Writing Other Cultures. Can you do it effectively?

Hi Jim,

I’ve been reading a lot of your advice posts, as well as some of your literature. First I want to say thank you for being so willing to address questions and hand out writing advice. I’ve found it very helpful. However one of your posts, I have to admit irked me a little. In it, you mentioned that people should be able to write characters of other ethnicities and creeds. Frankly, I don’t see how that is possible if you’re not from that culture or haven’t experienced it firsthand. By attempting to do so, you run the risk of appropriation and possibly making an unintentionally offensive character. I was hoping you could clarify your point about that a little further, as I don’t think simple research is sufficient to be able to accurately represent someone else.
Thanks,
Melinda

 

Hi Melinda,

A few things here… first of all, I don’t subscribe to the idea of cultural appropriation and I never have. To me, this is the antithesis of everything the United States, if not most western nations, stands for. Our country functions under the principle that we are a melting pot and that cultures are embraced and aspects are assimilated into our own. In other words, if you like something from another culture, you can adapt it into your own. I have several antiques and curiosities around my house from Norse, Asian, and South American origin, though I do not share their heritage. In the same spirit, I, as a man of Irish heritage, have seen Asians and Latinos in my own neighborhood singing Irish drinking songs, dressing like stereotypical Irishmen, and dancing (surprisingly well) Irish jigs on St. Patty’s day. Not only am I not offended, I both enjoy and appreciate it. I think this is the attitude we should have towards such things. The idea of appropriation and how it’s been applied is an institutional barrier against the freedoms that the west enjoys, and creating such institutional barriers isn’t a positive.

That being said, it is important to get it right. In my post, not only did I say research, but also attempt to experience the culture where possible, or at the very least, speak to some people who are a good representation of it. At no point did I say that simple research, such as opening a book, would be adequate.

I don’t agree with the idea that if you’re not part of or have experienced a culture, you can’t write about it. If that were the case, all I’d be writing about are white men. There would be no women or any ethnic minorities in my writing. So let’s consider that for a moment. Let’s say I were to subscribe to the idea that… let’s say only a person of color can adequately represent a person of color. Okay, so I write stories strictly about white men… then someone comes along and accuses me of not being inclusive and diverse in my writing. What would be my defense?

In essence, you can’t really have it both ways. Either someone can, if they put the effort in, adequately represent someone of another walk of life, or writing is going to quickly become segregated. There is an inherent danger in that thought process. One, because its completely unrealistic, and two because then it opens up doors to many other problems.

So I will restated what I said before. If you want to write characters of a different culture, race, creed, just be careful. Make sure you have enough knowledge of that group of people to proceed. Don’t assume, and don’t stereotype. Just write them as people, equal with anyone else. The cultural differences shouldn’t be the determining factor of the character, if anything, it should be an influence at most. Anything more than that and you run the risk of just creating a character archetype for a certain group of people which can come off as offensive.

Anyway, thanks for the email and the thought-provoking question!

Readers, what do you think? Can someone of one race/gender/culture effectively write another or should that remain their domain?



Readers,

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.

jimthewritingwizard@gmail.com

I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.

I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.

Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.

Also, feel free to check out my works of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, Available on Amazon and where ever books are sold. See the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/James-Harrington/e/B00P7FBXTU

Thanks friends!

Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

 

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Writing Other Cultures. Can you do it effectively?

  1. saloni says:

    Ah, that’s a difficult question. But I agree with what you said. It all boils down to research. If you’re willing to do the research, then, by all means, go ahead. However, if you stubbornly resist, then it’s better to stick to what you know best.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You need to be careful but I would agree with you. research is the key. If we didn’t write about other groups then all books would just be author putting him or herself in different situation, although Dan Brown has done very well out of doing just that. I think the intention is also important you will only cause real offence if you don’t bother trying to make it authentic or deliberately write a character using every offensive stereotype.

