How do I know if I’m appropriating the traditions of another culture in my writing versus creating a respectful adaptation?
Admittedly, this isn’t an issue I’ve devoted much thought to in the past. Of late, however, following the J.K. Rowling #MagicInNorthAmerica controversy, it’s been on my mind a fair bit.
For those not familiar, #MagicInNorthAmerica has to do with a series of fictional monographs discussing the history of magic in the Harry Potter universe. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling recently released these on her Pottermore website to promote the release of the upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
In one of these pieces, titled “Fourteenth Century – Seventeenth Century”, Rowling discussed how magic existed within pre-colonial America among the Native American tribes, in particular drawing upon and reinterpreting the Navajo legend of the skin walkers, claiming them to be wizards.
She drew criticism for this from Native American scholars, activists, fans, and allies for having appropriated the sacred beliefs of a real, largely marginalized culture into her historical fiction. Her work was also criticized for superficially (and in some cases, inaccurately) treating with other aspects of American history and for possessing an overly colonialist mindset.
Others, meanwhile, have said that Rowling did nothing wrong – that her work is fiction, and fantasy fiction at that – and that there’s no harm in looking to other cultures for inspiration and ideas for storytelling.
I have found the controversy intensely fascinating, and I haven’t even finished reading the Harry Potter series yet. Rather, my interest comes as someone currently at work on one historical fiction novel and conducting research for a second one.
In short, I wonder at the possibility of my making the same sort of mistakes Rowling did.
Gate-crashing different cultures
I’m particularly interested in this with regards to, not to my current WIP, set in medieval England, but the next one I plan to write, set in Ancient Greece.
There are a couple of reasons I’m not so worried about writing about medieval England. First of all, although I am not British, I am Canadian and therefore part of the British Commonwealth.
Secondly, much of what I’m writing about is stuff I was taught in school – the history I was told is part of our shared culture as a former British colony. This same history also influenced a lot of the media I consumed as a child.
So while it’s not my history in the sense that I’m directly descended from those who experienced it, it nonetheless is mine by virtue of having been assimilated into it, while my own real history has been mostly expunged from the historical record.
This isn’t to say I don’t plan to be as accurate and thoughtful as possible in my re-construction of the 13th century world. However if I manage to muck some part of it up, I won’t feel doubly bad for having tread somewhere as a cultural gate-crasher.
For my next novel, though, the situation is different. I’m not Greek. I wasn’t raised in a Greek-influenced society. I did learn Ancient Greek history and mythology in school, but I don’t remember that much of it.
At this point in time, I haven’t even visited Greece (although I’m dying to go and fully expect to sometime in the next 2-3 years).
However, there are three factors that make me feel reasonably at ease about writing within this milieu:
- I plan to research the hell out of it
- There exists within mainstream media many representations of Ancient Greece, both fiction and nonfiction that seem well-developed and sincere
- There has already been substantial recognition and celebration of the various contributions Ancient Greek culture has made to the evolution of North American society – such significant impacts as philosophy, mathematics, medicine, democracy, literature and literary forms. Even many of the English words we speak have their origins in the Greek language.
Expression vs. oppression
But writers are free to write about whatever they want.
This is the position I’ve encountered more than once in the time I’ve been exploring the issue of appropriation in writing.
Personally, I’m unable to offer my unconditional agreement to this, for it asserts a level of self-absorption and privilege I’m not comfortable with.
I truly believe that writers and their stories can change the world. Studies have shown that reading fiction makes people more empathetic because it offers them a window onto perspectives that are different from their own.
Through fiction, readers learn to understand what other people think, feel, and do, which is an incredible form of power wielded by writers.
Because of this, what we choose as the source material for our stories and how we represent this material can have very real consequences for people. This is the case regardless of the story’s genre, for all fiction contains characters through whom we live vicariously at a neurological level
For people who are already marginalized in mainstream society, inaccurate or incorrect representations in stories are especially harmful. If a given portrayal lacks complexity of culture, motivations, strengths, and potential, the readers’ vicarious experience will be more of the same stereotypes and misinformation that already pervade society.
Why should such an impact take a backseat to my personal self-expression? Why should my and desire to create and earn praise for it automatically be considered more righteous?
Given the immense power held by writers, I believe in, as with all forms of power, a corresponding responsibility.
I’ve written before about what I perceive as the responsibility of writers – a topic that continues to interest for me despite the often knee-jerk pushback the subject garners among other writers and the public at large.
I do believe that writers should feel empowered to write about any subject – that we should adopt and/or adapt any concept, including those that have their origins in other cultures, for the benefit and betterment of our art.
However, there is a right way to do this – a thoughtful, respectful way – particularly when tramping in the territory of those who story has already been roughly handled by society.
We need to do our research – proper, thorough research, such as by reading works by or speaking to subject matter experts – not just a quickie Wikipedia scan. Most writers are already accustomed to conducting some degree of research to lend verisimilitude to their stories.
With the potential to (re)shape society’s perception on the line, the need for careful research increases exponentially.
We also need to ask ourselves why. Why this subject? Why me? Characters always have motivations; writers should have them too.
That fact is, some topics are very real, sensitive, or sacred to certain groups and cultures of people. Recognizing this can help imbue our work with the proper care.
Or, it might lead to the realization that we don’t have anything productive to add to the underlying conversation, and as a result, that we don’t really need to write on that topic at all.
Some people may equate this to some combination of thought-policing, self-censorship, or censorship in general – the pushback reflex I mentioned above.
There is a whole spectrum of possibilities between appropriation and censorship. The absence of one doesn’t invariably result in the other.
What I suggest is not censorship because, ultimately, the decision of whether to proceed or not remains solely in the hands of the writer. It’s not thought-policing either, for the same reason.
As for self-censorship, I’m always puzzled by the suggestion that art in its natural state is somehow raw and unfiltered, as if artists are suddenly and miraculously able to put aside a lifetime of social conditioning while creating.
Every one of us self-censors every single day, having understood from childhood that certain ways of being produce desired outcomes more effectively than others.
Our art is no different. Writers already make adjustments to their work due to such considerations as market, genre, language, audience expectations and preferences, and artistic precedent.
Adding to this list the possible impact your art could have society – particularly the marginalized portions of it – is not a threat to artistic freedom, or freedom in general.
It’s not a harmful activity, it’s a human one.
How do you decide what to write about? What are your thoughts on appropriation versus adaptation? Let me know in the comments.
A/N: There will be no new post on Easter Monday next week. Happy Easter to all who celebrate it!