Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Karien van Ditzhuijzen, the author of “A Yellow House” who talks on writing about a culture not your own, and opines on cultural appropriation, a topic often hotly debated in literary circles. We had one such thread last week on the Insecure Writer’s Support Group on Facebook!
I love Karien’s suggestions on how it is possible to depict another culture without an attempt at appropriation. Take it away, Karien!
The world is – thankfully – no longer a place where everyone sticks to ‘their own’, migration has made it a diverse and colorful place. Most of my life I have lived in countries where I was a cultural and racial minority, and not surprisingly, those experiences make their way into my writing.
Writing about other cultures and races can be a sensitive matter, especially if you are writing as a privileged majority about a minority group, or – as in my case – about a region that has been colonized and exploited by your ancestors for centuries. So there are many things to bear in mind.
Cultural Appropriation: sensitivities, and what to look out for
I arrived in Singapore in 2012 with a husband, three young children and a big dream: to write a book on the issues migrant domestic workers face in Asia.
Writing as an Ang Moh (white foreigner) about a sensitive subject like that in Singapore I realised I needed to find the right voice. There is a lot of talk these days about cultural appropriation – usually when western (white) people emulate non-western culture for their own benefit. But Singapore is a melting pot of many cultures– all influencing each other, and by focusing too much on the negative aspects of cultural approbation, we risk overlooking another important phenomenon: cultural appreciation. When writers take the pains to truly understand the cultures they portray, they should be able to represent them accurately as well as respectfully.
Having lived in Asia as a child, the region was already familiar to me, and to get to know the women I wanted to write about intimately, I spent five years with a local charity (HOME) that supports migrant workers. Through my volunteering, I met a host of amazing women who inspired Aunty M, the main domestic worker character in my debut novel A Yellow House.
I wanted to write a book that would appeal to readers in Singapore, as those were the people that most needed to hear these stories. Many books tackling human rights issues suffer from the (white) saviour complex; there is a victim that needs someone to sweep in and rescue them. Whilst this type of story usually sells well in the West, there is good reason why it is less liked in Asia.
I simply wanted to show what the lives of migrant workers in Singapore look like. Readers could draw their own conclusions.
To do this, I needed a protagonist who was distant enough to allow reflection but would not be judgemental. And one day Maya showed up in my mind. Maya is a ten-year-old girl from mixed Singaporean –European ancestry. She struggles with her multicultural identity, something I can relate to as I lived in several continents before I was ten. I too grew up with domestic workers in the house and I made Maya ask all the difficult questions I was too shy or self-absorbed to ask when I was her age. Maya’s mixed heritage allows her to look at things from different cultural perspectives. She lives in a condo and goes to an international school, places I am comfortable writing about, yet her Singaporean mother and Peranakan grandmother provide a link to modern and historic Singapore and give the story a sense of place.
With my book I wanted to make people think about the way migrant domestic workers get treated in Singapore. I needed to show the bad as well as the good stories. Many of the bad stories are true, based on my encounters at HOME. Mental and physical abuse, isolation, starvation. Cheating husbands and estranged children in home countries.
But thankfully, they are not the entire story. There are many good employers out there who support their domestic workers and treat them well. There are also many domestic workers who use their time abroad wisely to study and save up to go back to an improved life back home. They, like Aunty M, serve as role models for the ones that are not there yet.
I also wanted to share the beauty of Singapore. Many people see a modern concrete city but there is so much under that shiny surface! The food, culture and Singlish language are obvious examples. Maya’s Peranakan heritage shows that Singapore has always been a mix of cultures, and that this enriches lives as well as complicates them.
The biggest compliment I received about A Yellow House was from a local friend who said I had written a real Singaporean novel. That I really understood Singapore. I also wanted the voices of domestic workers to be heard directly, not just through my lens.
To do that , I compiled the anthology ‘Our Homes, Our Stories,’ for a local charity, that contains 26 real–life stories, written by domestic workers, in their own voice. Both books complement each other: one gives their stories directly, in the way they themselves want to share them. The other is my take on it.
On avoiding cultural appropriation: here are some things to keep in mind when writing about a different culture:
- Understand your subject well
- As an outsider your work will be scrutinized, so you can’t afford mistakes.
- Get to know the people you write about. Becoming close can work better than formal interviews.
- Choose the right protagonist
- Consider the point of view from which you want to show your story, and whether this offers ample opportunity for reflection. What does your choice of protagonist mean for your story? Are there other possible angles?
- There is no right or wrong here, sometimes a local protagonist works best, sometimes an outsider looking in. Either way, make sure you can pull it off, and that your characters feel authentic.
- Serve your audience
- Readers in Asia don’t necessarily have the same preferences that people in Europe or the US have. Who will read this book? Does the viewpoint you picked match your audience?
- Get good beta-readers
- No matter how well you research, small mistakes will always slip in. Also, some things you will just see differently because you are wearing your own set of ‘cultural lenses’. Get beta readers from the cultural group you describe and make sure they give you brutally honest feedback.
- Use nuance, and balance
- You want to win people over with your story, not alienate them. You can write about something you don’t like in a culture, but make sure to also show the things you do like and try to offer some local perspective.
- Refrain from making judgments
- This goes particularly for the kind of judgment that uses a cultural bias. Be open to the fact that people might see things differently from you. Ideally, let readers reach their own conclusions.
Having said all this, there are no set rules in art, and good literature is allowed to be grating, to be painful, as long as it is honest and the writer’s intentions remain respectful. People will always have different opinions on what is politically or morally correct, so be sure to make conscious choices and be ready and able to defend them.
In my subjective space, as a non-white citizen of a country that was once a British colony, I respect a white author writing about a non-white culture when they are professional and thorough, and remain sensitive to the fact that the historical balance of power is not the same.
As Viet Thanh Nguyen said, “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.”
