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?