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
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.
If you want to be heard by this community: click here to join Daily (w)rite on its Facebook Page.
If you found this post interesting: click here to have weekly posts delivered to your inbox.