Culture: Moving Beyond Set Dressing

by Kanishk Tantia

This essay is the fifth of eight in the Publishing Taught Me: A SFWA Anthology Project.

The first story I ever wrote was unabashedly my own: written with unfiltered childlike enthusiasm, completed within a single draft and, to my eyes, perfect upon completion. Two donkeys killed each other because one was purple and the other brown, and their bodies blocked a rickety bridge. A nearby settlement relied on the bridge for access to food and water, and with their only access point blocked, the settlement starved and died. I was eight, and never told anyone about it because I was anxious they would then ask to read it.

Now, I would do many things differently. I’d probably add more characterization, rework the bones of the story, and make it a little less unbelievable. Or more unbelievable, perhaps. What I wouldn’t change is my voice. I wish I could capture it again: the weirdness, the unfiltered honesty, and the lack of self-consciousness I had back then. Even if I was anxious with others, I was never anxious with myself.

(By the way, I have no idea why the starving settlement didn’t move the donkeys or build a bridge. There’s no deeper meaning there; maybe they just didn’t think about it.)

Set dressing, when applied to plays, is functional and fundamental. On the stage, set dressing is the furniture: the worn couch with frayed seams, the blue curtains that symbolize depression, and the painted vase which will shatter in Act 3. In stories, I use set dressing as indicators, things that give the appearance of culture and diversity without having to lean too far into the abyss or grapple too deeply with the consequences. Set dressing is the sari a woman wears to let you know we’re in India, or the bao a street vendor sells to let you know we’re in East Asia.

Set dressing is necessary, not sufficient. It gives warmth and color and builds a world. But a stage needs a performance, and a story needs more than the surface-level appearance of cultural richness and depth.

The first stories I wrote as an adult were written with a single, solitary goal in mind: a desire to be published. I wanted the human validation we all crave, and to get it, I picked the safest path. At the time, I would have said I was inspired by Western fiction. Now, I would argue I was mimicking the dominant culture, assimilating to achieve acceptance. It was a mistake I was not alone in making, though I suppose I made it on a much smaller scale than others have historically. These mimicked works featured robots with acronymized names like AIDAN and ELLIE; ships called Breath and Odyssey; places with names like New Hartshire and Rustwick; characters with the trademark lofty ideals and brooding demeanors I enjoyed reading in classic Western SFF, the kinds written by Asimov or Wells or Le Guin.

Did I get published? No. Of course not. I was an outsider, looking in at a dominant culture I didn’t belong to, dancing to someone else’s music. I stood no chance.  There is a near insurmountable gap between assimilationist and native work, the lack of an intangible authenticity that can only come through lived experience and cannot be generated by simply learning to put words in the right order.

I ignored my cultural touchstones to my detriment, unaware they were something uniquely mine, places I could draw from to create compelling narratives. But knowing and doing are different. When I first tried to write with the high-minded aims of “saying something uniquely mine” and “drawing from lived experience,” I found the well empty.

It turns out that writing truths is hard. Writing depth and richness is difficult. But you know what isn’t quite as difficult?

Set dressing.

Why bother trying to represent the inherent contradictions between the spoken morals and practiced actions of my culture, when I could instead pepper my writing with Indian names? Why twist myself into emotional knots trying to speak about the burdens of parental expectations in a culture where individuality is an inchoate concept, when I could instead name-drop festivals and landmarks? Why not craft an illusion of diversity?

You may have noticed the tinge of anxiety. As a child, I was never anxious with myself: I didn’t know better. But when trying to write truth, there is an undeniable sense of fear. Imposter syndrome nipped at my ankles; I was constantly worried there was someone better to tell the stories I had in mind. The fear of representing my culture and people badly, of somehow hurting a centuries-old civilization with a few poorly chosen words, gnawed at the back of my mind. I wondered if I was being too honest or too complex, or too alienating.

No. In my mind, the stakes were too high. It was better to rely on set dressing, on shiny baubles and lifted Hindi words, and hope the illusion would hold. Here’s an example of something I wrote during this phase:

In the bustling streets of Rajpur, the air was thick with the aroma of spices. Anika, in her vibrant sari, weaved through the crowd, her bangles clinking. Stalls were piled high with sweets, with kachoris and modaks and gulab jamuns, and the smell of spices and beedi smoke hung in the air. If it weren’t Diwali, Anika would have stopped and spent hours sampling goods, until either Amma or Appa found her and dragged her home.

Analyze this paragraph, and I think you’ll find there’s plenty of set dressing, but precious little substance. The marks of South Asian and Indian culture feature heavily in clothing, food, and names. This single paragraph has all the genericisms you would expect of India: color, lights, delicious food, and Diwali. The culture is treated as a “simple good”: reduced to the barest surface attributes played for compliments and to build a sense of a world, but without having to conduct a deeper examination.

My aim with these stories was clear: I wrote what I thought editors might enjoy reading.

Did that work? Honestly, it did, a little bit. Set dressing has no substance, but it can certainly make a story stand out. Amid a sea of identical pieces, one with a little sprucing up and a little sense of uniqueness will stick out enough to be chosen at least a few times.

But this minor success came with a tremendous drawback. More and more, I felt like I was lying. I realized that the validation I wanted was not just being published, it was being published for writing the things I wanted. My achievements felt hollow because my writing was hollow: a carefully controlled voice and delicately crafted messages designed to be inoffensive, and shallow, and pleasant, but never challenging.

So far, I’ve laid out a progression. As a child, I was honest, if unskilled. As an adult, I first wrote bland lies, and then, slightly less bland lies, all with the aim of pleasing others with my work. The natural conclusion is for me to say, “Hey, I figured it out, and now I can write fulfilling, truthful stories, and teach you how to do the same.”

That, unfortunately, would also be a lie. I’m not sure there’s a single defined template for moving beyond set dressing, or for being truly, completely authentic to your experiences and roots.

But perhaps we can do better. I hope I have been doing better. When I wrote “I Hear the Starwhale Sing”, which was published in Canadian SFF magazine Heartlines Spec, I was consciously possessed of the urge to write something truer to my experience, something more genuine than a list of Indian foodstuffs to convince the reader they were in a diverse setting.

What does “better” look like? Let’s draw out the issues with the Rajpur sample above, and contrast what better replacements could be used.

First, there’s the shallowness of the writing. The passage above does not need to be set in Rajpur, India. It could take place on Mars, or in London, or Atlantis. The setting exists only for flavor and can be quickly hot-swapped out without changing what we have seen of the story so far.

Next, the simple goodness, or stereotyping. It’s a dirty word, isn’t it? Even positive stereotypes can be harmful. In the paragraph above, I elicit color, food, and smell, all in a positive way. But these are flashy tricks, forcing my reader to imagine richness and depth by drawing on their own biases about India rather than trying to show them something new or deeper. That’s what stereotyping does; it simply pulls from a reader’s existing bank of experiences, without challenge or comment.

Most egregious are the loanwords. And there are indeed so many. Sari, kachoris, modaks, gulab jamuns, beedi, Diwali. These are all Hindi words, but they are given no real meaning and treated as arbitrary objects. The cultural impact of these words is lost entirely, because they exist only to fill space and create an illusion.

Can we do better? Perhaps. Here’s another sample.

A little old lady wrapped in a faded sari sits inside her air-conditioned shop and watches the world outside move a little too fast. A metal plate of spiced sweets sits on the glass counter, an offering first to God and then to any customers who may come by. Her store is far less popular than the beedi shop to the right, a source of constant frustration. “I thought smoking wasn’t cool anymore?” she thinks to herself as she watches boys, still hefting backpacks, buying packs of cigarettes.

