Appropriate Cultural Appropriation

Sep 27, 21:15 by John Frost
Discussion of writing across the cultural divides.

(For the article itself: click here.)
Sep 28, 04:11 by Yoon Lee
This was quite intriguing, although I think sometimes I came at the problem from the opposite direction--there came a point when I wondered why I was so intent on writing Western- (mostly vaguely Celtic- derived fantasy, with nary a word of anything remotely Korean (my heritage). Or, I suppose, Texan (my birthplace). I like the author's suggestion of mindfulness; I suspect that it's possible for just about any cultural detail to offend someone, but in the meantime, I shall continue working on doing things mindfully, with reason, and to be aware of subtexts. :-]
Sep 28, 08:58 by Andrew Ty
I was born and raised in the Philippines but am of Chinese descent. At the same time, I also share in your propensity on writing from Western perspectives, a task made easier due to its "cultural dominance" (pardon the loaded term).

I often describe myself as Filipino by citizenship, Chinese by blood, and Western (media) by culture. Until now, I'm not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

Great article this one. I'm curious as to what the author thinks of William Gibson's use of Rastafarianism in Neuromancer, as well as the omnipresent Japanese concerns. I've yet to read Count Zero, but I hear that one even includes some (Haitian?) voodoo elements.
Sep 28, 09:05 by Bluejack
This isn't quite the same, but it relates to yhlee's penchant for celtic derived fantasy...

A few years ago I happened to be in the mood for a big lose-yourself-in-the-world fantasy, and while browsing the shelves saw a fat book with an appropriately unlikely woman in chainmail on the cover, but noticed that the author was Australian. I thought: ah, that could be an interesting change from the old northern european snow-covered mountains fantasy. I imagined red deserts; wild, desolate lands; a sort of a magical Dune...

On this whim I bought the book, and was very disappointed when from the first page the book took place in snow-covered mountains.

It makes me wonder if insecure authors -- and I don't mean that pejoratively, I just mean authors who don't have a lot of experience yet -- tend to emulate the fiction they like to read, right down to characters, setting, and theme, rather than searching for the fiction they want to write.
Sep 28, 13:01 by Nisi Shawl
Eldritch, yr self-description reminds me of the Delany character I quoted...the use of Rastafarianism in Neuromancer seems more to me like a use of Rastafaris, if you see the distinction. Gibson doesn't get us deep into the culture. My immed. reaction was glee and excitement, as I read it when first published, and any appearance of _any_ nonwhite characters was cause for celebration. Voudoun elements in _Count Zero_ much more to the point, as here he's using important cultural element of cosmology and in a way intrinsic to the plot and theme. Shd have included it in recommended reading. As a practitioner of a related religion, Ifa, I find this representation realistic and resonant. The Japanese omnipresence? I've never been to Japan, am not of Japanese descent, but what I recall of it in Gibson's wk seems congruent w/what I outline in article. He never writes from the pov of someone native to this culture, that I recall, unlike Sterling in his amazing "Manekki Neko."
Sep 29, 06:13 by glenda larke
You raise some great points in this article, and say many things worth thinking very seriously about. However, I also think that it is easy to go overboard on ...shall we say cultural correctness?

I am a white Australian who has lived most of her adult life in another culture, not as an outsider, but as a local, living on local wages, wearing the clothes, cooking the food, speaking the language, following (outwardly anyway) the religious sentitivities/precepts of the people I share my life with. My first trilogy (Isles of Glory) deals with - among other things - the arrival of Western-style early-19th century exporers and scientists to a semi-tropical archipelago, seen through the eyes of the local peoples (some of whom are blue-eyed blonds, others - including the main protagonists, not). I hope I have done this with mindfulness (lovely word btw.)

And yes, I've pinched a bit here and a bit there and built my island cultures on the foundations of real cultures, both western and eastern. I haven't tried to make something that approximates to my adopted country - it's an amalgam of many different things. I think it works. And I think acknowledging that non-western, non-celtic, non-middle age cultures have something to add to story-telling far outweighs the idea of cultural theft.

No one should be so protective of their culture that they resent the use of parts of it by others. Lord, where would we be musically if others weren't impressed by, and made use of, say, the jazz of the black Americans of the 20th century?

I'll admit that nothing bugs me more than someone trying to portray a culture accurately and making a mess of it, but I find it hard to think of piecemeal influences as theft ...hey, I write fantasy.

Basically I feel we all need to be secure enough culturally that we can look on such "theft" as a contribution rather than plunder. (I am well aware that this is a lot easier for me, the Westerner, to say, than someone whose culture has also been plundered materially and in other equally iniquitous ways!)