    Whatever you do, you will offend someone. I’m beginning to believe there is a small group of people who actively find things to be offended about! Often they are offended on other peoples behalf presumably because they are too busy getting on with there own lives to be bothered with it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • StCyril says:

      “I’m beginning to believe there is a small group of people who actively find things to be offended about! ”

      I believe they’re called SJWs, but I could be wrong! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Labeling people is just as bad as real cultural appropriation, and is something we can refrain from doing without harming our art. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a SJW, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with being a conservative.

        Assholes exist in both groups. *Those* are the people to avoid.

        YMMV…

        Liked by 2 people

      • StCyril says:

        Well that much is true, however I think most people view ‘true’ social justice warriors as Humanists and egalitarians. The term ‘SJW’ was created as a more pejorative term.

        Liked by 1 person

      • which is why we should avoid it when used as such. I consider myself an armchair SJW. If the cause is just, I’ll cheer you on, but I might not get out of my seat to do it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ArtbyTheresa says:

    I think someone of one race/gender/culture effectively write another.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If you spend your time worrying you will offend someone, you can’t write. Or shouldn’t. Or won’t. No matter how you slice it, someone will *always* be offended with something you write. I occasionally worry about being accused of cultural appropriation… then I think about how boring my own culture is, and say “screw that”. Besides, my characters do what they want without consulting me first. I just watch and take notes…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. M G Kizzia says:

    I have a group of elves and a group of Neanderthals protesting outside of my house even as we speak. I can’t worry about that. I am compelled to write the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. […] people out there who say “no”, especially if the writer is a white man. However, author James Harrington questions whether this is “cultural appropriation” and how you write another culture […]

    Like

  7. I agree with almost all of you, and that the research and ‘care’ is key. I wrote “Endgame” (with three sequels underway) from the first-person perspective of a female soldier. Guilty, I fit neither category. But I kept lists of pieces/terms to strike from the material, then had beta readers find the problematic things I missed. Since the goal was to render a credible woman (in dire fictional circumstances–stranded with other soldiers on an inhospitable planet) I focused on what was essential to the story and her character in the situation. She’s not vanilla, she loses her s—, she kills (as a sniper) and she makes tough decisions. So far, people really like her. Lean on dependable, applicable beta readers.

    Like

  8. I’m a social justice warrior to the extant that I believe in equal rights for all ethnicities, genders, races, and so forth, and not being a bigot or a racist. I believe in standing up against injustice being exhibited towards any group of people. However, I do think there are SJWs who take things way too far and miss. Cultural exchange is important, even in writing. When I write novels and short stories, I may take ideas, beliefs, outfits, and customs from other cultures and turn it into a wholly fictional society. It’s not out of disrespect that I do son. On the contrary, the culture fascinates me so much that it’s my way of showing appreciation of how it inspires me. I loved it when I visited Japan, how they weren’t so caught up in cultural appropriation. Not only do they tend to think it’s awesome when westerners wear kimonos and even modify some kimonos to be like their own, but they love to borrow our concepts and create outer space westerns in their fantasy and manga, or even use western fantasy and make it into somewhat of their own. It’s a beautiful thing. In the end, though, there is always someone who is going to be offended, even when harm isn’t meant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • StCyril says:

      Well said, though considering that the term SJW is considered a pejorative, you might be more closely considered an egalitarian, still, we all choose our own labels. So either way, good on you! That’s exactly the attitude that I think we should have when it comes to cultural exchanges.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Daedalus Lex says:

    Well-said, Jim. A great example from the incubation period of “cultural appropriation” was when the white William Styron wrote “Confessions of Nat Turner” from black man’s point of view (1967). Is it cultural appropriation? The idea is tempting, but the result would be to shut down our capacity to identify with the Other. Much better to see it as a noble attempt to show how our shared humanness can defeat the prejudice and ill will that comes when we trap ourselves into seeing things only from the point of view or our race or gender or cultural grouping.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s