Movements: So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture?
By Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
6 May 2013
I think that RaceFail will continue to be a huge marker where SF is concerned because it marks a point of realization—white hegemony cannot borrow without impunity, and if borrowing does occur that borrowing will be subjected to examination and questioning and quite possibly to repudiation.
I’ve recently spent a lot of time listening to conversations and engaging in discussions about, among other things, non-western SF and how SF is so white.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have written an excellent book on the subject of writing the Other (Writing the Other), and if a writer feels compelled to write the Other, I can advise no better starting point than that book.
I recognize that literature and the SF field in particular is still very much dominated by people coming from a European or a US context. The West is still very much the center of the world where SF narratives are concerned, and while those of us who live on the margins are working hard, it still takes great effort to be heard.
We who dwell in the margins have often talked about how we want to see more honest representations of ourselves instead of the stereotypical presentations. So, when an author comes up to me and asks:
“What would you say of my story which I set in such and such a culture that’s not mine?” and “But you know they have these beliefs and they are so cute and funny, I just wanted to write about it.”
I really can’t help but reassert once again how living cultures do not view current beliefs as “cute” or “funny” but as matters to be treated with respect. I also say that I cannot pass judgment on a story I have not read, but just hearing these statements makes me wonder if I will be able to read such stories without bias.
Unfortunately, these kinds of attitudes still prevail and sometimes I wish I could just ignore the misuse of culture because people will persist in doing what they’re doing, and there are people who will persist in borrowing thoughtlessly because they fail to understand that living cultures are owned by the people who dwell in them.
What does trouble me about the proliferation of misappropriation is how it affects those writers who are sincerely concerned with representing cultures in non-stereotyped, non-exoticized, and non-generic ways.
“How do I know I’m doing it right? I don’t want to hurt or offend someone. But I do want my work to reflect the multicultural aspect of the real world.”
These are sentiments that I respect and anxieties I can appreciate. As a Filipino mining many things and practices belonging to tribal life, I also struggled with these anxieties. Before going to Clarion West, I experienced great anxiety each time I wrote a story rooted in my culture. Because I knew the culture and am of the culture, I also experienced fear of what people from my culture would say about my use of beliefs and practices that are still current.
I remember articulating part of this struggle to J. T. Stewart during my time at Clarion West and it was J. T. Stewart’s words to me that planted the seed for “Dancing in the Shadow of the Once” (from the Bloodchildren Anthology), which deals among other things with the questions of who am I presenting my culture for and who are the beneficiaries of this presentation.
As writers and creators of SF, engaging cultures not your own is inevitable but I do hope that we all stop to consider these very real questions before launching into our depictions and representations of non-dominant cultures.
At Clarion West, Nalo Hopkinson said to me that “there will always be people who will be happy that you wrote about this and there will also always be those who say you did it wrong. But it may surprise you to find that there are more who are simply happy that you thought to represent them in your fiction.”
This is then where I strive to lay down my own prejudices against appropriative work and misrepresentation and where I strive to look at it with an eye that tries to understand where the writer is coming from and what such work may mean to the reader.
I think of Heinlein writing a character who’s supposed to be Filipino in an age when writing about non-white characters was unheard of, and I can forgive the fact that Rico’s Filipino-ness is a gratuitous act when I remember my brothers enthusing over Starship Troopers because the main character was a Filipino.
We are so rarely pictured in fiction that even that tiny bit of acknowledgment of our presence in the world becomes such a huge thing. And while close reading tells me Rico is simply a white American guy wearing a Filipino mask, for years and years he’s been the only central Filipino character in a major work of SF.
But that was then and this is today. We live in an age where the target demographic lives so close to the creator. In fact, reactions and responses to a created work are only a click away. In this age where the electronic highway has made the world much smaller, creators have no excuse when they fall back on generic representations of cultures.
We already know that there are different shades of brown and simply saying I have brown people or Asian people in my work will not cut it. When people tell me that their knowledge of Chinese or Japanese people is more grounded in truth because they have READ everything about it, my question becomes: how have you read and whose books have you read and also, have you taken the time to consult at least one person who has lived that culture?
Because white anthropologists are not immune to misunderstanding cultures not their own, they are also not immune to interpreting and superimposing their own prejudices on these cultures. An anthropologist’s story is not the story of an entire people. And one person’s story is not the story of an entire race.
It may seem like a daunting task—indeed like a Sisyphean task where you know you can’t possibly win.
But the thing is, we are writers and creators, and the written word compels us to write with as much honesty as we can even if we are creating in a field of the fantastic. Some people may find fault with my reasoning, but I still believe that everything starts in the heart and with intention. The amount of follow-through, the commitment to that intention is revealed in the execution.
Just recently, Sophia McDougall sent out a tweet asking for feedback, as she had two characters in her novel who were Filipino-Australians. Because I am Filipino and I know a wonderful Filipino poet who grew up in Australia, I volunteered to make the connection. The resulting exchange was very revealing. I know what it’s like to grow up Filipino and I know what it’s like to raise children in a culture that is not Filipino, but Ivy Alvarez, whom I introduced to Sophia, knows what it’s like to grow up Filipino in Australia and while all the details may not find their way into the story, the discussion that resulted from that question restores my faith.
How difficult is it for an author to ask for feedback and input from people living within the cultures they wish to see represented in their work?
Not so difficult if you are an author bent on treating “the other” with the same respect as you wish to see yourself treated.
* I do believe that insider narrative trumps outsider narrative.
** Also, no matter how well-intentioned, you are bound to get something wrong. The proper response is not, “But I did my research and consulted people and everyone loves it.” The proper response is, “I’m sorry. I hear you. I admit my shortcomings and I will try better next time.”