Have you read Karien’s books? What books by white authors have you read, which depict a non-white culture? What did you think of them?
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?
Karien van Ditzhuijzen’s debut novel A Yellow House was published by Monsoon Books in 2018. This poignant coming-of-age story, told in the voice of inquisitive ten-year-old Maya, explores the plight of migrant domestic workers in Singapore and the relationships they form with the families they work for.
Karien has been working with migrant domestic workers since 2012, when she joined HOME, a charity that supports migrant workers in Singapore. In the following years Karien worked closely with domestic worker writers, documenting their stories and sharing them on her MyVoice blog and as editor of the anthology ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’. Follow Karien on her site, on Facebook and on Instagram.
The co-hosts for the June 5 posting of the IWSG are Diane Burton, Kim Lajevardi, Sylvia Ney, Sarah Foster, Jennifer Hawes, and Madeline Mora-Summonte!
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REGARDING ABOVE CONFUSION, I.E., “by focusing too much on the negative aspects of cultural approbation, we risk overlooking another important phenomenon: cultural appreciation”
Approbation vs. Appropriation
Approbation is similar to appreciation. Approbation definition: the act of approving; an assenting to the propriety of a thing with some degree of pleasure or satisfaction; approval, sanction, commendation or official recognition
Sorry, Karien sounds like she has a white savior complex. It’s arrogant to imagine no one in the affected group can tell their own stories so she has to move to another country just to be the voice for domestic workers of color. Why not use her privilege to uplift them to share their own stories? I used to read plenty of books about characters of color by white authors—because I had no choice. They were almost exclusively the ones getting published when I was younger and are still the majority at every level of publishing. Their books were often filled with microaggressions that chipped away at me like a thousand little cuts growing into a gaping wound that made me believe stereotypes and loathe myself. Since I started prioritizing own voices books by authors of color, I’ve found them to be much more nuanced than anything 99% of appropriative white authors ever gave me. Raising my young kids of color, I wouldn’t give them books by white authors who appropriate because we now live in a world where they don’t need to suffer that harm.
In my second series I tried (hopefully successfully) to write about the Scottish culture and people. I learned there a great deal to do. For instance the individual will refer to themselves as a Scot with a capital “S”, the number of sheep outnumber the total number of people by about 3 to 1, and the gaelic used in Scotland is referred to as “Scottish Gaelic” which may or may not be the same word spoken in Wales (also a gaelic nation).
Not doing the mandatory research will stick out like a sore thumb. It’ll make your work look pretty bad, and you ignorant and lazy. Research who you’re going to write about. If you do a half-assed job it’ll show up. So if you choose to not do it you do so at your peril. And don’t rely on what you think you already know. It could be totally erroneous. On the plus side you might learn something that will make actually go there. And you could end up falling in love with the culture and the people.
I also found out I have a Scottish heritage.
Wow… here’s a few buckets full of food for thought.
I live in a “foreign” country and although it’s the same ethnic base as mine, the cultural differences are vast, so… understanding the differences takes time… and a willingness to understand that one may always be an outsider. Here we’re called “blow-in’s”… and we’re often reminded that we are just that!
However, I still find ways to interact with people who narrow-mindedly question my motives… I simply remind them of their Diaspora and the good they their ancestors took with them wherever they went.
Thanks for the post… I will go away and give my approach some more thought…
I write about issues characters have to deal with, and research and pray that my writing is genuine (where beta readers come in very handy). The issues are real life issues to all people. I have author friends who are Asian, one African-American, and they write all of their multicultural characters who are genuine their voice and actions. I believe the extreme appropriation that bothers me is when SJWs call out a person for wearing a dress and shaming her, or shaming and egging a taco stand run by white women who were taught by Hispanic women who gave their blessing on the stand and stamp of approval. To me, that’s not a cultural appropriation issue, it’s just a flaky group of people who really don’t understand the truth behind cultural appropriation.
I’ve spent thirty years living and working in Asia as a foreigner, my children were born in Asia and mixed freely with those who were born there retaining their love for those they grew up with. So, what has been written here I find extremely interesting. Travelling in my work extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific almost continuously I had to immerse in the history and literature of the countries scheduled to visit well before landing there the first time. Sitting at the feet of someone from the country to be visited is more valuable in learning the “don’ts” than reading a book on appropriate etiquette, though that does help. This blog suggests a view from the point of view of a foreigner peeping into the culture and no matter how much we may try, unless born into that culture we will never feel what the locals feel apart from the migration issue with its unique challenges though we may hear and be in total sympathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t be accepted by those who get to know us intimately crossing the ethnic barrier and us learning to respect their respective cultures, but to those who don’t know us intimately we will always be a foreigner. Another point to consider is those born within a country may not be accepted either due to their being from a caste, language or ethnic group or regional distribution. I’ve seen that causes as much misery and exploitation within a country as is experienced by temporary migrants from another country at the mercy of those who employ them. So I feel the issue is much broader than a migration problem and equally as sad when discrimination is practiced between fellow citizens. It happens in every country. It will be interesting to read this book about migrant worker experiences in Singapore. 🙂
What I wonder: if you have lived in Asia for thirty years, haven’t you become Asian in a way? Can you ever become ‘Asian’ as a white person born and raised there? Isn’t being part of a culture about more than the colour of your skin? (Apart from the issues and sensitivities racism presents, which we as white people always need to be mindful of…) Assimilation happens with coloured migrants in western countries as well as the other way round. Living somewhere, you absorb the culture automatically. I get laughed at for speaking Singlish (the local version of English) by locals here, but usually in an endearing way, they think it is great I have become a bit like them. It is not a conscious thing, it just happens when I am surrounded by people speaking it; also I find it a very effective language. I definitely feel I have become part Asian by living here, taking on many local habits. And when people ask me when I will go ‘home’, that hurts. (The upside: it really helped me to understand how coloured people in the western world feel when treated like that). And I still very much remember moving to the Netherlands at 10 years old and feeling very out of place in that supposed ‘home’.
