Monday, April 16, 2018

Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t, So Just Carry On

Sacchi Green

There is no one final, all-encompassing view of appropriation as it applies to “borrowing” aspects of another culture. For that matter, these days the lines of demarcation between what we think of as separate cultures are permeable and so blurred that they’re often hard to find.

I have my share of kneejerk objections to criticisms of appropriation, but I can get over some of them. I’m willing to go along with the stance that appropriation is bad when it involves a dominant culture plucking out the shiny bits they like from other cultures that they otherwise despise and oppress. I trip up when it comes to defining all members of any culture along lines of who’s dominant and who’s oppressed, but from an historical perspective I have to agree that “white” western European culture as it has spread to North America is pretty clearly in the dominant column.

I also have to reluctantly admit that, for instance, Halloween costumes portraying other cultures (usually very badly) aren’t as good an idea as they seemed like when I was a kid with a thing for what I thought were Gypsy clothes. And then there was dressing in a kimono, which I loved, for a junior high school presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Yes, that operetta was a satire on a whole culture that the British Empire knew little about and had little respect for. The fact that other G&S operettas satirized British culture just as sharply doesn’t make it okay, but I can’t help feeling that the world would not be a better place without Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let’s skip over the whole issue of appropriation of cultural costumes and traditions  such as Native American feather head-dresses and mis-understood spiritual rituals, although those are certainly high on the list of the worst kinds of appropriation. Ours is in general a writing-related discussion group, so I’ll move along. But it just occurred to me that one of the best examples I know of disputed appropriation is the work of writer Tony Hillerman, whose mystery series was centered on Navajo and Hopi characters, traditions, and territory. I’ve seen criticism from another Native American writer who didn’t write that sort of thing, and reluctantly admitted that the books were well-done and appreciated by some members of those tribes for the way they recognized the humanity and intelligence (and education)  of the characters, and were also good for tourism. But the other writer still thought, and said that many others felt, that a white man shouldn’t have been writing those books.

This is where the disapproval of appropriation comes up against the benefit of representation.  Nobody denies that seeing people like one’s self portrayed positively in books is a good thing, and should be much more widespread. But I don’t think that many people would deny that publishers as whole have been less receptive to books about minorities because they doubt that they will sell. The question of whether they have to be written by members of those minorities is a thorny one, as is the question of whether members of those minorities should always include a political/sociological theme in their work.

As an editor of anthologies, I always hope to be able to use a good diversity of stories, including cultural diversity. I never get as many as I’d like, and I’ve seen a few reviews criticizing that. But I also don’t choose stories just on that basis. Well, okay, maybe if it’s a toss-up between two of equal quality and equal fit into the balance of the book as a whole, although I can’t remember any cases like that. I had my hopes way up for my new anthology coming out in December, because a writer of color I greatly admire emailed me that she was planning to submit a story even though she writes mostly novels, but my hopes were dashed when she couldn’t manage it after all due to complications with her current novel. Yes, I felt guilty to be hoping for a relatively big name to add to the diversity I wanted, and I can certainly sympathize with the travails of novel-writing.  So out of seventeen stories, only four have more-or-less central characters who are clearly POC, and that fact doesn’t always emerge very soon in the story, or is particularly emphasized. I pondered asking two writers to frontload that information, but decided against it. And one story, set in a very specific historical period and setting, with reference to actual occurrences, may turn out to be one of the few my publisher has ever objected to.

Sometimse, in fact often, I have no clue as to whether an author considers herself a member of a minority culture. I remember one New York reading that included a writer I’d never met, whose story gave no indication at all of the ethnicity of her characters, and it didn’t matter, but when I did meet her I wished that she’d written about characters that looked like her (and not just because she was quite attractive.) I didn’t have the chutzpah to say that to her.

I think the current wave of rage about appropriation comes from legitimate anger about historical oppression as it extends into the present. And, as with so much these days, the rage is amplified by the growth of the social media grapevine, which tends to favor vinegar over wine. But there are plenty of people from all ethnicities who aren’t particularly offended by examples of appropriation that light the fuses of many others. And there are, or may be—how would we know?—plenty of readers who want to see themselves represented in the fiction they enjoy, and don’t get bent out of shape if it’s written by someone of a different background, as long as the characters are shown in all their fully relatable and appealing humanity. I wish I could say that there are plenty of people in the mainline culture who enjoy reading about characters who represent ethnicities different from their own, but I can at least hope that the number is increasing.