Anyway, I hope that I shall always do it mindfully...

Glenda Larke
Sep 29, 08:05 by Yoon Lee
bluejack, I think it might be a combination (at least in my case) of inexperience/lack of confidence, and exposure. Non-European-based fantasies are still not as easy to find as I'd like, and when I started reading the genre, I hardly saw any at all--Feist & Wurts's Empire trilogy and David Day's The Emperor's Panda (an illustrated children's fantasy) are the only examples I can think of offhand. The (especially Celtic) model was what I grew up enjoying, so that was what I wanted to write; if I'd been able to find a wider variety of models, who knows? I might've ended up writing other things.

In the meantime, someday I will resume that Joseon Korea-based space opera. *grin*
Sep 29, 10:16 by Nisi Shawl
What's wrong with being correct? (That was a joke. Sort of.)

The difference between plunder and contribution is that one removes and the other adds. Will you and/or your stories contribute to the cultural ecology from which they're derived? Then you're not really creating the problem I'm talking about, are you?

I have to admit that your statement that "we all need to be secure enough culturally that we can look on such 'theft'" favorably, disturbs me. It really doesn't do much good to tell people how secure they ought to feel.

Did Elvis steal Chuck Berry's blackness? I don't know, but he and his manager sure sold something that looked a lot like it. From my perspective, this calls into question the good intentions of all cultural miners. It makes me watchful, which you are certainly free to interpret as insecure.

My point is not that no one can enjoy, propagate, and participate in a culture they haven't descended from. In large part, it's that the flow needs to go both ways. Take, and give. Perhaps this is the way things worked in the living situation you describe at the beginning of your post. Perhaps in your Afterword or something, you'll mention which aspects of your created world correspond to which elements of the culture in which you lived. And perhaps, as part of the local economy, you'll contribute some of the massive wealth you accrue due to the success of your writing to said local economy. Wouldn't that be great?
Sep 29, 10:25 by Nisi Shawl
yhlee, there are more and more non-white fantasies everyday! Yayy! Some good, some silly, some wonderful. _The Paper Mage_, at the end of that article, and _When Fox is a Thousand_ by Larissa Lai, and _Green Grass, Running Water_ by Thomas King and _Fudoki_ by Kij Johnson...not to mention the older stuff, of questionable "appropriateness," but still a model, such as Barry Hughart's _Bridge of Birds_ and Ernest Bramah's _Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat_. If you have time to read any of them, they might prove most inspirational. Or maybe you just are more Celtic at heart.
Sep 29, 11:49 by glenda larke
Nisi:

Great? It would be terrific! Believe me, I'm trying, I'm trying... And of course, I already do contribute just by living there. It's just that the massive wealth bit is still missing.

It's a complex question and one where I often tread on shaky ground, complicated by the fact that I don't think that a viable and living culture anywhere is necessary entirely good. I use my work to criticise what I find bad too...a reader from a secure dominant culture (e.g. most Western ones?) will shrug this off, when it pertains to their own cultural mores, perhaps even agree with what I am saying, or go away and think about it. A reader from a culture that has been under attack in any of the ways you mention in your article will be less forgiving of my analogies. I personally would have no objections to anyone mining my Oz cultural background for ideas.

Am I, as a white westerner, not to address some of these issues in my work when they pertain to another culture? Sorry, that's beyond my tolerance level...although I do think that I am pretty laid back when it comes to dealing with cultural/religious issues that are not the ones I was born with. To give you an example, the second book of my trilogy deals with a character who loses his wife by stoning as punishment for her (supposedly) immoral behaviour. Yet such is accepted by some cultures on earth as rightful behaviour. (Note that I do not say religions here; such an action on our world is, I believe, cultural, rather than religious).

Basically, of course, I regard myself as a storyteller. Getting readers to think about issues is secondary, although I hope that they do. And I will deal with these issues whether they originate in my culture, or someone else's.

And somehow, I think if I acknowledge every culture that I derive ideas from, the Afterward would be as long as the book...

Nonetheless, I do recognise the validity of what you are trying to say. In my own small way, in my writing and otherwise, I have always tried to do the best for my adopted culture. I guess I feel that less defensiveness and more quiet confidence in the validlity of one's own culture is a better way to go.

Anyway, thanks for the article. If it makes people think, you have achieved something.
Sep 29, 12:54 by M. Garcia
The other side to the coin is the implied "should" -- or in this case "should not" -- by which Ms. Shawl would constrain or guide the creative urge. In general, I applaud the guidance Shawl offers to writers who want to do a better job of creating verisimilitude for what to most readers constitutes an exotic locale; but yet there is a censorious element to the discussion: The writer who does not satisfy the native reader by her account of some land or culture is not merely failing, she is plundering.