Migration is such a fascinating subject, I could write so many books about it 😉
I’ve observed a number of children born to foreigners in a host country who can actually switch dialects in seconds and it is an effective way of bonding with the locals. Out of all the children I know, and there are many, who’ve been brought up abroad all feel they don’t belong in their home country when they go back for final education. Some adapt, I won’t say fully adjust, and the feeling of rejection at home because of quaint voice inflection or mannerisms has made a few dysfunctional. We made strenuous efforts to adapt in our work abroad and this morning I received very beautiful affirmations from students we’ve mentored abroad and others we’ve worked with. So yes, we can bond with some no matter where we go if we make the effort but its still my opinion we can’t feel to the fullest extent the ethos of a host country, but those kind people are very generous and make allowances for the fact that after all we are foreigners. 🙂
I guess an interesting follow up question is when one stops being a foreigner. Personally I tend to move every couple of years, which makes me neither fully at home in my ‘home’ (or passport) country nor really in any of the others I have lived in. But I do think immigrants that permanently settle in a new country at some point stop being a foreigner. Regardless of what the colour of there skin is, and especially the second generation born there. They become part of the new culture.
We are certainly modified by the environment we live in. I totally agree. I can remember returning to Australia after 30 years out and finding the country had moved on and so had I. So in that sense even though a passport holder I had the migrant experience on my return. 🙂
The sensitivity shown in this writing is so gratifying. I too grew up overseas – in my case Latin America –and wrote a novel with the idea of paying homage to the culture and the people. I confess I had barely given a conscious thought to the idea of cultural appropriation (thank you for that wake-up). Fortunately the Latinos who wrote were complimentary and some even thanked me.
Karien your books sounds so interesting – best of luck.
I must re-blog this (thank you Damyanti!)
Karien, thanks for bringing this up if you’re still looking at this thread!
Cultural appropriation is something I worry about in my own writing as I’m a white Englishman who was brought up in a multicultural society and has spent about half of my adult life living outside the UK. My writing tends to draw from the cultures I’ve been living among; I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t unless I went around blind and deaf to anything different to me. I’ve read through the comments with interest, and a couple of thoughts spring to mind.
First, I tend to find it more useful to think in terms of ‘orientalism’ than ‘cultural appropriation’. I don’t think – and I’m willing to be corrected there – that anyone is likely to object to my stories with Thai or Nepali protagonists as long as I stick to what I know about those cultures and perhaps as importantly, make sure that the culture informs but does not dominate the characterisation. The danger lies in allowing the characters to become ciphers for an outsider’s view of the culture.
The other thought is that while everyone talks about the importance of finding beta readers from the culture in question, does anyone have an idea of how to go about that? It’s hard enough to find beta readers at all, let alone from a specific culture. My experience is that at most, half of the people who agree to read something will actually finish it and give a more helpful response than ‘it’s fine’. Beta reading for others doesn’t seem to help: one reader whose views I particularly wanted flaked after I’d beta read two novels for them. The upshot is that my beta readers are a self-selecting group who I’ve mostly connected with online and are scattered around the world, and doesn’t usually include people who can check the cultural references as often as I’d like. Any advice welcome!
Yes, still looking! Just a temporary silence as my laptop crashed over the weekend…
I definitely hear you, I too lived most of my life outside of the country of my ancestors/ race/ passport (however you want to call it) so not writing about other cultures would be completely alien to me, I would not know how.
And I do agree, it is best to stick to writing what you know, and make sure that the cultural aspects don’t dominate the character as it would become a cliche. I am not sue if orientalism is just a more old-fashioned term or really has a different meaning?
Yes getting good beta readers can be very hard. I find that people who are not writers themselves are typically not the best people, as you say they come back with ‘it’s fine’ or two or three minor remarks. I have been quite lucky with this in that I joined the Singapore Writers Group which is a very diverse group of people, expats and Singaporeans alike. So for my first novel I had Singaporean, Indonesian, Indian and Filipina writers giving me feedback, as well as other expats who lived here a long time. Perhaps you can find online writers groups, and there look for writers from the cultures you write about and ask them to give you feedback?
Thanks for chipping in, Karien!
Orientalism is a broad term for descriptions of depictions of ‘Eastern’ cultures by European cultures that clearly show them from the perspective of outsiders. It’s come into wider use since Edward Said wrote his book on the subject titled ‘Orientalism’ which I have to admit I haven’t read. If I may be permitted to – ahem – appropriate the term, I tend to think of it in terms of writing characters from a given culture as representatives of that culture as perceived by the writer. At its most egregious, it gives us the noble savage, the Himalayan sage, the loyal African retainer, etc. There are enough of those still knocking around on the cinema screen without us putting them on the page.
I think most of us in this discussion are aware enough to avoid anything that bad, I find that keeping the whole concept of orientalism in mind stops my understanding of a culture becoming a straitjacket for my characters rather than informing their development.
As for beta readers, you make me very jealous! I’m lucky enough to be based in North London which has a substantial community of writers that’s very multicultural, but somehow never seems to include anyone from the culture I happen to really need a viewpoint from at any given time. I’ve been a member of a few online groups and they can be helpful, but the limitation is that the people who join English language writers’ groups tend to be English speaking, by which I mean fluent even if it’s not necessarily a first language, which my characters often aren’t. The character at the front of my mind right now is Senegalese Oulof, and I don’t think I’ve ever run across a potential beta reader who could help with her.
Not that I was expecting you to offer an easy answer! Thanks again for your thoughts.
Would black/brown/yellow people writing about white culture be an act of cultural appropriation as well?
