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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-01-08 05:52
Subject: [process] Another shot at thinking about the Other
Security: Public
Tags:culture, personal, politics, process
The Edge of the American West has a post up today about speaking from cultural authority and presumed expertise. As is sometimes the case, a lot of the interesting action is in the comments section there.

The blog is talking about current fighting in Gaza, but this is a question which runs rife through our field. I've spoke before here on the blog about being on a panel about cultural authority and appropriation a few years ago with an Australian writer, a Canadian writer, and a Scottish writer. Both the Australian and the Canadian were horrified at the thought that a white writer might use Aboriginal or First Nations material in their fiction, that we as white writers didn't have standing to do that. This baffled both me and the Scottish fellow.

By this logic, the only culture I have 'standing' to comment on is middle aged, middle class, WASP male American culture. If I stuck to writing about that, I'd either be John Updike or unpublished. (Which of those possibilities is the more likely I leave as an exercise for the reader.) This line of thinking says I cannot write about female characters because I am not a woman, or Jewish characters because I am a Gentile.

That way lies madness. Our field, at its best, is about Writing the Other. Likewise, to the point of the cited blog post, the arts of politics and diplomacy are about the Other.

I am not ignorant of the nuances of exploitation, oppression, colonial heritage and the whole panoply of errors, wrongs and outright crimes committed by one group of people against another. Bluntly, in many cases by my ancestors against quite possibly yours. I am the transparent case of the oppressor class, in stereotyped leftist dialectic.

Yet I've spent years living in Africa, for example. That is something about me which you can't read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that experience empower me differently? My family is multiracial. Again, something you can't read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that give me a different cultural authority?

Whose voice counts? Why or why not? I find these questions distressing and uneasy, which means they're important questions. The churn they raise drives the boundaries of good fiction, good thought and good citizenship.

Originally published at jlake.com.

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Hal
User: hal_obrien
Date: 2009-01-08 14:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Let alone, there's this sekrit powr one can use in such circumstances, although many seem to be frightened off by it.

It's called, "imagination."

Wasn't I talking about this just a while ago? Ah, yes, here it is.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-01-08 14:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What is this "imagination" you speak of?
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Karrin Jackson
User: karjack
Date: 2009-01-08 14:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Write outside your cultural experience and you get told you have no right. Stick to your cultural experience and you get people saying, "Why are all your characters white? Are you some kind of racist?"

I think the only answer is write what you want to write. In the end, someone is going to hate your work. It might as well be the people you don't agree with anyway.

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mevennen
User: mevennen
Date: 2009-01-08 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think this pretty much sums up my own position. Do I think I can get into the head of someone who isn't a middle-aged British white woman? No, not really. I'm not even sure I can get successfully into the head of someone who *is* another middle-aged, British white woman, quite frankly. Wittgenstein makes some points about language games which have not really been answered convincingly, IMO.

However, this does not mean that one should not try, otherwise, as Karjack correctly says, one lays oneself open to the charge of racism (and of being dull).
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
Laura Anne Gilman: meerkat coffee
User: suricattus
Date: 2009-01-08 14:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:meerkat coffee
Random thoughts while the coffee takes effect...

I think part of the 'problem' is that the majority of the human race really is trapped within their own heads. They can't -- even if they want to -- imagine an Other that could overlay/inform their own mentality. That's just how most of the human race is hardwired, probably to enhance clan-bonds and genetic survival. So... the idea that you could accurately and effectively write Other is hard to grok.

Some folk, however, are quirky. I mean that literally -- there seems to be a wiring quirk that allows storytellers to empathize and include Other into their thought process (there was at least one scientific study done on this recently, but my Google-fu is weak today and I can't find it.) This often makes writers (and other folk with this quirk) askers of Uncomfortable Questions, because if you can empathize with Other, then Other is equal to Clan, and chaos is loose in the streets...

In short: writers ain't normal. ;-)

Edited at 2009-01-08 02:25 pm (UTC)
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scarlettina
User: scarlettina
Date: 2009-01-08 17:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In short: writers ain't normal.

::chuckle:: And this is news because... ? ;-)
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Joanne Merriam
User: joannemerriam
Date: 2009-01-08 14:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Both the Australian and the Canadian were horrified at the thought that a white writer might use Aboriginal or First Nations material in their fiction, that we as white writers didn't have standing to do that. "

I'll just note, as a Canadian, that the Canadian you spoke with wasn't necessarily reflecting the majority view in Canada... it's quite a controversial subject amongst Canadians, especially for appropriating FN material because of our historically horrifying treatment of them - in some ways worse than the US's - look up "residential schools" for example. I don't know if there *is* a majority view on this topic amongst Canadians. Certainly there's no consensus. But we sure do idolize Emily Carr, and appropriating native material was pretty much her stock in trade.