There’s no pleasing every one. And there’s no denying the social oppression that still goes on. The situation is what it is, and we just have to live with it. I’ve written about characters from a different ethnicity, but just in short stories, which don’t get much attention, and mostly in historical settings. I think very few people would get in a tizzy about my portrayal of female South Asian pirates during the build-up to WWII, or a fantasy piece about a Chinese girl with a masculine side set in some distant era, published well before the current upheavals. I did get deserved disapproval from a good friend with Asian forebears when I included, in an anthology of historical stories of women in warfare, a story set  during the Boxer Rebellion in China that featured a royal concubine who was, as my friend said, far too exoticized. Mea culpa. I was so desperate to get something that wasn’t set in the western hemisphere that I overlooked things I shouldn’t have. It happens. But we’re still friends.

I do have a story, though, that I don’t think will ever be published, and probably shouldn’t be. The characters (heterosexual) are both veterans of the Iraq war, and members of the Abenaki/Penobscot tribes of New England. The setting in NH is one I’m intimately acquainted with, and I’ve done plenty of research, but I’m not Native American (beyond the usual sort of fuzzy family legend) and I don’t know anyone personally that I could run it by. That’s just the way it goes. Moving along.

That’s all we can do. Move along. Write what you want to, let those who’ll enjoy it, enjoy it, and duck if the slings and arrows of the outraged come your way. This storm, too, will subside, and if we’re lucky, the next one won’t be any worse. But don't bet on it.        


  1. I think you've touched on a lot of important points here, and said a lot of sensible things.

    I do have to say that I'm wary of sayings like "You can't please everyone" and "You're bound to piss off somebody," in the context of writing "controversial" content. I say this because of the huge difference, in my eyes, between pissing off (for example) a prude by writing sex or a bigot by writing LGBTQ sex, on the one hand; and pissing off (for example) a queer woman of color by writing about their subcultures as an outsider, on the other hand. Pissing off a prude, to me, is a "that's their problem," while pissing off a marginalized person is a "hmm, I should listen to why this bothered them." So the "flattening" or "false equivalence" effect of "you're bound to piss of somebody" feels troublesome to me. Not all pissing off is of equal weight.

  2. And I think an important theme in your post here is that you obviously give serious thought to the concerns about appropriation, regardless of what decision you ultimately make. You say "write what you want to [etc.]," but it's nonetheless clear that somewhere along the line you're employing your judgment and self-awareness about what to pursue or not pursue. What troubles me are the people who seem to feel that the writing impulse (or other artistic impulse) exempts them from having any sort of conscience or responsibility regarding what they choose to put out into the world—as though even considering whether one of their own projects might be an irresponsible thing to pursue would amount to some sort of cowardly betrayal of artistic purity.

  3. As Jeremy has said, this is an excellent, thoughtful consideration of the topic.

    The important questions, in my opinion, about any piece of writing criticized as "appropriation", are as follows:

    -- Does it damage or denigrate members of the "appropriated" group?

    -- Does it deliberately portray stereotyped characters, thus encouraging readers to not dig any deeper into the realities of the group?

    If I can answer both these questions in the negative, then I'd suggest there is not a real problem.

    I'd never thought of The Mikado as "cultural appropriation". In fact that seems like a bizarre notion to me. Nobody in the audience would have ever taken the portrayal of Koko, Yum Yum, Pitti Sing and Katisha as having anything to do with the realities of Japanese culture.

    1. I don't have in-depth familiarity with The Mikado, but my experiences with Anglo-American literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries seems to show that where portrayals of Asians were concerned, there was virtually nothing but stereotypes and exoticization. Audiences, of course, understood that G & S was comic silliness with no pretensions of realism, but nonetheless they were probably so ignorant about Japan that they'd have had no reliable reference points regarding real Japanese culture.

  4. Last weekend, Momma and I tried to watch "Breakfast At Tiffany's" but not long into it, we started glancing sidewise at each other as very dated stereotypes in the story began to make themselves apparent. When Mickey Rooney, playing an Asian, entered it became unbearable.

