1. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    Interesting Article on Appropriation via Fiction

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Spencer1990, Apr 24, 2018.

    So, I came across this article the other day and thought it would make an interesting discussion piece for the forum. It can be difficult to know what's right and what's wrong to write about because everyone has a different opinion.

    This article is one writer's opinion, and I quite like what she has to say.

    Let me say, though, that I don't want this to turn into a flame war, so please respect that. I think it's important to be able to have discourse about these things without them turning into arguments.

    What are your thoughts on this? Do you guys consider writing about and from the perspectives of ethnicities, orientations, genders, etc., than your own? Do you shy away from it out of fear of getting it wrong and potentially writing culturally insensitive fiction?

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

    I understand that this article is a couple years old, but I've been thinking a lot about this lately.
     
  2. awkwarddragon

    awkwarddragon Member

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    "The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.

    As someone who is Mexican-American, this is the dumbest thing I've ever read. If someone wants to wear a sombrero hat and drink tequila, fine. If anything, I find it hilarious. Believe me, I've yet to meet another Mexican-American/Mexican care about identity politics. The only ones that I know who care about it are the second/third generation ones; they go to universities and learn about this stuff. Honestly, I wouldn't doubt if I told my Mom this, she would laugh too. If there's anything a person should know about Mexicans, is that we tend to laugh at ourselves - can't speak for others down in South America - but it's certainly a cultural thing where I'm descended from. Sorry for the rant, I've grown tired of seeing this stuff everywhere, especially when it concerns my Mom's people.

    Hope I at least contributed to the discussion. :oops:

    EDIT: Forgot to answer the actual question.

    I rarely put thought into race/cultural in regards to characterization. Since I write fantasy and fanfiction, I don't put much stock into race-sensitive issues - it's fair to say I should. Nonetheless, as long as a writer respectfully researches into a culture or a race they want to portray, then, by all means, a writer should go for it. Race/culture issues shouldn't limit art.
     
  3. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    I think the problem with these discussions -- not, to be completely clear, saying that they shouldn't happen -- is that people tend to go straight for the extremists (people actively calling for / instating bans, 'censorship' etc). There's also always a tendency to treat all differing opinions as a monolith -- the speaker/writer of this article says, "[...] here’s where we really can’t win. At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various." I find it doubtful that the same people are taking both of these stances all over the place.

    Can't say I'm a fan of the article overall, really, but I lack the energy to go point by point or anything. I'd boil it down to where she says, "sometimes we do a little research," because all I ever talk about, it seems sometimes, is doing research. I understand that's not everyone's method, and it doesn't have to be, but to me if you want to understand someone with different experiences, a different mindset, then you research those experiences and that mindset -- you don't just wing it. IMO, people have every right to be mad when you wing it or only "do a little research" and get it wildly wrong.

    The speaker mostly talks about race, but I'm going to do this through a lens that I'm more familiar with as the 'out-group'. I see a lot of bad writing about trans characters from cis authors who clearly have never spoken to or in the general vicinity of an actual trans person. Even on this forum, some time back a cis writer thought he could prove his point about how anyone could write a trans character by posting a little off-the-dome snippet from a theoretical trans character, and in maybe a hundred and fifty words he got nothing right -- he characterized a trans woman as someone who thought the fact that she passed was a great joke on the men who found her attractive, and how it'd be even funnier when later on she went into the men's room and used a urinal next to one of these admirers.

    Now this guy isn't around anymore so I don't mind saying he was being an asshole, but he thought these things about trans women because he'd only been exposed to poorly-written (poorly-researched) stereotypes of trans women. Shit like this instills beliefs about trans women into people who've never even met a trans person, and it genuinely is harmful to real trans people to have folks out there whose only opinion of us is that we're just trying to fool cis people for the laughs, give'em the ol' gay panic, trick them into sleeping with us, etc. These things too often have violent ends. It also fucking bites for trans people who don't yet realize they're trans to have nearest approximation of their experiences so wildly, grotesquely warped by an uninformed cis narrative.