It would depend on the context. In itself these issues are not really about colour, but about a imbalance of power between a more powerful culture against one less privileged. So it could be the other way round too, with a powerful non-white culture. An interesting example is Singapore and Malaysia. These two countries were for a little time one, then split up in 1965, long complicated story, but it ended up with Malaysia being a country with a majority (and therefore political power) of ethnic Malay and minority of ethnic Chinese (and some others races like Indians but let’s keep it simple and look at the two main groups.) Singapore has a majority of Chinese and minority of Malay. And guess what: in Malaysia the Chinese are discriminated against and in Singapore the Malay. Again I am simplifying but just to illustrate that, yes it can go both ways.
Want to add: we often only talk about the white vs non-white imbalance, but we should not forget the world is not black and white. There are a lot of different culture groups with different relationships. My experience in South East Asia is that white people are no longer the most powerful culture at all! It is one of the reasons some of them get quite frustrated, losing privilege can be hard and they baulk. This region is ruled by businesses from China, not Europe and US. Singapore knows Chinese privilege. But substituting one privilege for the other of course solves nothing.
Interesting…..The whole idea of cultural appropriation is controversial but I find it to be in the neighborhood of political correctness, which I abhor. However, having said that, it is my belief that one should always be sensitive to the feelings of others and depict other cultures with dignity and respect.
“be sensitive to the feelings of others and depict other cultures with dignity and respect” – but isn’t that basically what political correctness is as well?
Political correctness takes the concept to an extreme in my view.
Anything taken to an extreme isn’t good… but being polite and respectful never hurts and to me that is what political correctness is about. I guess it the end it is down to definition.
Great post. Happy IWSG!
I can’t find Karien’s book in my library listing…is it available in the U.S.?
It is available on Amazon Kindle for a good price, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07F6YB3B5/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
It’s available online on amazon and other big retailers, but I’d imagine not in a public library sorry!
okay, I’ll look there. Thanks.
As a teacher of immigrant and refugee students, and an aspiring writer, this article resonated with me quite a bit. I spent a lot of time learning about cultural appropriation as it applies to education, particularly research, and “culturally relevant pedagogy”, a term that is becoming a buzzword in the world of education.
But, on the specific topic of what books I have read that are written by white or European authors that depict another culture, some of my most favorite are by M.J. McGrath, who wrote the Edie Kiglatuk mystery series. I believe she has written three of those books to date, and they are very engaging. I love stories with Indigenous heroes/heroines, and this series does a pretty good job of depicting indigenous cultures in the Arctic, without sounding condescending or being culturally insensitive. The author is from England, but it is apparent that she spent much time studying the Arctic and its various cultures, particularly that of the Inuit people. Anyway, check out the author’s blog to find out more here: https://blog.whsmith.co.uk/m-j-mcgrath-why-i-chose-to-set-my-edie-kiglatuk-mysteries-in-the-arctic/.
I have not yet read any of Karien’s books, but I will be sure to look her up after reading her very informative and insightful article!
Teaching immigrants and refugees must be very interesting and rewarding, do please start writing! Did you ever do writing workshops with them too? I taught creative writing at a shelter for ill-treated migrant workers and it was such a great experience. I’ll look up the books you mention, thanks.
Thoroughly interesting read, and really important things to consider. I agree completely that showing respect for the culture you are writing in is absolutely vital, and not allowing wider western prejudices to taint that writing. It’s always a difficult subject and one not to be undertaken lightly, but it’s also great to see someone do it so successfully and sympathetically.
Nice blog…enjoyed the read
A thoughtful balanced post. Thank you!
I think it’s very brave to write about cultures other than your own, because as you point out, there will be a target on your back! Bravo!
Separately, Karien, I had a question for you. I’m glad to note all your work with migrant workers, and you mention in your response below that you are working on writing projects with two of them. The examples that spring to mind are Dave Eggers’s _What is the What_ and _Zeitoun_, both novels in which he, a white man, collaborates with the people whose stories he’s chosen to tell. He acknowledges these are collaborations, because again, the people he worked with lacked the literary skills to construct their own novels, but while I admire the endeavour and his honesty, I still think there can be no perfect approach; all we can do is to openly admit the flaws of whatever approach we choose. So I guess my question for you is this: in the work you do with migrant workers, are you aware that your perspective will always — no matter how much time you spend with these workers, no matter how much they confide in you — be coloured by the power differential? Race is not the only power differential in the world, of course, so each of us, when we step into an interaction with another human being, must ask ourselves these questions: who has the power here? Is my perspective coloured by my relative power/lack of power? Would someone else speaking to this person hear/see the same things that I’m hearing and seeing?
I don’t mean to detract from the important work you’ve done and are doing, but I guess after reading your post I wanted to hear more about how you think being a white woman shapes your interactions with these workers and limits — as it must to some extent — what is revealed to you. I do think interacting with migrant workers in your capacity as a volunteer is a fundamentally different thing from taking on their perspectives and speaking for them; the former does not necessarily make the latter easier.
