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How to Write About Cultures Not Your Own Without Cultural Appropriation-- a tentative guide

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Usually, in discussions of cultural appropriation, a white writer will say something along the lines of, "But you're saying that if I write anything about other cultures, you'll accuse me of cultural appropriation! If that's so, maybe I should just write about nothing but white people!" The usual (and, I think, sensible) response to this is, "There are worse things than trying and getting it wrong, the most important of which is not trying. Do your best, and use the criticism you get to do it better the next time-- if you're a professional writer, you'd better be able to handle the fact that not everyone will love everything you do without taking it personally."

This makes sense to me. But it also makes sense to me to create a basic set of guidelines and list of writers who have written about other cultures very well and respectfully, for two reasons. The first is that this will be an easy answer for people who raise the question spuriously and rhetorically-- one can just link them here. The second is that for people who ask the question because they are genuinely confused and want to write skillfully and respectfully about cultures not there own, it seems useful to try to set out basic guidelines and examples. To this end, I would very much appreciate others' suggestions for additions and revisions to these lists.

It is worth noting that I am far from the first person to write guidelines. My favorite is Nisi Shawl's essay Appropriate Cultural Appropriation which clearly and eloquently describes how to write well about cultures not your own; her use of Diantha Day Sprouse's metaphor of Invaders, Tourists and Guests is particularly useful. Elizabeth Bear also did a set of guidelines in her essay whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong. A number of similar posts were compiled by Micole and Rydra Wong here,, and they're definitely worth a perusal. I have not, however, found a compiled list of good examples of books and other media which do it well, so I hope that that may be a useful contribution to the dialogue.

Basic Guidelines

Three caveats before I begin. One, these guidelines are not a substitute for thinking. In my opinion, the best way through most dilemmas like this is to think very hard about everything you put into your writing-- why am I doing this this way? What purpose does it serve in the story? Are there other ways I could do it? Does it oversimplify the complexities of reality? To use these guidelines well, one must think hard about their suggestions-- it's no good following them blindly. In fact, if one of them doesn't work for your particular story and you need to disregard it, that's fine-- as long as you think very hard about why you're doing it, and how you can do so in a way that's still respectful and thoughtful.

The second caveat is that following these guidelines will not make your writing immune to criticism. You might follow them perfectly, and still make a mistake which is upsetting and disrespectful to people, and if so, saying, "But gaudior said to do it this way!" is not a valid defense-- these are basic guidelines, not complete ones that cover every possible circumstance. On the other hand, you might write something which ninety-nine people out of a hundred think is very respectful, but someone else will still be upset by it. That doesn't mean you wrote it wrong, or that their feelings are invalid-- different people's realities are different, and I see no guarantee that one is more correct than another. You need to just write as best as you possibly can, and accept that not everyone will like it. But you need to be really honest about the "as best as you possibly can," which includes thinking hard about where critics are coming from.

A third caveat: I realized that I initially wrote these guidelines assuming I was talking to white writers. That's because I'm writing in response to the argument, "But you're saying I can't write about anything but my own culture without getting criticized," and in my personal experience, I have only seen white people making that argument. I have also seen a lot more white writers do cultural appropriation badly, which I suspect is due in no small part to the history of colonialism and its current impacts. But I do think these guidelines could apply to anyone writing about anyone from a culture not their own-- people of color writing about different people of color, people of color writing about white people, white people writing about white people from different cultures, etc, etc, etc. Therefore, I changed the language to "in-group" (people from your culture) and "out-group" (people from the culture you're writing about).

So, here are some things to think about. I'm going to use as an example Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, wherein I think a white writer does a great job of writing respectfully about another culture.

1) Research! Kingsolver exemplifies this by putting her bibliography in the back of the book. Read a lot about the culture you're describing, and be sure to read books written by people of that culture. You don't want to just repeat an outsiders' view of it-- even if, like Kingsolver's, your story is told from the outsider's point of view, you want to be sure that you, the writer, have a more nuanced one in your mind than your characters have. Don't simply write from the images in your mind, because you can't trust them-- they were placed there by portrayals by the majority culture, and they are not without their own agendas. Talk to people from the group you're writing about (if they're interested in having the conversation), visit the places you're describing, eat the food, listen to the music, and read, read, read! More information in your mind can only help make your story better.

2. Be sure the out-group characters you're describing have their own agency, motivation, and agendas. The trope of the 'magical negro'-- the character of color who appears only to help the white protagonist, and seems to have no real goals or background of his/her own-- is what you're trying to avoid. Be sure that everyone in your book is a real, three-dimensional person (at very least, in your own mind) with his/her own desires, plans, hopes, dreams and struggles. In Poisonwood, even though the five viewpoint characters are white, there are dozens of African characters whose actions and goals drive the plot. They're not all saints-- they are the heroes and villains, wise and foolish, good and bad-- complicated three-dimensional people.

