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20 August 2012 @ 05:00 pm
Cultural appropriation  

[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can’t make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clichés or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long [5]) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [6] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)

[1] Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist cliché when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] ETA 2016: having actually written that story *cough*, I’m going to amend that into “you totally can, but be aware what kind of vibe it ends up giving the final product” (in this particular case, it’s possible, but very very hard not to shade into horror).
[6] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.

Cross-posted from Aliette de Bodard

Leave a comment at original post, or comment here.

Jim C. Hines: Snoopyjimhines on August 20th, 2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
"...when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them."

I've already crashed into this one today, and it's not even lunchtime.

Another very good post, thank you.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:02 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
Katherine Sparrow: pic#97345284ktsparrow on August 20th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
Rant fully appreciated :)
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:02 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you!
Queen of the Skies: Queen of the Skiesqueenoftheskies on August 20th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This was an awesome post.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
Aww, you're welcome, glad you appreciated it!
Vaughan Stanger: pic#118106502vaughan_stanger on August 20th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Aliette. All writers need to read this (or similar) -- and inwardly digest.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
No problems, always ready to rant ;) Thanks!
Artemis Jones: Bangkokrimrunner on August 20th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
I can't say that I'm terribly familiar with Chinese culture either—most of what I know comes from my brother's in-laws, who have Chinese family and speak Mandarin at home, but lived in the U.S. and Bangkok for most of their lives—but the very basic survey of Chinese history I read earlier this year would, I like to think, have enabled avoidance of most of what you mention here.

Or maybe not. I know I've gotten stuff really wrong before...I've seen a lot of movies from China and Hong Kong but I can tell I'm missing a lot of cultural referents, particularly in the historical/fantasy stuff.

I'm about to read some Bacigalupi with a certain amount of trepidation, because from what I've heard he makes these kinds of cultural errors quite frequently. There are some future-tech ideas of his that I want to look at, though...
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
You'd think reading basic survey books would indeed do the trick, but I'm not actually sure it works--it's to do with misunderstanding the fundamental bedrock on which the culture is based? I think, when you read a book as an outsider, it's possible that you can mistake the "important" bits? It's the only explanation I can think of for the dragons example, which was clearly a very well documented piece of fiction in all other respects, but which missed the essential point that dragons are divine positive forces in Chinese thought...
Artemis Jones: Spinning TARDISrimrunner on August 22nd, 2012 05:34 pm (UTC)
Well, I don't think it'd be sufficient—I certainly don't feel qualified to set a story in any era of Chinese history based on having read a history book and taken a two-week greatest-hits tour of the country. I'd think it'd be enough to avoid the real howlers such as the dragons example, but maybe not!
sueo2sueo2 on August 20th, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
1) May I ask the name of the stories? (So I can avoid.)

2) Just finished reading your Servant of the Underworld. I am not knowledgeable enough about the ancient Mayan traditions to comment about details, but I want to say that I enjoyed the book and the "feel" of the book. Rather than calling it fantasy, I would call it anthropological science fiction. From comments made to me by missionaries in the Belgium Congo (yes, that long ago ... these conversations were when I was very young and they were very old), the reality of the spirit world is not to be taken lightly in these cultures. The missionaries kept saying they had to remind themselves that they did indeed see the things they saw, things that defied logic and reason of our modern western/eastern cultures.

I am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:09 pm (UTC)
He, I'd rather not give the stories' names (and I'm not actually sure I'd remember them--I tend to forget authors who do that...). The point wasn't to pillory specific people, but to show where the aggravation of the people complaining about cultural appropriation was coming from (I could have made up examples, but quite honestly I'd never have thought up stuff like that on my own!).

And aw, glad you liked the book! It is very much my personal interpretation of the Mexica belief system, however--I wouldn't want you to think it is in any way a dead accurate representation of the culture. I did my best, but there's a frightening lack of sources as well as a great time gap which complicates matters immensely. I agree most Western books underestimate religion and the spirit world as a driving force when it comes to non-Western cultures (they also do that for Vietnam!)
Royce Dayjeriendhal on August 20th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)

