On Appropriation, Censorship, and the World of Possibility in Between

Image of a Native American man from J.K. Rowling's History of Magic in North America.

Image of a Native American man from J.K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America.

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.

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

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:

  1. I plan to research the hell out of it
  2. There exists within mainstream media many representations of Ancient Greece, both fiction and nonfiction that seem well-developed and sincere
  3. 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.

Freedom writers

Some people may equate this to some combination of thought-policing, self-censorship, or censorship in general – the pushback reflex I mentioned above.

Thinking through ideasThere 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!

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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12 thoughts on “On Appropriation, Censorship, and the World of Possibility in Between

  1. I’m not a knee-jerk reactionary and I’ll beat up the first person who says I am!

    But seriously folks… My concerns with this issue are rather scattered, which makes them hard to articulate or work into a systematic “argument” if I may toss that term around in a slightly hyperbolic manner. I’ll make a few comments as my brain spits them forth.

    I’m not sure what you mean by being respectful. Where’s the line? It doesn’t sound like JK Rowling was being flippant or demeaning toward Native American culture. I’m sure she meant to celebrate it, but she ended up relying on tropes (Indians resonate with natural magic) and was perhaps a bit sloppy in her research. If she had done better research and avoided the tropes, would she have been sufficiently respectful, or is someone simply going to move the goalposts and be offended no matter what?

    We are not in disagreement. As white dudes go, I’m quite familiar with East Asian culture. Whenever I see the acclaimed and vaunted show M*A*S*H, I cringe at the racist depiction of Koreans. The women are noble, almost mystical figures (except the bartender for some reason), and the men are all petty (yet quietly honorable) thieves or goofy, emasculated caricatures who bow and nods relentlessly and a always trying to pull scams. Unless they’re north Koreans, in which case they are wide-eyed, suicidal maniacs. That’s my idea of disrespectful. But if I decided to write a story depicting Korean people, I’m probably going to show a lot of the men drinking and smoking, because I’ve spent a lot of time there, and smoking and drinking among men is more prevalent there than it is here. Am I being disrespectful to write about it? From my observation, it’s a hyper-masculine culture, probably to a fault.

    If I wrote a story that takes place in an urban slum and erased gang culture and unwed motherhood and poverty, it would be more respectful, but it would also ring hollow, because those are real issues in urban slums. If I wrote about a trailer-park in Oklahoma and erased crystal meth and confederate flags and alcoholism, it would be more respectful, but it would also be fake and boring. I think as long as you make your characters authentic individuals with real emotions and believable experiences, treat them with respect as if they were real, and avoid turning them to caricatures, you’re being true to your craft.

    On a level, I find it insulting to be thought of as some sort of blank who couldn’t understand or relate to other experiences unless I have them explicitly explained to me. I’m a Writer, not just a person who writes. Part of being a real writer is observing the world subconsciously and consciously, empathizing with other people, and being a sponge. If my personality didn’t have those attributes, I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

    Finally, there’s an ivory-tower component to much of the offense that’s being taken these days. The lecturing that goes on at sites like Salon and Huffington Post is often led by university professors. It’s not some grass-roots thing. I wonder if the volume is louder than warranted sometimes. I’m as lefty as anyone, but we have a problem on the left of making ourselves the spokesperson of a group without consulting that group whether they are actually offended by the thing we feel they “should” be offended by.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You may not be a knee-jerk… 😉

      But seriously, you know how much I love to hash out these sorts of issues with you. I can always count on you for a thoughtful comment. For me, respectful means both having some sort of understanding of the cultural climate pertaining to the thing you’re writing about and also creating characters and settings that are fully realized, rather than relying on cheap stereotype. Disney often gets a lot of flack for making their villains swarthy – ostensible people of colour – while most of everyone else is lily white. Having a POC villain isn’t in and of itself a negative thing. However, when that character is so cardboard, with such flimsy motivations, and so lacking in any sort of heroism (from the villain’s perspective) as not not seem reminiscent of a real person at all, that is a problem, for readers and viewers will use these representations to help shape their opinions in the real world.

