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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis: How do you avoid cultural appropriation and white-washing

The late Columbia professor Edward Said introduced a useful term with his publication of Orientalism in 1978. To quote this work, Orientalism is “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.” To be like Kipling, to assume "East is East and West is West," to adopt a patronizing attitude that calls Western culture superior and justifies (even indirectly) historical evils such as colonialism and slavery, that is Orientalism. Sure, true Orientalism (and the analogous disparaging of other cultures outside of the majority cultures of Western societies) still exists. The news is full of it. Go to any Donald Trump rally.

However, novels that boldly assert the superiority of the majority culture are hard to publish. In the nearly four decades since Said's publication, most Western intellectuals and purveyors of popular culture have gotten the message.

It is, however, common to find novels set in the United States in which every character is white, Christian and heterosexual. The Romance world has recently been rocked by the revelation that romance novels featuring black characters are generally shunted into categories such as "black fiction" and are not promoted in the same way or to the same audiences as "mainstream" romance.

Recently, someone with whom I've exchanged critiques online (not someone I know well) inadvertently provided what I think is an explanation. He said he makes all of his characters white Americans with Anglo-Saxon names because it's easier. He doesn't need to know about any culture other than his own, and he can't be criticized for getting anything wrong.

And boy are there ways to get it wrong! In addition to simple inaccuracy, one can use a trope now seen as offensive (e.g., the Magic Negro, in which a mystical black character helps the white hero of the story to prevail; The Legend of Bagger Vance comes to mind). One can take a culture not well known to the broader public and explicate it in a simplistic or culturally blind way; e.g, Disney's Pocahontas. The charming tale of a young girl who is captured, raped, forcibly converted to Christianity, brought to England and allowed to die from what was probably smallpox, right? No, she sang with birds and loved the Earth and brought peace to benevolent Englishmen.

Even writers who produced brilliant work and generally got the cultural issues correct are not immune from criticism. Numerous posts and articles online criticized Paolo Bacigalupi for Orientalism (some even using that word) when he published The Windup Girl. This novel, in my opinion, one of the best science fiction novels of the last decade, was set in a futuristic Thailand, in a world in which American seed companies profited while others starved, but in Thailand, someone is using a seed bank to wrest control of food production from these companies. I have not seen anyone accuse Bacigalupi of getting Thailand wrong. But how dare he, a non-Thai, have success with a novel based in Thailand?

Another of my favorite science fiction novels escaped charges of cultural appropriation only by having been written in the 1960s, prior to Said's work. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy takes place mostly in a future world in which random mating has left everyone the same color on average, but cultures are preserved by groups of people choosing to live according to a culture in today's world. Many Native American cultures are presented in a superficial way. Moreover, one of the towns, Cranberry, has taken the culture "Harlem Black" and characters are shown speaking in a particularly pronounced version of Black English dialect. Yet for its day, the book was radical. Radical in that the protagonist, a Hispanic woman, who is shunted into an insane asylum largely because she was poor, is entrusted with ensuring the peaceful future and preventing an alternative dystopia that in many ways presaged cyberpunk, as advised principally by a near-perfect character who is bisexual. If written today, the author (white and Jewish, but a lesbian, so at least she'd get a pass on those issues), would never have gotten away with writing this book.

In my eyes, authenticity requires addressing the world's diversity. The world is diverse today; it will be more diverse in the future. You can't set a story in a major American city and make every character a white Anglo-Saxon if you want it to be believable.

As I face these issues, here's what I try to do:

1. I do the homework necessary to capture a culture accurately. There's wiggle room when you write science fiction, if you are talking about the future, but even there, logical extrapolations from the present are required. Before I tackled Chinese characters in my current work in progress, I read numerous modern Chinese novels (in translation) to see how Chinese novelists depict Han Chinese characters.

2. If I am writing characters from a group of which I am not, I solicit critique from writers of that group. I passed drafts of a story with African-American characters through African-American writers for comment/critique. I obtained comments on a draft of a story with an autistic character from a writer whose son is autistic. Gay/lesbian/bisexual writers have commented on gay characters I've written. Former soldiers have commented on characters with a military background.

3. I don't try to tell stories that are not mine to tell. You won't see me incorporating Seminole folklore into a story, even though I live very close to where the Seminole nation lives. On the other hand, enough writers have written fiction immersed in French culture that if I decided to write a story with a protagonist who is a French writer living in Paris, although avoiding clichés would be a serious issue, in my eyes, cultural appropriation would not be.

4. The focus of my book will not be a central struggle for a particular group for which viewpoints are intensely personal. As a guy, I'm not the person to write a first person narrative centering on postpartum depression. That's a story for a woman to write; being a guy, I will never truly "get" it.

5. I try to be sensitive to language. If somebody tells me a particular group will be offended by a certain phrasing, I tend to reword, unless I think they are wrong, and then I ask members of that group. In early drafts of my novel, I code-named my Resistance leader Crazy Horse. The intent was respectful, and the character was a very positive one. However, it was correctly pointed out to me that superficial use of a name that is near-sacred to a culture is most definitely cultural appropriation. The "replace" function of Microsoft Word was my tool for the day.

This isn't easy. In writing virtually any story, I'm finding one must wrestle with these issues. So far, I must have done all right, because I haven't received complaints on published versions of any of my stories. In August, I'll have a story coming out with an Indian (from India, not Native American) female protagonist who grows to become an anarcha-feminist revolutionary fighting a conglomerate with a Japanese name that controls much of the Andes region; her lover is a light-skinned Hispanic guy; the villains are Russian and German; and her major allies are indigenous people (Quechua). If I messed up anything, I'm sure I'll hear about it.

Life would be easier if I wrote stories about magic bunny rabbits named Fluffy. But if I limited myself in that way, I wouldn't see any point in writing and wouldn't be doing it.

Please comment over Facebook. I'd love to hear other folks' perspectives on these issues.

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