Being Culturally Appropriate

Lately I’ve heard a lot of people grousing about cultural appropriation. That’s where an author writes a story set in a world that he or she isn’t a part of. For example, it happens when an author decides quite innocently, “I think I’ll write a story about a gay black Catholic who joins ISIL.”

When you try to do something that complicated, you’re likely to show just how little you understand gays, blacks, Catholics, and ISIL.

The question becomes, can you really handle any of those viewpoints authoritatively? Can you do them justice? Can you capture not just the character’s voice, but also his thoughts and feelings, his essence?

It’s harder than you imagine. The truth is, we see it handled badly all of the time. A writer friend of mine was a cultural anthropologist who was studying Mormons. He lived among Mormons, was married to one, and then he tried writing short stories from the point of view of Mormons. He handled it so badly, it was almost as if the stories were written by an insect trying to masquerade as being human. It gave me a new appreciation for just how hard it can be to try to write about someone in a different culture.

I think that one should approach the whole idea with a lot of caution.

Some would argue that we shouldn’t try to write cross-cultural stories at all. I recently heard the president of the Writers Guild of America say that as writers, we have our own lives, our own unique perspectives and experiences, and that in the end, that is all that we have to work with.

Indeed, I got a letter recently from a Native American who wanted to sue another writer for cultural appropriation. The other writer had written about a White Sasquatch hunter, and the Native American was angry that his competitor had appropriated his people’s mythic creature.

But I have to admit that I don’t like being boxed in as an OWG—an Old White Guy. I love stories by and about people of different cultures. I’ve written from the point of view of women, cyborgs, historical characters, and even Neanderthals. I’ve written about protagonists who are mice, aliens, bullfrogs, and worms. Oh, and on Monday I finished a story written from the viewpoint of a merman who lives off the Southern Coast of Argentina.

In fact, I suspect that as people, there is much more that binds us than there is that divides us, and that is what my writing is about, on at least one level. We all know what it is like to be human. As an author, I struggle to find that thread that ties us together. So I’m often trying to imagine what it would be like to be someone else.

Which brings us back to the question of cultural appropriation. Is it wrong to appropriate another’s culture?

I think that you almost have to. If I only wrote about OWG’s, the cast of my novel wouldn’t be very diverse. I’d kind of like to put in something to spice it up.

In fact, I’m hearing that it’s wrong not to write about various cultures. A few weeks ago, I heard a young author mention that his writers’ group complained that the cast for one of his stories wasn’t diverse enough, that he needed to add people of other cultures to his tale.

So, what is an author to do?

I suggest this: if you’re going to write about people in other cultures, try to do it so well that no one notices your weaknesses, only your strengths.

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One thought on “Being Culturally Appropriate

  1. Fujimoto

    Hello David. Thanks for sharing your view on this matter. I recently started subscribing to your advice, and this is one area I have some experience and insight with.

    Cultural appropriation is, as demonstrated here, a very complicated topic with many different view points on what, exactly, counts as appropriation, and those views can evolve over time. Even the people who stay “stick to your own lane” aren’t quite as severe as they seem on first glance; what they mean is to stick to writing protagonists and viewpoint characters like yourself but feel free to make side characters any race or ethnicity you want as long as you do some research first. I don’t necessarily agree with that view, but I understand where these people are coming from; they would rather tell stories about themselves rather than reading interpretations from an outsider. Some peoples are extremely sensitive about who’s writing about them; I’ve seen people of various Amerindian tribes wary of White people writing fantasy with major Native elements, and I’ve yet to see any Romani react at all positively to even the possibility of non-Romani writing about them (this is a case where ).

    Now I’m a writer who wants to write viewpoints from experiences outside my own—as much as SF might need more stories from biracial bisexual asexual Japanese Americans I sure don’t want that to be my protagonist every single time—and I like your take on the topic. It’s hard work learning what you need about the viewpoint you want to explore, but the best advice I know is to read books written in the voice you want to write from. A friend of mine wants to write proper Japanese characters, so I showed him Japanese novels translated to English to help him see how the Japanese portrayed themselves in literature. Finding the right people for advice is good too; my friend has me to ask on handling some Japanese topics sensitively. It’s a lot of extra work, and if you don’t think you can handle it then it’s best to stick to your own voice for protagonists, but otherwise I say go for it.

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