      Stories are all about conflict and (for the most part) overcoming adversity. As such, erasing the negativity about a character or setting (the alcoholism or unwed mothers or lack of formal education mentioned in your various examples) would indeed make for a pretty dull story. I agree with you that capturing the emotions related to various experiences is the key, for it’s through emotions that we are able to relate to others as fellow human beings since emotions transcend cultural differences.

      As a Writer, I ultimately consider myself a researcher. Like any other form of research, my conclusions derive from a combination of precedent (literature review, talking to people, etc.) and direct observation (empathy, watching the world around me and interpreting it as seems most likely to me). Even for things I myself have experienced, I always like to look into other people’s interpretations to add a bit of spice since we are all different and therefore perceive the world in different ways. In the case of something I haven’t experienced, I would had never rely solely on the way things appear to me.

      As to whether or not there is too much offence being taken these days, I like reading articles that show the ways various situations might be harmful, for just because I personally haven’t experienced it that way doesn’t make it untrue. It’s all fodder for my ability to be empathetic. Getting offended on someone’s behalf can be tricky to navigate from both sides, but I like to believe it comes from well-meaning place of people having learned better and wishing to help others do better as well. This issue with Rowling was particularly interesting, though, because it originated among Native people themselves – not only scholars and activists, but everyday fans as well who owned all the books, had dressed up as various characters for Halloween, and had spent good money to visit HP tourist sites.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Like Ericjbaker has already commented, I find my thoughts rather scattered. What I can speak to is that every St. Patrick’s Day, I do become somewhat annoyed at drunk individuals in green running around celebrating St. Patrick’s Day like a it’s a U.S. version of the celebration of Bacchus! There are not that many Irish people around! They can’t all be really excited about the saint!

    I am part Irish by blood and my father, born Catholic, is named after the saint. My parents were married on the holiday in honor of that. Personally, I struggle with the celebration of person who is considered to be an Irish Saint but brought in foreign influence that eventually split a culture and repressed historical traditions. The historical record aside, St. Patrick’s Day is a U.S. institution of Green pride now. History marches. All the drinking and fairly horrendous green-wearing feels like appropriation but it is fairly innocuous.

    I think the issue is identity here. In small, marginal groups, having a misrepresented identity propagated on a massive level by a franchise like Harry Potter can be harmful because there is almost nothing else out in the public eye to balance it out. If there was nothing like Riverdance and U2 out in the world, it would make me much angrier to see people using the one Irish holiday in the U.S. as permission to throw a huge drinking party based around games that have nothing to do with the historic tradition of my blood heritage. But there is a weight of tradition and visibility show casing other parts of Celtic traditions. I shrug off the rest of it. To be honest, drinking IS part of the Irish culture. It’s also part of every other culture I’ve experienced!

    So if we write about ancient Hellenistic traditions and misstep a bit, there’s a huge lexicon of other representations and our one contribution joins the array, at least in the English language. If we write about our own traditions and change something, it’s adaptation. We have agency over our own traditions. If we write about a group that has experienced near genocide at the hands of our own race, and get it wrong, then we are compounding our role as conquerors, killing not only the people, but the memory.

    And perhaps that’s the point. I also believe that is some amount of being too careful and sensitive. Going into that would require many, many more words. Thank you for writing on identity. There’s so much more to explore here. Frankly, I doubt the subject will ever end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You made a lot of good points and triggered another thought about appropriation. What you and Janna say about appropriating marginalized cultures makes a of sense, especially when those cultures lack the opportunity to provide balance, as is the case with Native Americans.

      Here’s the actual thought: I suppose it’s the term “appropriation” itself that is rather loaded. Almost all of human history is about appropriation… language, religion, food, etc. Many modern western Christian traditions are, to put it kindly, “borrowed” from pagan cultures that were wiped out or swamped out by said Christians. Christmas trees and Easter baskets with colored eggs are blatant appropriations from cultures that are beyond marginalized. They are gone. Is it OK now to appropriate them? If there are 10 legitimate pagans left who are offended by the use of Easter baskets, would people be willing to stop using Easter baskets?

      You’re right; this subject could be explored forever.

