As I start to delve into this many-location discussion about cultural appropriation launched by a panel at the recent WisCon (sending you to where I got started, the roundup at Nalo's blog ... from there you will find links to links to links), I gotta say I'm LOVIN' it! Yes, some of us are having all sorts of self-preservation reactions, and some of us seem to not quite understand the discussion is not about the alleged pain of the majority culture, and lots of us are exhibiting signs of Upset.
And you know what? All of that is FINE. This is an enormously difficult issue to deal with. If it wasn't so hard we wouldn't have to keep having the same conversation over and again for a bajillion years. Acknowledge that, get the first rounds of screaming and hurt feelings out, then attempt the Head To Desk trench-level work of Doing Something About It. Open dialog is the second step.
Top of head thoughts. ... I take from wherever I need, I write about whatever I choose, and I make no apologies for that. What is the line between that attitude and 'appropriation'? It's far more than my having the cover of being a double minority. I know that there are certain things I can easily get away with that majority culture writers or males of any race cannot. I will not immediately be judged for certain things in the same way a majority culture writer would. (I will be judged *eventually*, but I get a cushion because realities I'm not going to get into here as this is probably gonna be long enough.) I view that as a small gift I from the universe for having to put up with genre's heteronormative, male dominated, majority culture walking around as if me and mine and everyone we know were but the invisible universe they move through.
What I'm seeing in many of these discussions rolling around is a lot of basic artist chest thumping, folks standing on the mountaintop proclaiming their right to explore the whole of the world in their works, and irritation that anyone suggest otherwise. I'm seeing lots of yeah man, right on in response and can't help but to notice that a lot of these folks are so busy celebrating themselves that they've cheered right past the root problem. This issue of cultural appropriation and representation is not about validating you as One Of The Good Guys, nor is it about denying an artist the right to harvest from many fields during the Quest.
It's about the fact that for all your proclaiming of I Can, nine times out of ten? You Don't.
You give us white males. You give us white women. You give us straights. You give us enough Heinlein Coloreds to populate a multitude of multiverses for several generations. (That's a character who is of pigment on the surface, but in all other respects is as culturally white, Western and as middle class as yourselves, who also tend to exist in a speculative or fantasy world curiously free of any ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic nuance.) You give us fantasy systems based on standard Brittania tropes. You don't like dealing with the poor every much. Why are your vampires so very pale and so very rich? Why do so many of your fantasy tropes pull from the Western European traditions? Why for the love of god aren't you yet sick of elves? To borrow another Absolutely True (for me) line, why are werewolves always men?
Rare is the majority culture genre writer who tries to reach past those boundaries and inhabit an other or two or three, let alone manage to do so with astonishing humanity, beauty and grace. (Those are random links to some of my favorite examples. Fully aware that a couple of them some may want to argue down. But personally, I give kudos to those who give it the old college try. And also, those who try to argue these examples down are Wrong, so who cares what they think? ha!)
What sets off my Pavlovian Response - okay, one of the MANY things
that sets off my Pavlovian Response when it comes to this general issue
- are those writers and fans who say Well, i'm not X so I can't write about
X. I don't feel COMFORTABLE writing X. I don't KNOW people who are X. I can't RELATE to being X. Odd how X often tends to NOT be a astronaut, an elf, a physicist,
a vampire slayer, an S&S sorcerer or barbarian, a robot or any
other artificial lifeform, a multi-armed creature from Mars, or a hyperintelligent shade of the color blue.
Isn't that interesting? These writers and fans can put themselves into the psyche and shoes of every OTHER 'other' save the one that lives on the other side of the tracks. Yet there's much demanding for the right to appropriate, even as the the geek sphere has consistently exhibited a vast level of disinterest in all sorts of cultures beyond the default.
Let me tell you what cultural appropriation is...
This is Nasdijj, the white male writer of gay erotica who reinvented himself as a Navajo in order to launch a brilliant writing career. This is Asa Carter, the Klansman who wrote the words segregation now! segregation tomorrow! segregation forever! who reinvented himself as a half-Cherokee in order to launch a less-brilliant literary career.
Let me ask if this is cultural appropriation...
This is Equiano the African, the slave whose account of surviving the Middle Passage set the standard for slave narratives for hundreds of years, yet whom, as later scholarship revealed, was actually born in South Carolina and never in life set foot on the African continent.
Pop quiz! What, if any, is the difference between the actions of Nasdijj and Carter, and the apparent actions of Equiano? Did the Southern-born American black commit the same sort of crime when he snatched the experiences of actual Africans who survived the crossing to make real the experience of the trade for the abolitionist cause? (And yes to head off the quibble, technically Equiano wasn't 'American' then, but I'm using that designation for purposes of shorthand.) Is your answer based on the race of each author? If so, justify.