Personally, I don't think any topic should be off-limits to an artist. I think it's a difficult balancing act, but choose to incorporate what I think I can write convincingly about, and ask for advice about it from people who know more than I do.
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skeptic320
User: skeptic320
Date: 2009-01-14 22:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've had this issue myself as a white student in a creative writing program. Personally, I don't believe that someone can steal another person's culture just by writing about it. Of all the acts of cultural theft that have occurred, there have been far more grievous ones, like literal theft of artifacts and the destruction of tradition.
This is not to say that I think this gives, say, a white writer carte blanche to say whatever they want about First Nations culture and claim it is perfectly accurate. Writers do have a responsibility to be sensitive to the reactions of groups they write about, and said groups have a right to respond if they feel they've been ill-treated by an author's work. The conflict arises, I think, between "you said things that aren't true about us" or "you failed to respect our point of view" and "these ideas belong to us, you are not allowed to explore or examine them because that is stealing them".
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fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2009-01-08 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find the whole "cultural appropriation" thing arrant nonsense, on the level of "the camera stole my soul". There is nothing wrong with a white, male, North American writer creating black, female African characters, if he knows enough about the kind of person he's creating to make his character a well-rounded, believable person. As libertango said above, there is such a thing as imagination.

I was struck, reading Escapement, how well-developed your female characters were, in particular Paolina (and how well you handled Portuguese, a language which has caused problems for more than one American writer -- Harry Turtledove, in The Pugnacious Peacemaker had me seriously puzzled for a while until I realised that the river he was calling the "Huurwa" in his fake-Anglicised ortography of a Quechua-dominated South America was the one labelled Jurúa on my map of Brazil). But then, I fall into the "how come there are only white people in the world?" school of SF/F critique.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-01-08 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I fall into the "how come there are only white people in the world?" school of SF/F critique.

Me, too. It bothers me.

I had an odd conversation with Someone Who Shall Remain Nameless about my recent space opera novelette that just got placed in THE NEW SPACE OPERA 2. The two protags/mutual antags are both female. A long-past sexual and emotional relationship between them figures heavily into the story. One of my first readers asked me, "Why did you use a lesbian relationship as the basis of the plot?"

I had to stop and think about that. In a sense, he was right -- the plot would have worked roughly the same way with any strong prior relationship between the two characters, regardless of gender or orientation. My answer was, "I was making a statement by not making a statement. This is a future which isn't heteronormative, and it doesn't matter."
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martyn44
User: martyn44
Date: 2009-01-08 14:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm going to dragoon Robert McKee into this argument (not that it is an argument, as far as I'm concerned) The creative writing mantra is to write what you know. Yes, and William Shakespeare was a witch, a Scottish king, a Danish prince, a Roman emperor and several types of fairy. No, I don't think so. As writers, we must know what we write about, not write about what we know (because most of us know very little, we're too busy writing to have lives...) Which means research, both real and imaginary. As writers, our primary duty is to our material and characters. What readers make of our work is beyond our control.

The notion of cultural authority is spurious. It is not the function of the artist to be an authority, except in the matter of their imagination. Which is a truer, more authoritative account of the Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy's completely fictitious War and Peace or the Cambridge History?
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fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2009-01-08 15:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You do realise that the most thorough account of the Battle of Plataea is that contained in Aeschylus's The Persians, don't you? Of course, Aeschylus was there, unlike Tolstoy, who was unavoidably not at Borodino.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
bondo_ba
User: bondo_ba
Date: 2009-01-08 14:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Uh-oh. I'm currently writing a story about 11th century Vikings who encounter an Anasazi tribe in their wanderings. A humorous story. Man am I going to get ripped...

You're absolutely right. That way lays madness.
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silk_noir: Fighting
User: silk_noir
Date: 2009-01-15 15:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Fighting
Yes, probably, but not for the reasons you imagine.
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orangemike: speaks
User: orangemike
Date: 2009-01-08 15:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:speaks
We go over this territory almost annually at WisCon; I've found the points of view expressed very thought-provoking.

The downside of "well, just imagine it" is the possibility of creating bogus Magic Negroes, Noble Savages, etc. I'm thinking particularly of Hanta-Yo, the obnoxious "The Sioux were secretly Randites, complete with long John-Galtesque monologues" novel that so many Lakota find hilariously wrongminded.
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ozarque
User: ozarque
Date: 2009-01-08 15:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For me, the problem comes up -- and gets serious -- when what's being appropriated is part of the Other culture's sacred domain. I did my graduate work in Navajo, and wrote my dissertation on Navajo, and taught courses on Navajo .... but I would never feel free to write fiction that had Rainbow Girl or Corn Boy as characters.