    Research matters. Awareness matters.

    (Now stepping off the soapbox.)

    I've never had a problem with researching, so I can't really say I get the problem -- except that sure, it is more work. Writing is a lot of work in general, though, to me -- hey, maybe I'm just bad at it! -- so going a little further to make sure you understand the type of character you're trying to write ... well, it doesn't seem like a big deal. And my belief is that if you do your research well, you're not going to 'get in trouble'.

    There are definitely problems with the 'progressive' extremists who hop on board to blacklist and smear anyone who makes a mistake. Those people suck. I understand where they're coming from, and it's hard to not assume, after the fifteenth time that you see people say terrible shit about you, that the sixteenth is saying it because they don't know any better. But dog-piling and doxxing absolutely isn't the solution. It also makes it way easier for the so-called other side to go, "Well, see, they're all unreasonable, so nothing they say must have merit" -- it's unhelpful all the way around.

    But I'm also not afraid of getting things wrong because of those people. If I were afraid of getting called out for what I write, I wouldn't be writing queer characters all over the place -- 'cause I've grown up and lived in the Bible Belt, and writing those characters in the first place, regardless of how well-written and -researched, is what'd get me in trouble around here. If I were going to get nervous about what I'm writing, it'd be about that (and I absolutely used to be!), but like ... nah. I'm over it. Frankly (and I'm genuinely trying not to sound incendiary here, but), when people talk about being nervous someone'll be shirty to them on twitter because they wrote something ill-thought-out, it sounds like a lot of whining to me. Nine times out of ten, it seems to me that these folks are just using the apparent menace of The So-Called Tolerant Left so get out of being 'progressive'.

    And honestly? That's fine. Not the scapegoating / excuses -- that's disingenuous imo -- but my ultimate opinion is this:

    If you don't want to write 'progressive' fiction -- which I guess here means inclusive, but I feel the need to put that in quotes too, so, hm -- then hey. Don't! I don't want people to write trans character because they feel outwardly pressured to. I think that'll probably be a poorly-written trans character. I don't think that most well-intentioned critics want people to write marginalized characters that they don't actually feel ready to write for the same reason. We've seen enough poorly-conceived attempts already. Don't add to the pile.

    I don't shy away from writing experiences that aren't my own, because I'm confident in my own ability to understand and sympathize with other people when I put in the effort. I don't want my writing to hurt anyone, or more likely, give them that too-tired-to-be-disappointed "ugh" feeling I'm so familiar with, and that's my motive outside of the drive to just ... do a good job, I guess?

    And if it feels like a topic I'm not prepared to handle, I back down from it. In one of my projects, the main character was originally a Japanese girl who'd been adopted as a baby by a white Midwest American family, and the whole point of the plot is that she feels disconnected from her family, turns out to be a faerie changeling, and wants to find and reconnect with her fae origins and culture. After taking a step back from the project for a while, I came back to it and went, "Oh, no, this story is accidentally about Asian diaspora." I don't know shit about that -- I randomly decided that the main character was Asian off my initial mental image of her, and it had no bearing on how I worked out the plot, but it's extremely easy to see the comparison. I wrestled for a while over whether I should undertake all the necessary research to portray this diaspora analog well, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth it because my story was never supposed to be about that, and solved the problem by just making the mc white. It's still about adoptive families, but I'm not dealing with baggage I wasn't up to dealing with.

    I didn't chicken out because I was afraid I'd get it wrong, or that people would shout at me -- I just want to do a good job, and decided well, I'll do a good job on this one some other time, maybe.

    Christ, this turned into a lot more words than I thought it would be. So much for "oh I don't have the energy for this right now," hahah. That's probably all of my opinionated grumpiness used up for the night.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    Personal view: the idea of cultural approproation as it pertains to fiction is a bit misguided. We’re all human, and the things that bind us far outweighs the things that separate us. The whole of human experience is and should be open to the fiction writer.
     
