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.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:05 pm
I think writers are allowed to and should be freely expected to write about all cultures. I think you do your best to make good art and to respect your characters, and you let the story go when it says what you want it to say. When you inevitably don’t get something “right” you nod your head and go on.
Readers have the right to be upset about anything. But at the end of the day I try to remember that there is no one person who speaks for any whole. If I please one person of a culture, I may still annoy another of that same culture. You own your work, and you own the responsibility of doing it as well as you can. But we are all, in some fashion, a culture of one, and there will always be someone who is bothered by what a person “outside the group” does.
At the end of the day, I suppose your body of work stands on its own.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:14 pm
As a white male writer who writes stories with diverse casts of characters because he wants his fiction to reflect the world he lives in, which is obviously diverse, I have some pretty strong feelings about this.
I believe all writers should write diverse stories filled with diverse characters. And not just diverse of race and culture and age and gender, but diverse of character. That said, I do think there’s a unique circumstance going on when a writer that has as much privilege as I have (white, male, straight, cisgendered), writes about characters who would automatically have less privilege if they lived in the real world (this still applies to SF/F, though maybe it’s a little murkier, or maybe not). IMHO, the important thing is to do the work, and get it right. Also, I think authors have to realize that even if their intent is coming from a place of genuine interest and curiosity, and they are not appropriating culture out of convenience or exploitation, some readers will still be offended.
Some readers will always be offended. Not every story is for every person.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:15 pm
I think you writing about it thoughtfully and risking both mistakes and criticism is a thousand times better than you not. I also think it’s powerful and useful to use your position to find a writer lacking your privilege and showcase them, so you’re both writing your own stories and getting these other cultures in front of an audience, and helping somebody else up the ladder.
Not quite the point of your post, I know. But– something relevant to the original complaint, I guess.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:26 pm
I believe you are doing the best you can within the framework you’ve been given. I believe you’re correct that fiction should encompass a larger view of the world than just white people, and that it is the responsibility of all writers to strive towards more balanced representation. I believe that mistakes are okay, because they’re a learning experience and, as you said, inevitable.
I believe writing about other cultures with respect for their histories and practices is about the best one who doesn’t come from that culture can do… and I believe it will never be good enough for some people.
But I also believe that shouldn’t mean people like you, who always try to be respectful and careful, should stop writing about cultures other than your own.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:29 pm
Is it taboo to invoke the “slippery slope” here? You don’t even have to go far, just remove the “white”. Should an American author be allowed to write a French protagonist? Compared to the striped shirt, baguette-carrying sissy, ninja are almost a positive stereotype. There’s certainly a history of abuse.
And quite often this isn’t really helped by the US author claiming French/Irish/German heritage. Differences in social strata or region are quite divisive, too, even though they might be regarded as pretty minor on the scale of differences. Can someone from a wealthy, college-educated family really completely comprehend what it means to be a working-class stiff from the Bronx, despite both being Irish-American male New Yorkers?
Either I’m only allowed to write autobiographically, or there’s a line somewhere. And I’d certainly like a good justification for the exact placement of said line. Past abuse seems like a rather pessimistic justification.
Can you completely understand someone of a different background/culture/ethnicity? Probably not. But no book ever is about complete understanding. Sometimes it’s just an arbitrary background detail, sometimes it actually might be a great work of literary empathy. Try your best, do not perpetuate or create ugly stereotypes. Be excellent to each other. What more can you ask for?
August 7, 2014 @ 2:30 pm
well one of your characters in libriomancer is a filipino mananangal and i am a filipino but i was not offended. paulo coelho has filipino prostitute in his eleven minutes but i enjoyed the book. dan brown’s inferno referring manila as the ‘gates of hell’ outraged some filipinos however wouldn’t it be better that we read and appreciate the story rather than be too sensitive about it? besides it is fiction. but yes as what matthew said not every story is for every person and we cannot please everybody i guess writers should be mindful when they refer to other cultures
August 7, 2014 @ 2:36 pm
Someone is always going to bitch on the internet. No matter how perfectly you pull something off. You could have had that section proofread by the foremost Han-ethnic scholar of Chinese books of magic, and somebody would still complain.
There’s a big difference between doing it thoughtfully — which anyone who knows you, knows you do — or just for decoration, like your ninja example.
Mary Anne Mohanraj
August 7, 2014 @ 2:37 pm
I think about this from a different angle, as a Sri Lankan diaspora member, who writes about the homeland. As a homeland author once said to me, the stakes are different for us. If I write about the Tamil Tigers, the war, I do so from a place of relative safety, of privilege. If I screw something up, badly, the consequences to me, personally, are likely to be negligible. The stakes are much higher for someone living in that skin, in that place and time and with their life on the line.
Even if you’re not choosing to write about a current military conflict, as I do, with its consequent dangers, there is still, as you acknowledge, the possibility of doing damage with misrepresentations. All the straight men who wrote “lesbian” porn in which the lesbians in question were crazed nymphomaniacs, often just waiting for the right man to stick it to them, for example, made actual life harder for actual lesbians.
So I think of it as an inverse relationship. As a writer, I get to to write about anything and everyone. But the further I am from the lived experience, the lower my stake in it, the more care I should take to get things right. I consider that my ethical responsibility. Because there are real world consequences to this art we make, even if we call it fiction.
Also, for me personally, I make efforts to support Sri Lankan homeland authors. I buy and read their books; I talk about the ones I think are good. I run a literary magazine that publishes both diasporic and homeland voices, and we explicitly set out to facilitate that conversation. I’m not saying every writer needs to go to that much effort. But maybe every writer should ask themselves these questions.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:38 pm
This is a beautifully worded, yet painfully honest way of responding. I can only say that I agree, and that I understand how difficult it is to include diverse characters and cultures in your work while still being respectful. Someone will probably get upset, but I think it’s better to try than to completely ignore those who don’t look or believe exactly like you do.
My husband and I want to create a cartoon about little kids and their goofy adventures. Their parents would feature heavily in some episodes. It’s still very much in its infancy, but we’re in love with this project. I want one of the main characters to be half white, half Asian (leaning toward Korean) and the other to be black. Besides them, we want to include a cast of very diverse characters, several of which may be gay or have disabilities. I’m very excited about this project and the opportunity to include mostly ignored groups of people, but I have to be honest when I say that my husband and I are both apprehensive about the weight and responsibility of it. Since we are both heterosexual and white – middle class, at that – we have a large degree of privilege that some of our characters simply wouldn’t have in the real world. Creating a cartoon world filled with diversity is scary, but I think it’s too important not to do it. ALL people deserve to have their stories told.
August 7, 2014 @ 2:39 pm
It would seem by this argument you cannot write female characters, either. The best you really can do is try to be truthful in how you portray your characters. Since you have met people who are Asian, at least you have a basis for the character. If however you wrote about a Basque without having a clue about the people, its location, traditions or how they fit in with their neighbors, then you would be crossing a line. If you studied the Basque and took all your information from a 1930’s history of the Basque, again, you might be remiss. Any time you can turn around and say that Basque character, that is based on Phil’s granddad, then you are safe. It’s what I do. I suspect many authors do the same. Very few people live their lives surrounded by just white guys, so a writer should be able to pick from the people he knows and build characters.
