be a ‘quality’ (whatever that means) YA scene at least in English. It also comes down to the power imbalances with language–fluency in English is for the upper class, Hindi for the middle class, and regional languages for the poor (which is way simplified and South India is another story entirely). I think it’s harder to get stories translated into English (compared to from English) I’ve read a few German, Swedish, and French translations (plus Marquez), but not from any asian or African languages. Aaah, structural inequalities are a strange and powerfully insidious thing.

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  5. I really agree with the points about all dystopia basically being set in the USA, and being completely fed up with European medievalist high fantasy! The latter trope is sooooo lazy. I feel like authours just jump on it when they want a cardboard cut out magical courtly chivalrous world, and then so they often don’t bother to add enough of an original twist or realistic detail to make it anything other than just like, a really boring and shallow Grimm’s fairytale background… except way less dark than actual Grimm’s fairytales *cough Sarah J Maas cough*.

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    1. There’s a lot to creating a fantasy world, and it does feel like medieval Europe is easy, which means there are so many bland fantasy world,s I totally agree. S J Maas and a whole lot of other authors are really guilty of this.

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  6. As someone who lives on an island with a small-medium population, I completely relate to what you said about most settings not being your lived experience. I’ve never heard of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm but I’m definitely intrigued! As for the dystopias set in the US with no mention of the rest of the world: I like to pretend that the US descended into madness all on its own while the rest of the world just goes on with its life, waiting for the dystopia-tantrum to end.

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    1. Yeah, island experiences are another whole story. (though if you go to my Bookish Planet Islands post, you’ll find a whole list of literary islands, if you’re into that :)) The US probably has a nice self contained apocalypse becasue the severed diplomatic connections with everyone else, that must be it haha.

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  7. I think more books set in Australia would be awesome 🙂

    And concerning the dystopians being ALWAYS set in the USA… you’re right, those books never seem to mention other countries. So I like to imagine the rest of the world being like “meh, the US is so weird… we shall have some international peace and prosperity, and /they/ are not invited. that’s what you get for building a literal wall around yourself.”

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    1. I’d like to read more historical Australian books as well. I guess Justine Larbalestier wrote ‘Razorhurst, and I know of a couple kids book but still. Yeah, that’s probably what happens, all the American’s are suffering and the rest of the world deals with climate change or whatever and moves on.

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  8. This is ridiculously relatable!! One of the reasons I dislike dystopian is because in my head it’s inherently associated with being strictly American?? Which of course is ridiculously biased and unfair on my part. I just need to find me some good dystopian books which are set/talk about anywhere but America, seriously.

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    1. Dystopia shouldn’t just be American, right? That doesn’t make any sense. I like Juno of Taris (an island, then New Zealand), When We Wake (Australia) and The Windup Girl (Thailand) for non American dystopias if you need recommendations 🙂

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  9. I toootally agree. No offence to America, but I’m really sick of reading about it.😂 I want to read books set in ALL THE COUNTRIES. I basically could write an American book and have it sound authentic at this point and just aurghugugh I want to tread SOMETHING ELSE. When I started writing, I set my books in America because I thought that’s what you did. I WISH it was more common to find diverse settings. Also, I mean, Australia isn’t exactly considered a diverse place but where are my Aussie fantasies and dystopians?!? And I want more fantasy cultures that aren’t Western!! SO BADLY.

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    1. America is boring tbh. I don’t get that. I think I grew up not thinking about settings much, which made me rethink a lot of assumptions I had about the world. Frankly my experience is different in so many ways to the ones in books set in America, though obviously we’re all human and I can still empathise. Have you read When We Wake? It’s an Aussie dystopia, and Fleur Beale’s Juno of Taris series as second and third books in New Zealand.

