Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other
I talked about representation in my keynote at Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and also participated on a panel about diversity with Chuck Wendig, Gail Carriger, and Carol Berg. One of the questions that came up during the panel and afterward was about the line between writing diverse stories and cultural appropriation, and whether there were stories and characters it’s just not okay for someone to write about?
My first response is that I hope I’m not the first person you asked. I’ve thought and read and talked about these issues a fair amount, but coming to the straight white guy for any sort of authoritative answer about appropriation is all kinds of problematic. I strongly suggest starting with resources like:
- Should White People Write About People of Color? by Malinda Lo
- Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, by Nisi Shawl
- Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
- Cultural Appropriation, by Aliette de Bodard
- On the topic of cultural appropriation in fantasy, what IS the line…? from the MedievalPOC Tumblr
- Diversity in Fantasy Mine, by Cindy Pon
- And in a shameless plug for my authors, I’d encourage folks to check out Invisible
ETA: I’d also recommend Ada Hoffmann’s response to this post: Autism and Appropriation
I do believe stories should reflect the diversity of our world. To do otherwise suggests a lack of imagination, a barren and narrow vision. It’s lazy storytelling.
It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong. Sure, that can be hard to hear, but welcome to writing. I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism more than once. It’s not fun, but most of the time — if I don’t let my ego and defensiveness get in the way — I come away with a better understanding than before. I come away a better writer. And shouldn’t we always be working to improve?
When I was speaking about diversity and appropriation at the conference, one of the things that came to mind was Kevin Smith’s movie Chasing Amy. I remember years ago talking to a bisexual friend who was upset by the movie. Among other things, she said, “He’s trying to tell our stories.”
In Chasing Amy, our protagonist Holden falls for a woman named Alyssa, who is identified as a lesbian. She ends up falling for him, and the movie tells the story of their relationship, including Alyssa’s conflicts over Holden, and backlash from other lesbians. When I first watched the movie, I saw it as entertainment. My friend saw her life and experiences and identity being misunderstood and misrepresented by a man who wasn’t a part of that community.
It’s the difference between “I want to include you in my stories” and “I want to tell your stories.”
Another facet of the conversation: when talking about autism in fiction, the titles I see people recommending again and again are often written by neurotypical authors. I wouldn’t say that automatically means these authors are appropriating the stories of people with autism. Some of those stories are very thoughtful and well-researched. But it troubles me to see whose voices are being promoted, and whose are being ignored. And while some of those stories may be well-researched, others are not. They portray a shallow understanding of autism, reinforcing myths and cliches for the entertainment and consumption of neurotypical readers.
That’s another piece of what appropriation means to me. Appropriation is when I take a part of your identity, your culture, your history, and I use it to create a story that isn’t for you.
In Boy Scouts, we had a service group called the Order of the Arrow, which was supposed to be based on Native American ceremonies and cultures. We dressed in headdresses and regalia, we donned face paint, we performed our own ceremonies… Not once can I recall seeing a Native American at an Order of the Arrow event. Not once did we really stop to talk about the cultures whose trappings we were playing with, or the meaning of those trappings.
I think most of us took OA seriously, and the group did a lot of good service work. But we also appropriated aspects of Native American cultures and wore them like costumes from a Halloween store.
We’ve all read stories that do the same thing. They play with the “shiny bits” of a culture without respect or understanding. They perpetuate the exoticization and fetishization of the other.
I don’t have any easy answers, but I think it’s on all of us to continually work to do better. For authors, that means writing honestly and respectfully about the world. It means doing our research. It also means listening, and not just to me. If you’ve read this entire post, thank you, but please don’t stop here.
And if you have additional resources or thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments. Thank you.
David Jón Fuller
May 1, 2014 @ 10:15 am
One thing I worry about/think about/work on as I write stories that include people who have been marginalized is that, no matter how much research I have done, and even after I have gotten feedback from people who know more about the experiences I am trying to write about, is: is my story doing anything to move the cultural conversation forward, or am I just rehashing (and reinforcing) existing power structures in society?
I have been working on stories over the past year with main characters who are Anishinaabe. I have researched the history of the time periods I set them in and tried to accurately portray the way Canada has treated First Nations peoples and the effects that has, while at the same time not merely re-victimizing the characters, and by extension any Anishinaabe or other First Nations readers. I’m concerned that even when putting these characters at the centre of the story, I’m somehow just retelling the abuse even though that is not what I am trying to do. Because as a white Canadian writing about a culture that has been oppressed by white, Eurocentric Canadian power structures, I worry that I am NOT moving the conversation forward. And yet to not include characters like these in my fiction, I feel I am contributing to a silencing of them (which has gone on for decades) or a kind of erasure.