hi Preeta, that is indeed a very important question, one that is always high on my mind! Not necessarily for me as a white person, because when you work like me with migrant domestic workers there is an even bigger power imbalance. They are seen as second class citizens here in Singapore, there is a huge power imbalance between them and their employers even when they are the same race (they sometimes are). Their visa are literally linked to their employers and they have little to say about their own lives when they are here. Of course I am not their employer but I am still seen as someone from that ‘class’. (and in fact, disclosure, I am an employer too of a domestic worker) Then there is the difference in education, language skills, network etc. So the power imbalance between me and the women I work with is huge but race isn’t the most important factor. (we have Chinese privilege here, so my position is more precarious even; as a white ‘outsider’ I am sharing the stories of Indonesian/ Filipina/Indian/Myanmar women to a Chinese majority Singapore) Many of the volunteers that helped me make the Our Homes, Our Stories book had the same nationally/ race as the women we work with. But there was still the difference in ‘class’. So the big question is how do you deal with that? When I help them write their work I find it a huge challenge to find middle ground between maintaining their voice and improving their work so it is of a higher quality for the readers. It takes a lot of time, get to know them let them write themselves but also talk to them, what do they really mean, ask questions, dig deeper. Feedback loops with both themselves and others that know their cases. Ask yourself critical questions, about whether you are using any sort of ‘cultural frame’. Work with volunteers from their cultures that can help with translation (both language and cultural aspects). It took me years to get to know these women and the issues they face intimately enough to feel comfortable to write about them, or to support them in improving theirs. What is important for me too is to never judge and not present conclusions. Just presenting the facts as they are is enough, readers can draw their own conclusions. That way I limit the amount of my perspective that goes into it (this goes mostly for when I edit/ publish their work, for my fiction of course it is always my perspective by default, there it is nuance that I find the most important) What I also try to do in the blog and the book I made for them is to not speak for them, but to help them speak for themselves by building them a platform. For me the main answer to the question whether what I am doing is the right thing is the response of the women I work with – the ones I do it for. Their pride in their work, the response to the book. You can’t do it perfectly but to me not doing it is worse. These women need a voice and if I can help them give it, even imperfectly, then I want to do it. I’ll look up those books by David Eggers, interesting to see how he did this. Thanks for your thoughts and good questions!
Thinking about it some more… I believe it is different whether you write non-fiction or fiction. When it comes to non-fiction or general advocacy, I think the best thing to do is build a less privileged group a platform and support them to speak for themselves. You stay in the background and just help rather than be the one speaking (as I aim to do with the MyVoice blog, http://www.myvoiceathome.org, and the books I make for charity).
(an exception would be for instance anthropological or social research, if you are an expert in a certain field this allows you to write about it; this type of work has it own set of rules)
For fiction it is different, as it is the writer’s story rather than someone else’s – even if they inspired it. There are no set rules in fiction but of course there is still the integrity and responsibility of the writer, to tell the story well, with respect and nuance and to do the due diligence… and for the writer to ask themselves why they want to write it and if they are the right person to do so..
Thirdly, we always need to encourage ‘own voices’ in fiction too.
But the main thing I think is important in this discusion is that we should not make people afraid to reach out across cultures and get to know each other and write about that, because that would be the opposite of what we want to achieve: more understanding between cultures. .
So I’ve been reading these comments, and two things occur to me:
1) I’m not sure people of colour/minorities are well represented (or represented at all?) in this discussion; I hope most people here can see how that’s problematic, to be debating the merits of a point of view without any participation from those who might be most affected by it;
2) there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what cultural appropriation actually *is,* or the reasons for which we need to be careful about it, in many (but not all!) of these comments. The concept of cultural appropriation has to do with a historical imbalance of power. For much of human history, white cultures have been in a position of power, taking and using material and cultural resources from non-white cultures without acknowledgement, remuneration, or reciprocation. This is why it not the same for a person of colour to borrow white cultures. The same cultural practices that people of colour often had to hide — or give up entirely — gained (and still, today, gain) prestige when white people take them on. Although I agree that it’s nice for people to be able to share each other’s cultures, I have to admit that it stings a little when, for example, a white woman is fawned over for wearing the same saree (or the same bindi, or the same henna, or the same nose stud) that my mother or grandmother had to avoid in order to be taken seriously, seen as “educated” and “cultured,” etc. There is simply no equivalent in the other direction: white cultural practices do not gain prestige and visibility when people of colour take them on. Along with the prestige, dominant majorities have also historically had more of a voice/platform, and an access to attention, that people of colour have not. Our stories were told by colonisers/white settlers; it’s only very recently that we’ve been able to have even a remote hope of telling our own stories and being heard (but we still don’t have an equal chance of being heard: the industry publishes more white-authored books set in Asia and Africa than books by Asians and Africans themselves). Again, there is no historical equivalent; there is no history of people of colour writing the histories of white people, or having the power to decide which stories get told and which ones erased.
If we take this context as our point of departure, the whole debate becomes very different. Sure, no one should be limited only to writing about people exactly like themselves. But the choice to represent a culture or society over whom you hold power is not a simple one, and cannot be smoothed over by telling yourself you’ve done the research, you’ve lived in these places, you’ve approached the task with caution and sensitivity. All these are secondary: the first thing you must do is to ask yourself *why* you want to tell this particular story. Are you the best storyteller for this particular story? Are there people who belong to that community, or who have closer ties to it, or who have a more equal relationship to it — whose relationship is not subject to such a significant power differential — who have tried or are trying to tell similar stories, but cannot get the attention you will get? One of the commenters here said something to this effect: “it’s important for us to tell these stories because so little work from these other places makes it into translation for English-language readers.” This may sound harsh, but: the fact that there’s a problem does not always mean that *your* solution is the best or most fair solution. *Why* is so little work translated into English from Asian and African languages? Have you used your power and access to larger audiences to address that, or even draw attention to it? Have you done everything within your power to make it possible for insiders to this culture to tell their *own* stories, before sitting down to tell those stories yourself? So little work makes it into translation, indeed, but that does not necessarily mean that white people are the best placed to tell the stories that are not making it into the mainstream market.
And finally: it’s a massive misconception that people of colour do not care about cultural appropriation, and that this is a debate dominated by white SJWs. We care, especially among writers and artists. We talk about it. If you don’t know that, you’ve not been paying attention.
I see what you are saying, although I apologise for being white – well, Anglo-Chilean. I have multiple questions but I will ask just one: Is it cultural appropriation when one white culture tries to eradicate another white race’s language and dumb down the other people’s culture?