Jim C. Hines
August 7, 2014 @ 2:44 pm
Not taboo, but I’d point out again that what we’re “allowed” to write about really isn’t at the heart of the discussion. And if there was a neatly-defined line for this sort of thing, it would have made for a much shorter blog post.
Jim C. Hines
August 7, 2014 @ 2:48 pm
Sure I can. But what’s involved in writing them well? What happens when the representation of women is dominated by male writers/artists/creators? If I know a mentally challenged individual who happens to be both blonde and female, does that mean it’s okay for me to write the dumb blonde character and perpetuate that stereotype?
Jim C. Hines
August 7, 2014 @ 2:52 pm
Thank you for this comment, Mary Anne.
(It was either that, or a big old “+1” to this 🙂 )
Jim C. Hines
August 7, 2014 @ 2:54 pm
Whether I agree with the criticism or not, I’d prefer not to dismiss it as “bitching.” There are enough bad examples out there that I think people are more than justified in misrepresentation being a sore spot, if that makes sense?
August 7, 2014 @ 3:02 pm
First: The person who wrote the post, owns the culture as much as you do. Living in a culture does not grant you any kind of exclusivity. Bi Wei is as much yours at is his/hers.
Second: People writing about other cultures make mistakes. They already do it in abundance when they write about their own culture. That’s life. One has to deal with it.
Third: Where does one’s culture start or end? Am i only allowed to write stories with white, male northern-german geeks?
If you notice an author misrepresenting your culture, then tell him about it. If he cares, he will learn and try to improve. If he doesn’t, he will not care about your cultural embargo neither.
An author has to trust his feelings on whether he is suited or not to write about a different culture. If he think he is, no one has the right to overrule them.
Of course there are authors who use other cultures as props. But the probability is high, he will do this indiscriminately with other groups as well (ethnics, sexes, lifestyles, …). And,
honestly Jim, you couldn’t be one of those even if you tried. You already show it by how you think about that request.
August 7, 2014 @ 3:03 pm
As an author who could quite easily be tarred with that same brush – withess “Secrets of Jin Shei”, adn “Embers of Heaven”, and dammit, I have a Japanese (non-ninja) character in my curent WIP too – I feel as though I ought to put in my two cents’ worth here. I’d like to refer to what Mary Anne Mohanraj said –
“As a writer, I get to to write about anything and everyone. But the further I am from the lived experience, the lower my stake in it, the more care I should take to get things right. I consider that my ethical responsibility. Because there are real world consequences to this art we make, even if we call it fiction.”
This. The thing is not using ANY culture or context as no more than clip-art-worthy set dressing for a play that in itself has nothing to do with said props. If you are going to set your story in a world that is not your own background or heritage or cultural context – if you are going to write about people who live in said world – then, as Mary Anne just said, you need to double and triple the attention you pay to the background you have chosen to tackle. Yes, you probably WILL still get stuff wrong. We are human – and that defines erring (“To err is human”, as the old saying goes). The key word here is RESPECT. Know your stuff. And be willing to be corrected (or even taken to task) for the stuff you thought you knew but which someone who knows better tells you that you made a mistake on.
I read and researched the ever lovin’ DAYLIGHT out of my setting for my Jin Shei novels. I think, between the two of those books, I read a hundred books that were background – geography, history, biography and autobiography and memoir, letters and period correspondence, art, economics, culture, mythology, everything up to and including large glossy coffee-table books with wonderful photographs which I studed in detail to understand the LOOK and FEEL of the society I was trying to create.
The thing about all of this of course is that the context was CHINESE and I was thus barred through a substantial language barrier of doing anything with primary sources. EVERYTHING I read and looked at was filtered through some sort of filter that rendered it into pictorial evidence or into English. It was ALL “translated”. And that means that if the person who provided me with my source material got anything wrong, then inevitably so did I by perpetuating the error without being aware that there was an underlying issue.
Should I have given up at the outset, here? Should the line be “write only about the things you are able to first-hand research”?
I think the world and its literature would be the poorer for it, if all writers did this.
As a writer I have never in the past misused a cultural reference deliberately, or used something merely as caricature, or written with prejudice. Nor do I intend to do so in the future, to the best of my ability. However I accept that I probably have done, and will still make, mistakes where I might misapprehend something that someone from within any given culture assumes is blatantly self evident (and probably is, to THEM, but I haven’t the requisite filter and I am probably working from secondary sources…) If and when I do this, I have no problem with those mistakes being pointed out to me, and I will endeavour to do better in the future.
But that is the WRITING. What I DO take issue with is people who turn on the WRITERS with an attitude of “how dare you touch this, it belongs to me”. At some point, at some deep level, however different we all are on the surface, with our cultural and contextual markers, underneath it all we share one abiding common characteristic. We are huiman beings, all. And ALL cultures, EVERY culture, have their roots in that. And to me that means that nobody has the right to absolutely forbid any writer to write about any thing they feel moved to write about . You can tell individual writers that they did their job badly, or failed at what they set out to do – but you can’t wall off little enclaves of humanity and deny access to anyone not literally hatched out of an egg of a particular color, as it were. Because to do that narrows the world for us all, and diminishes everyone. Better to make a mistake – and accept correction with grace – than to stay silent and not say anything at all…
August 7, 2014 @ 3:04 pm
I don’t have a problem with a writer of another gender/ethnicity/racial background including a character of my g/e/r. What I might suggest is that when you have (for example) a Chinese character, you seek out someone Chinese to be one of your beta readers and ask that they particularly pay attention to what they think of the character.
I’m reminded of reading somewhere a comment from John Scalzi about writing Zoe’s Story, which is from the POV of an adolescent female – he had his adolescent daughter as both an exemplar and a reader who could tell him if he screwed up.
August 7, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
P.S. I’d like to offer an example of why it’s important to have beta readers who will catch errors made from ignorance (and therefore making sure the beta reader isn’t just from the same ethnicity but is knowledgeable about the history, religious strictures, geography, etc.)
Many years ago I read a novel by Pete Hamill that hinged on the relationship between an elderly Orthodox Jewish man and a black teen. He had them connect on Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath) when the old man requested help from the teen to do something because he wasn’t allowed to do it while observing the sabbath. Unfortunately, the task he picked was turning on a water faucet, something that is most certainly allowed! All he would have had to do was ask an Orthodox Jew to check it over (and being a NYC newspaper columnist, he should have had no trouble finding one). Instead, the only thing I remember about the book is that gaffe, not even the title.
August 7, 2014 @ 3:38 pm
This is something I think about a lot. I have a few key phrases I use to direct those thoughts. One is “Opportunity instead of obligation.” Writers have the opportunity to write about all kinds of things, but not the obligation. Writing stories presents opportunities to do lots of things; writing the other is just one of those things.
