Author Topic: The Evocation of Place  (Read 2732 times)


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The Evocation of Place
« on: October 13, 2017, 06:41:54 PM »
The Evocation of Place
By Jubal

Hello, Exilians! Today I’m going to talk about a writing phenomenon called evocation of place, and look at how we create places and use limited sets of markers as cultural filler in our work, as well as thinking about what gives those markers that power and how we can use it (and avoid misusing it) better.

To start with, let’s meet a few examples…

Iuri looked over the fence and out over the snow-covered wilderness beyond, a wasteland of tall trees and scattered rocks that seemed to stretch out into some forgotten eternity. He had a name for the wilderness, and the name was “home”.

The sun glinted on the Ariazza, the city’s guardian statue of a golden lion, as a long, sleek galley flew past it and out of the city’s harbour. The flag of the republic flew proud above the mast, and aboard the ship, a small company of men stowed their pikes and boxes of crossbow bolts and settled down for the voyage.

Her name was Siabhe, and she was a witch. She’d known it since she was six, and had felt the call as she walked across the moor past one of the cairns; she certainly knew it now as she stood atop the hill, her red hair fluttering in an autumn breeze that bit and whipped around her ankles as it shot inland from a grey, angry sea.

These three vignettes each give an opening paragraph that a European/N American reader can probably ‘place’ even though not a single place-name is mentioned. It’s an inherent feature of writing that, in general, cultures are evoked rather than described. Our own cultural learning and understanding of the real world fills in a lot of the gaps. In the second quote, how did you imagine the buildings around the harbour? You probably guessed that they were made of stone, and that the country was warm. I didn’t need to spell those things out, let alone use the

You don't necessarily need to say "Venice" to conjure up the image...
word “Venice” to drop you into something you might have recognised as evocative of an Italian city-state. Iuri’s pseudo-Russian and Siabhe’s pseudo-Celtic evocations function similarly – Siabhe, for example, you probably imagined wearing something woollen, but from what I’d written she could just as well have been in full plate mail, or a toga, or a grass skirt. The culture, once evoked by her witchcraft and the cairns and her hair colour, fills in around her.

There are some key elements it’s worth picking out as being critical to creating evocations. Names are a classic one, because different languages may well have familiar spelling and naming patterns. Regionally specific items/markers are a second – a hat could exist anywhere, but a torc, or a toga, or a camel, or an elk, all give a regional specificity that gives the reader pegs to hang their ideas about a place on. Climate is a third: had I replaced the word “snow” with “sand” in Iuri’s passage, the entire feel and evocation of place changes dramatically. It’s worth thinking about all these when you introduce new places, as they allow relatively sparse fragments of text or hints to build up a much wider picture for the reader.

This “evocation of place” is one of the most powerful – and dangerous – tools in the hands of a writer. Fictional cultures, whilst never being perfect analogies of real ones, are in general constructed from rearranging elements we know and understand, with additional twists, additions, and edits. Fictional cultural development is, in short, usually a process of editing rather than first-principles creation. This is why evocations of place are so useful in narratives or in the visual look of a person or place; they act as cultural filler without the author having to spend laborious extra time fleshing out more detail, and, allowing the writer to unfold any additional elements at their own pace.

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to not evoke places as a writer, because we construct our worlds in the way described above – a set of evocations of places and cultures are operating in our heads as much as on the page. There are, however, great risks to the use of these techniques, and ones we should think about more carefully. Let’s look at a couple more evocations of place:

They called the child Vakhtang when he was born – after a hero from half-forgotten days, from before the world had turned and the Kadjis had been driven back into the wilderness. He grew tall upon the mountainside, and learned the name and call of the planets and the whip-crack of a hunting bow and the whoosh and sound of the long rushing river that curled and snaked a thousand miles to some far-off sea.

She was as big as a great boulder, and strong – not just in the force of her muscles, but in all she radiated from her, in the sharp ambition of her eyes, in her voice and cry and all that she was. A thousand camels were kept in her fields, a giant guarded her gate, and they called her Dahabo, for there was little she liked more than the gathering of gold.

Many people from North America or Europe (as I am myself) might have struggled to place these two, despite them if anything being more specific than the first three. The first is from the Caucasus nation of Georgia – Vakhtang Gorgasali, the wolf-head, was one of their earliest semi-mythic kings, and the warrior-wizard Kadjis are the villains of the greatest medieval Georgian epic, the Knight in Panther Skin. The second is heavily Somali – beside the Somali name Dahabo, giants and camels are both prominent in Somali myth, and the description here of Dahabo is quite a close analogy to some descriptions of the warrior-queen Araweelo, the central character of one of the main cycles of traditional Somali tales.

A modern statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali, from Georgia Guide
People find these evocations harder to place because they are unfamiliar with the cultures being evoked – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with being unfamiliar with things, unfamiliarity is an opportunity to learn which is great. It does, however, lead to a more troubling realisation – that cultural evocations work only so far as the reader’s cultural understandings go, and that if those understandings are vague or wrong or unhelpful, evocation of place can rapidly become evocation of stereotype.

Older Anglosphere literature is certainly saturated with these sorts of evocations of false or constructed ideas of places, especially in colonial contexts - the “jungle savages” evocation being one of the most common. These more extreme examples may be easy to avoid, but modern writers often fall down such traps as well, especially if trying to evoke a place with limited words. Genericising to evoke “east Asia” or “Africa” is easy for western audiences and writers, all of whom have usually grown up with genericised ideas of those areas, but it’s an absurd thing to do. It insults readers’ intelligences and dims their curiosity; if someone is capable of understanding that evoking Germany and France, which share a border, involve cultural differences, it’s hardly a stretch to appreciate that Somalia and South Africa, separated by about 1600 miles at their closest points, might also do so. Worse, it can condemn the interesting things about those cultures, and the genius of entire peoples past and present, to be lost in incoherent continental homogenisations.

These blinkers of experience and genericisation of the other are not new things in human understanding – nor indeed are they fundamentally a creation of the colonial period. Colonial era literature and ideas did, however, redraw those boundaries of where could be genericised, and subsequent globalisation has often led to those ideas being exported even to areas that were less involved in the active periods of military colonialism themselves. A good starting point when thinking about counteracting this is just to compare to some cultural areas you know better – if the place you think you’re evoking seems unfeasibly or weirdly large, it probably is. We should recognise that and think about the places and contexts we’re evoking in our work. I don’t think there’s an option to avoid evocation or simply ignore/obliterate cultures that we don’t understand as creators – such an approach tends to ignore the impacts of those cultures on our own and erase people and ideas by whose inclusion we are strengthened in our work.

If you’re a creator - and this goes for musicians and game developers and artists as much as writers, because cultural contexts are very much multi-sensory things - challenge yourself to think more about the places you evoke, what elements of a scene you use to invoke them and where they come from in your own mind. What elements, what learning, did you use to inform that scene and that creation? If – as I have done on numerous occasions – you decide that your basis looks rather threadbare, then it’s a great time to do some reading and discover more (especially from writers native to any culture you’re looking at) about what you’re working with. Your readers or users, your writing, and your world may just get a little bit better as a result.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...