Roland, there is no need to apologise for being white. If we, white people, want to help in this issue what we need to do is show to be allies. Cultural appropriation is all about an imbalance of power: the more powerful exploiting/ using a less powerful culture. If we had a utopian world with no history of racism, and even more importantly, one where racism no longer exists, then yes, everyone can write what they like. But we are not there. And until we are, the ones in power need to be sensitive to the issues on the table. So yes, if a dominant white culture tries to eradicate another less powerful but also white one this would be exactly the same problem. There are in fact many examples where it isn’t about skin colour. In Europe for instance it is the rich North-West against the poorer East and South.
Thanks for this Preeta and I fully agree with you! Cultural appropriation is all about the imbalance of power, and the problem is that for many white people this is a difficult thing to grasp… For me the Own Voices issue is such an important one. I read a lot of local Asian writers, many more are getting translated these days and prizes like the Booker International are definitely good stimulants as well to promote them. I have been working with migrant worker writers in Singapore for the last 5 years and they have an amazing community that is getting more and more attention, also from media and conventional publishers so I am hopeful. I have attended a number of meetings and readings and events, also cooperations with the university here as well, where they get to read from their work. Apart from the book I made (Our Homes. Our Stories) I am working with two domestic workers, one Filipina one Indonesian, to support them in writing their own novel. What I find is that they have the talent and the stories, but it is quite raw. What they lack apart from some teaching is a network to reach out to publishers an agents – difficult enough for those of us who are better connected! I wil never forget how I bought several domestic workers readers to the Singapore Writers Festival last year. The pride in their eyes as they stood on stage sharing their stories!
Roland, as Karien says, there is no need to apologise 🙂 . It’s better to be aware and to do what you can to address inequalities than to apologise. In answer to your question: if there is an imbalance of power between two white cultures, then, yes, it’s cultural appropriation when the more powerful, more visible culture speaks in place of the less powerful. I think every time we ask ourselves “is this cultural appropriation?” we can actually answer the question very easily if we step back and look at the historical and current relationship between the two cultures.
A very thoughtful and interesting post.
An outstanding article. Learning to see things from other viewpoints is not good writing technique, it’s good living technique. It depletes the us versus them mentality that divides this world, and engages the possibility that we can create a peaceful planet for all of us to thrive.
I’m thankful for this post. I like to write fantasy and science fiction, so “write what you know” has usually found its way into my work based on emotional “truths” and not in the space and world of the stories.
My struggles, and this is currently based on a work I “finished” but now think is unfinished, is that I am a white author trying to write about a group of teens who all come from different cultures, yet they come together as heroes (yes, it’s a superhero YA book, even though I worry that superheroes have had their day already). I don’t want to be insensitive to the nuances of how they overcome their differences, but I don’t want to focus on that either. I just wanted to write a book depicting teens from different backgrounds being able to work together. I focused on how different they are because of their “powers” and less about their cultures and I worry I haven’t done it well, or right. I need to get some betas …
This sounds fascinating. It is so realistic this day and age, people/ kids from different backgrounds having to work together, finding strength in their differences. My kids go to an international school and I am glad about how rich that makes their lives, for them this kind if thing is so natural. Yours must be a difficult book to write but can be very good if you pull it off, and yes good beta readers sound important!
As a white in a predominately white culture, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, as somebody from Kentucky, a culture that is often stereotyped and appropriated, maybe I do. It seems to me that literary cultural appropriation (or cultural MISappropriation) consists of an outsider writing intimately about something with which they ARE NOT intimate or even conversant. Like white women wearing dresses made of Kinte cloth, or, to be honest, like my wearing a skirt made of somebody’s Tartan plaid when I have NO Scottish blood. I like what Karien says about immersion and giving voice to the people portrayed, rather than making sock puppets of them to think, feel, and say what the cultural outsider would have them think, feel, and say.
I like your term MISappropriation it is so much more correct! And you are right in pointing out that you cannot sweep up the ‘dominant’ group in one go, ‘white’ society in itself is very layered and not everyone is at the top. Being white but from a tiny European country I can relate to that. For me living in non-white countries has also really helped me understand issues like racism (in Asia these days Chinese are at the top, white people no longer and it scares the hell out of them haha) as has reading a lot about it. That is what I love about books, you can ‘become’ someone else for a while…
What an interesting subject. Thank you Karien for the post and Damyanti for hosting. I feel this sounds like a good way to handle this tricky line. Having spent most of my life in the Indian subcontinent and West Africa, much of my personal history comes from this perspective and I’ve always been somewhat wary of writing about it for this very reason, so this has been inspirational.
If you have lived most of your life there, then it is your story, right? Don’t feel shy to write it! Write it well.
This is an interesting post and interview, coming on the heels of me reading _Phantoms_ by Christian Kiefer. Have you read it? I felt that there was so much anxiety in the book about who gets to tell the stories of others outside their race and experience that instead of drawing me in I felt distanced from the actual story. Probably the opposite of what he wanted to do, but eventually “write what you know” wears out–and it’s interesting to explore other cultures (especially in this age where travel makes that easy). Of course writers need to be culturally sensitive–and the tips from the author above are wonderful–but I hope that interviews like this one ease some of the anxiety, so that writers concentrate on the writing and not on whether readers are going to think they’re guilty of cultural appropriation. The worst thing (for literature, maybe not for people/culture) is a writer who censors him/herself mid-story, imo.
I haven’t read that book, but you are so right: That anxiety is really what we need to cure. Rather than get white writers to stop writing about other cultures I want to encourage them to do it well and thoughtfully. For me knowledge was power in that sense, I felt that if I got it right (at least to my own standerds and my beta readers) then I was comfortable to make a statement.
This is a topic I don’t understand. Why isn’t it natural to respect a person, accept their differences with joy, and learn from each other? I really don’t get it.
Feel free to do some research. Lots of good articles out there on cultural appropriation. Best of luck to you.