The other is “Effort is a journey, not a destination.” Someone I know is coming to grips with homosexuality. A person doesn’t think one way for decades and flip that opinion like a switch. It’s a journey with many imperfect steps. Sometimes they struggle with stereotypes and prejudice. But even those can lead to greater understanding to someone who is very aware. I think it’s true too with writing the Other. We won’t ever do it perfectly to everyone’s satisfaction, but writers who try deserve some credit for their effort, even alongside criticism for execution.
Great post, Jim.
August 7, 2014 @ 3:40 pm
Sustained. The jury will disregard that remark, please.
Someone will always complain, because you can’t please everyone. One swallow does not a summer make, though.
August 7, 2014 @ 3:43 pm
Sounds adorable, and I will give videos to all the small children I know. Obviously you guys are going to consult with Koreans, black people, gays, etc. so it’s not like you’re going to just make it up as you go from your castle of straight whiteness.
Steven Harper Piziks
August 7, 2014 @ 4:07 pm
A few times people have told me I shouldn’t write the Other, either, and they didn’t realize that I =was= the Other they claimed I shouldn’t write about. Dearie, dearie me.
I wrote a four-book series about a man from Aboriginal Australia. I wrote a book set in 19th century China. So far, no one’s complained about the latter. But whenever someone expresses dissatisfaction with my writing for any reason, I usually shrug and say cheerfully, “Well, you should definitely write your own book and make sure it’s done right.”
August 7, 2014 @ 4:15 pm
I’m constantly writing about “the other” be they women, people of “color,” or people of other religions. When I was living in China, I often felt that I had more in common with Chinese graduate students (who believed in education, family, a liberal idea about life but with a sober lifestyle) than with many Americans. Tea Party people seem more alien to me than my students in Nanjing. If I only wrote about my own culture, it would all be bitter satire. If someone takes exception to my representations, they should feel free to let me know as long as they are polite and include detailed examples instead of generalizations.
August 7, 2014 @ 4:29 pm
Much respect to displaying the empathy to realize the unlinked writer MIGHT have a point. I’m bi-racial, half white and half Filipino; raised by Filipina widowed single mother; in the deep south of the US. I think all you, as a writer, can really do is write round characters and not flat characters. To always be at war with cliches.
But I get why the unlinked writer would take exception. There is an undercurrent of fury at the way Asians are being depicted in popular culture that is going to break through at some point. A fury that doesn’t much care anymore about the ‘subtleties’ of the issue at hand, #CancelColbert being a prime example. There are groups that no longer care about being ‘fair.’ They basically just want to you to F*ckOff.
Much respect to your work on Rape and Harassment issues. It’s good and noble stuff.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:07 pm
If the character of a dumb blonde woman is honest to your experience with the person you know, yes, it is fair. To pretend all stereotypes have no basis in reality is as false as pretending they represent reality. Truth is often that fine line between extremes. Capturing a character correctly is like doing a portrait, you need artistry to excel.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:20 pm
Though if you think about it, this is a great subject for your Codex books. I imagine the elves might have some gripes and write letters to authors complaining. Vampires might have a few choice words for their authors, especially a few I could think of.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:36 pm
I actually don’t like that response unless the person is a published writer and you know it. Because it implies that people who don’t write aren’t allowed to make a criticism even when the criticism is of something they do understand intimately.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:44 pm
If you’re a writer, you write the stories that are in you, no matter who (or what) peoples those stories. The writers job is to write; the identity politics polemicist’s job is to polemicize. And the reader’s job is to read. It’s that simple.
Jim C. Hines
August 7, 2014 @ 5:45 pm
It’s that simple if you’re not the one being hurt.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:52 pm
Having done this sort of soul-searching before, just remember: Nobody knows whether you tried your best except you.
August 7, 2014 @ 5:54 pm
I want writers to write about my culture, but I want them to do it well. A well-researched, well-written approach to the world my grandparents came from is important. I don’t want the old stereotypes to dominate, and I am at the mercy of the writers of the world in this.
I think that the emphatic refusal to offer access is wrong; it blocks writers I would trust to do a good job, but it doesn’t change the stereotypes.
August 7, 2014 @ 6:03 pm
I don’t think that’s really the point here though. Not everyone will always be happy about how a character is portrayed, but I think what Hines is trying to get across is that it’s important to stop and re-evaluate your work when it does happen. No, not all criticism is good or justified, but quite a lot is. I think that introspection is important when it comes to anyone writing in a position of privilege.
August 7, 2014 @ 6:07 pm
I think it’s important for anyone writing a character outside his or her experience, whether or not they are writing from a position of privilege.
John the Scientist
August 7, 2014 @ 6:36 pm
This is a slippery slope. Do people saying you should not write about X culture then avoid writing about white people themselves? I was raised in Appalachia, does that only give me the right to write about Southerners? Does this mean Chinese Chinese should not write about ABCs? (Actually I know some ABCs who might make that assertion).
I’ve lived in New England for over a decade and a half, I think I know Yankees pretty well, too. But they might disagree. But I *like* reading about my culture from an outsider’s lens. If it’s a trope, I ignore it. I understand that in this case the tropes deafen out the good stuff, especially historically, but still…
Could an immigrant successfully write about Southern culture? I say yes. Look at Joseph Conrad. Hard to tell him from an Englishman, but his background was very different. So why can’t white dudes like us wrote other cultures – provided we do our homework? The audience will judge each work on its merits, and fiction is bad fiction from someone of any culture.
I think when done badly or stereotyoically (e.g. your Ninja example) there is room to complain, but there are also temporal issues to consider. Chinese culture has changed a lot in the last 500 years. Who is to say that a contemporary Chinese author, especially one growing up in the God-awful Communist education system (with respect to history and language, not math or science) would not fuck up the characterizations as bad or worse than you did (assuming you did at all), albeit with a modern Chinese flair? Neither depiction would be truly *authentic*, and authenticity is the core of the argument, here.
Full disclosure: I’m not published yet, but if I ever am, I will be writing Chinese characters (and there are Chinese characters in my fiction) from a somewhat safer position than you, since I’ve been married to a first generation immigrant for over 20 years, and I speak some of the language.
But even then, my beta reader will have her own biases – in our house the morpheme “Communist” is like “Yankee” in certain places down South – it’s only half a word, it’s missing the “Damn” in front of it. Someone educated in the PRC may not like what I write, while someone from the ROC may chuckle out loud. And that, too undermines your critic’s argument – it assumes his / her own culture is monolithic, and that his / her perspective speaks for all of his / her culture – and that is not true of any culture. It’s a wee bit arrogant.