I expect we are all in agreement that bad writing that fails to accurately or persuasively portray some place, people, or dialog is just that: bad writing.

I am less comfortable with this notion of "giving" v. "taking". Any writer is taking from many sources with the intent of giving to the reader. The best writers will incorporate interesting synthesis and personal insight between the taking and the giving. But to equate mere bad writing with colonization is the kind of mindset that gives too much importance to the incompetant and shackles the brilliant.
Sep 29, 18:47 by Nisi Shawl
I bet there _are_ some out brilliant plunderers out there...brilliance changes with the beholder, with the moment. As an eight-year-old I enjoyed the Tarzan novels. They were quite entertaining to me--then. Lots of good writing there, I still think.

While it's true that "bad writing that fails to accurately or persuasively portray some place, people, or dialog" is bad writing, the problem is that we _don't_ all agree when it's failing. Or how.

And we obviously disagree about how important its effect is.
Sep 29, 19:37 by hapa tip
i'm disturbed by the defensiveness of the australian writer who (indirectly) accused nisi's article of defensiveness. she wasn't talking about *you*, necessarily. she was giving tips to those willing to listen. in the political correctness debate, there is way too much defensiveness on the part of members of dominant groups; way too much talking and not enough listening.

this is the essence of politically correct speech and attitudes: the racial/cultural climate of our global village is such that people of minority/oppressed groups are made to be aware of their race or ethnicity every moment of every day. they must be mindful: a beautiful, but also a terrible word.

the essence of white privilege, or dominant privilege is the freedom from that necessity for mindfulness. what irritates minorities is their having to be constantly mindful--being constantly reminded--of their racial/ethnic status, in the media, in social situations, in the workplace. what irritates whites or dominant groups about political correctness is having to be constantly mindful of the feelings of others, constantly watching their step, also in the media, in social situations, and in the workplace.

not to reduce it to a poor equity in irritation and forced mindfulness, but is it REALLY that bad to have to spend a little more time in socializing with people and in writing to try to avoid offense? no one is asking you not to take genuine risks or to avoid telling the truth. but when someone from an historically oppressed group tells you, "this thing that people do with reference to me makes me feel ground down and invisible. could you please make sure that you don't do it?" then why is your automatic response: "don't be so damned sensitive!"? why isn't your response: "thanks for the tip. i'll take it into consideration"?

in my opinion, nisi was not so much prescribing your course of action as a writer as she was--delicately and with her infinite patience--pointing out some things that many, many writers have missed and many will continue to miss. those who, with delicacy and patience, simply listen to her, will learn something ... and are perfectly free to ignore her prescriptions where they don't fit.
Sep 29, 20:33 by Mark Rockeymoore
i think that is so...and also agree that the word, mindfulness, is of utmost importance in the designation of cultural theft vs 'bad writing'. poor writing, in many cases, is also subject to opinion and perspective, unless we're calling basic grammatical errors, poor plot construction, etc., 'bad writing'. who is to say that the person who takes the research short cut which causes his writing to seem 'bad' isn't doing so through some arrogant dismissal of cultural elements deemed necessary for the accurate representation of said culture? while i'm sure that we all recognize that it is impossible to fully represent an 'alien' culture completely accurately, an honest attempt to do so would be well worth the additional time and effort it took to reference, at least, in the minds of those who call that culture their own.


it's a slippery slope, indeed...one that we must all be careful of, regardless of which culture we originate in, or that we may currently consider ourselves members of. one effect of living in a heterogenous culture is that it becomes easy to adopt 'outside-originating' cultural traits as a part of our everyday lives and expressions. as writers, the mindfulness that we employ automatically while crafting our work would be put to good use as an internal critique of our own assumptions, as we explore the worlds of fantasy that we create. the postmodern critique of subjectivity (i am) vs. objectivity (they are) should keep us from ever thinking we can adequately cover all of the bases, though. some of the recommendations regarding plot development and character assignation that nisi made should be given serious consideration, in order to alleviate this problem, to an extent. ~1
Sep 29, 22:35 by travitt hamilton
I would say Elvis was a "guest" in black culture. In the early years, at least, it seems to me that he gave as well as took. His art was a symbiosis of the two cultures that he moved in; the blues of poor blacks and the hillbilly music of poor whites. His manager may be a different story. We should always question the good intentions of management.

Pat Boone. Now that guy totally stole somebody's blackness, Fats Domino's, for one. Invader.

I agree with your sort-of joke about correctness. PC seems like white guy's hysteria to me. Political correctness (or cultural correctness) often seems to spring from factual correctness.
Sep 30, 01:45 by Jeff Spock

Nisi, thanks for writing this.