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  10. Thanks for sharing, Shanti!
    I agree that there should be more diverse settings in literature. Why does so many stories need to take place in the US?
    As a Chinese-Canadian, I absolutely ADORE reading books that take place in Asia. I’ve seen a recent trend towards books featuring more diverse characters and settings, so I think that is a move for the better 🙂

    Cheers,
    Sophie

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    1. I know! I guess it has a lot to do with the publishing industry, which is geared towards middle-to-upperclass American concerns. love Asian settings too, in fantasy, dystopia, whatever. That’s one reason to like Cinder, I guess. I think the move towards diversity is great, though obviousliwy with some complications. Thanks for coming by 🙂

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  11. I love this post so, so much. I can barely ever relate to a setting in a book because all of the books are mostly set in all of the places you mention and since I live in France well…I never read a book set in France with a French character. I have read Anna and The French Kiss but yeah, it’s not exactly the same thing. Also, I would LOVE to read more books set in different countries like the ones you quoted. And yes, why are dystopian stories always in the US?! That’s weird ahah.

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    1. France is such a cool place, and I feel like most of the settings I see there are like ‘american girl visits france and fals in love’ which is a bit boring tbh. It’s by a Bitish author, but Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is an adult historical fiction set in Carcassone in the South of France, both in a historical setting and today. I liked it because I’ve actually been to that part of France. The US has been voted as ‘most likely to collapse in on itself’ by the YA writers society I guess haha.

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  12. Hey Shanti, this is a really good post and yes, we really need more #ownvoices books. Do you follow the #DiverseBookBloggers hashtag on twitter? That can give you a lot of great ownvoices books in a variety of settings. Also, there are some good bloggers out there who blog about such books, and can give you heaps of suggestions.

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    1. I like own voices books, but any well researched setting is fine with me. I know of the hashtag, but I don’t really follow it. Yeah, I keep an eye out for such blogs and books.

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  13. Oh yes, we really need more diverse settings! I mean, I’m fine with anything, but I’d rather read about a place I don’t know much about to broaden my knowledge. I’d LOOOVE to see some settings in Thailand, since that’s where my family comes from. I’d also like to see a setting in Texas (my state) and it’s NOT stereotypical. The only books I’ve read placed in Texas are Benjamin Alire Saénz’s two contemporaries, and since he lives in Texas it’s pretty accurate. XD Love this post, Shanti! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that books are a way to explore a place without actualy going there. The only book that I now of set in Thailand is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (an excellent, if gritty futuristic thailand but still). Benjamin Alire Saénz’s books are excellent. I just read The Inexplicable Logic of my LIfe and really enjoyed it.

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  14. Yessss we need more books set in South America because, let’s be honest, it’s the best continent 😉
    I totally agree with you here, way too many books are set in the US and it’s becoming pretty tiresome for me seeing as I’ve never been there either. What I really want is more African and Asian settings? Because I really want to learn more about those places.
    Great post 🙂
    Simi ~ simizat.wordpress.com

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    1. South America is pretty cool (though tbh, I’ve never been there. Hopefull one day!). Settings are a way to be exposed to the world, and it’s pretty sad to think that most YA readers are just being exposed to the US/ Western Europe. You might like Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton (Sub-Saharan Africa), or Jamila Gavin’s books, which are set in India.

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  15. I love this post!! While I do love being able to relate to so many stories (I live about an hour from Boston) it does get a little repetitive after a while. Settings are so important and can really make a story unique and interesting… bring on the different settings!! 🙂

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    1. That must be nice! I guess it’s a by product of an American-centred publishing industry, at least for YA, but settings are such a powerful part of a story, and I think they’re really important.

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  16. OH MY GOD SHANTI I LOVED THIS! I really believe settings should be ownvoices because it feels so authentic! I hate when books are always set in the US and I don’t relate at all! Recently, an Australian author was being interviewed and she shared how because her book was being published in the US (after it came out in Australia) she had to go through an entire editing process where she had to ‘un-Australianize’ the book and make it more suitable for American audiences and I hate how they have to do that because American books are never ‘Australianized’ before being published here.

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    1. Thanks, Anisha! Non own-voices settings are okay too–but most of the ones I see in books just feel SO overused. That’s ridiculous. Australian language is part of the setting, and it shows that there’s a bit of a power imbalance in the cultural exchange.

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