  5. When I was growing up, I listened to all of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas my parents had recording of, and that was at least 6 or 7! I memorized all of the words to many of them, including The Mikado. There was a movie made about them writing this one; I think it was called "Topsy-Turvy." But it provides an insider's view into how absurd they found the British Empire to be, and how much delight Gilbert (the words man) found in skewering the foolishness. Little-known fact is that Sullivan (the music man) was knighted in his lifetime, by a queen who enjoyed his music. Gilbert was not, and it was considered a huge scandal that she ignored him. Considering what a low opinion he had of her, I don't think he cared.

    I write the characters that are in my head. I've written about people of color, Arabic people, Asian people, and Native Americans. I try not to present stereotypes, since I always want to delve into the thinking and emotional processes of my characters. I have close friends from different races/cultures/religions, and I have enjoyed talking with them about those differences.

    The beauty of the grand experiment that is the USA, is that my neighbor can be of a different nationality, religion, speak a different language in his house, raise his kids differently, eat different food, etc. But we will watch each other's houses when we go on vacation, and stop to chat in the driveway often. His freedom ends when he tries to come into my yard and tell me I have to live like him, and my freedom ends when I try to go into his yard and tell him he has to live like me. This is the only country in the world that has that at the heart of the constitution. It's what my Dad want to be a part of, when he left Scotland with its antiquated royalty behind. And what Mom's parents wanted to join when they left Poland.

    Telling me I can only write about middle-aged, multi-tattooed white women who are happily married and have stretch marks from their 4 kids, would be very constricting. I doubt I'd ever write again. So by the very nature of writing romance, I have to write about characters who are living differently from me. I try to be respectful, since I love all of my characters...even the baddies. I gave birth to all of them, and I want them to be the best they can be. I can only wish that I had enough readers that someone would take least that would mean that my books are being read!

  6. I've seen the movie "Topsy-Turvey," and was particularly struck by how Gilbert got the idea for "The Mikado." There was a World Fair kind of thing going on in London, and a Japanese contingent came with displays of some of their customs and crafts. This was quite a novelty, and most people had known nothing about the Japanese. As I recall Gilbert's wife dragged him to see the display, and he was inspired. He went so far as to persuade (probably hire) some of the Japanese women with their interpreter to show his actresses how to walk like them for the production, with tiny steps. I had the impression that people in England didn't know much at all about the Japanese before they saw the World Fair display, and more people saw the operetta than saw the official display.

    Going by the definition of appropriation as adopting the shiny bits from a culture you otherwise despise and oppress wouldn't fit well in this case, since Japan was never under British rule, and was likely no more despised by the British than members of any other nationality that wasn't British (as satirized by G&S in the song "For He Is an Englishman!") But I have seen cases of the rabid opponents of appropriation railing against Anglo women wearing kimonos, which pissed off some Japanese artists and businesses that were happy to sell expensive kimonos to westerners.

    1. I had the impression that people in England didn't know much at all about the Japanese before they saw the World Fair display

      I can believe it. For one thing, if I recall my history correctly, Japan's contact with the West was quite limited until around 1860.

      Going by the definition of appropriation as adopting the shiny bits from a culture you otherwise despise and oppress wouldn't fit well in this case, since Japan was never under British rule, and was likely no more despised by the British than members of any other nationality that wasn't British

      Well, but I think the racial othering was always a huge factor.

    2. Yes, I agree, but at least the Japanese at the time didn't have the history of being oppressed by the British Empire that, say, people in India did.

      I think the emotional activism relating to appropriation isn't about it damaging or denigrating members of a group so much as anger at the perceived injustice of appropriating the attractive parts of a culture that has already suffered damage and denigration and sees it continuing.

    3. Yes, that's my understanding, too: that "appropriation" doesn't refer to denigration (which all enlightened people already know is wrong), but to well-intentioned and ostensibly respectful uses of someone else's culture—which is certainly a more complex issue.

  7. Sacchi, as people have said, this is a really good and thoughtful consideration of this subject. I'd add that there's one important element that I think's gotten overlooked in our discussion so far. When writers from a culture can't find an audience/publisher for their work, but white writers can, I think that adds to the concerns about appropriation. When writers of color don't get to represent themselves in well-publicized work, but instead have to watch projects done by white authors become the "definitive" version of the story. I think that if there were more opportunities for people from various cultures to represent themselves, there would be fewer sore spots about how white writers approach these things. The whole issue about G&S is that's all a lot of people knew about Japan. It would be a whole different world if it was in context with Japanese performances and literature.


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