Back in January this year Niall and I decided we wanted to approach Judith Berman to write an article on the topic of cultural appropriation for our international issue. That issue has now gone to press and as soon as it's been posted out to BSFA members we'll be putting Judith's article 'Bears, Bombs and Popcorn: Some considerations when mining other cultures for source materials' up on the Vector website. The other feature article we'll be publishing online from that issue is Nisi Shawl's 'Colourful Stories: Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors', in which she discusses her picks for some of the best sf and fantasy stories by writers of African descent.
Unfortunately, due to the delays caused by the problems with the mailing house, the international issue didn't make it out in time to coincide with all the online discussions of cultural appropriation following on, apparently, from a panel at Wiscon on the subject (which Judith Berman was on). Some of the online discussion I saw got pretty badly derailed (for an excellent summary of what happened and why it was problematic, read Oyce's post) so I hope that Judith's article, when it goes up, will contribute some really good, focused thoughts on the matter of cultural appropriation as an issue for writers to the ongoing debate.
Judith is a fiction writer, and in her article she talks about her experiences of writing fiction about other cultures and the issues relating to cultural appropriation that she has found herself considering in the process. I do think it's important for writers to think about and talk about these issues from a writerly perspective, which is why I was keen on the idea of asking Judith to contribute an article on the subject to Vector in the first place. But I'm also of the opinion that I have a responsibility, as an editor and as a reviewer, to think and talk about these sorts of issues too, from my perspective.
One of my jobs as an editor, as I see it, is to create a forum where people can have much-needed discussions about important matters such as cultural appropriation. To create a forum where people can feel comfortable bringing up and addressing issues that might be difficult to talk about. To create a forum where voices, especially voices that aren't often heard, can speak. In practical terms, this means inviting the discussion of cultural appropriation into the forum Niall and I are creating with Vector, by commissioning articles on the issue and blogging about it.
My role as an editor is as a facilitator for the discussion, but the role of reviewer I sometimes take up is part of that discussion. It's important for me, as a reviewer, to be able to recognise cultural appropriation, because if I don't recognise it and fail to point it out then I'm colluding with it, becoming part of the appropriation. Though that sounds as if there's a clear cut line – this is cultural appropriation, this isn't – and I don't think that's the case at all. In fact, I'd guess that the most common role as a reviewer participant in discussions of cultural appropriation is the role of asking the question of a work: is this a case of cultural appropriation? There might not be a clear cut answer to the question in most cases, but in attempting to address it a reviewer may hopefully illuminate some of the factors involved in appropriating culture that we should be alert to.
So, what is cultural appropriation, then, if we're to recognise it when we do see it? In my mind, only a dominant culture can appropriate other cultures. So when we're talking about cultural appropriation we're mostly talking about members of the dominant Western culture appropriating from cultures that are minorities in the Western world. The way a reviewer approaches a work and asks questions about its relationship to its cultural sources will therefore inevitably begin by establishing what culture the work primarily sits in and thinking about how it relates to the culture it's using as its source of inspiration from its primary cultural position.
According to Yoon Ha Lee's report on the Wiscon panel, one of the panel participants, Ekaterina Sedia, when talking about how to go about writing other cultures without appropriating them, said something about needing to understand the culture you're writing about, acknowledge it as the source of inspiration for your work, and be aware of how you're presenting it. I think these points are useful things for reviewers to think about. If the cultural inspiration behind a work goes unacknowledged, but the reviewer spots it, then I think it's the duty of that reviewer to point out the work's cultural sources and ask about its relationship with that culture. If the cultural sources behind a work are acknowledged, then I think it's the reviewer's duty to do at least some reading about that culture before sitting down to review the work. A reviewer will only be able to think about how well an author has understood and presented a culture if they know a bit about that culture to begin with. Admittedly, it's sometimes going to be tricky to be able to tell whether a writer has failed to understand a culture or whether they've made their own creative alterations to the aspects of the culture they've chosen to work with in the full understanding of what it is that they're altering, but this is why it's worth considering how they've presented that culture as well as whether they understand it. It's not really a matter of understanding, it's a matter of what comes across in the writing, but obviously a good understanding will help make sure the presentation of the aspects of the source culture used is respectful.