Writing fiction has lately become a bit of a minefield where, if you write about another culture, you risk charges of appropriation, and if you fail to include representatives of other cultures, then you are exclusionary.
I have always operated under the assumption that a respectful exploration of someone else’s culture is acceptable, possibly even praise-worthy, in the way that one would research mores and customs or try to learn some of the language before traveling to a foreign country. How much easier it is to relate to other people if we have the opportunity to learn about them in a variety of ways, and offer ourselves as receptive and listening when we have the chance to learn from them directly.
As an author among other authors, I have seen that many of my fellow writers have a similar perspective. We are fascinated by people, especially people different from ourselves–whether by gender, culture or experience. Hence, books like Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have been gratefully received by those who want their fiction to reflect the wider range of human possibility.
Yet if we don’t want to risk offending people, the safe course would be to write only from the perspective most similar to your own, and to avoid writing about or from the perspective of others. At its most severe this would mean writing only about characters of your own age, culture, education, political bent, and socio-economic level. That sounds a lot like. . . mainstream fiction of not very long ago, and is certainly a thread that persists when professors write books about professors, and authors about authors. It also sounds like a very flat and boring landscape for writers and readers both, especially when authors representing minority perspectives continue to struggle with finding publication and readership.
In recent years, there has been a greater effort, certainly in the SF/F community, to encourage other voices and the awareness of these issues. We are seeing more translations, more authors from different backgrounds represented at conventions, in anthologies and on award ballots, all of which are changes to be celebrated. Do these developments go far enough? Not yet, but, like most of human existence, it’s a work in progress as people develop a greater awareness of the experience of others. And, perhaps more critically, a greater openness to that experience.
Sadly, that openness on behalf of the majority population often comes first, not from the authentic voices of representatives of other cultures, but from the representation of such individuals within a more comfortable and familiar context: a work by a member of their own group that introduces these representatives and brings the other culture to their awareness. Sometimes, such a work creates a movement, as when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book about black slaves, written by white woman Harriet Beecher Stowe inspired abolitionists.
Yeah, I know, many people of African descent are now rolling their eyes. Is the book an accurate portrayal? Not really. It substitutes a different stereotype of African-Americans for the images prevalent in that time. (The book is also a product of its time, when the fictional presentation of character was handled differently from today. If you don’t like this example, you can consider most books by Mary Doria Russell, Ursula LeGuin’s island peoples, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, the cross-cultural thrillers of Martin Cruz Smith) Is it a sincere attempt to reveal something others may not have seen, or may have avoided understanding? Yes, absolutely. Should authors become aware of and avoid perpetuating the stereotypes and misperceptions of other cultures? Most definitely.
Should they be discouraged from using their art to explore and reveal what they are learning about others, in the fear that they might offend someone? Hmmm. . . The sincere and open-minded author would seek every opportunity to create a convincing and well-rounded image of every character, including those from communities different from the author: listen to the voices of that community, invest in the community (Buck lived in China for years, but not all of us have that opportunity), seek feedback from its members, take a respectful approach to your learning.
Writing, and other forms of artistic expression, are one of the ways that individuals process what they’re thinking and express ideas to be shared with others. Is the author’s impression correct? Is it suggesting something deep and human and engaging? Does it encourage a different kind of thought and reaction in the mind of the reader? Writing is a dialog. The work poses ideas, questions, theories–the reader responds to them. And the most moving, most disturbing, most beautiful ideas are often those that examine humanity in all of its forms and interactions.
It’s definitely a complicated, multi-layered issue, but I tend to come down in favor of art rather than fear. In spite of the minefield, I still feel that representation and openness are important objectives, and I would like to see more support given to authors who are engaged in these goals, rather than to see authors vilified when they step outside their comfort zone–and try to bring their readers with them.