Cultural Appropriation / I Write: A Quick List of Goals Edition

I found this on Ambling Along the Aqueduct a few weeks back, when first exploring the idea of cultural appropriation, since I could find no real primers on the topic. It's a list of goals that an informed writer should have when undertaking the task of writing a culture that's, well, different from theirs:

Within western fiction written by whites, there is always the problem of writing about other cultures. I don't mean writing about people not of one's own race, although that sort of diversity poses its own problems.

I mean, writing about other people's cultures and not falling into the many, many traps that await the unwary writer. These problems are especially acute in science fiction and fantasy, where most writers trade in describing places distant in time and space. Some of the goals of the informed writer should include:
  • Not sucking
  • Not including incorrect information
  • Not reducing incredibly complex cultural formations to bite-sized, simplified versions that have no resemblance to the original except that they include whatever Westerners find sensationalistic
  • Not sucking
  • Not being racist
  • Not exacerbating colonial power structures any more than is inherently unavoidable in the process of a privileged person making money off of a non-dominant culture
  • Not making your characters into marionettes that wander around reciting a westernized understanding of their cultural values (e.g. a Chinese character who enjoys proclaiming, "I care a lot about family and duty, more than I do about my own individual identity!")
  • Not lazily playing into historically damaging stereotypes, such as portraying African women as not caring about their children
  • Generally not reducing the other culture (or its people) to a westernized caricature
  • Not sucking
At the moment, I'm working on an outline for a new novel that features an entire cast of people whose skin colours are varying shades of brown, which is an element I've never written before. (It kinda has to happen, since the continent I made is right on the equator. Doesn't make sense to have fair-skinned people anywhere else besides the floating island kingdom overhead where everyone lives indoors.) Not only that, but I'm also drawing on my experiences of hiking in Malaysian forests and mountains for some of the scenes, and it's also the first tropical map I've ever drawn.

But as always, I fear, you know, that I may accidentally exoticise. I already have tapirs in the story, who serve as steeds for travellers that travel up to the highlands to deliver sacrifices. I mentioned this in my LJ, and a friend immediately gushed, "I love that idea! So great to include exotic animals in your story!"

Which is nice and all, but... tapirs... aren't... exotic. Not in my worldview. They're endangered. And they're really fucking cute. But I guess that the only way I'll know if I accidentally exoticise them too much is when I write them and someone points it out, even as I'm going to portray them as perfectly normal animals living on this fictional continent that are endangered in real life.

I told another friend living in Malaysia, and he laughed, "wah, so Malaysiana, your story" and... I felt... small. I don't even know why. I felt like I was appropriating Malay culture. Should I even be writing brown-skinned people?

I'm going to write it anyway and see what happens. Maybe it'll suck and I'll be back at Square One. Maybe it'll be half-decent and I'll get a few beta-readers who're sensitive to these sorts of things and get them to critique it.

But really, the best I'm hoping for at this point is not sucking, wholesale.


  1. I'm sorry that your plot got ridiculed. I suppose people view writing as an intellectual and cultured creative process (= a white man's preserve) and internally expect (sci-fi) narratives and characters to be kind of white, with white names and personalities. Anything that sounds too much like home, is well, kind of silly considering the borderless, timeless nature of science fiction.

  2. Have you tried Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward?


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