I think that it is inevitable, as writers turn to mine less familiar lands for sources of inspiration, that many of us will turn to non-... What shall I call this? Non-White? Non-Anglo-Saxon? Non-Western? Non-Judeo-Christian? Anyway, will turn to Non-Americano-Euro-Commonwealth cultures for ideas, stories, and inspiration. "The Years of Rice and Salt." "Across the Nightingale Floor." There are an increasing number of examples. For instance, some of Charles de Lint's mythic fiction relies on First People / Native American elements.

It is a very legitimate question for those of us who do not come from such backgrounds to say, "What am I taking? How am I taking it? If I take something from someone else, don't I usually have to pay for it? How does one 'take' or 'use' culture, and to whom do I owe how much, if anything?"

I think the most important point of the issue is not that we answer these questions, but that each writer understands that we should be asking them. If we take a Native American legend, change the names, and sell it to F&SF, how much of that money do we deserve? Do they deserve? If we are writing a five-volume second-world fantasy doorstop that spans three generations, five continents, and fifteen languages, and in only one chapter the protag passes through a bit of rocky coast with indigenous peoples that vaguely resemble the Penobscots of Maine, how much money do we deserve? Do they deserve?

The range of the question is important. Each writer has, I believe, a moral imperative to think this over and decide for themselves where their story or novel sits on this scale. They then can work out what sort of obligation they may--or may not--have. If they do feel an obligation, there are a number of ways to 'pay' it--dedications or endnotes in the book, monetary donations, community outreach... the list is only bounded by one's creativity.

A work may spark controversy or outrage from a cultural group who feels that the appropriation was inappropriate. No writer should be taken by surprise if this happens. While we may not be able to gauge precisely how others will react, we should certainly think about things beforehand so that we are prepared. Practically speaking we are almost always tourists; a lucky few become guests (watch Geoff Ryman...). The real moral imperative seems to avoid being invaders.

I think it is great that you brought this up, and I appreciate the need to deal with these questions openly.

Jeff Spock
Sep 30, 03:23 by glenda larke
Hapatip - I hope that I did indeed listen to Nisi.

I feel that I am in a unique position here, because I have at least lived on both sides of the fence. I live - and have done so for 30 years - in a society where I am the minority. And discriminated against because of that, and also because I am a woman, in ways that vanished long ago in most Western societies. Please don't tell me that I don't know what it is like to be constantly reminded of my ethnic and gender status. I have to tread carefully every minute of every day. I have to be careful the way I dress, what I eat, what I say. I can't do things most of you would regard as your right - apply for a legal document for my underage citizen children, for example. File a tax return in my own name instead of my husand's. Have a credit card in my own name. And so on. Believe me, I know, and it rankles, of course it does.

If I were to write a book about that society - even a fantasy one - I would, I hope, do it with sensitivity and accuracy. In spite of the what I have said in the above paragraph, I love the country and its people. I choose to live there, after all. However, I decided long ago that I would not write such a book because I would have to be honest and also portray critically the things I don't like. I felt that would hurt too many people that I care about. So I chose not to do it.

I do however use elements and ideas taken from that culture in my writing, just as I use Australian elements - in fact, stuff from all over the world. I use them without apology and without acknowledgment to make the amalgam that is my fantasy world. So does every other fantasy writer inventing a new world. And I find the idea that anyone would find this offensive rather odd. I am not portraying their culture, or my own, but a new culture made up of a mix of fantasy and real. If I were to acknowledge my debt, it would take another book to list it all. I have a debt to humanity, if you like. Read my work, and if anything offends you, let me know, and believe me, I shall indeed listen.
Sep 30, 07:35 by Adrian Simmons
Wait a second... what about the majority culture? Do I, as a WASP, owe Ireland a check (or cheque) if I publish a story about the Celts? Would Yhlee have to, or does he get to skip it, being of Korean decent and all (which reminds me, congratulations to Korea for winning the men's heavyweight taekwondo copetition at the olympics. Not that his being of Korean descent means that Yhlee cares or anything. You should have seen it, though. Best hook kick EVER). What if my close personal friend Jesus (Mexican American, not the son of God), as an outsider to the main culture publishes a story about Andrew Jackson? Does he contribute to the Smithsonian? I mean... come on!

What if a Texan writes about the Republic of Texas animosity to the Cherokee Nation? Who does he owe his thanks to? The Cherokee? The Texans (many of whom were Yankee settlers... so maybe the historical society of New York?), the Mexicans? The African slaves (fresh from the auction block, or maybe the ones that moved there with their northern masters?)?

