In my last post, I talked about colonialism and the different forms it can take, most notably cultural appropriation. Today I’d like to continue that conversation and explore some solutions for authors who want to write about other cultures.
I want to start by saying that I believe it is a writer’s job to accurately reflect the human experience. That means putting in the work to get things right. For the Windstorm Series, I had to research all sorts of things, from purse seining and oil drilling to horticulture and sheep rearing, not to mention the geography and customs of the countries Kit visited, so that my readers weren’t thrown out of the story. This attention to detail is even more important when we’re writing characters whose experiences are different from our own. For example, if you are writing a pregnant character, but you’ve never been pregnant, you need to put in the work to understand what that experience is like.
I also believe that part of accurately reflecting the human experience means representing the world in all its complexity and difference, and that means including dynamic and complex characters from all backgrounds in our writing. The remainder of this series will be an exploration of how we can do that work accurately and respectfully so that we avoid stereotyping and erasure.
In this post, I want to focus specifically on writing from the perspective of other cultures. Many authors may consider writing about or setting their book within a certain culture because they want to honor it or give a voice to lesser known (or poorly represented) communities and, in so doing, help bring more diversity to children’s literature. However, we have to be willing to recognize that some cultures, especially ones that rely on oral traditions and histories, may not want their stories to be shared by outsiders. Ambelin Kwaymullina writes,
“If non-Indigenous authors are writing about us because they care about Indigenous culture (as many tell me they do), then I think they should respect it enough to know when it is not their place to speak, and what it is not their place to speak about. This is especially so given that Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalised peoples on earth; that our cultures have been subject to sustained efforts to destroy them; that we continue to experience discrimination; and that our living traditions are our lifeblood. Appropriation of Indigenous cultures and stories causes real harm to real people – and we have already been harmed enough.”
(This is why the Own Voices movement is so important. Elsewhere, Kwaymullina notes that the lack of marginalized voices in children’s lit is not so much a diversity problem as it is a privilege problem: “The fundamental disconnection between the world of literature and the real world springs from, and is maintained by, a set of structures and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another.” If more authors from marginalized communities were published, we likely wouldn’t have the lack of representation we do today.)
It’s crucial to understand that some stories and practices are considered sacred. If you are Christian, consider how you would feel if a non-Christian retold the story of Christ’s birth to imply that the Virgin Mary invented the Annunciation in order to cover up an affair. Now imagine that Christianity was a minority religion and very few people had read the Bible, and as a result of this book, people now had misconceptions about your beliefs. You can see the harm that could cause.
Consequently, when considering whether to include another culture in your work, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I telling my own story, or someone else’s story?
- If it is someone else’s story, is it okay for me to share or retell it? (Do I have ties to that culture? Is it considered sacred or private?)
- Have I put in the work to accurately reflect this culture’s values, or am I writing from my own worldview?
- Has the culture I want to write about been oppressed by my culture?
- What is my purpose for writing about this culture?
- If I’m writing science fiction or fantasy, am I reinforcing a colonizing perspective? (Check out this great roundtable discussion about decolonizing SFF.)
If you’re still not sure whether or not your work would be considered appropriative, I would recommend reading “The Cultural Appropriation Primer,” complied by K. Tempest Bradford. For a discussion of how appropriation happens in popular culture, I also recommend listening to this episode of Witch, Please.
Finally, for a succinct overview of cultural appropriation, watch this video from MTV Decoded.
If, after doing your research, you decide that including another culture in your work would be not be disrespectful or harmful, I would encourage you to think of ways you can ensure that your work is an exchange and not an exploitation. As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “There needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect.” Nisi Shawl writes,
“Any connections I make with unfamiliar cultures must be more than one-way. When acknowledging benefits derived from a cultural source, I also acknowledge that I have responsibilities to that source: the responsibility to recognize it, to learn from it, to protect it, to serve it, to enhance it somehow if I can, to promote it to others. The extent to which I do this depends partly on the extent to which I benefit, and partly on the extent to which I’m able to reciprocate that benefit.”
Call to Action
If you’re writing a story that borrows elements from a non-dominant culture, think of ways you can give back to that culture so that the exchange goes both ways.
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure