Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Writing the other

I've meant to mention this since WFC. We had a panel on Regional Variations in Fantasy, with Fiona McIntosh (Australia), Neil Williamson (Scotland) and Holly Phillips (Canada), moderated by me (United States). One of the issues which came up was using native (ie, First Nations, Native American or Aboriginal) tradition in writing fantasy. The response to that was fascinating.

Paraphrasing quite a bit, Fiona said she wouldn't dare, that she'd wind up with her throat slit if she tried. Holly was less emphatic but offered a very similar answer. Neil and I were both somewhat boggled.

Why aren't we allowed to write about Aboriginal or First Nations matter? If writers only wrote about their own cultures, literature would be fairly boring. I don't perceive that Aboriginal or First Nations writers are forbidden to write about Ango-European culture. Far from it, I should think. I can (and do) cheerfully appropriate other cultural traditions in my fiction all the time, including Native American on occasion.

The only explanation I see is Colonialist guilt, which seems to me to be exactly the sort of thing writers are supposed to tackle, not avoid.

Please note that I'm not being disingenuous about the legitimate political and social issues surrounding native cultures in the Anglosphere. I am not ignorant of those factors. Rather, I'm fascinated with the idea that we, as writers, should view some (or any) traditions as forbidden. There are some subjects which are very difficult to write about (child sexuality, for example), but that list is fairly short. In my worldview, it doesn't include cultural trespass.

What's your take on writing the other, and what might be forbidden? For that matter, what subjects are forbidden, or should be, and why?

ETA: To be clear, I am keenly aware of the social justice issues inherent in the power imbalance between cultures. The narrow question is this: is social injustice sufficient reason for writers to remain silent?

ETA 2: To be clear about something else, this is not a material problem for me in my writing at the moment. Rather, I am fascinated by the values collision this problem represents. I don't happen to think it's resolvable, but I am interested in how people think about this. Because writerliness is interesting.
Tags: process, writing

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