I though this was a nice article, but, well, I'm afraid that it just doesn't hold up in the rough and tumble world. Call me callous (write angry verse, if you must), but I would imagiane that writers already have enough on their plate, what with the writing of books and all.

Sep 30, 10:25 by Nisi Shawl
I think Jeff's got it. Not all forms of payment are appropriate--and sometimes the proper recipient is hard to figure out. But if one is part of the "circle of life," it's good to remember that what goes around, comes around, and to make sure that what comes around, goes around.

Payment for use of the tropes of a dominant culture by a member of a non/dominant culture is an interesting problem, too. If the culture's monetarily rich, why would a check make any difference, have any significant value? If I were wondering about this, I'd be considering some other currency.

That question reminds me of another unpublished story. This one's by African American writer and editor Sheree Renee Thomas, and it's called "Dixie." Its black protagonist co-opts the Confederate flag through a series of increasingly humorous and subversive uses.

Also makes me think of black writer and poet David Findlay's poem "I Stole the Torturer's Tongue," which appeared at the front of Nalo Hopkinson's novel [Midnight Robber]. Perhaps the equivalent term for someone of a cultural minority who pilfers a dominant culture's content is "guerilla" rather than "invader?"
Sep 30, 10:47 by M. Garcia
I'll echo Jeff that I am glad Nisi brought this up, but I think that phrasing the discussion in terms of "payment" runs the risk of misdirecting along the lines Goblin Agenda, somewhat flippantly, aims.

Unfortunately, Nisi, not only is "brilliance" in the eye of the beholder, so is almost every other quality of this debate. In the global community, "dominant" culture is relative to locale, so invader v. guerilla is entirely a matter of perspective, just as "soldier" and "terrorist" depend entirely on whose side one is on.

Moreover, Jeff posits a moral imperative; but not every writer is going to agree that the scale referenced is valid. Each writer brings his or her own purposes and perspectives to the creative process. Each writer's moral imperative may diverge radically. And in the long run, an author's intent may not even be relevant: is Mark Twain a racist? Are his books racist? The man was almost certainly a reasonably enlightened fellow given his age and background; some of the books, however, have not aged well by the standards of our own sensitive age.

Which is what makes "mindfulness" such a useful word. If we can encourage writers -- and readers -- to be mindful of the text, to perceive through to the essence of what it is and does, then at least we can hope for a solid conduit between intent and result. If we are passing judgement upon the author, we will still have to run that judgement through the filter of the culture that gave rise to the author, but at least there is something to get a handle on. The mediocre majority -- and in the sf and fantasy genres I believe this to be an overwhelming majority -- do such a poor job of achieving their own intent that any moral stance is effectively meaningless, other than outrage at such tedious stuff. Worse, sloppy readers reward them for it.

In conclusion, I will suggest that inappropriate cultural appropriation is far more rare (and much more dangerous) than the common case of shoddy writing.
Oct 1, 12:51 by Adrian Simmons
I'm also curious as to just what 'inappropriate cultural appropriation' is. Although I have to admit that my curiousity is somewhat flippant.
Oct 2, 16:55 by Nisi Shawl
As the curiosity is only somewhat flippant, I'll provide somewhat of an answer. I tried to read a recent novel, _The Secrets of Jin Shei_ in preparation for writing this article. Couldn't get past the first 50 pages. But if I had finished it, I'd probably say it was a fine example of what you seek, P_G_A.
Oct 6, 12:57 by Mark Rockeymoore
Mgarcia said, "In conclusion, I will suggest that inappropriate cultural appropriation is far more rare (and much more dangerous) than the common case of shoddy writing."
...and i think that's right. Somewhat more common though, are opinions such as the Pro_Goblin_Agenda's. His comment, "I though this was a nice article, but, well, I'm afraid that it just doesn't hold up in the rough and tumble world. Call me callous (write angry verse, if you must), but I would imagiane that writers already have enough on their plate, what with the writing of books and all."
...did strike a nerve with me, mainly because it's true. What with the research that writers must do in the first place in order to pen their novels, adding on another, even more in-depth layer of understanding and synthesis might be a little much to ask for many - who are used to, in the western, american, case, appropriating 'alien' culture freely - especially considering the fact that it is questionable whether or not people can truly 'empathize' completely with another culture in the first place without having 'lived the life' as it were.