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jordan179
User: jordan179
Date: 2010-03-31 17:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Really? I've written stories that had the Greek gods as characters. Why are the Navajo supernatural beings any more (or less) sacred?
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
squirrel_monkey
User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2009-01-08 15:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think part of the issue is how it gets phrased sometimes. As in, 'well, people can't tell me what to write'. Which implies that people are actively trying to prevent (hypothetical) you from speaking out/writing about other cultures, but they are not -- they are expressing their views on the issue, which may not coincide with yours. An implicit dynamics in such debates is that representatives of dominant cultures want to be told that it's all right for them to write other cultures. But as any minority culture does not speak with a single voice, it's not going to happen. Which is to say, writing the other is fraught with historical and cultural and personal repercussions, and one should at least consider those things before (as often happens) thumping one's chest and proclaiming one's right to depict whatever. Yes, some people are going to disapprove; it's not an excuse to say "oh screw it, they are going to bitch anyway, so I'll just write whatever I want."
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User: shveta_thakrar
Date: 2009-01-09 03:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Lavender faerie
We had discussed this before, but again, I say, "Yes, that." :)
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
Bibbit
User: bridget_coila
Date: 2009-01-08 16:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is a topic I'm dealing with a lot lately, too...

I think in my mind, the main thing is to be conscious of what we are writing/portraying and try to best tell the "truth as I know it." Not literal truth, of course, since we're talking about fiction here, but the truth about character and humankind.

In good fiction, the character is not a stereotype, but an individual- just like real people are. Their individual worldview may be tempered or affected by their background, ancestry, living conditions, etc- but these are all *factors*- a good character is far more than those things.

Basically, I think when writing about "The Other" one should be aware of the potential pitfalls and do their research and then jump in. Creativity comes from the mashing of various ideas, perspectives and viewpoints. To deny the use of particular pieces of the things we encounter would be to crush the potential for creativity.

B
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J.K.Richárd: Aroo?!
User: neutronjockey
Date: 2009-01-08 16:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Aroo?!
I've always wanted to play nom de plume games... you know, publish a really deep minority/feminist piece with a female/minority nom de plume... maybe you should do your next all-female cast book as Jennifer J. Lake.
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David Moles
User: scarypudding
Date: 2009-01-08 17:09 (UTC)
Subject: It's all about the Author Points
I think as white dudes we just have to be aware that we start out docked twenty -- justifiably docked twent -- for previous bad behavior by the team. If you make those up, it's not a problem. If you say, "Hey, Sherman Alexie has free license to make fun of white people, what's wrong with my fake-ass Hopa-nava-chera-pache magical mentor figure?" then you're Doin It Wrong.
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jordan179
User: jordan179
Date: 2010-03-31 17:24 (UTC)
Subject: It's All About Anti-White Racism
I think as white dudes we just have to be aware that we start out docked twenty -- justifiably docked twenty -- for previous bad behavior by the team.

This is not "justifiable," because we are not guilty for the sins of other people. As a white dude I refuse to accept the "docking" and see it as a personal offense against me when someone attempts such a "docking."

This is quite aside from the fact that your claim is of dubious historical verity -- I would argue that the white "team" has behaved no worse (and no better) than is the norm.

I note that equivalent "dockings" for past bad behavior are never suggested against non-white groups -- for instance, it would be seen as wrong for American blacks to "dock" Africans or Arabs for enslaving their ancestors in the first place, yet it is oddly right to dock all American whites, regardless of whether or not their ancestors had anything to do with the slave trade, for the actions of southern American whites.

If you say, "Hey, Sherman Alexie has free license to make fun of white people, what's wrong with my fake-ass Hopa-nava-chera-pache magical mentor figure?" then you're Doin It Wrong.

On the contrary -- you are doing it precisely right in that case.
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Clint Harris: Hawk
User: wendigomountain
Date: 2009-01-08 17:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Hawk
Does being from a particular background give you some added insight or perspective on something? Sure. Does it give you the only perspective? Hell no.
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writertracy
User: writertracy
Date: 2009-01-08 17:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
America is a huge country, and we've got so many cultural influences. White is really just a bland catchall descriptor for someone who is so far removed from their immigrant ancestors that they no longer identify with them.

White in my area of the country is usually someone with at least one Cherokee great-grandparent, two irish protestant great-grandparents, and one great grandparent who moved up from Texas on a cattle drive but actually came west from Virginia after the Civil war, and was possibly either french or german, and possibly one parent who came from Mexico or the Marshall Islands.

Which isn't going to mean the same thing as in Minnesota, where there are many more folks who probably had great-grandparents who used words like lutefisk and ate fish on fridays like good catholics do.

So how exactly is "White" supposed to be an experience? For that matter, how can someone who is "White" not draw from an aboriginal cultural authority when that's as much a part of the cultural makeup as the rest of it?

Edited at 2009-01-08 05:49 pm (UTC)
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silk_noir
User: silk_noir
Date: 2009-01-15 15:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But dude. You're still white.
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