What, if any, is the difference between appropriation and storytelling? Did the creators of Anansi Boys and Cold Mountain and Vellum and A Chain of Voices and Mississippi Blues and Kirinyaga commit acts of appropriation or of storytelling? If so, to what extent?
Bonus question! Cast your eye upon the creations of our geek tribe and explain why it is as a whole so very monotone; compare that to the acts of Missing The Point on display throughout the current dust-up, and justify. Your answer to this one will comprise 98% of your grade.
To me, writing is three things:
There's a whole bunch of other stuff that writing (which G & M are attempting to help me understand and guide me through despite myself) but those three things I knew to be the true foundations back when the thought of Writing occurred to me as a Reality. I thank journalism for that, and also being an obsessive who can spend YEARS hunting down obscure factoids just Because.
Let me horribly paraphrase a few lines from one of the Sandman*** one-offs. I think it was in the winter special but I'm not precisely sure, as that would involve getting up and diving through the longboxes and I'm not going to stop to do that right now. If I feel like it later on, I'll find and add it for purposes of Precision.
Sometimes you fall, yes. And the fall kills you. But sometimes you don't fall, and that's when you fly.
Those lines (which again, are not the ACTUAL lines, but a close approximation) branded onto my soul when I first read that story. Those lines, that whole story actually, are Absolutely True.
You must first make the attempt. You might fuck up making the attempt. They're all gonna laugh at you. So what. How else are you gonna fly?
It's one thing to choose to not acknowledge the myriad Other around you when you set out to do your fiction. I might even argue that this is your right, in a Woody Allen sense, if you choose to unleash your skills exploring a unique cultural subset with as much verisimilitude as you can muster to which this type of issue is not entirely applicable. But it's something else ENTIRELY to recognize those differences, yet be too afraid to even make the attempt to engage with them on any level in the fictional worlds that you create from your soul. What's wrong with your creator soul that the thought of realigning yourself beyond your default boundaries is so very frightful that you won't even make the attempt? If you are too afraid to do that, perhaps it's time to take another look at the job description.
If Kwasi does not mind, I will liberate a bit or two from his thoughts that line up with this particular topic.
Obviously I have absolutely no idea what it means to relate to someone who does not look like me. Ok, bad sarcasm aside, the truth is that every genre fan of color must by definition be able to relate to people who are different from them. There is no other way to get into the genre.
Is my creator soul more pure than yours because I have never had the luxury to not see what you don't? If that were the case, then why in my early days did Damon Knight have to tell me to go back into the library stacks and find something to replace the anachronistic European angel I was using for a story? If my status as double minority granted me a secret key to the Mysteries, why did a white guy have to tell me to stop being afraid that They wouldn't get it if I used something else, and to keep in line with what I was already doing with that particular work for the last bit I needed? And if my double minority creator soul were truly ever so very more evolved and respectful than a majority culture writer's, why didn't I have a moment's hesitation slightly tweaking what I needed once I found it because it worked better that way for my story?
(Of course, this brings to mind another question ... what kind of IDIOT argues with a man who has been writing longer than you've been alive? Oh, yeah. That was me. Once we finished fighting about the angel, we started fighting about the title. You can pretty much guess who won all of those skirmishes.)
Many moons ago I was told that perhaps that at my core I'm jealous, and this is partial fuel to my Pavlovian Response to this sort of stuff. I think about that every once in a while, edging closer to the potentiality that the observation is a Truth.
I am within our general cultural stew, so my baseline overlaps with that of the general and the geek majority cultures'. I understand their Givens because, being a person living in this world and paying attention, I see them all around me. They are presented to me every day, in fact and fiction. Sometimes I go look up details of things that sound interesting, for no other reason than I want to know. I'll find a book or article. I'll find people to talk to. But this absorption is not reciprocal, particularly in the geek tribe.
They say Troy and I know what has been invoked. I say Memnon, and they don't I'm speaking in the same myth as they. They say Amazon, I understand, I offer Dahomey, then have to explain. They say vampire, I'm with them, I start to say wazimamoto or mumiani or chinjachina or mutumbula or nama and realize, why bother? Sometimes you don't want to have to educate. Sometimes you'd like the small relief of knowing that your Givens are part of the playing field, at least on the radar. But how can they be when members of one reality do not have to pay attention to what's going on in the other in a general life sense if they choose not to? That's why some take the protective approach that we're lucky to be in the background. We're a Heinlein Colored jigging at the side of the 'real' hero, or a magical negro who pops up just in time to provide the bit of folksy insight or physical sacrifice needed to help the 'real' hero along to His Great Destiny. We are, as the woman said, the people they don't see.
Maybe that's why werewolves are always men.
So, as the celebrants march by in their Yaay, Us! It's All About Art! That Other Stuff Doesn't Matter! We're In The Clear! parade waving banners signaling both their geek tribe unity and their general cluelessness? I just sit on the curb, munch my hot dog and seethe, wondering how long, Lord? How long.
*** Shut UP, Giggles.