Thursday, January 15, 2009

Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM, Part II

There have been a number of recent posts, mostly on LiveJournal, revisiting topics raised in the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM (see also Cultural Appropriation Revisited). If I had to single out one post as most critical, it would be Deepa D.'s I Didn't Dream of Dragons:

When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern.

But there were no taverns in India. Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

There are far more eloquent writers who have pointed out how difficult it is to growing up reading books (and watching movies) about a culture alien to you, and how pernicious the influences thereof can be. I am lucky in that Indian culture is more widely represented in Western media than other colonised regions—when I talk about Bollywood in the yuletide chat room, there are people who have an idea about what I might be referring to, bastardised ideas of ‘pundit’ and ‘caste system’ and ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’ are present in the English vocabulary. Yet still, my ability to connect fannishly with people from different parts of the world is mediated through the coloniser’s language and representation. Enid Blyton, with her hideous caricatures of African tribal boys helping the intrepid British children is read from Johannesburg to Jaipur—Iktomi stories are not.

These imbalances of power are what frustrate me in several discussions regarding issues of representation and diversity in writing that I’ve seen recently. I am summarising some positions that I have heard, and my responses to them.

One of the most frustrating arguments I’ve encountered is—If you hate it so much, stop bitching and write your own.

This naive position stems from the utopian capitalist belief that all markets are equal, and individuals are free to be what they can driven only by their inner divine spark.

Other posts, roughly in chronological order (with much reference to helpful index posts by Rydra Wong):

Jay Lake, Another shot at thinking about the Other
Elizabeth Bear, Whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong
Micole, I blame Tempest
Avalon's Willow, Open Letter: To Elizabeth Bear
yeloson, The Remyth Project
Elizabeth Bear, Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver
Micole, Resistance and Individuality
She Who Has Hope, Cultural Appropriation and SF/F
Deborah Kaplan, Race and reviewing
Cryptoxin, Cultural appropriation
Sarah Monette, race-(class-sex)
She Who Has Hope, Cultural Appropriation and SF/F (Once More, with Feeling)
Friendshipper, Cruel little lies
Yeloson, Othered, Only Because You Say So
Betsy, Getting called on your white privilege
Deepa D., White people, it's not all about you, but for this post it is
Vassilissa, About the Current Racism and Othering Discussion
The Angry Black Woman, What Is Cultural Appropriation?


Josh said...

Thanks for pointing this out, M. I can't believe this whole business where Emma Bull and her supporters pull a "your reading is shallow" and in some cases "you need Academic Detachment" argument. Academic Detachment? What is this, 1958? There are even people in that argument who say "You can't judge the images in Bear's novel without having not only finished it but read the two sequels." I hope they're not fiction writers themselves. Delany, with some justification I think, tells his students, "If something's wrong with a story, it's wrong with a story here and generally cannot be fixed three hundred pages later. The fact that Tony Kushner put some lines in 'Perestroika' that try retroactively to fix the problems in 'Millennium Approaches' does nothing to change the flaws of the earlier play."

Vandana Singh said...

Thanks for posting this. I must say I can relate to Deepa D's posts most of all, having gone through the Enid Blyton phase and written my share of John and Mary stories as a kid. Lots of things to comment on but I'll restrict myself to a couple. One, I agree with Josh that the Academic Detachment argument is so bogus that I can't believe anybody had the gall to invoke it. Two, I agree that too many white writers and readers tend to move themselves to the center of discussion, thereby derailing it. I think we need to have a conversation among writers and readers of color about how race and culture depictions in fiction affect readers from that race and culture, and how such depictions might control or promote an "establishment" view of that race or culture. This is something that still gives me a lot of pain and I'd like to share that with people who've experienced a similar pain and not, instead, have to defend, and explain, and be expected to soothe outraged egos. And white authors who want to turn such discussions into "well, how do we fix it," or "damned if I do, damned if I don't" should please just listen for a change.

Anil Menon said...

Deepa's article had many aspects; I'd like to comment on one, namely:

"One of the most frustrating arguments I’ve encountered is—If you hate it so much, stop bitching and write your own."