August 7, 2014 @ 7:43 pm
I think that this all really depends on the circumstance and place of the writing. It would maybe be unfair to try to write a story first person perspective in today’s contemporary culture in China for example. However, when writing about a history or a culture in general I don’t believe that there are many rules. How can someone in modern day Greece for example understand the culture of Greece 2,000 years ago much better then someone from another country who has thoroughly researched the topic? It is all a matter of perspective and I think when writing about other cultures there is always going to be some level of criticism in the accuracy of the writer. If it was not because you were white that individual may have found another reason to find offense with your work. Overall, I agree with the idea that no topics should be taboo unless you are writing about violence. In which case caution should be used.
August 7, 2014 @ 7:51 pm
Why would a non-caveman or cavewoman write about such characters? Or a non-Gnome write about a gnome character? One of the great strengths of evolution is our ability to think outside the box, to consider situations and mindsets besides our own. This ability also allows us to empathize and to create plans for situations that have not yet happened. And curiosity about other cultures can also benefit us, hence the west eventually gaining vaccinations due to contact with places such as India.
Anyhoo, if folks are looking to research an area such as China, I highly recommend the free MOOC-series that Harvard has been offering via the EdX platform (https://www.edx.org/), entitled ChinaX. It covers a lot of ground, allowing folks some neat insight into how cultures change over time. The first four parts of the ten part series are currently in self-paced certificate mode for anyone also looking for some kudos for their study of the material.
Cultural appropriation and the inclusion of the other - Alan Baxter - Warrior Scribe | Alan Baxter – Warrior Scribe
August 7, 2014 @ 8:05 pm
[…] read this excellent article by Jim C Hines today. I agree with it completely. There has been much discussion on published […]
August 7, 2014 @ 8:17 pm
We see this in the acting world as well. The utter outrage when a straight cis actor plays a gay or transsexual (*cough* Dallas Buyers Club *cough*)- or even when a gay, cis man plays a transsexual (*cough* NPH Hedwig and the Angry Inch *cough*).
It comes down to respect. Are you being respectful of the culture? Are you open to constructive criticism? Are you will to change things to be more accurate and respectful if you discover you are off target?
And stereotypes do exist, and can be insulting, but sometimes they exist for a reason… however, those most likely to be forgiven for portraying them are those who come from the specific place of identity (*cough* George Lopez *cough*)
If only gays wrote gay characters and only Italians wrote Italians characters and only wizards/hobbits/elves wrote those characters, what a sad world devoid of much great literature it would be.
August 7, 2014 @ 8:51 pm
I’m writing about someone who’s male, and I’m not. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone who has magical powers, and I don’t. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone who’s a Gentile, and I’m not. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone with epilepsy, which I don’t have. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone who’s a killer, but I’m not. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone who lives in 1620, which I do not and can never even visit. Is that okay?
I’m writing about someone who is religious, bigoted, promiscuous, dyslexic, athletic, beautiful, tall, Celtic, poor, rich, a mother, a father, orphaned, a musician, a carpenter, hears voices, is experiencing astral priojection, killed his own father, has agoraphobia, is dying of cancer, is a Marxist, is homeless, is an oil baron, is a vegan, has OCD, is a rape suvivor, is a rapist, owns slaves, is a slave, is a Pope, is an aerial acrobat, has a gambling addiction, can’t read, and I am not remotely like that person. Is that okay?
That’s some can of worms, that “don’t write about my culture” or about “people who aren’t just like you” can.
Where is the line to be drawn? If I “shouldn’t” write about Asian culture, is it okay for me to write about a completely 100% Americanized person of Asian ethnicity who was raised by a white family? Or about a white person raised in Asia by an Asian family? Who gets to write about someone who’s half-Asian and half-Jewish? Can only an Asian Jew write that character?
At what year does ethnicity determine whether it’s okay to write about a different culture? I mean, since NONE of us can claim to belong to a community that existed 3000 years ago, can I write about China then? Or not? What about China 1000 years ago? What about China in 1949? No? Then what about 1948? 1857? What’s the cut-off year? Never?
The fact that I descended from them doesn’t give me any insight into the starving peasants of Ireland in 1850 or the starving Jews of Moscow in 1890. I’d have to research their world if I wanted to write about it… exactly as if my heritage were something completely different. Similarly, although I am American by birth and culture, I’d also have to research the cultural history of any historical American tale I wanted to write–because being American doesn’t mean I culturally “know” the world of the US in 1812. So how does my ethnicity or my culture determined what I “should” or “shouldn’t” write about or who my characters “should” or “should not” be?
Unless one envisions a world where all writers only write about the cultures they live in and about characters who are exactly like themselves. If not, then where is the line?
August 7, 2014 @ 9:04 pm
I read an interview a while ago with Deepa Mehta, an Indian-born film writer/director who lives in Toronto. She’s made a number of movies set in India, which she has filmed in India. In the interview, she discussed criticism made against her by a famous actor in India who asserted that since she doesn’t actually live in India, she shouldn’t do that. Only Indians actually living in India should tell stories about India, he insisted.
So it’s not as if only straight white males get told “you shouldn’t write about this.”
August 7, 2014 @ 9:18 pm
I agree that all writing needs to be done respectfully, especially when pulling from other cultures.
At the same time, I think hanging a “white people keep out” sign on ___insert_controversial_whatever_here___ is the wrong way to go about things. More to the point, I think it focuses on the wrong part of the problem. The problem isn’t the “white filter.” The problem is that it’s the ONLY filter.
The problem is white people too xenophobic to read even translated works from authors with “brown” or “feminine” names. The problem is a corporate culture and a media who makes more money (or feels they do) shoveling the same retread shit into our maw year after year, until we’re actually kinda terrified of anything new. The problem is certain voices being elevated over others often through no fault or choice of their own. The problem is unavailability of other works and voices, even when there’s plenty to choose from and a digital era that makes getting those voices heard all over the world easier than ever.
And the problem is that it’s getting worse, especially with the increasing rise of online TV channels and video services and music services that try to play “more of the same” with the built in “you liked that, try this almost identical product” filters. The problem is a digital world where we still try to keep artistic creations rigidly inside borders with DRM and region locking, to the point much of it never has a chance to be sold or seen anywhere but it’s homeland and maybe a few closely associated areas. Even advertisements are being increasingly geared towards personal preference. And don’t get me started on what passes for news these days. We are kept so insular from the rest of the word it’s almost a wonder we even know it exists, much less has it’s own point of view.
It’s easy to censor another group, it makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. But it’s hard to tackle some (not all) of the very large parts of the root problem, those artificial barriers that keep us all from having an equal voice and an equal opportunity to seek out (or stumble across, or even have thrust upon us) the points of view of others. But “white filter” would matter less if we were also equally exposed to asian filter, indigenous filter, black filter, female filter, transgender filter, gay filter, and the entire spectrum of other filters out there, if we were only one voice in a very large crowd.
I truly don’t think the answer is to silence those making an actual ATTEMPT to understand others not of their own race, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc. I think the answer is MORE VOICES. ALL voices. And us working together to make sure they get heard. It’s okay, it really is, when someone doesn’t get us quite right (and if you’ve ever watched foreign media, you know portrayals of Americans are not immune). It’s just not okay when that one wrong point of view is all you see.
