Cultural Appropriation

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.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation

  1. It probably should go without saying that I agree with all this, but it probably doesn’t, so: I agree with all this.

  2. Hi. I’m happy to see the conversations the panel spawned, and I just wanted to make a couple of points which I think are relevant.

    1) At the panel, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ was used as devoid of negative connotations; we used it rather loosely to mean that a writer is writing about a culture to which s/he does not belong.

    2) I think that acknowledging the source is necessary; but it is also necessary for witers to recognize their own frames of reference. One can’t leave those at will, but awareness that they are informing one’s writing is important. In this sense, any writing about another culture will be influenced by writers’ own values/limitations/assumptions/etc.

    3) The follow-up discussion was largely focusing on the race relationships and their power differentials in the US. While this discussion is important and necessary, I think it is worthwhile to consider that they are not universal across the world. I understand why the panel focused on the US; I was the only member of the panel who was not born and/or raised here. But the Western culture is so influential in the rest of the world, and it would be interesting to talk about issues outside of the US.

  3. Ekaterina,

    Thanks for your comment. You’ve pulled me up on a couple of excellent points, some of which I really should have mentioned already.

    1) For clarification’s sake, then, I think I’m using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ differently from the way it was used on the Wiscon panel. I would use the phrase ‘writing other cultures’ to mean what you were talking about on that panel, since, for me, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ does have negative connotations, because I take it to mean writing about other cultures from the dominant side of a particular power dynamic between cultures, and doing so in such a way as to exploit that dynamic to your advantage.

    2) I’m glad you brought up frames of reference. I think a fair amount of what I was trying to say in the final three paragraphs of my post can be better articulated using the concept of cultural frames of reference. When I said:

    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.

    I was trying to say that when a reviewer approaches a work with questions about issues of cultural appropriation in mind, what they’re doing is asking what frame of cultural reference the work sits in, (which is something that will depend on who wrote it, who published it, who it’s marketed to, how it was researched, etc.) and how it might be related to other cultural frames of reference.

    You say it’s necessary for writers to recognise their own frames of reference. I agree with that, and think it goes for reviewers (and editors, and everyone else) too. I think, when I said above that a reviewer should try to find out about the culture that’s being written about before reviewing a work I was trying to say that reviewers need to be aware of their own cultural frames of reference, and to at least try to acknowledge that the work could be read differently from other frames of cultural reference, in particular from the frame of reference that goes with the culture being written about.

    Hmm, and I’ve just noticed some of my own automatic assumptions from when I wrote the post: that the reviewer and the author would both be approaching the work from the same (dominant) frame of cultural reference. I think there a bunch of other issues that arise when someone from a dominant culture reviews works from a minority culture (regardless of which culture those works are set in/draw inspiration from). That’s a really big issue for reviewers from dominant cultures to think about, and I didn’t address it at all. I will have to think about that more.

    3) Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons I, as an editor of one of the British Science Fiction Associations magazines, wanted to bring this subject up in Vector was precisely in order to kick off some discussion and consideration of the issues as they arise in a British/European context, which I think is very different from the US in a bunch of ways. I think the British relationship to India and Indian culture is an area which is worth exploring in terms of issues of cultural appropriation, particularly because we are seeing works (such as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods) by British authors, set in India being published at the moment. (I think McDonald did a wonderful job with River of Gods, by the way, but I know he’s not the only British author drawing on Indian culture for inspiration at the moment).

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