Going back to mgarcia's comment tho', innapropriate cultural appropriation, in the sense that I take his/her comment to mean, is something that is done with a blatent disregard for the culture in question, with a sort of cavalier, or perhaps flippant, attitude that there's no need to attribute agency or origination to the culture or people in general, for whatever reason. If that is indeed the meaning of her comment, perhaps the issue lies even further down the road of cultural imperialism than I first thought, upon reading your article. ~1
Oct 6, 22:45 by travitt hamilton
I think that if I could boil Nisi's argument down to its essentials, she is saying if you're going to write about an "alien" culture, get it right. Saying that this is too much to ask of our poor, overworked novelists strikes me as whining. Why should getting it right, the cultural issues as well as the scientific and technological ussues, not be the number one item in a writer's job description? Shouldn't the "research that writers must do in the first place" include an attempt to accurately portray the cultures they are writing about?
Oct 7, 06:56 by Adrian Simmons
Interesting takes, all. I'm curious if appropriating 'alien' culture is strictly a western or American thing. I have a feeling that alien cultures probably appropriate other alien cultures as well. Unless you are implying that say, Peruvian writers should stick to what they know and not bother with anything about Chile. OR that African American writers should stick with 'black' fiction. Which seems very small minded, indeed.

As for getting an alien culture right, right by who's standards? To whom, outside of the editor and readers, should a writer attempt to be 'right'. Is there not a little freedom for a writer to choose her own priorities? To decide which, out of scientific and technological and cultural issues, which gets to be their numbers one, two, and three items in their job description?

Oct 7, 10:24 by travitt hamilton
"Is there not a little freedom for a writer to choose her own priorities? To decide which, out of scientific and technological and cultural issues, which gets to be their numbers one, two, and three items in their job description?"

Sure there is, but if someone gets "it" wrong (any of the "its" you mention), the work as a whole suffers and the reader can generally tell, I think.
Oct 8, 09:16 by M. Garcia
Rahkyt: perhaps a sticking point here is the term "Inappropriate" -- It's a little hard to define for this context, but a strong definition is necessary if we are going to communicate on even ground.

My take on Nisi's article, is that she believes inappropriate cultural appropriation is any use of a culture other than the author's own which members of that culture might object to, either because it's a poor depiction, or because it lacks in respect, or, possibly for any other reason at all. There is also the taking v. giving element, but defining conditions for that is beyond my ability. Assuming I have accurately discerned Nisi's definition, my own definition of inappropriate would be different: the case of a writer who attempts to speak with authority on a culture about which she or he is not an authority constitutes inappropriate cultural appropriation.

This speaks to ProGoblinAgenda's question: "right by who's[sic] standards?" Obviously, a member of the culture itself is in the best position, but that's a problematic test because cultures tend to be heterogeneous, and members of any culture can themselves dispute their own nature. (Ask a conservative christian Republican activist what America is; then ask a doctrinaire liberal activist; then ask a Mexican-American immigrant laborer. You may not find complete agreement.) Moreover, if a writer were to commit himself to satisfying every last member of the society about which she wants to write, I think it would paralyze her for life. I don't think that's the right test. I am not sure simple mindfulness, as adviseable as that is, is good enough either. Good intentions do not good results make, and especially when working in a creative mode, it is all too easy to misperceive the nature of one's own work.

My own view is hard to rigorously define, but pretty straightforward to describe: a writer of fiction ought to be held to the same standard as a writer of popular non-fiction. Speculative fiction *only* has an exemption to this when it clearly articulates the fantastic: alternate history? alternate dimension? far future? fantasy world? and even then, if a writer is going to lift some people straight out of the real world -- as Louise Marley did in The Terrorists of Irustan -- it is incumbent on the author to be sufficiently clear about the described culture that an informed reader can immediately see: "ah, this is what is the same; this is what is different." Who then, passes judgement? Every reader.

Here is an example of what I believe to be inappropriate cultural appropriation, although it does not quite fit the downtrodden-minority theme we have been dancing around. The Davinci Code. In this work, arguably a work of speculative fiction, Dan Brown takes enormous liberties with Christian beliefs, and the history of the Catholic Church. In some senses this is shoddy writing. But it's readable enough to capture an audience. If the Davinci Code were non-fiction, it would be abominable (as abominable as the putative non-fiction he supposedly used as "research"). The work misleads readers about the facts of history, and most dangerously, mischaracterizes the peoples and cultures it describes, leaving gullible readers with an extremely erroneous impression of the cultures of Catholic and christian faith through the last thousand years or so. Contrast this with Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum which tells a similar story in an inspiring, enlightening, and well informed way. (It's no page-turner, though.)



Oct 15, 12:47 by Yoon Lee
Nisi: Some good, some silly, some wonderful. _The Paper Mage_, at the end of that article, and _When Fox is a Thousand_ by Larissa Lai, and _Green Grass, Running Water_ by Thomas King and _Fudoki_ by Kij Johnson...not to mention the older stuff, of questionable "appropriateness," but still a model, such as Barry Hughart's _Bridge of Birds_ and Ernest Bramah's _Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat_. If you have time to read any of them, they might prove most inspirational.