August 7, 2014 @ 9:20 pm
I think the line of caution – not the forbidden line, just the line of caution! – is entangled with the motto “punch up, not down.”
Dan Brown could write what he liked about the Pope, incorrect or not, without being Pope, because the Pope has more power than Dan Brown and that is punching up. Also, there are lots of loud voices to correct potential misinformation that Dan Brown might spread to his gazillions of readers.
If Dan Brown wrote something incorrect about people of the Pennacook Nation, well, not only does he have more power than a Pennacook person, but there is next to no chance that their voices could be heard by me, as a fiction reader in a foreign country, by way of correction.
Of course, a minority in one country could be a majority in another, so who has more power overall? Voices are louder in some places and softer in others. You could just use caution and your own best, most conscientious efforts all the time…which you probably already do 🙂
August 7, 2014 @ 9:25 pm
Aw, thanks! Believe me, though, it’s still a loooong way from getting off the ground. We haven’t even done any serious drawings, other than a few character sketches. We’ve got the characters and pieces of their personalities built in our minds, but we have yet to seriously to pen to paper.
And yes, we would DEFINITELY need to consult with people from the different groups we want to represent. Can I steal the term “castle of straight whiteness?” Genius.
August 7, 2014 @ 9:27 pm
I think sometimes a writer just has to take the risk. I’m white and a woman. I have been married for almost 50 years to someone who is neither white, nor Christian, nor living in a Western country. I’ve lived 40 of those years in his land, among his people. And I have finally picked up enough courage to write a book (in fact a trilogy), part of which is set in his corner of the world. One of the trilogy heroes is a man very much like his ancestors might have been.
Why did it take me so long to set one of my books in South-east Asia? Because I was worried that I’d be ripped apart for cultural appropriation. Even now, I’ve used the disguise of a secondary world and with an alternate style history of our own 18th century spice trade. And yet … I’ve yet to see a man of my husband’s culture being a hero in an internationally published English language fantasy novel. Maybe I won’t do the cultural background as well as a local might — but at least the books will be out there.
August 7, 2014 @ 9:53 pm
I remember a comment made some years ago about one of Canada’s great men of letters, roughly,
“I’ll let Roberson Davies write about lesbians all he wants if it means I can write about someone like Roberson Davies.”
August 7, 2014 @ 9:54 pm
As an Asian, I had always loved reading asian characters from different books, whether it is possitively or negatively represented. It’s all abouy diversity and individuality. Different races, culture or not, we are all individuals with different prespective. We all have different interpretation on things. Even people from the same culture have differebt understanding of their own individually, so I guess that goes to show that no matter how many research or first had experience you have on a different culture, there will always be people who have something against it.
I’m not an author, but I do aspire to be one day, and I do see the importance of knowing and researching thoroughly about what ever you might write about.
If I want to write a story about an American girl, am I not allowed and is strictly should get my ass away from writing it because I am an Asian and I have no idea or understanding of American culture? Everything should always go both ways. But then again, that kind of thinking is wrong. Everyone has the right and the previlage to write what ever they want, provided they had made good enough research about it.
You are one of my inspiration on writing, and I am so glad to see you handling this issue well.
August 7, 2014 @ 9:54 pm
Typo: Robertson Davies
August 7, 2014 @ 11:47 pm
Some of that regarding actors is that if trans actors are having trouble getting any sort of big part, but a cis actor gets a part playing a trans character, that’s a bit annoying. If it happens a lot, it starts to be a problem. If the exchange was more even — trans actors were cast for cis characters as often in proportion as cis actors for trans characters — then it would be not much of a problem.
It would be a bit like if Jim and other white authors got a lot of attention and sales for writing Chinese characters, but actual Chinese authors were having trouble getting commercially published in English at all. Basically, we should have diversity not just in fictional characters, but in the people who bring them to life.
August 7, 2014 @ 11:52 pm
A different question for you: In the current publishing climate, who would be more likely to be published and promoted and critically celebrated for accuracy and imagination? A Korean-descended American writing a novel about a white family and white culture in the US? Or an Anglo American writing a novel about a Korean family and Korean culture? Assume that both have spent the majority of their lives in the US.
Or when pitched, would a mainstream publisher that has just bought a novel about a Chinese immigrant family be more likely to snap up a Japanese-American writer’s fantasy novel set in Japan or a white writer’s fantasy set in a vaguely exotic Asian fantasyland?
Where is the black writer’s book about black families shelved, and is it championed by the NYT? What about the white writer’s book about black families? What about the Latina writer’s book about black families? In which of these scenarios, if any, would you describe something like “censorship” happening?
The ability to write about races outside of one’s own and be published and celebrated for it (Orphan Master’s Son, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) is not one that is open to all of us, and yes, some of us would like you to acknowledge that inequality and behave responsibly with it.
August 8, 2014 @ 12:05 am
You can write about someone from another culture if you know what the hell you’re talking about. Or someone who is from, say, multiple cultures. If you don’t, don’t.
If you have to ask yourself whether you know, the answer is almost certainly, don’t.
Steven Harper Piziks
August 8, 2014 @ 12:28 am
Oh, I quite disagree. The comment isn’t meant to be ironic. All authors were unpublished at some point. I can’t count the number of authors I know who said they got into writing because no one was writing the kind of books they wanted to read, or who felt that authors were doing it wrong, so they set out to write books they liked or that did it right. Hell, I wrote the Silent Empire because I was so very tired of reading about LGBT characters who died tragically, or who had unhappy love lives, or who couldn’t be in a steady, loving relationship because they were LGBT. So I wrote a book that would do it right.
Someone has to write it. Why not you?
August 8, 2014 @ 12:42 am
To clarify, I’ve never thought I “shouldn’t” write the other, but rather that I was never sure I had the courage to take the flack, especially given where I was living. Using a secondary non-modern world was the way I solved the problem of my cowardice.
It’s much easier to brave criticism when you live in your own country, or at least in a country where you don’t have to renew your residency permit every year.
August 8, 2014 @ 1:26 am
I appreciate this explanation of this point–a good thing for everyone to remember.
N J Magas
August 8, 2014 @ 5:25 am
I write stories with Japanese setting and characters frequently, though part of that is because I live in Japan, and I’m frequently inspired by what I see and experience here. I’ve had friends point out where I’ve gotten things wrong in the past, but it’s one of those things that you learn from and try better for the next time around, like any mistake. I try to showcase a broader cultural picture when I write from a different viewpoint, but sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I’m just finishing up a short piece on the Japanese festival of the dead, which is both a somber occasion and a festive one, and writing it was a delicate exercise in wanting to tell a good, vivid story and needing to be respectful of another culture’s traditions.
