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On ‘borrowing’ June 29, 2017

Posted by thejinx in life, writing.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately. It is a serious problem, I recognize that. But I also think that, unlike a number of so-called SJW crusades, arguments over it do go too far sometimes. Like a ‘get your picture taken in a period-style kimono’ exhibit at a Boston museum that was removed over too many complaints – despite members of the local Japanese-American community counter-protesting to keep it up.

I read a blog post a while back that resonated with me for a single line in it: straight people aren’t allowed to say what’s homophobic, men aren’t allowed to say what’s sexist, and white people aren’t allowed to say what’s racist. That made absolute sense to me. But would it also apply the other way? What does it say when white Americans rail against whitewashing more than the people supposedly being marginalized?

If I was married today, would I get complaints of cultural appropriation for my cheongsam-style wedding dress? (It was white. I obviously wasn’t trying to rip off a Chinese wedding.)

But again, it’s not up to me. Maybe I would’ve been in the wrong to wear that dress; maybe I was in the wrong. I wasn’t trying to disrespect or even emulate Chinese culture by wearing it. I just liked the style better than typical western wedding dresses and thought it more flattering on me.

I love learning about different cultures. I find it fascinating to see how people very different from me live their lives – their fashion, their food, their beliefs, their values, and on and on. And something I have come to learn is that it is immensely fun to both read and write about people very different from me.

That fact may come as a mild surprise to those who have read my novels, which (so far) don’t branch out very far from Tolkienesque 12th-century Britain-based fantasy or modern-day North America. But I want to. I wrote a novella last year starring a character from a nomadic society very loosely inspired by Romani, and I absolutely loved it. The part I’m currently writing for my next book features a number of different peoples all of which are very different from me. It’s been immense fun building these cultures and figuring out the characters’ roles in these societies.

However, I’m constantly wondering – will this be seen as disrespectful? Yes, these are completely fictional societies, and a lot of their development comes from natural progression based on location/climate/access to resources, but the fact is they’re not coming out of a vacuum. I find inspiration here and there from various cultures on our Earth, both because I find it interesting and because it suits these cultures and lends authenticity to them.

I’m not trying to make a medieval Mongolian or Mayan or Russian society in my novel; I start with pieces of one or several source cultures and work it into the world I’ve already developed. But all the same, I am borrowing from existing cultures, and is that problematic?

Today I was writing a scene in which a character reads the (magic) energy of the world. After some research I decided I liked the term prana for what she is sensing. But then I wondered – would people object to me using an Indian/Sanskrit term for a character whose society is more Pacific Islander influenced?

Am I splitting hairs, or is this a genuine concern I should be having? On the one hand, I absolutely agree that colonialism has resulted in appropriation that has undermined and demeaned other cultures through callous use of elements with deep sociological meaning to marginalized societies, and I should think carefully any time I “borrow” anything from another culture. On the other hand, where does it stop? Is it considered appropriation for me to cook a teriyaki stir fry dinner, or get henna on my wrist at a festival, or braid my daughter’s hair?

Earlier this year, the now-former editor of the Writers Union of Canada caused a lot of controversy when he recommended white authors incorporate more cultural appropriation into their writing, even as far as to suggest an “appropriation prize”. That comment was in extremely poor taste and emblematic of the issue… but I agree with the point he was trying to make. It’s boring and stifling to have white writers only write about white people. More to the point, writing is a way for us as humans to expand our minds and make sense of the human condition. In that regard, and especially considering white authors have such a stronger voice in current society, I would almost say it’s a duty of the white writer to step outside the box she lives in, as long as it’s done respectfully. We live in a multicultural society; is it not problematic to only write about your own race and culture? Good writing, writing that understands the world we live in, should either include or address multiculturalism.

But again, it’s not up to me. This is a highly complex issue, and one that’s unfortunately saturated with centuries of erasure and abuse.

Ultimately, I think the solution is to listen more to marginalized cultures on topics of cultural appropriation – both when it’s wrong, and when it’s not.

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