I've read _The Paper Mage_ and _Bridge of Birds_, and am currently on _Fudoki_. I didn't *find* these novels until later--getting a decent selection of sf/f in English while in Korea was annoying. As a side note, I found _The Paper Mage_ disappointing; I don't think the author did anything "inappropriate," but I felt the cultural depiction focussed too much on surface traits, and therefore found it unconvincing. Of course, I'm a Korean-American (female) born in Texas, not Chinese of any era, and therefore no good judge.

Since I have no great interest in writing about Korean-Americans born in Texas, I end up writing about rather far-removed settings. That's all.
Oct 21, 20:39 by Mike Brotherton
I'm a bit biased since PAPER MAGE was written by my wife. I think she did a great job of addressing more than just surface traits in depicting T'ang Dynasty Chine. Leah actually got a number of bad/mediocre reviews on amazon.com from people who were frustrated with the protagonist, because, it seemed, she didn't think or act in any way like a modern western woman. Personally, I think that's great, a fantasy that doesn't read like a PC-crap-infested Disney remake of something. Leah lived in Taiwan for over a year, traveled way off the beaten track in China, picked up a lot of Mandarin, and did more book research than perhaps even Michael Swanwick does. I think she succeeded, but if she failed to capture an authentic sense of the foreign for some readers, it sure wasn't for lack of trying.

This is her niche, really, far-removed settings. Her second novel, CAVES OF BUDA, takes place in Budapest. Her third, THE JAGUAR AND THE WOLF, scheduled for spring 2005, features a Viking ship reaching the Mayans a thousand years ago.
Feb 21, 16:12 by Stephen Stirling
There's a misapprehension here: that anyone "owns" a culture.

We'll leave aside the extremely questionable assumption that cultures are discrete entities with discernable boundaries, rather than handy nicknames for particular vague passing lumps in the borderless boiling porridge of human history.

Copyright aside, nobody has any turf rights to ideas. Or to customs, religions, depictions of physical appearances, etc. Are Scandinavians entitled to get bent out of shape because of all the blonds in Japanese anime?

Individuals have a limitless capacity to get offended; recently a Carib "spokesman" got his knickers in a twist because the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie depicts the aboriginal Caribs (quite accurately, btw) as cannibals.

I see no point in making the most easily offended into little emperors and censors; in fact, I refuse to see such maunderings as anything but unintentional humor.

In short, I'll write what I damned well please and take whatever themes I please from wherever I please.

If anyone doesn't like it, they can read something else. Words cannot express my utter disinterest in their feelings.
Feb 21, 21:20 by travitt hamilton
rowwwr!!!
Feb 22, 16:18 by M. Garcia
You know, it's funny I should happen to check the forums today; I think the last time I scanned these forums this thread was still young.

Joatsimeon expresses the radical individualistic viewpoint, that the creator must be unfettered. And, despite the abuses that can ensue, I nonetheless think this is right. Ultimately, art will be judged for what it is, for what it does, and for how it succeeds. Bad art, which includes inferior writing, are most often examples of what Shawl termed 'inappropriate cultural appropriation.' Not, I think, because they were undertaken without proper respect for the cultures so appropriated, but because the author failed to actually capture the essence of reality. Aping common stereotypes may be 'inappropriate' -- but it certainly makes for poor literature.

Nonetheless, I will also question joat's eagerness to give offense. He (he sounds like a he, but I don't know for sure) asks "Are Scandinavians entitled to get bent out of shape..." and he observes that "Individuals have a limitless capacity to get offended." These are fine sentiments if you want to start a flame war on an Internet forum, but it should be fairly obvious, particularly by Joat's reasoning, that anyone is 'entitled' to feel how they please. Further, it is not at all surprising that Joat believes in the limitless capacity for people to take offense.

This is matched only by the limitless capacity for people to give offense.

I see no point in making the most easily offended into little emperors and censors....

Words cannot express my utter disinterest in their feelings.


Even though everyone is entitled to take offense, I think the vast majority of observers will agree, in large part, on when such a reaction is reasonable, and when it is not. Human social engagement, particularly when manifested in the flesh, rather than through these digital proxies, is remarkable in leading towards a common agreement on what is appropriate behavior. Of course, no one cares for the opinion of the judgemental fool, or the martinet.

But what about the reasonable person?

I have already stated that I agree with Joat: the artist should not be encumbered by thou shalt nots -- not if he or she wants to create anything of value.