August 8, 2014 @ 6:54 am
I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to link to the post in question, since that way lies the possibility of a horde of your fans descending on the OP to tell them why they are wrong and bad. That said, I’m really not sure how to engage with this without actually knowing what it is they said. In particular, this bit:
The way I would interpret “don’t use this as a prop” is not “don’t write about this at all, period” but “don’t make it a tangential background bit of scenery”, “if you’re going to use my culture like that actually engage with it properly”, etc. You’re reacting to it as the former, and maybe the post specified that it was the former? But when all the information you’ve given us is that summary there’s no way for me to know and I don’t know how to react to this post as a result.
I especially wonder about this because, with all due respect, privileged people *do* tend to react to criticisms of how they write about a certain marginalisation as though they’ve been told not to write about it at all, even when that’s not what the critics are saying.
August 8, 2014 @ 7:03 am
I would agree, if (s)he had taken another example but Jim. There are literarily hundreds of authors who use nearly any culture as prop. But (probably) referring to “Codex Born” as using asian culture as a prop comes pretty close to “Any use by outsiders is an abuse as prop”.
What i don’t know is whether the person included examples or proofs for his/her interpretation. If they had been there, i guess Jim would have mentioned them. Without them, it would be just a general rant and would be emphasize my interpretation from the first chapter.
Jim C. Hines
August 8, 2014 @ 7:42 am
“It would be a bit like if Jim and other white authors got a lot of attention and sales for writing Chinese characters, but actual Chinese authors were having trouble getting commercially published in English at all.”
And if you look at who’s more likely to get published, get reviewed, get a big marketing push, etc…
Jim C. Hines
August 8, 2014 @ 7:52 am
“I especially wonder about this because, with all due respect, privileged people *do* tend to react to criticisms of how they write about a certain marginalisation as though they’ve been told not to write about it at all, even when that’s not what the critics are saying.”
In this case, the opening of the post talked about using other cultures as a prop, which I 100% agree is not “don’t write about this at all.”
However, later on, the poster talked about not wanting white people teaching about their culture, not wanting to have to guess whether or not a book was written by a white author, and a comment about being “Chinese enough” to write a certain story.
It’s still totally possible I’m misinterpreting or misunderstanding or overreacting. But to me, it felt like the post went farther than the initial “prop” comment.
Jim C. Hines
August 8, 2014 @ 7:58 am
Swiping this comment/quote from firecat over on LJ, who quoted Hiromi Goto’s GoH speech from Wiscon:
I don’t think the “burden of representation” rests upon the shoulders of those who are positioned as under-represented. If this were the case we would fall into an essentialist trap that will serve no one well. However, I’m okay with saying that it is my hope that white writers who are interested in writing about cultures and subjectivities outside of their own consider very carefully: 1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?
August 8, 2014 @ 8:27 am
That is essentially saying that the burden of proof rests with the author. The litmus test he is establishing is a bar at a significant height.
In particular i am opposed to the idea of “occupying this space” idea. There is no limited space.
No one can predict if a books saturates or creates a market. And any saturation in the book market is always only a temporary one.
And i think we are worrying here completely at the wrong place. If you are afraid of someone making a hostile takeover of other cultures, they should go to Hollywood first ;-).
August 8, 2014 @ 10:55 am
Okay. Ftw, I haven’t read any of the posts on here before writing this, so if I repeat something ,please forgive.
I’m one of the people who disagrees with your critic. I’m also a WoC. I also think that maybe where this person became upset on the issue is, there’s two kinds of writing from White people about PoC. There’s inclusion and diversity and then there’s appropriation and everyone’s standards for the two can be widely different. I’m read some surprisingly wonderful books about PoC written by White authors. I didn’t see any of these books as appropriation so my standards are probably much more relaxed than your critic. I saw the books as inclusion and what was surprising about the books is I recognized so much of my specific version of the world in the story. Then there’s apprpriation and my standard for that is if the PoC are used as little more than scenery for the White narrator’s story. (Or if I come across any other of the numerous cliches I’ve seen in movies and TV, like The Magical Negro, The Token Sidekick, The Angry Black Guy or Woman.)
One book that especially comes to mind is Orson Scott Card’s Street Magic, which was ,I thought a great blend of Urban- Urban Fantasy, and Celtic Folklore, which I’d never encountered before. Sure, parts of it were a little problematic but as a nerd of longstanding, and espeicially what I like to call a Ghetto Nerd, I’m very ,very used to never seeing anything I know being represented in SFF. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like that to change, just that I’m used to overlooking that problem in order to enjoy stuff.
Right now though, I’m very much off Urban Fantsy written by with female protagonists. All the voices have started to blend together, all the plots, seem the same and most important of all, even though so many of these books take place in the city there’s almost no diversity to speak of. It’s become formulaic and more than a little tiresome to read about a city with all manner of supernatural creatures but no ethnic diversity to speak of and I’m really looking for some variety. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the books that are being written. I just want something different than what’s being sold. (And Ftr, Ive read most of the Af-Am SFF authors out there and even discovered a few new ones.)
I dont know or understand why there’s so little Fantasy written by PoC being published by the major houses, but until then I will just have to make do with what Indie PoC are writing and those White authors attempting to include different voices and sometimes, just sometimes getting it wrong.That comes with the territory.
And Jim, please don’t stop including us just bc ONE person has higher standards than me. Although, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t get lazy about it either.
Jim C. Hines
August 8, 2014 @ 11:01 am
No worries – I’m not planning to stop trying to write honestly diverse stories. But I definitely think it’s something to continue thinking about and being aware of, you know?
August 8, 2014 @ 11:16 am
Yes. The general form of the statement is one that tells an artist they should constrain themselves to only those things they personally represent–which when taken to its absurd point says that people should only tell stories about themselves.
This is clearly not right. The whole point of an artform is to explore what it means to be human. Certainly you have an obligation to think about what you’re doing, though. I think Mary Anne’s point above is the best summary overall. Do what you need to do. Tell the stories you need and want to tell, but tell them respectfully, and in a responsible fashion that includes doing your best to respect your characters.
August 8, 2014 @ 11:29 am
*I* do write the books I want to read, thank you very much. And yes, wanting to write a better book than X is a good motivator.
But where your reply crosses the line, for me, is that not everyone is or should be an aspiring author. Many people have neither the interest nor capacity to create their own fiction. And your comment implies that it’s not just A plausible response to write one’s own book, but the ONLY plausible response.
Nobody should be denied permission to critique someone’s erroneous writing just because they have no aspirations of being a writer. Suggesting that the only valid way to respond to another book getting one’s lived experience wrong is to write a new book is pretty dismissive and limiting. The world of stories does not revolve solely around writers. We’re nothing without readers.
August 8, 2014 @ 11:30 am
Typosphere » Blog Archive » Writing in Other Cultures
August 8, 2014 @ 11:42 am
[…] As synchronicity would have it, I’m in the process of the second pass at a novel I’m titling Chasing the Setting Sun. It’s a follow-up to See the PEBA on $25 a Day, and it’s set in Japan—a place I’ve never been. Here I am yesterday, the day after I start in earnest on it, when Jim Hines posts this piece, titled “Using Asian Cultures as Props.” […]
August 8, 2014 @ 12:32 pm
Thank you for taking the call-out seriously and pondering the question thoughtfully instead of reacting with anger. The question is a tricky one and I have no answers either but thank you for your willingness to listen and think.