Jacqui, I understand your feelings. It ought to be natural of course! The problem is that the reality shows it isn’t, so it is a bit naive to say, let’s just get along with joy. For me living in a country where I am a minority has really helped to open my eyes to these issues. There is still a huge imbalance of power in the world and we need to keep fighting that. There are many books being written about continents like Asia and Africa by people who have never even been there. It is not just about the colour of someone’s skin. It is about people sharing a story that isn’t theirs to tell. And such a story can become yours by immersing yourself in it. In my case, the domestic workers are intimately entwined with my life: I grew up with having women like them in the house. I lived in Asia a long time, and worked with them at an NGO. So slowly their story became mine too. Not every writer would have to go as far as that, it depends on the story. But I guess every writer would need to ask themselves why they want to write a story. And whether they are the best person to do so.
The concept of “cultural appropriation” is very elitist and bigoted. In a country where many cultures mix, this concept shits on bi-racial and multi-racial families because it draws lines and says “you can’t do that because you’re not like us.” White people have no right to tell a black woman not to use a relaxer on her hair, no one has the right to tell others what they can and cannot choose to do with themselves because there is no law that protects people’s “right to be offended”. Thankfully we still have a free country where people are allowed to be individuals and explore other cultures and potentially marry into other cultures. The term “cultural appropriation” assumes that someone is “stealing” a culture to be cool when in reality most people who reach beyond the norms of their race, religion, or sex/gender do so because they live in an areas where they are not the majority. Ex: white kids in black neighborhoods who wear dreads and listen to rap. Another great example is the comedy: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Based on the nature of “cultural appropriation” having Ian Miller convert to Greek Orthodox was wrong? Really? Even when he immersed himself in the culture and did it at the behest of Nia’s family? All screaming “cultural appropriation” does is divide us further and create segregation, something I thought we had eradicated.
I don’t think that is what the concept of cultural approbation is meant to do. I agree in some places it is taken too far, creating more segregation, by people using it to say that certain people can’t do or say certain things because they are not African/Asian/greek/ or whatever enough. That is not what it should be about, that is people misusing the term. But we need to look at where that behaviour is coming from. The history and unfortunately current situation still, has made people feel protective of their cultures. If you have been ridiculed for something and now people start copying it suddenly, wouldn’t you wonder why and be annoyed? As long as we have this power imbalance we will have these sensitivities. In fact my post was meant to tackle exactly this: that we need to acknowledge the feelings that people have when they complain about cultural appropriation, and where those feeling come from, but at the same time that we should not let this go too far. We need to make sure it does not stand in the way of the cultural appreciation, the mingling, that we need to encourage. Repairing the balance is what we need to do.
Yes, there is definitely an issue with balance. We’ve had cases in the UK where a well-known TV chef was criticised for serving West Indian food at his restaurant when he is white, and a well-known food shop was criticised for “cultural appropriation” over its prepacked sandwiches! There’ve also been cases where a white pop singer has been criticised for singing Motown music! Surely it’s actually a good thing that we can appreciate food, music etc from other cultures!
I feel as though if we want to be able to understand each other then there needs to be a certain amount of cultural appropriation. Look, I’m American, but also half Italian and half Greek and a lot of those culture have been assimilated into American culture, esp. the food! So on one level, I think we make too big of a deal about appropriation, but on the other, we need to make reparations for past harm and then maybe there won’t be hard feelings about appropriation. You can’t dis (sp?) an entire culture in many ways, appropriating only the best things and failing to deal with or help correct the problem parts and expect everyone will be friends at the end of the day. Karen is right; it’s a matter of respect. When that’s in place, cultural appropriation becomes a thing to be celebrated.
Yes, I agree, we definitely need to appreciate each others cultures. I guess these days it is just that the word appropriation has been appropriated (sic) to be used for the negative aspects only… in the end it is etymology, and I hope that we will never forget the importance of sharing our cultures!
So true, Karien! Good luck with the book.
Thanks for this Karien. It has been very helpful. I have been wrestling with including a creation mythology that has an ancient Zimbabwean basis in something I am doing in the YA arena. Your checklist has helped my thinking. Conclusion: I would like to do it as so few people know about Zimbabwean history and pre-christian beliefs. However I don’t know enough about it. So I’m backing off for now until I have done more research. Nevertheless I want to find away to include it as I am keen to provide readers an opportunity to find out about African myths and history.
Oh that does sounds fascinating, I hope you wil get the time to do the research as I’m sure it will be worth it!
I think that this “cultural appropriation” is simply another reminder that SJW’s are hell bent on punishing anyone who dares to be different. They want everyone to stick to the proscribed “norms” when it comes to writing (or anything else for that matter) and not deviate from those norms.
Personally, I don’t care if someone is doing “cultural appropriation”. If the story is good, then that is really all that should matter.
Funny how it’s the majority of white folks who are getting all up in arms over this “cultural appropriation” thing and not those who might actually be part of that culture to begin with.
Sorry but can’t agree with you there… If ‘the story is good’, yes, but what makes a story good? An important question to ask is WHY is the writer writing this, ie is it their story to tell and do they know what they are talking about? Particularly if you tackle important social issues. If you have no clue about an issue how can you write a good story about it?
I also emphatically think this is NOT an issue that only white folks or SJW’s are up in arms about. On the contrary, I find it is mostly my friends who are not white that are very passionate about it. Many of my white friends don’t see the problem – since they never experienced it…
As a reader, I have not given a thought about the complexities of a writer writing about a culture different from theirs. This is an educative post which gives me an insight into the writing process. This will help me appreciate any such book I happen to read in future. I would like to read The Yellow House for starters.
Thanks for that, do let me know what you think!
This is such an interesting post. Having lived in Singapore for sometime, I can imagine the detailing and nuances that Karien, may have had to look into and thereafter capture in her writing. Of course keeping the cultural appropriation aspect in mind.
