Using Asian Cultures as Props

I came across a short post earlier this week that said white authors needed to stop using Asian cultures as props for their stories. I was one of several authors called out by name. Though the individual didn’t specify, I’m assuming I was included because of Codex Born, which includes a group called the Students of Bi Sheng, a kind of Chinese parallel to Gutenberg and the Porters.

I’m choosing not to link to the post, for several reasons. First of all, while my name was mentioned, I wasn’t tagged or linked … which to me says this person wasn’t posting to get my attention or invite a response. Linking to them would potentially force a dialogue/conversation they didn’t ask for. Basically, it would feel rude. And second, while I think 99% of my commenters and readers are awesome, wonderful people, it only takes a few to create a “Release the hounds” moment, if you know what I mean.

I haven’t been shy about my belief that stories should reflect the diversity of the world. One of the arguments I’ve seen, generally from white, male authors, is that they avoid writing about “the other” because they’re “not allowed” to write those characters. It’s an argument I have very little respect for, because almost nobody is saying you’re not allowed to write about certain characters … but people will certainly criticize you if you do it badly.

I’ve been criticized for how I’ve written certain characters. I suspect every published author has. But this post was the first time I’d seen someone telling me flat-out to keep my ass away from their culture.

I should point out that this still isn’t the same as telling me I’m not allowed to write about Chinese characters. “I don’t want you do to this thing” =/= “You aren’t allowed to do the thing.” But it’s something I’m trying to understand.

I’m reminded of something Ambelin Kwaymullina said at Continuum. After her GoH speech, someone asked her whether she thought non-indigenous authors should write about indigenous characters. Ambelin made an interesting distinction. I don’t remember the exact wording, and I apologize in advance if I lose nuance with my paraphrase, but I believe she said she thought it would be okay to do so when writing in the third person, but she was uncomfortable with the idea of a non-indigenous author trying to do so in first-person.

I thought about that a lot. On the one hand, I want to write stories that are honest about our world, stories that aren’t stuck in an illogically narrow and exclusive universe. And I want to do so as respectfully and accurately as I can. It’s one thing for me to describe the diversity of the world; but no matter how much reading and listening and research I do, would I ever be able to write from the perspective of an indigenous person, and do so truthfully? Probably not.

It’s a complicated question. Obviously, we use first person for more than just autobiographical work. All authors write about characters who aren’t themselves. I’ve written about goblins and fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and autistic teenagers and handicapped cowboys and more. Why shouldn’t I write about Chinese book-magic, or do a story from a first-person indigenous perspective?

Some of the problem, I believe, is about power and representation. What does it mean if we have white authors successfully writing and publishing and selling books about Chinese characters, but work by Chinese authors is ignored or shoved aside? What happens when we’re only reading about other cultures through the blinders and assumptions of our own?

We end up with an incomplete, distorted, often damaging understanding. There’s an element of colonialism — we’re not interested in truly reading about other cultures; we’re just playing tourist from the safety of our own cultural framework. That’s a problem

As I tried to write the history of my character Bi Wei, describing snippets of her life from 500 years ago, it’s very possible that I messed up. I thought I had done adequate research and written respectfully, but maybe I was wrong. And of course, it’s not a simple yes/no. People disagree on what’s appropriate and respectful and so on. And no matter how well I wrote, I still wrote the book from my own cultural perspective. I’m not capable of doing otherwise.

Legally, all of this is pretty much a null issue. I have the legal right to write about whatever characters and cultures I choose. But I believe a writer has the responsibility to write respectfully, truthfully, and well.

I read a book a while back where the only Japanese character was also a ninja, and I cringed. The book was well-written in many ways, but that part felt neither respectful nor true. The character wasn’t Japanese so much as they were the prepackaged caricature we in the U.S. have seen so many times before. Have I fallen into that same trap? I try not to, but I look back at some of my early stories and see similar mistakes. Maybe in ten years, I’ll look back at what I’m writing now and have a similar reaction.

So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling. And I think it’s good for me to struggle with it. I refuse to write books where I pretend other cultures don’t exist. But I also recognize that there are stories I’m simply not qualified to write well, that no matter how respectful I might try to be, my story wouldn’t be true. (An odd thing to say about fiction, but I hope you understand what I mean.) And I know that sometimes I’m going to screw up.

I don’t have an easy answer. I do know it’s something for me to be aware of as I’m writing, and it’s something I hope people will continue to challenge me on when they feel I’ve botched it. I also know we need to do a better job of reading and publishing and promoting work from outside of our own narrow cultural lens.

I would be very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.