August 8, 2014 @ 12:48 pm
As a Chinese American I’m a bit conflicted when other people borrow my ancestral culture. In think in some ways, it feels worse to me because I’m not as close to it. If I was Chinese-born living in China I would have my own media as well as whatever was imported, but I’m American-born living in America so most of what I have is what comes through my family and what the dominant white culture gives me.
I’m happy whenever I play Spot the Asian with TV dramas and win, because I want to see more people like me on TV. But I’m less happy when that person is a dragon lady, a ninja, the wise mentor to a white person, etc. I liked the Asian guy on the submarine show Last Resort, because he was just one of the crew and his heritage was never brought up at all!
The book that constantly bothers me is The Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. It’s the one that gets brought up a lot by well-meaning people who want to talk about a Chinese fantasy adventure; the book written by a white guy and includes character names like Fat Fu and Henpecked Ho. I don’t think Mr. Hughart was trying to be disrespectful since the book is a series of comedic misdaventures with a wacky cast of characters to begin with, but it comes off that way when it’s the best known representation of my culture in American fantasy and science fiction (and won the World Fantasy Award).
I have no problem with people writing my culture if it feels like they took the time and effort to get it right, and I realize that threshold will be different for me vs. other Chinese Americans. Like when I’m watching TV, I’m happy if there’s an Asian character or two in a book even if they’re not the main character (though main character would be awesome). But my caricature alert sensors are set to high. I need to know this character is a person, and just not a prop to fill a convenient Asian-shaped hole.
August 8, 2014 @ 12:52 pm
August 9, 2014 @ 1:17 am
Hughart himself makes a point of noting that it takes place in a time that doesn’t exist and is in many ways intentionally anachronistic, cartoonish and false. I give him some points for that — but no, much as I think Bridge of Birds is a splendid novel, I have never once mistaken it for something that is remotely representative of China or the Chinese of any time. Rather like the Disney Beauty and the Beast is in no way set in any actual time or place in France — except with the additional problem that actual China is vastly underrepresented in English-language literature in North America.
(Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain meets the Moon is a better exemplar of Chinese fantasy adventure — still a North American’s take, but at least it’s one with genuine cultural connection.)
August 9, 2014 @ 2:16 am
We’re all against stealing other cultures as props, obviously. The general theme of respect is the key, I think. And to have more than one representative of whatever culture you’re ‘including’, to show that there is more to Japan than ninjas. As someone from a very multicultural society (urban Sydney), I can’t write a story set here accurately without including a wide range of ethnicities, particularly as I often write for children and am conscious that lots of kids (Aboriginal/Asian/African/etc. etc) never see themselves represented on TV, so it’s really important that they be represented in stories. I do believe , as long as I treat the culture with respect and I do my research, that I can and should write about people of diverse ethnicities, precisely BECAUSE I am a well established children’s writer who is more likely to get published. So several of my children’s characters are not ‘white’ (a weird concept, anyway, in a country with so many Caucasian ethnicities which are not Anglo). Two of them are partly of Chinese descent (specifically, their Dad’s family came from Nanking and fled the Japanese invasion, he grew up in Hong Kong and met their Anglo mother when he came to study in Sydney). It’s the specifics that count. The more specific you are, the more accurate you can be, and the more you are writing a ‘real’ person, not a cardboard cutout of a character.
This is particularly important in regard to Aboriginal characters. According to our last census (2011), Aboriginal people make up only 3% of the population. Even if access to publication was an even playing field (which we know it isn’t), there just aren’t enough indigenous writers to get across all genres, audiences, etc. So if non-indigenous writers shy away from including them as characters, they remain invisible in literature – just another example of marginalisation. I’m currently writing a YA fantasy that has four main point of view characters – one of Romanian descent, one Anglo, one of Sri Lankan descent and one indigenous. I admit, I’m being cautious with the indigenous character and getting my Koori friends to beta read – but I’m also getting my teenage son to read it to make sure I’ve got the Anglo boy right. And I’m researching Romania and Sri Lanka pretty hard, too.
I feel that the most dangerous kind of ‘inclusion’ is the solo character. When you can embed a character in his/her family, community, church, etc., you can show a wide variety of people from the same background, and this is best defence against stereotyping.
August 9, 2014 @ 2:59 am
I’m white, so take this with a grain of salt. And I haven’t read the book you mention, and I haven’t read the article you’re reacting to.
But consider Firefly. Joss Whedon, when making that series, did some thinking. “What will the future be like? Well, Asia is growing in both population and economic power, so it makes sense that in the future there will be a lot of Asians. So let’s put lots of Asians in the show, and lots of Asian culture.” Fair enough. But he still cast mostly white actors (with two Black actors, because he’d gotten lots of hell for the whole cast of Buffy being lily-white). And the other thing he brought to the table was the kind of Johnny-Reb Western (you know the kind, there’s lots of them, where the former Confederate soldiers can’t stand the Union and so they go off to the frontier to make their own way). Lots of Southern stuff in the white characters–that accent, for example. And all those Asian people and Asian stuff become exotic backgrounds for the White Southern Heroes (and two black people) to walk in front of.
There’s a great vid challenging this, called “How Much Is That Geisha In the Window?” by lierdumo.
There are so many examples of this–and the lone Japanese character being a ninja, as you mention–that any time you include Asian characters/culture and it’s *not* the focus of the book, you are quite possibly feeding into this trope. But if you make it the focus, it’s so easy to get it wrong …
I don’t think there are answers that are always right. I know some Native Americans who would prefer that *no* white person *ever* wrote fiction about Native Americans or with Native Americans in it, because they didn’t feel it was possible to do it non-exploitatively or in ways that respected their culture but didn’t fetishize it or use it as local color/exotic background for the white hero. I know other Native Amerians who wish that *more* white authors would write Native Americans (as long as they tried to be respectful). If you don’t write Native Americans, the second group will be upset; if you do, the first will.
August 9, 2014 @ 3:13 am
I will note that this answer comes from someone who, I am guessing from the name, will never fall afoul of the prejudices that will be reinforced by that hypothetical story.
People, as a general rule, tend to take anything that supports their prejudices as gospel truth and ignore the stuff that doesn’t even fit. We do this on a subconscious level, as has been proven by numerous psychological and sociological studies. And stories are the most powerful ways that our prejudices get reinforced.
Let’s put this another way. Some young Black men are gangsters and other varieties of criminals. Many are not, but angry and stupid gangbanger is one of our cultural tropes about What Black Men Are Like. You can write a nuanced, true-to-life story about an angry young Black gangbanger, and many people who read your story will be influenced by it. It will reinforce their prejudices. It will mean that they are more likely, the next time they see a young Black man, they will think “criminal,” even if that young Black man is a law-abiding saint. And they will *treat* him like one. The hypothetical story is, indeed, true to life. Should you write it? Knowing that it will cause no harm to you but it will add to the pile of shit that our society drops on Black men?