3. Be sure your story isn't just about in-group people. The musical South Pacific comes to my mind as a great example of what not to do. In theory, this musical is about racism. In practice, of the four featured Tonkinese characters, three have no lines in English, and the fourth speaks in a broken English played for humor-- "Hey, G.I., you sexy man!" In this musical, a bunch of white people wander around being racist, and then getting hurt and upset by each others' racism, but the characters of color don't get to talk about how they are hurt by it.

The best way to follow this guideline is to apply a version of the Bechdel test: does your story have a) two out-group characters, who b) talk to each other about c) something other than an in-group person? South Pacific does not, and therein lies the core of its problems.

4. Have more than one out-group person in the book, with more than one characteristic. A great way to avoid falling into stereotypes is to have multiple characters from the group you're describing, who have different approaches to whatever issues you raise.

5. Don't make your characters incomprehensibly Other-- especially if they're the villains. rushthatspeaks pointed out that she cannot find anything with Aztecs that isn't about how they're big scary human sacrificers. And I think you can write a great book with human sacrifice, and even cannibalism (Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rites comes to mind) if you're willing to put in the work to make the reasons people do it make sense, and feel human. If you can't picture people from your human-sacrificing-culture cleaning up the blood afterwards and chatting about repairing their equipment, you may want to think harder.

6. Don't make your characters in-group people in funny clothes. This can be a tricky balance with "don't make them too Other." But: different people have different values, different ways of thinking-- and there are reasons behind all of those, often having to do with their history, the terrain they find themselves in, the ways weather and disease and seasons work in the place they grew up, the ways they've interacted with other cultures around them. Think hard about those things, and extrapolate. Kingsolver makes the good point in Poisonwood that in the African jungles, with their frequent floods, droughts, waves of ants, disease, etc, it doesn't make sense to have the sort of annual farming of cash-crops that made sense in Europe, and so the culture developed around different methods of getting food. And that has third- and fourth- and fifth-order consequences; you don't have large cities to which food is shipped by roads, because the roads would wash out and you can't rely on farming. That affects how people think about cities, about how people think about people and relationships and decision-making; consensus makes more sense than voting when people usually live in groups small enough that everyone knows each other and has to live with each other. In creating a culture, you want to think about what's different from yours, and then think hard about what that affects, and what are the results of the resulting change, and the results of that change, and so on. In writing an existing culture, you want to learn everything you can about the culture's values, philosophy, history and worldview.

7. Respect it when you're told something is off-limits. If someone of the culture you're describing has said, very clearly, "This ritual (or language, or information, or whatever) is secret, and taught only to initiates who have been trained and sworn secrecy," then, for the love of God, if you're trying to be respectful, don't put it in your novel. If you're not trying to be respectful, then this matters less, but don't be surprised when someone tells you you're enacting cultural appropriation. (Bryn Mawr alums, you know a very good example of this, and how you would feel if someone did it.)

8. Don't oversimplify. I think the greatest strength of Poisonwood is that Kingsolver does not try to get across a viewpoint as correct. Of her five narrators, each has a very different take on race, colonialism, America and Africa. What makes the book great is that each take is clearly partly true, but also deeply flawed. While it is possible to more-or-less figure out Kingsolver's politics from the book, she also does a splendid job of showing that there is more than one way of looking at the issues she discusses, and that each viewpoint has its limits. When I argue against cultural appropriation, I am not arguing that everyone's books-- or everyone's characters-- need to follow my politics. They don't-- my politics are not universal. I simply think that everyone's books will be better-written and do more good in the world if their authors think hard about the people they're describing, and how those people would feel about being so described.

Again, these are very basic guidelines-- after you've read them, it really is a good idea to do further reading. Follow the links above, follow the links they link to-- there's a lot here to explore.

List of Books and Authors Whom I Believe Write Well About Cultures Not Their Own

This is merely a starter list, compiled by me, rushthatspeaks and sovay-- please feel free to suggest more, and mention any problems with the ones on the list.

1. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, M.T. Anderson
2. Fudoki, Kij Johnson
3. Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. LeGuin
4. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
5. Wild Life, Molly Gloss
6. Air, Geoff Ryman (although rushthatspeaks points out that his Pol-Pot's Beautiful Daughter has some serious flaws, not least that it writes about a real person currently living without her permission.)
7. Finder, Carla Speed McNeil
8. The Desert Peach, Donna Barr
9. Pretty much anything Mary Renault wrote about the Greeks and Persians

ETA: May 30th, 2010-- coraa summarized a panel at Wiscon which did basically this exact thing. With many more recommendations!
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On January 31st, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC), faerieboots commented:
Wow, this post has given me a lot to think about!