      Liked by 1 person

      • At a certain point, I think some traditions have become transmuted. Eventually the origins are forgotten. Like our use of pagan words for days of the week. We’re borrowers, of everything we come in contact with. In the case of the the current confirmation, the difference may lie in whether or not we’re impacting the living of our modern time in an empowering fashion or with a dismissive gesture. But if there are pagans out there who would like to remonstrate against the use of Easter baskets, I’d love to hear it and learn more about where they came from!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well said. As I mentioned to Eric, I don’t know if there will ever be any going back to what once was, but moving forward, our interaction with different groups and cultures should involve cultural exchange, which is beneficially to society, not appropriation, which is harmful.

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      • Totally agree that much of human history has involved appropriating the customs of others. This was considered both socially acceptable and necessary in eras past, but now we know matter (or else we should). I don’t know if there will ever be any going back to what once was, but moving forward, the goal should be cultural exchange, which is beneficially to society, not appropriation, which is harmful.

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    • Ciara, this is a very thorough and thoughtful comment – thank you for that. I agree with you that this topic could be discussed infinitely.

      I really do believe that the issue of representation is at the core of the matter of appropriation. The world is constantly mixing and mingling and adapting each others’ notions and traditions and I don’t think anyone realistically thinks that process can be stopped, or even that it should be. I do think, though, that every group and culture of people wants to be portrayed in the world, not necessarily in a solely positive light, but in a way that takes into account the depth of our experiences, our past, and our potential. Once that occurs, I believe the sensitivity surrounding other people’s use of our traditions – even if they misstep a bit – is lessened considerably because we can just brush it off without worry that this is all people will ever know about us.

      This issue also relates to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in publishing. We already know that writers of colour face greater barriers to being (traditionally) published. Incidentally, there are barriers to the publication of stories about people of colour (whether written by POC writers or not) as well – these books are often shelved in obscure settings or have white-washed book covers. I believe you blogged about this topic yourself recently. All of this contributes to the dearth of complex representations, which in turn makes the poor representations that do slip through even more harmful.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting concepts – writing your own or appropriating other cultures.

    My main character in Pride’s Children is disabled. Would I dare write her if I were not? It’s a good question. So many books written about disabled people are despised by the people in the communities they co-opt from. For example, in such a famous one as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (not the original Sherlock Holmes story), some autistic people see themselves badly misrepresented in the main character, and, because the character is never specifically identified as autistic/Asperger’s, have a hard time even complaining about it.

    I’m safe; I know of what I speak – and I still worry, because the degree of disability conferred by many conditions and illnesses varies all over the map.

    But I’m safe in the way some comedians are – I’ve seen Jim Gaffigan do an amazingly funny piece on HIMSELF being fat (he is chunky) – because it is gentle self-deprecating humor that hides its barb well. And I’ve seen comedians of various sizes do cutting acts about fat people that I won’t watch for long.

    Since most books about native customs were originally written by white male academics and explorers, we have a lot to overcome just to get the facts, and some secrets were never meant to be shared with anyone except the practitioners. Whether we approve of them or not.

    It’s the presuming that does the damage: presuming you know what you’re seeing in someone else’s culture, presuming you understand what it means, presuming to tell the world your opinion as truth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • To be clear, I don’t believe those are the only options – either write your own or appropriate someone else’s – but rather that those are the two endpoints of a spectrum of possibilities, many of which are far more productivity and beneficial than others. I’ve never subscribed to the well-worn writing maxim of “Write what you know”, at least not in the manner it seems we’re meant to – to only write things fairly near to out direct experience. Rather, I interpret it in almost the opposite way – “know what you write” – and then make it my business to actually do so and learn many things about the topics I’m covering. I also like to write what I want to know.

      That being said, it’s always challenging to write outside of one’s experience, particularly about characters who comes from groups who are marginalized in mainstream society. As you say, it’s even a challenge for writers who identify as part of those groups, for one will never be able to please everyone. But that is a fact of writing in general, and as such, not a strong enough justification to not try, in my opinion. The world needs more stories – well-written stories – both from and about people other than society’s favourites, for this is part of what will actually help end marginalization.

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