Is this markedly better? I would argue it is at least more respectful of the culture it borrows from. The culture has greater depth because it is directly relevant to the story. Notice I opted not to name the place in question, but to let the image of a South Asian or Indian setting build organically. Instead of forcing in lists of loanwords, I have meaningfully chosen two, treating them as important artifacts. The sari represents traditionality and the erosion of an older generation’s values, and the beedi represents moral repugnance and frustration towards a newer generation. And finally, notice the lack of simple goodness; this piece addresses a conflict, and elicits more than merely a rosy view of the world.

The problem with simplification, to harp on a point I have perhaps already made, is that it is easy. It is easy like watching four hours of TikTok videos is easy, or eating popcorn is filling. It is also insidious: It is easy to simplify the long history of a people, to reduce them down to individual tokens or loanwords or festivals, and in so doing, to argue that this simplification comes from a place of love. But for an author writing about their own culture, simplifying it robs one of the ability to question the baggage and contradictions inherent within any civilization, within any set of morals or principles, within any practices that have survived since antiquity. I personally have only known my love for my own heritage to grow when I interrogate it. When I look at my homeland and notice the gaps between the India I once knew, now know, and one day hope to know, I see also material for powerful stories. This tension is a powerful tool for any diasporic writer, and it is always worth remembering that love does not require unquestioning acceptance.

To drive home the difference between shallow and deep writing, I now ask you to run through two exercises in the privacy of your notebook. First, spend five minutes writing a culturally shallow piece. Don’t think, just write. Write a piece you may not be proud of, fill it with as many loanwords as you can think of, hit your reader over the head with the hammer of set dressing until it feels egregious, and then keep going. And notice: did it make you uncomfortable? Did it make you feel like a liar? Like you were taking advantage of yourself?

Then, spend five minutes moving beyond set dressing. Pick one loanword from your piece and center a story around it. Try to highlight the importance of this single word. Ask yourself why it deserves to be in your story, what it represents in your culture, and how you can move it from being simply a loanword to being an impactful artifact. And then ask yourself, again, how you felt. Perhaps these words felt somehow truer to write, more satisfactory to bring into the world. Perhaps you feel like the piece you’re writing is incomplete, because it needs to be more informed and more researched. Perhaps you feel a deeper emotional connection to these words than to the shallow writing example from before.

I would also encourage you to read extensively. Cultural awareness does not simply mean talking about culture, and moving culture beyond set dressing can take many forms. Almost all N.K. Jemisin’s works are steeped in Afrofuturism; Arundhathi Roy’s The God of Small Things is as poignant a look into the fears of the Indian diaspora as I can imagine; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tackles post-colonialism and magical realism with the same dreamlike brush. I could go on, and on, and on, but reading works by these authors and others will shed some light on what it means to move culture beyond set dressing, into a realm where one can ask profound questions of the culture, interrogate, and play with it, while still showing it love.

I hope you can feel the difference between using set dressing and true engagement. Moving the representation of a culture, yours or any other, beyond illusion and set dressing is a matter of intuition. There are red flags and green flags, but in my experience, the only way to know you’re doing it better (not right, because I have no idea if I’m doing it right) is to first do it poorly, and then improve. I certainly hope I am improving. It feels like it.

Author Bio:

Kanishk Tantia (He/Him) is an immigrant from India. His words have been published in Apex Magazine, Flametree Press, and Heartlines Spec.

He often writes speculative fiction about plants, people, and plants eating people, which probably stems from some generalized anxiety about climate change. Kanishk lives in San Diego with his partner and a dog that commits tax fraud; follow him on his website or on Twitter, @t_kanishk.


This is the fifth essay in the Publishing Taught Me: A SFWA Anthology Project. The Publishing Taught Me project is overseen by multiple award-winning editor Nisi Shawl and two editorial interns, Somto Ihezue and Zhui Ning Chang. More information on this series can be found here: Publishing Taught Me: A SFWA Anthology Project – SFWA