This is particularly fraught for someone who makes money for writing. If you write that story, and get paid for it, you are now taking money to pile shit on people. Er. That’s an ethical issue right there.
You can, by the way, adjust this for any marginalized group and accompanying stereotype.
August 9, 2014 @ 3:22 am
Aaargh! Looks like my last comment didn’t thread. It was in response to the guy named Rob who said “sure, if you know a real-life dumb blonde and can write a true-to-life story about her, do so!”
August 9, 2014 @ 12:47 pm
Of *course* we should have diversity, but seriously, though, you can’t quite make that comparison because the ratio of trans people in Hollywood isn’t anywhere near enough to make the proportions come out “fair”, no matter how you slice it. Transsexual actors will never be cast as cis characters as much as cis characters would be cast as transsexuals.
(My partner is trans so I’m not just talking out of my ass here, I’m about as well educated on trans issues as a cis person can be.)
They do exist, as Laverne Cox pointed out, but there’s not masses of transsexual actors/actresses or parts (another issue for another day, of course, is the woeful lack of LGBT representation in film, LOL)
I’m just saying that sometimes it becomes a whole kneejerk reaction, and perhaps NPH *was* the best person for Hedwig for that specific production, regardless of whether or not there was an actual transsexual up for the part. Do you give the transsexual the part simply because of the fact that they are transsexual?
It’s a squiggly line, I agree. One could even draw parallels to the idea that we have people representing and passing legislation for those whom it directly affects whilst not being affected themselves (men maing reproductive choices for women, for example.) There’s a lot of different angles to these kinds of issues.
August 9, 2014 @ 3:38 pm
The world is a large and beautiful place filled with a spectrum of different people and their experiences. In a perfect world, we would have diversity in our books and our writers, which would have an equalizing effect, but that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps there would be less criticism if readers could pick up a book with diverse characters one day and pick up a book written by the diversity found in our world population another day. Even better if we didn’t have to make that distinction all the time.
For example, I think it’s fine to have a fantasy with various characters from different cultures or different backgrounds as they go off to fight the Big Bad (as long as stereotypes aren’t used). However, I might cry foul as a reader if you were writing a book about the struggles and conflict of say, an indigenous person. How do you know the nuances of what that person has gone through? The best research might not be able to duplicate that authentic experience. Of course, even one person’s experience’s shouldn’t be used as a general representation of gender, race, sexuality, etc. But these two examples would create two vastly different books. So perhaps it depends on the nature of the story being told?
August 9, 2014 @ 7:43 pm
“Maybe I won’t do the cultural background as well as a local might — but at least the books will be out there.”
August 9, 2014 @ 11:11 pm
There is truth in what you say, but does that mean you never write a story in which stereotypical behavior occurs? Is your librarian someone who loves books, sometimes more than people? Is is wrong to have a gangbanger who is black, or hispanic? Ever?
I would argue that if you are going to write a character who reinforces a stereotype in some way, that you try to add something to character to keep it from being a cliche. Build the character to be three dimensions. Add something to the character to move from stereotype to something more real. A huge part of that is dependent on the author’s skill as much as on the open-mindedness of the author.
You are correct, my name gives you the impression I have not suffered constantly from discrimination, but take a look at my name. Am I a white male? Am I Jewish, Protestant, Catholic or Atheist? Am I straight or gay? Do I have a criminal background? Am I rich? Am I thin or fat? Am I bald? Am I young or old? As you can see there are plenty of stereotypes that even my name can conjure, some are even correct. Some have been assumed in the past incorrectly, as well.
Let’s change, for just a moment, from writing to photography. Can you go out an find a picture to take that reinforces a stereotype? Easily. But can you take the same subject and add a third dimension, something more than just a stereotype? That is where artistry enters. It is a fine line and one an author should carefully tread. Remember above I said that “if dealing with a character who was a dumb blonde WAS HONEST TO YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE PERSON YOU KNOW, YES, IT IS FAIR.” So I said in order to use a stereotype, you really should know a real person who fits the stereotype AND I said it was fair. I did not say you SHOULD use stereotypes, but I said it was fair to use them. To use them correctly, in order to communicate with your audience in a form of shorthand, that is fair. To use a stereotype in order to reinforce that stereotype is inartistic and fruitless, as you would only be preaching to small minded people who already believe such things (though you might be quickly hired by FOX NEWS). I am not trying, nor do I wish to try, to defend ALL uses of stereotypes, rather give an except wherein the use is fair.
Other cultures | Karavansara
August 10, 2014 @ 6:39 am
[…] Using Asian Cultures as Props […]
August 14, 2014 @ 11:37 pm
I think the fact that you’re thinking about this so seriously, and really trying to foster a discussion shows that you already ARE sensitive enough to write from diverse perspectives. As you said (forgive my paraphrasing), you’re only human, and WILL make mistakes from time to time. But I don’t think making the occasional mistake should stop you from writing about different cultures, just as you wouldn’t let it stop you from writing in the first place.
August 15, 2014 @ 11:34 am
As you said, this argument does not really have an easy answer. I think it depends on how well the characters are written. As long as they’ve been written in a respectful and accurate way, the fact that they’ve been written by a non-indigenous writer should not be used as a way to attack said writer. In fact, I believe it makes for healthy reading, when you read a book that has characters from different cultures interacting with each other, and global issues and calamities affecting not just the USA (as is the case in Hollywood movies), but the whole globe, as they are meant to.
As far as your books are concerned, I can’t comment on how accurately you’ve portrayed the Japanese culture, but I can say this. You’ve done a wonderful job in portraying the Indian female character of Nidhi Shah in your series Magic Ex Libris. I should know, I’m Indian. Everything about her, right from her name, to her personality and her habits, is meticulously done. You’re one of very few American writers to have sketched out a nearly perfect Indian character. I say nearly, because there was one thing – just the one – that bugged me a bit. In the two books that she’s been in, there’s no mention of her family (parents, or any other relatives). Maybe she doesn’t have anyone left, but even that isn’t mentioned anywhere. The reason this pricked me is that we Indians, generally, are rather possessive about our families. Therefore, given the fact that she is a part of the intimate, though unconventional, relationship of the protagonist, I think it’s only fitting that there should be a mention, at least, of her family. In every other sense, you’ve done a marvelous job.
Jim C. Hines
August 17, 2014 @ 8:24 pm
Thanks for this, Kanika. For personal reasons, Nidhi’s character is particularly important to me, so this is very gratifying to hear.
As for her family … thanks for that feedback. I do have thoughts on her family, and the reasons they’re not present in her life, but it’s not something I’ve shown in the story yet. I’ll try to be more conscious of that when I start in on book four.