May 1, 2014 @ 10:38 am
Really nice post on this topic went up last week on Book Riot: http://bookriot.com/2014/04/25/diversity-authenticity-literature/
Here are a couple older posts that I thought really helpful in contributing to the discussion
• http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/guest-post-ways-of-seeing.html (Stephanie Saulter, 11-12-13.)
• http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/diversity-in-historical-fantasy/ (Mary Robinette Kowal, 11-12-13.)
May 1, 2014 @ 12:52 pm
It seems to me that one way to approach this is by focusing less on the main “point of view” characters and more on inclusion of ancillary characters – which to me is part of true inclusion anyway. If I’m a white straight physically able female, it might be presumptuous of me to write a story where the main character is a black transgendered person. But I can still be inclusive – having police, nurses, teachers, astronauts come in all genders, races, ethnicities not as major plot points but simply by name. I’ve read books that do this very well, not making a point of it, just giving people names that show who they are, having a casual mention (“Tom was eager for the mission to end so he could get back home to his husband”), and the like. Build the world around your main characters to represent the diversity of the real world. This is an important part of world-building.
Jim C. Hines
May 1, 2014 @ 1:11 pm
That’s one way to do it, and it’s probably easier to write characters who are closer to our own experience and PoV.
At the same time, my longest series to date was entirely from the PoV of female characters. I wouldn’t want to see characters “not like me” always relegated to the role of sidekicks or secondary characters.
And I definitely agree with you about diversity being something that’s just there, as opposed to always having to be the focal point of the plot.
Jim C. Hines
May 1, 2014 @ 1:12 pm
Thanks, Anne! I’ll check those out. I’m thinking of also doing a follow-up post that just links to additional resources.
May 1, 2014 @ 1:37 pm
Since I write under my family nickname of “J.T. Evans,” my gender is ambiguous just based on my name. I’m well aware of the fact that many women use their initials to avoid the “girl cooties” (to use Carol Berg’s term) concept in SF/F writing. This has led people to address me as a woman via text-based communications. I don’t mind. It doesn’t offend me. Heck, sometimes, I don’t even correct it.
I tend to primarily write female protagonists in my novel-length works. This trend is not a conscious decision of “writing the other,” but more a natural extension of how I think. I just naturally identify with women more than men. Perhaps it was being partially raised by a single mom that led to this? I really don’t know. That’s a nut I’ve yet to crack open.
One of my concerns is that if I ever “make it big” and have book signings where strangers approach me about me books, that they will be shocked or upset that someone they assumed was a women is writing about women. I don’t know if the concern is founded in truth, or just an extension of my writerly self-doubt.
My only hope is that I represent women well in my stories. Heck, my hope is that I properly represent EVERYONE I include in my stories in the proper manner.
Thanks for the links, Jim. I have them open in separate tabs, and am about to dive into them.
PS: It was great meeting you at the conference!
May 1, 2014 @ 1:44 pm
For future reference, that pull quote did odd things in the RSS feed. It was just hanging by itself before the “Another facet…”. I spent a while going word by word through those two sentences trying to find and difference and figure out what point you were trying to make by repeating that sentence.
Jim C. Hines
May 1, 2014 @ 1:47 pm
Crap. I was afraid of that. This was the first time I’d tried using the pullquote plugin. I like the effect, but if it screws up the RSS feed, it’s gotta go. Thanks for letting me know.
May 1, 2014 @ 2:06 pm
I’m not saying one should never use the PoV of people unlike oneself, just that it’s important to remember it’s not the only way to get diversity – and, IMO, the least important. If the main character of a story is different from the “norm” but all the other characters are the usual suspects, to me that’s not diversity.
OTOH, one of the many things I liked about Darkling Sea (for example) was that diversity was just *there* without it being pushed in your face. When a glancing mention was made of a male character’s boyfriend, it was done the same as if it had been mentioning his girlfriend – not worth making a point about.
David Jón Fuller
May 1, 2014 @ 2:10 pm
In addition to the excellent resources linked to above, I’d like to add this piece by Daniel José Older:
May 1, 2014 @ 3:19 pm
I’ve been working on a series of stories whose POV character is half Native American. Since I work on archaeological sites related to the Miwok tribe, I have some acquaintance with actual Miwok, and have found it helpful to ask what they think of my stuff…on a couple of occasions, I got some terrific suggestions about including stuff I hadn’t thought about. In others, I’ve been told where I got it wrong. If possible, I think it’s very useful to ask for feedback from members of the group you’re working with, and I think it’s an honest approach. But more than that, if you want to understand someone who’s different from you, what better way is there than to crawl inside a character’s skull and look at the world from their viewpoint? It’s an organic approach that can really open your eyes to issues that get the “double-think” treatment from mainstream culture, or get ignored entirely.