  5. CoyoteKing

    CoyoteKing Good Boi Contributor

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    This is just my opinion. But--

    I'm queer. If a straight person told me they wanted to write about queer characters, I'd encourage them. I want more people writing about me-- not less. I don't want to be "other." I want people to write about me like I'm a person, the same as them.

    If they do a bad job, then okay. We can point it out and explain why they did a bad job. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to try.

    Culture isn't a physical object. You can't steal it from someone. Sharing it doesn't use it up; in fact, sharing it makes it grow. If people are using in a way that's dumb or disrespectful, okay, point it out and tell people it's dumb and disrespectful. That doesn't mean it's wrong for other people to use it.
     
  6. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    It's important to note the background of Shriver's disdain for concerns about cultural appropriation: she wrote a black female character who was kept in chains and treated like a dog, and didn't appreciate that some readers didn't like it.
     
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  7. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I note, first, that

    - The Snopes conclusion on the sombrero issue is "mostly false".

    - The "how dare they serve sushi" is an issue about using cultural food names for food that is not that food--for example, serving pulled pork and coleslaw on ciabatta and calling it Banh Mi. (I can't tell if there really was any issue with the sushi other than it being really bad sushi.)

    So the examples in the article seem to be not so very accurate, and to be chosen and edited to make the case that no one should ever, EVER, have even a moment's thought about cultural insensitivity or cultural appropriation.

    The world is sprinkled with people who will take any ridiculous position, so if you want to find ridiculousness about any subject, it's easy. (Actually, it's probably not that easy--if it were, the author wouldn't have easily-debunked examples.)

    That doesn't mean that the whole subject should be dismissed. We're not going to defend blackface, are we? (Please tell me we're not.) The fact that many people seem to think that Bo Derek invented cornrows is, IMO, legitimately galling. I note that there are a lot of Americans who object to doing certain insensitive things with the American flag--shouldn't they have the same tolerance and sense of humor that we demand when we do insensitive things with elements of other people's cultures?

    I think that the idea that there's a huge contingent of people saying, "You mustn't depict culture/race/sexual preference/whatever/ X!" is a strawman. I think that in most cases it's not "Don't", it's "If you do it, do it right."
     
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  8. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale hostis humani generis Contributor

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    I had a much longer response, but I realized it was getting off-track and preachy so I binned it. Then Ricky Gervais posted this Hitchens quote this morning:

    You may or may not be fans of either of those guys, but I think the idea is relevant. Be careful, do your research, but once it's all done, write your story.
     
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  9. CoyoteKing

    CoyoteKing Good Boi Contributor

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    I agree with her overall point, which seems to be that we (as writers) shouldn't be afraid to write about minorities, because, well, minorities are people.

    But a couple things stood out to me. In the article, she talks about how she avoided stereotyping a character because she was afraid of criticism:

    The thing is, though, like... that's a normal thing to do. She made a character. She thought about his background. She realized that Mexican American characters might have a couple unrealistic stereotypes. She decided not to use those unrealistic stereotypes. Now she's... complaining about how terrible political correctness because it's forcing her to write a certain way? She should already be doing that stuff in the first place. Generally second generation Americans don't have foreign accents, because, well, they're born in the United States and speak English as a first language.

    So yeah. That part of the article threw me a little. I think she had some really interesting points, but at the same time--

    We shouldn't be afraid to write minority characters. We also shouldn't fear criticism or discussion, though. If you write about certain sensitive topics, it's natural that people might talk about -- or even criticize -- your story. Maybe they think your story is boring. Maybe they think it's a bit racist. That's fine. It's okay to hear someone's complaints and then respectfully disagree.
     
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  10. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    I think it's the same mindset as when she says "sometimes we do a little research". A little. Apparently you're not supposed to put much thought or effort into writing? I dunno, seems I been doin' it wrong.
     