Thank you for the useful tips Karien. I would say William Dalrymple writes beautifully and that actually qualifies for “cultural appreciation”
Thank you dearest D, for sharing. Love the pains you take to bring us such valuable posts on writing. Gratitude and much love. <3
I loved this post. I’ve lived in places where I’ve been the odd one out, and I had a lot of experiences that taught me about how to deal with life as the outsider–the minority–the one who didn’t quite fit. I treasure all I learned and I will never forget the feeling. That serves me well when I write.
Good observations and suggestions for avoiding cultural appropriation. I may be ‘close-to-home’ writing a Welsh detective, although I’m English, but the gender, sexuality and her partner demands caution, ‘sensitivity readers’ and extensive research. Ironically, when I wrote a fictionalised tale from my work experience, I was accused of getting my facts wrong. LOL.
Imagine if all your characters had to be same race, gender, sexuality etc as yourself, it would be a boring book 😉 I guess you will always have people disagreeing with your facts, since there is no such thing as a single truth and others will have experienced a situation differently. I suppose the safest thing we can do as authors is to acknowledge this, and make clear this is our truth as we see it… that is the fun of fiction
A fascinating post, Karien. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
An excellent and thoughtful post. I have to admit it leaves me feeling a little intimidated—am I up to the level of research and empathy that Karen displays? Also, I’m a little fuzzy how to do this well in my humorous cozy mysteries set on an island in Puget Sound 😀 (I’m actually only half joking—I’m bothered by the fact that I have few people of color in my books, and know that’s partly because of the setting I chose, and partly because I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I started writing. I’m not going to address the issues in my books, but I do want all my characters, of whatever ethnicity, to ring true).
Please don’t feel intimidated! Every writer and book is different. I don’t think it is the level of research that counts perse, it is really up to the type of book how much you need. and about the author being mindful and respectful where needed. My book needed a lot of research since it was such a tricky issue and based on real facts and I had to get it right. I think small things can go a long way in getting characters from a certain ethnicity right. Also adding colourful characters should not be done for the sake of it in my opinion, but because it can enrich a book. It does need to make sense in the story otherwise it’s just tokenism.
Well, sometimes it really doesn’t matter what color a character is, especially minor characters. So in a way it’s not so much story-driven as reality-driven: even on small islands in Puget Sound, some people are more colorful than others 🙂 That’s easy, because they aren’t really developed as a rule.
Writing a protagonist who is wholly outside your experience does, I think, require something approaching the level of research you have put into it.
Ok had to google where Puget Sound is 😉 Sounds quite lovely! I think you will intuitively find the right characters for your book. Personally I don’t believe in forcing characters in that don’t fit. My social scene is very diverse and so are my books, since they are set in Singapore it couldn’t be any other way. But you can be colourful without having a different skin colour too 😉 Diversity comes in many ways.
Thoughtful post! It’s always a challenge to write effectively from another culture’s pov. Doing lots of research is a must!
Yes research is a must for most books! To be honest, I really like how writing novels gives me an excuse to delve into a certain subjects I am fascinated by, giving me an excuse to spend much time on it 😉 And I get to meet some great people in the process too.
What a great post. This reminds me of a quote by Ann Friedman, that you and your readers might enjoy
That’s a great quote! I love to how both reading and writing can open up horizons for someone. Delving into different culture has for sure enriched my life too.
Thanks for sharing, Karen. I learned a lot. 🙂
Very interesting post! I like the thorough and thoughtful advice that Karien gives for writing a story such as this. I agree that a writer must be respectful and sensitive when writing about another culture. Lots to think about here.
Congratulations, Karien! Immersing yourself in the culture helped you write authentically for its people. Those are some good tips to remember.
What a wonderfully thought-provoking post! Really interesting to think about cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation. Having studied anthropology, I can really appreciate the distinction and how the line between the two can become blurry. Off to check out A Yellow House.
I sometimes regretted not studying anthropology! Such an interesting subject, and research for new novels has me slowly turning into one 😉 But the blurriness is a contant factor to be aware of for sure.
I appreciate that this is a sensitive area, but I don’t think we want to get to a point where people feel that they can’t write about characters whose ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexuality or socio-economic background are different from their own, or that they’re going to be criticised if they do so. Only a minority of books are widely translated into other languages, so it can be quite difficult to access books about different cultures written by someone within that culture. It’s important to be sensitive and to ensure that you’ve got your facts straight, as it is with any form of writing, but I hope it doesn’t get to a point where people feel that they aren’t able to write about anyone from a background different to their own.
Yes, I hear you. I have heard from several writers I know that they feel they can’t write about cultures other than their own, and to me that is such a sad thing. For one, how boring would books be if they only had one type of character in it, identical to the author? I do understand the need we have for ‘own voices’ ie people from within those other cultures being given opportunity and platforms to write as well, particularly those who are less privileged. We need to encourage this at the same time. When I first arrived in Singapore I started reading novels set here and initially the ones I came across were written by foreign authors. Later I discovered many great local authors. Now I value both perspectives, they complement each other.
I have found that I am only comfortable writing about my own culture because I know it so well.
Thank you for sharing!.. 🙂 one is a minority or different only in the eyes of others, some being closed minded… everyone is a part of the whole and equal… 🙂
“Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all. It’s like somebody gave me a puzzle, but I don’t have the box with the picture on it. So I don’t know what the final thing is supposed to look like. I’m not even sure if I have all the pieces.” Sharon M. Draper
Love that quote! I feel like that often haha
This is an excellent guest post! As a white woman, I try to be aware of my place of privilege and as an author, I want to be careful and respectful when I write characters from other ethnicities and cultures than my own. I’m so thankful for my friends who’ve beta read for me, and for resources that exist to help open my eyes to prevent mis-steps.
Yes, I too am so thankful to friends that helped me share the characters in my work. I have made some amazing new ones in the process too! What kind of things do you write?