Jim C. Hines
May 1, 2014 @ 3:29 pm
I did something similar with my Kaleidoscope story, which has an autistic protagonist. I’ve learned a lot from working with my son and from reading/listening, but having beta readers with autism read the story and provide feedback was still very helpful.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
May 2, 2014 @ 12:35 pm
Plugging Mary Anne Mohanraj’s two guest posts on John Scalzi’s blog post Racefail 09, which have been really good resources I’ve referred others to that they’ve found very helpful:
On discussing race and racism in SF/F
On writing characters of color
May 2, 2014 @ 1:43 pm
This is an issue, because bi-sexual people (and others) often get erased in film and t.v. as existing in favor of a binary of only gay-straight. In Chasing Amy, the character identifies as a bi-sexual, not a lesbian, although she’s only doing lesbian relationships when the main character first meets her. Unfortunately, Smith went around marketing it as the character being a lesbian, when she was clearly not, and in fact, the whole story hinges on her being bi-sexual.
It’s still a very interesting movie that looks at expectations and sexual politics (the main character has more of a problem with her heterosexual relationships) in relationships. It also remains the movie that offered a visual explanation of fisting as I watched it with my husband and my mother. She was more confused by the comic book references.
Jim C. Hines
May 2, 2014 @ 5:17 pm
Kat – does the movie ever use the term bisexual? My memory is that she was identified as lesbian, which came across as another aspect of the erasure of bisexuality. But it’s been a while since I saw it.
May 3, 2014 @ 1:53 pm
But how can you have characters “not like you” as main characters and at the same time not tell their stories?
May 3, 2014 @ 8:01 pm
My reaction here:
Jim C. Hines
May 3, 2014 @ 8:34 pm
I saw that post and was wondering who had so completely failed to understand the point…
David Jón Fuller
May 5, 2014 @ 10:21 am
I’d say the assertion “It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own,” doesn’t depend, as Daniel says in his post, on the time and place the story is set, so much as what a writer hopes to achieve through a particular story. Assuming that certain places are monocultural or that there was no diversity (in his example, medieval Europe) is a fallacy, and to write yet another story that just reinforces the primacy of the straight white cisgender male shows an ignorance of history AND just props up an existing narrative that no one else’s stories matter.
I also don’t think the message here in your post is at all that, as he writes sarcastically, “I guess that if you happen to be white, male and heterosexual you should just not write.” The message seems to me to be, write with a respect for others cultures or groups, do it as well as you can and when you fail, listen and do it better next time. If you want to write stories by and for only “white, male and heterosexual” people, then go for it — but the world is much larger than that, and I don’t see why genres that are supposed to be free to push boundaries should have that severe limitation as part of their “tradition” anymore.
May 5, 2014 @ 2:56 pm
“It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong.”
I agree with all of the above, and I’ve attempted to do so in my previous novel. To mitigate the risk of getting it wrong, I created an alternate world and based the cultures of my characters of color on equivalent real-world cultures. So my protagonists Isabella and Alijandra aren’t from 19th Century Mexico and are now living among the Navajo, they’re from “Ysparria” and they live with the “Diheneh.”
IMHO, it allowed me considerable wiggle room where my research failed me, because I’m certainly no expert.
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May 6, 2014 @ 11:14 pm
[…] C. Hines, also on diversity and cultural appropriation. They were part of the same panel at Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference. Go figure […]
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May 29, 2014 @ 12:01 pm
Positive note about OA: The order has been officially removed from the BSA (hopefully, because of the racist appropriation of Native culture). My brother was in one of the last OA groups about 10-15 years ago, right before they got rid of it. They didn’t do the whole costumes-and-warpaint thing; instead, it was treated as stuff a warrior (from any culture) does, and the implication was that bows and arrows were used as symbols because Most Cultures Used Them, not as “Indian” flavoring. No mention was made of the racist imagery that was mainstream in your not-so-distant-past.
That’s not much of an improvement. But at least people are taking baby steps toward decency. Now to help speed things along!
Jim C. Hines
May 29, 2014 @ 1:46 pm
The OA website is still live, and it sounds like they’re still an official part of the BSA. They do say they changed the logo to an arrowhead, which I guess is progress. But we had OA scouts in regalia show up at a Cub Scout crossover ceremony a few years back…
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