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  11. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    I just write people. You know the soft pink squishy things
    that build sky high ant colonies, and think they can fly
    with their fancy wings of aluminum.

    Point is unless you are diving deep into a culture that is not
    your's, a little research (more than five minutes worth) might
    not be a bad thing to do.

    Other wise I don't care if you identify as a damn Pine tree,
    chances are I will find a way to kill you off in some glorious
    fashion where you can occupy more surface area on the
    field than your next closest Pine Tree brethren.

    People are people, and Pine Trees are Pine Trees.
    (I like Pine Trees, they smell nice and don't judge you.) :p
     
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  12. CoyoteKing

    CoyoteKing Good Boi Contributor

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    Yeah, I felt the same way.

    I feel weird analyzing her; apparently she wrote “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” so I think she must be a talented and well-educated author. But reading through her article, it seemed like she feels oppressed by things I would consider standard practice.

    I think Bayview has said it before: we don’t write in a vacuum. When I write about a minority character, yeah, I will sit down and think about reader expectations. I’ll consider common stereotypes. I’ll think about their background and how it might affect them.

    And if someone felt insulted by my book— well, they’re entitled to their opinion.

    I read through reviews of her book (“The Mandibles”). It looks like there might be some deeper issues there. It takes place in 2027. Apparently the gist of the book is that liberals take over the United States, wreck the economy, and force everyone to speak Spanish in schools. A Latino president is elected and he immediately causes the economy to collapse. The book revolves around a white family trying to survive.

    Reviews were mixed. The main complaint seems to be that the book is boring, not that the book is racist.

    I can’t comment further. I’m not a politics guy, just a smut peddler. I haven’t read the book and I won’t pretend I’m going to.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2018
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  13. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    Well, that does seems kinda telling of her perspective. I don't want to judge something I've never read, but it's like @Tenderiser said upthread -- she wrote a black character who's chained up and treated like an animal and doesn't seem to get why people would take issue with that. I also thought this was rather telling but had already rambled far too much in my first post (and honestly didn't want to comment too much on the article itself, and more on the discussion it brings up):

    But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research.​

    She herself frames Luella -- the black woman in question -- as sort of a prop, her clearly awful fate a cosmic 'joke' on her husband. He's punished for picking her because she becomes an ironic inconvenience. The fact that she's the one actually suffering isn't the point -- it's that her suffering is a problem for him. I don't know for sure if that's how it's treated in the book, of course, but the writer doesn't seem particularly sympathetic to her own character in this phrasing, which doesn't bode well, to me.

    This isn't so much directed at you, @CoyoteKing, as springboarding off what you found out about the book. I think it's important to take a writer's unspoken perspectives into account when considering their words -- or anyone's, obviously, but I think it's way easier for a writer to accidentally sneak stuff into what they write. Her voiced opinion is clearly that she was attacked for not writing a "perfectly admirable and lovely" black character, but imo she conceived of this character not as a person, but as a means to an end (inflicting karmic punishment on a main character). To me that's a problem anyway, just from a writing standpoint, but then she went ahead and treated her one black character, who is already in existence solely to teach another (white, male) character a lesson, in a way that is pretty clearly visually reminiscent of American slavery. I mean ... she can decry it as 'groundless' all she wants, and I don't think it means that she "yearns to bring back slavery," but just a couple minutes of consideration would surely have been enough to realize that this imagery sucks.

    That's the thing, to me (have I peppered this post with enough 'imo's and 'I think's?). Just think about what you're writing for a hot minute, damn. Maybe having your solitary black character impaired mentally and put on a leash by your white character ~for her own good~ isn't the look you wanna go for. Or it is. But it's wild to do that and think, "No one will find this uncomfortable or objectionable," and get incensed when folks aren't into it. Maybe a little forethought or market research woulda helped.