I can only hang my head at the depths of my own ignorance of other cultures, and be thankful I do have friends over the Internet who can correct me when I need it. Forex: I have an artist friend in Saudi Arabia who has done some cover work for me. She was understandably adamant that I correct a bit i na story when Muslim character kneels on their prayer and doesn't do an ablution first. (this also led her to giving me the Arabic translation "My God, you're an idiot!") :)
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Having friends who can correct you is definitely invaluable and can avoid much red-faced embarrassment...
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on August 20th, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
A wonderful post, thank you.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 20th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
Aw, you're welcome, glad you enjoyed it!
LiveJournal: pingback_botlivejournal on August 21st, 2012 01:56 am (UTC)
August 21, 2012 Links and Plugs
User charlesatan referenced to your post from August 21, 2012 Links and Plugs saying: [...] tte de Bodard on Cultural Appropriation [...]
Elaine Gallagher: pic#65705986ms_chatelaine on August 22nd, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
I have to agree. (cough)Brigadoon!(/cough) And I agree that it happens much more than anyone seems to think. I just put down an anthology of urban fantasy stories because the lead story had a Welsh fairy king being a baseball fanatic, I presume because of a connection that could be made between that particular fairy lore and a particular piece of baseball lore. And I suppose it would be a reasonable thing to do if you had never heard a group of Welsh rugby fans in a pub, singing. But I have, so I know how dumb the premise of the story actually is.

It's a minor point, and much less egregious than getting the status of Chinese dragons wrong, but it's an example of the same mind-set; privileging one culture's concepts or values over another's in a story set in the other culture, supplanting one cultural passion with another.

Out of interest, have you read Barry Hughart's books? I love them but I have no knowledge to be able to say whether or not he made any howlers.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 22nd, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
Welsh baseball? Wow. That's pretty egregious, indeed!

>Out of interest, have you read Barry Hughart's books? I love them but I have no knowledge to be able to say whether or not he made any howlers.
I've read them, and the thing is... it's a bit disquieting to see someone take all the bits from a culture close to yours and treat it like an extended joke? All the bits that are played for laughs are actual customs, some of them still respected--might work if you have a strong sense of humour, but mine isn't that elastic.
(I used to love it, but I was far more clueless back then, and my later reading of it hasn't proved very beneficial, to say the least)
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on August 22nd, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
(edited because I managed to confuse Bridge of Birds with something else altogether...)
Tezca: pic#108445651cowgirlxena on May 21st, 2013 02:16 am (UTC)
I feel like I should comment and say that your post seems to be the sanest one I read about cultural appropriation. On tumblr there are people that would misapply the word to mean something like you can't do anything or whatever in this culture if you're not from it. I mean isn't it suppose to be good to be sharing cultures, I'm a American girl that like to eat different kinds of foods from different parts of the world(sadly there/s not a lot of ethic food restaurant where I live though, there are some.)

Anyway sorry, just wanted to put that here.

Also I recently got your Obsidian and Blood triology on Kindle and finished reading Book 1. It was great, I really liked it.
Aliette de Bodard: juryaliettedb on May 23rd, 2013 08:19 am (UTC)
Aw thank you!
I think the tumblr (and other people being pissed off on the Internet) is really what I point out: there is a vast swathe of people out there convinced that XXX (which can include their own books) does a great job of depicting other cultures, whereas it mostly doesn't (it's very, very hard to do outsider narrative in a convincing way, even without getting into the teensiest cultural nuances). I can certainly understand why the anger and the severe prescriptions--honestly, sometimes I want to make them myself, just to make sure that people pay attention to what we're saying...
(Anonymous) on October 16th, 2016 03:38 am (UTC)
I was born in Vietnam, though now live in Australia. I think it is important to also put one's sources in perspective. I worry about the assumption (some have, not Aliette) that being the member of a diaspora makes someone an expert. It doesn't.

Talk to those from other backgrounds, by all means (seriously, please do). But there is a difference between the diaspora and nationals, and within that a huge diversity again.

I also worry, for example, when a writer from the Chinese diaspora lectures others about how to write about 'Asia'. For reasons of history and contemporary politics, I find that offensive and problematic (see the South China Sea, for starters). Cultural appropriation is in part about power. The most powerful country for the Southeast Asian region is no longer the US, it is China.

- Raymond Nguyen
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on October 16th, 2016 11:26 am (UTC)
Hi Raymond,

Thank you for weighing in! And agreed. Diaspora is a tricky thing and it definitely doesn't make one an expert (mind you, even living in the culture and being from it doesn't make you an expert either!).
A lot of the cultural appropriation discourse is coming from the US at the moment? Which means it doesn't really center on current SEA power dynamics. I agree China is dominant there, though there is still a frightful amount of US/Western influence in SEA (based on my family visits to Vietnam).