It also raises a lot of questions in my mind, which I would love to talk to you about at some point in person.

(Very short version: I am writing this story where I have this, well actually you know the premise of the story. I am stalled trying to write Scheherazade, who is part of this fictional culture but spends a lot of time as a central figure in fiction from the Islamic Golden Age at a point just *after* where she is written into this story. I want to write her to have echoes of middle eastern culture, but she should not scan as someone *from* that culture, because she is really from the same culture as the main characters. She is, however, from a different region, and her mannerisms should reflect this--sort of like being from San Francisco instead of being from Atlanta. On top of all of these considerations, of course, the last thing I want to do is write her in a form that does not respect her canon or the culture from which she originated in real life--all of this being made even more complicated by the fact that I am a Jewish modern writer trying to parse Islamic culture, which has its own tensions, AND the fact that many portrayals of her are actually famous translations by English speakers at the turn of the century, at a time when cultural competence was not really foremost on anybody's mind! And oh dear, that was not a short version at all; I am sorry! But yeah.)
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On February 2nd, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC), gaudior replied:
Oh, interesting! I would love to talk of this more in person, cuz that is super-complicated!

At the moment, I find myself wondering what values/qualities Scheherazade kind of represented in Golden Age Islamic culture, and whether the way to be respectful would be to really focus on that as a characteristic of hers. Like how if I were to write Johnny Appleseed, say, I would think about how he kind of represents the American value of exploring a wilderness and taming it while still deeply loving the land, and have that be both a major part of his character and a way that he's particularly American (And might have other characters comment on how it's also problematic because his version of love is real love, but also has the dark side of wildly changing and possibly destroying many qualities of the thing he's claiming to love.) If that makes sense. If you got it right, it would be really cool, because she would be representing values you yourself don't necessarily hold, and she's Scheherezade, so she'd be awesome.
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On February 1st, 2010 01:35 am (UTC), jeshala commented:
Is it okay if I link this post to a few people? It's wonderfully written and I'm not the only one who was curious about cross cultural writing. YEY!

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On February 2nd, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC), rushthatspeaks replied:
Absolutely, go for it. Thank you!
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On February 2nd, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC), gaudior replied:
Whoops! That was me, not logged in! Sorry, both of you!
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On February 1st, 2010 08:15 am (UTC), uuesti_ajutine commented:
I wish characters of my culture would appear in American popular culture as something else than creepy killers (who often also talk language of our real-life abusers. As for American there is no difference - all the strangers are same and their problems do not matter, they have just to provide little spice)
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On February 5th, 2010 08:14 am (UTC), orawnzva commented:
A couple of comments here...

One thing I'd like to see more discussion of, and advice about, is the issue of "entirely made up" cultures. When you're writing a setting that isn't historical (real, alternate, or future), and populating that setting with cultures that aren't identically any particular real culture, what's the best way to handle it?

I can see a number of ways to go with this, depending on to what extent a made up culture appears to be based on a particular identifiable real culture and on at what point in the creative process you notice the issue. In my own creative process, factoids and flavors and impressions from real cultures swirl around and can form into imaginary cultures quite involuntarily. Learning more about the real cultures in question may then be called for, but the purpose is different — not to make the Yrichii more like the !Kung, for example, but to make them more like themselves.

How does one most tactfully acknowledge a debt of this sort, where this imaginary culture owes its existence to that real one, but isn't intended to faithfully reproduce it?
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On February 5th, 2010 08:16 am (UTC), orawnzva commented:
If someone... has said, very clearly, "This... is secret, and taught only to initiates who have been trained and sworn secrecy," then... don't put it in your novel.

To this I would add: be sure you know (to the extent that your informants feel it is appropriate for you to know) exactly what "it" is. There are many different ways in which something can be off limits. An entire mythological subject can be secret — or it can be considered sacred such that it's fine for anyone to know about it, but only initiates are allowed to tell about it.

Alternatively, a secret can be a very specific piece of information, such that writing a fictional culture which has a roughly parallel ritual in which the secret content is different would be okay... but it might only be okay if it can't be linked to the real culture except by those who know the real secret. In that case, including a cryptic, parodic echo of the source might be considered an appropriate way to acknowledge a cultural debt that can't be acknowledged openly, or it might be considered adding insult to injury.

What has felt right to me in cases like this (which have come up in my writing, and which I will of course not identify here) is to find multiple members of the source culture whom you mutually trust (and if there aren't any members of that culture whom you mutually trust, why do you know this information in the first place?), ask them, and take their responses seriously.
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