    Anyway, jesus, if only I could learn how to do this, huh?
    :D
     
  14. Lawless

    Lawless Member

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    "You're not supposed to try on other people’s hats"?

    Excuse me?

    Isn't wearing other people's hats what fiction writing is all about? Isn't the ability to see (and describe, of course) the world through the eyes of various kinds of people – foreigners, children, the opposite sex and whatnot – precisely what is expected of a proper writer?

    Aren't there Russian characters in many American novels, American characters in many Russian novels, etc? Aren't there characters of opposite sex to be found in every writer's works?

    For that matter, there are books whose main characters are nonhuman. Can't get much more alien than that, can you?

    Or did I completely misunderstand the question?
     
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  15. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think that the author of the original linked-to article willfully and completely misunderstood the question. She seems extremely angry about the idea that people who are “other” to her should be written about with research and respect.
     
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  16. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm gonna' ramble. Appy-poly-loggies in advance:

    I've had my gay characters criticized in the language of appropriation. I'm gay. Like, gay-as-the-day-is-long gay. *shrug* How much more research do I need to do when I am a living example of the thing itself? I accept that not everyone is going to like my portrayals. I accept that certain dogooders who love the LGBT community are rankled when I say, "Actually, I know lots of gay people who I wouldn't spit on if they were on fire."

    Observations of realism can be very inconvenient to someone who has just espoused a cause to their impassioned bosom.

    I think another facet of this discussion is that the author is no longer dead (sorry, Barthes). The author is undead. Trust me, I know perfectly well what Barthes was on about in La mort de l'auteur (1967). I don't need anyone to explain to me that the essay has to do with the way we engage and interpret works of writing, and not with engagement of the author him or herself. I know this. But... It was written at a time when the author really was a being on the other side of a communicational divide, one which the author had managed to bridge through the publication of his or her work - like an alpinist climbing the Matterhorn - but which the average reader was not as easily able or equipped to climb in the other direction as regards having the author become a living, breathing human with whom we could address his or her writing.

    Today we can follow Rowling, and Gaiman on Twitter. I can learn - at the tap of a screen - the hidden connection between Gaiman and Tori Amos, why each shows up in the other's work. It took me the better part of 50 years to learn the hidden meaning of Joni Mitchell's Little Green, but those walls are gone today and the writer and the reader are often uncomfortably skin-to-skin.

    When I read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, one of the MC's is a Puerto Rican linguist from La Perla in San Juan. I read the book because of a mention in an interview given by China Miéville. A Puerto Rican linguist, and there's a strong LGBT message in the story as well. I was like, does this person know me? Have I met Russell at some point in life and she's used me as a scaffold for this character? I immediately bought the book and devoured it. There were lots of mistakes. LOTS! She got a number of our food items completely wrong in the mention. She's got a couple of caucasian "liberal dogooders" (that's how they self-describe in the book) treating La Perla like some sunny burb in Anywhere America. I know La Perla. I've been. I understand the dynamics of a barriada (Brazilians say favela), and frankly, unpretty as it may be to say, it's not a place where random people should just hang. The author is painting the area with an overly generous brush of political correctness, and I'm telling you this as a Puerto Rican who lives in Puerto Rico. Her approach to LGBT topics is equally questionable in that it presents the classic Gay In Name Only™ character as an acceptable, noble gay, and the one who actually engages in sex as the one that bad things happen to.

    It was an enjoyable book. It's clearly written from a stranger's perspective and suffers from some serious etic-only data collection issues, but it was an intriguing moment of getting to plug into someone else's way of looking at someone who, at an uncanny level, is very much like me as an individual. Russell certainly doesn't need to be crucified for her mistakes.

    tl;dr

    I agree that we don't write in a vacuum and to think we do is to invite folly. But we also don't all live in the same atmosphere. Some of us live on completely different planets and breath exotic mixes of gases and vapors. The oxygen one being finds needful for life, may well be poisonously corrosive to someone from a chlorine world.
     

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