But surely there are ethical, or at least sensible approaches towards art? While accepting no manacles on freedom, is it perhaps still admirable to aim for art that honors and respects, rather than disparages and misinforms?

Jul 14, 13:50 by Stephen Stirling
"But surely there are ethical, or at least sensible approaches towards art? While accepting no manacles on freedom, is it perhaps still admirable to aim for art that honors and respects, rather than disparages and misinforms?"

-- well, no.

You see, "disparage" usually, and "misinform" quite often, are merely subjective opinons.

The disease of our time is misdirected and excessive empathy. And just as one would expect, the fault for which we are most often rated for by cultural critics is... insufficient empathy.

This is a quite common historical phenomenon. Thomas Carlyle, for example, the famous Victorian cultural critic, used to lash his Victorian contemporaries for being insufficiently _serious_ and not sufficiently respectful of _hard work_. When in fact what the period (and the milieu in which Carlyle moved) lacked was whimsy and light-heartedness.

In other words, when everyone wrings their hands over people being nasty brutes, it's a sign that their real problem is that they're cringing wussies.
Jul 14, 14:06 by Stephen Stirling
To expose more confusions: several people above above wonder why they write in a Western idiom when their "heritage" is Chinese or Korean.

The probable answer to this is simple: they're actually Westerners, just as much as my Canadian-American-English-Scottish-faint-trace-of-Indian self.

I shall now proceed to explode the lunatic fallacies of 'identity'-mongering, and its covert racism.

Your culture is not like your skin color or the shape of your eyes. Those, you're stuck with.

Culture is more like your clothes. Clothes you can change. Confusing someone's physical type with their culture is racist.

You can take off one set of clothes, put on another, and mix and match... just as you please.

It's the ideas and concepts in your head that define you culturally, not where your ancestors came from or what their culture was. This applies both to individuals and to groups. Culture is an _acquired_ characteristic.

A baby has no culture, no heritage, no group identity of any sort. It has nothing but our common human genetic heritage... and humans are a strikingly uniform species genetically, much more so than most other large mammals.

Mexicans, for example, are more Amerindian genetically than anything else, descendants of the Aztec/Mexica and other Mesoamerican groups, with a strong dash of Iberian-European.

A few relict pockets aside, they're also Spanish-speaking Christians (or post-Christians), culturally less different from a Castilian than a Catalan is, and _much_ less different than a Basque-speaker is.

So if you're a native English-speaker you're a member in good standing of Western civilization, Anglo-Saxon subdivision, just as much as anyone descended from Hengist and Hrosa, whether your ancestors come from Korea or Mexico or Burkina Faso or Booribigooli-gah.

I know a fantasy writer all four of whose grandparents were Japanese. She speaks about 6 words of Japanese herself (sushi, Karate, karaoke, etc.) and is married to a guy all four of whose granparents come from England. I probably know a lot more about Japanese culture than she does, because I studied some Japanese-origin martial arts for twenty years, often under Japanese teachers.

Has she "lost" a culture that should be "hers"? Of course not -- she's got a perfectly good culture and it's just as much hers as mine.

Her cultural identity? And that of her children?

"Overseas European", just like all the rest of us.

Jul 14, 15:54 by Bluejack
The distinction between "culture" and "culture of ancestral origin" and "skin color" are all obvious distinctions to make, but they don't really address the question.

Because while some people may be confusing culture with ancestry or phenotype, many are not, and just as you point out: we do have a culture. (However, I disagree that we can change culture as easily as changing clothes. Fitting into a different culture is a work of years, and it can be hard, and it may never be 100% complete.) The question is, when writing, how do you write culture right? Setting aside PC questions, how does a writer write culture well?

My take on this debate is that "inappropriate cultural appropriation" is just a fancy way of saying "bad research and bad writing". You know, if a (culturally) Japanese person writes a novel about American culture, and it's a mean, scathing book, that's his or her right, and I may be offended, as is my right. However, if the person doesn't even get the facts right, if the person doesn't even understand the culture he or she is critiquing, that's just bad writing. The same is true whether or not the work is actually critical of the culture it describes.

The one other scenario that may be more touchy is, say, writing science fiction about a made-up place that looks, say, a lot like Japan. Whatever the Japanese reader might object to, the author can just wave off... it's not Japan, it's my own made-up world. It can look however much like a pop-culture charicature of Japan as it wants, because I'm not writing about Japan. I don't have a handy answer for this one. As a writer, I'd steer clear of anything so obvious; as a reader I probably wouldn't care for it much (if I was knowledgeable enough to know how wrong it was). Is there a moral imperative against it? I'm not so sure.
   

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