Actually, the argument sounds pretty reasonable to me (though I'm also pro-bitching). I'm not sure why she thinks it is naive. What's the alternative?

I'm also not clear why (if) Deepa didn't finish the fantasy she was working on. For example, Ancient India did have taverns, or panagaras, as they were called (cf. Radhakumud Mukherji, Chandragupta Maurya And His Times). And the dragons she needs for her stories may not belong to a place, but rather a time, perhaps that disquieting moment when a minority reader becomes aware that the authors he/she reads and admires, say, Kipling, Blyton, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, don't particularly like your kind.

Even if some white people-- they are the colonialists everyone refers to, aren't they?-- took Deepa away from her culture and native worldview, other white people also made it available. For example, the British translated the Pali edicts thereby retrieving Ashoka; the Indians had somehow managed to forget both the language and their greatest emperor. The world's largest collection of popular Tamil magazine articles is not in Tamil Nadu, curiously enough, but at the University of Chicago. The elegant Telugu poems of Sundaramurthy Nayanar (8th century C.E.) were translated into elegant English, not by colonized Telugus, but by David Shulman, a professor at Hebrew University. So on and so forth. All cultures should be so lucky.

I'd argue that nothing, other than learned helplessness, prevents the once-colonized from taking ownership of the texts, traditions and languages they claim as their own. Especially English.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

On the issue of write your own stories:

Sure anyone -- or at least, anyone who's had enough language education and done enough reading to have some concept of how to turn an idea into a story -- can sit down and write a story. It's after that when things get difficult.

First of all, writing is hard work, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. Let's not forget the practical reality that most of us learn to write by rewriting our favorite authors, with maybe a few tweaks so that we can be part of the story. (I started out rewriting male adventure stories with female leads.) If you can't find a way to be part of the story, you may find it particularly hard to use this tool.

Then let's remember that while writing is something you do alone, it's hard to make progress unless you have others read your work and comment on it. If the regular reaction you get to your stories is "you can't do that," you're going to get discouraged unless you're gifted with both the hide of a rhinoceros and the ability to separate the valid critiques from cultural blindness.

Say you survive all that and get to the point where you're writing good stuff with a different perspective. Who's going to publish it? After all, anyone (with some education) can write, but not everyone gets published. There are plenty of fine writers who aren't getting much published -- especially writers that push the envelope.

Note that I'm not saying people who discover that most stories ignore their culture or other things important to them shouldn't write their own stories; I'm merely saying that, even with talent and hard work, they may not have much success with those stories.

Of course people should -- and will -- write their own stories. That's not the issue. The issue is whether those stories will be available to readers.

"Bitching" or, as I prefer to put it, pointing out the problem, can contribute to a leveling of the playing field. Pretending there isn't a problem rarely solves anything.

Vandana Singh said...

Hello, Anil,

I agree with you that the only thing to do is to write. After all, that is what we do, don't we?

But I think what Deepa D means is something different and I'm going to take the liberty of interpreting her statement. I think what she means is that people who say "stop bitching and write" assume that simply by writing an alternative narrative, you can undo years of misprepresentation and stereotyping of one's culture. In other words they assume that there is a level playing field out there. They also place the burden of correcting the narrative entirely on the writer of color.

Now as far as Indian writers are concerned, there are some really successful ones who (at least in the mainstream literature) have a good following in the West. So one could argue that the playing field is level enough at least for Indian writers. But I know I've had experiences where my works have been read through the filters of Western stereotypes and (non-Indian) people have even tried to suggest I change some aspects of my stories in order to fit their perceptions of how a spec fic story set in India should work. Among the worst are the perceptions of how Indian women should think and act, and I've actually been challenged by some white American writers who think I'm writing untruthfully about the experience of Indian women in my stories. I can't be the only Indian writer with this experience.

So I *think* what Deepa D means is not that we shouldn't write, but that in telling us to stop bitching and write something, the critics aren't getting it. It's the blindness of privilege rearing its ugly head again.

