Art by Shannon Wright
I have noticed something. Although I’m not too bad about reading female-authored work (around a third of my reading is by women, which isn’t terrible but it should really be half), I am not great at reading books by non-Western people. I know little of Indian literature, of Chinese, South East Asian, of Japanese writing. South America is a total blank and Africa also is hideously unrepresented.
This matters for several reasons. It matters because I’m not getting the full range of human experience; it’s limiting me as a person. It matters because I’m missing out on some great stories. It matters because I’m missing some great ideas for the stealing.
If you’re only reading books by white heterosexual middle-class males then your well will only be drawn by their experiences. You will have only the white-vs-black simplicity of Tolkien. Any attempt to fantasise will have a fundamentally familiar feel, no matter how creative you are within that area. The ‘others’ – be they peoples, races, species or artificial intelligences – are simply ‘us’ through a lens.
And that’s fine. It’s great, in fact. You can write wonderful novels with that base. But by denying yourself the knowledge of all human experience that’s all you have. You could do so much more; aliens who really feel alien; elves that are strange and terrifying, not merely slightly effeminate humans.
When the original Star Trek was made, Russian was foreign enough to stand for a whole alien species. Now we have to look a little further. Would it not be interesting to model an alien race on the beliefs and practices of native Australians or Amazonian tribes? Why not look into counterculture communities to help escape from capitalist orthodoxy and give your creations a totally different feel?
‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, ‘aren’t you just advocating cultural appropriation?’ To which I reply by shifting awkwardly in my seat and mumbling incomprehensibly, before gesturing vaguely in the direction of Joanne Harris, who considered the subject thusly:
1. A growing number of young authors are torn between the desire to write diverse characters and the fear of seeming to appropriate the experience of others. I think it’s possible to do one without the other.
2. Basically, the difference between representation and appropriation is this. In the first case, the author portrays another’s experience with informed respect. In the other, the author re-invents it in their own image, with no attempt at accuracy.
3. And although yes, authors are (quite rightly) free to write on any subject in any way they choose, anything that belittles, or falsely claims knowledge or experience of other cultures is disrespectful of the readership.
4. It’s important, when writing about experiences different to our own, to listen to people who have had those experiences. That means reading their books, too, where possible, and where necessary, hiring them as beta readers.
5. Some authors find they just can’t write diverse characters. This may be due to a lack of research, skill or sensitivity. Either way, if this is the case, they should avoid trying to do so.
6. If an editor comments on an area of perceived cultural insensitivity in your novel, they are not trying to “censor” you. They are trying to safeguard your book, and to stop you making an ass of yourself.
7. You may not always get diversity right. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to write diverse characters. It just means you need to work harder, listen more carefully, and ask for help when you need it.
8. The further away a person’s experience is from yours, the harder it will be to depict it. Know when to draw the line. Everyone has limits.
9. If you find yourself arguing with people about your depiction of their culture or experience, or trying to tell them that you know better than they do, consider stepping away.
10. If, even after research and consultation and meaning well and working your socks off, you realize you’ve got it wrong, just say so. No-one should be above doing that.
It’s a tricky subject, and is often misrepresented, I think, by people who haven’t quite realized that they’re doing it.
@Joannechocolat, used with permission
If you still doubt, read Terry Pratchett’s Thud. What are the dwarfs and trolls but a stand-in for the two main branches of Islam?*
An excellent way to consider a culture is through its myths, its origin tales, its folk stories. You’ll all be fairly familiar with the Viking gods and the Classical religions of Greece and Rome are scattered throughout our modern writings. But what of Vietnamese, Guinean, Polynesian legends? What am I missing?
Tracking down and researching folk legends is hard work, so, whilst I won’t kick them out of bed for snoring, I’m going to put them onto one side for the time being and focus on simply diversifying my reading. I’m missing out on so much.
Recommendations gratefully received. I’ll be a better writer as a result.
*Or possibly two other religions. It’s been a while since I read it, I confess, but Islam’s the one that’s always stuck with me