I'm as allergic to learned helplessness as you are. But I'd also like to suggest that grumble-and-bitch sessions are occasionally necessary and therapeutic in terms of sharing and lessening one's pain and frustration. As long as we don't get addicted to them or use them to build walls...

Thanks for sharing about the Indian taverns. I was a bit surprised at Deepa D's assertion that there was no such thing in India. After all so many ghazals talk about maikhanas and the like. But part of it may be middle-class innocence or insularity. Growing up, at least, I never knew anyone who drank alcohol, except for a friend of my father's who had a bit of a reputation as a result. It just wasn't an overt part of the middle class experience for me.

Great point about the British translating the Pali edicts and thereby helping the Indians rediscover Ashoka. But here I want to make two points. One, my appreciation for certain British individuals or individual acts has nothing to do with my opposition to the collective oppression of peoples through colonialism. I can't excuse British colonialism because we got Ashoka back, or because they laid down the railways. I know you can't be making this point, so do clarify.

My second point: it is the privilege of the colonizer, isn't it, to have the resources and the wherewithal to indulge in historical research and archeology. I would think this is a symptom of colonization, however grateful we might be to the individuals who helped us recover our past.

Finally, I know that many non-Indian scholars have done some great work for Indian history, ancient literature and the like. Good for them and for us. But to what extent does their work have a place in the popular consicousness in the West? To what extent has their work displaced stereotypes?

Having said all this, I do want to end by saying that the topics we have been discussing are complex. I would hate to be part of a PoC discussion on race or colonialism where people made clear dividing lines between "good" and "evil," thereby oversimplifying reality. There are groups of once-victimised people who do nothing but nurse old wounds, bear indiscriminate grudges against whole peoples and consider themselves special because of their suffering. They automatically assume that they themselves are "good" and the perpetrators or their descendants are all uniformly "bad." Such people are in danger of not seeing in themselves the potential for acting like their enemies.

So what I mean is, for example --- while I utterly and completely reject racism and colonialism, I cannot hate the British. I think Gandhi's approach to ousting colonialism had a great deal to do with the fact that Indians don't (by and large) hate the British and didn't do so even fairly soon after Independence.

This is in danger of becoming a saga rather than a response so I'll say only this: I'm totally with you on that last paragraph. Taking ownership and taking responsibility. Let's keep writing, yaar. Best,


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Vandana, you said what I was trying to say, only you said it much better than I did.

On learned helplessness: I used to help low-income tenant groups buy their apartment buildings and turn them into co-ops. There were usually a few people who became outstanding leaders as part of that process; these were people, often women, of limited education who blossomed when given the opportunity to lead. There were others who sat back and complained about the co-op just as they had complained about the landlord.

Some people grab hold when opportunity comes along; other just whine that it isn't as good as it ought to be. We all know people who've had every advantage and still want someone else to do things for them. I suspect learned helplessness is a human failing, not one limited to those who have suffered discrimination or grown up in poverty.

deepad said...

You are indeed right when you interpreted my comment about 'stop bitching and write your own' as a statement on the uneven playing field, both inside a colonised mind, and outside, in the capitalist publishing industry. I was also trying to point out that the 'bitching' is part of a very active process of uncolonising the mind, and thus cannot be compared with the 'complaining INSTEAD of doing something about it' binary.

Anil: The original story was a child's attempt at mimicry. I have continued to write fiction as an adult, the conceit of that specific fantasy novel is one that I am slowly researching. Thank you for giving me a specific reference about the panagaras. Part of my own learning process has included having to find research that debunks the assumptions I have been led to hold about what did and did not exist in pre-Islamic Indian society. (The specific example to the taverns was more about the symbol they serve in fantasy, compared with my own road trips where dhabas are nothing like taverns, and no stories I was told ever had Rama or Arjuna stopping off for a round of ale.)

I do disagree with your statements about that every culture should be so lucky as to have had the experience of colonialism that India had, and that 'learned helplessness' is the only thing preventing taking ownership, but I don't say that in order to argue.

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