Critiquing Cultural Appropriation in Books That Are Kinda Meh
The Discourse returns again to the dynamics of cultural appropriation and white writers and the calling out of individual problematic books.
In years past, I would have posted my long diatribe of a deconstruction of books in question and show you its guts. Make a sideshow of it. But for all the hyperbole I would employ in the write up, a lot of these books by white writers are just a bit meh. They’re not The Worst Thing Ever and the sensitivity readers (inevitably listed like defence against potential criticism) have usually done their job, weeding out the most egregious elements.
We also place a lot of emphasis on white writers doing research these days, and it’s easier than ever with Wikipedia. So whatever the problem is in the book, it’s usually not a simple factual error error. It’s usually more nebulous than that: a turn of phrase being deeply othering in the author’s note or a description that seems to dwell on the wrong thing. There may also be little inaccuracies that betray a somewhat superficial knowledge or at least an imagination that is flattening a complex history into one instance, but they are merely symptoms of a base whiteness.
So a book may thus seem to be an examination of gender set in an East Asian setting, but instead of engaging with East Asian ideas of gender, its thesis is firmly white and English. This isn’t about accuracy so much as the fact that a white author has projected their own very white ideas and clothed it in Phoenix robes and peonies. And it’s hard as an outsider to critique and reflect on Asian gender roles without sounding patronising, so I understand why a white author might refrain from that. But in essence, this is an act of projection rather than any form of personal identification and engagement. I wrote more about the frustrating hollowness that can come from this sort of surface level appropriation when I mused on Kubo and the Two Strings, but it boils down to turning a living culture into an inert backdrop to your own puppet show.
And fantastical worlds aren’t meant to be facsimiles of historical periods. It is possible to nitpick when exactly Moon Festival is or when soup dumplings were invented. But these exact individual symptoms are themselves not Problems, especially if they were written by POC diaspora. I want nothing more than some young author of colour to just inhale twenty seasons of anime or k-drama and write the first thing that comes into their head without a jot research. I want them to not have to worry about historical accuracy or authenticity. I want authors of colour to dream wild and weird and write themselves into these stories without needing to look up what the flooring was like in the Tang Dynasty because that is the sort of thing I would nitpick in something written by a white writer out of frustration.
Most of these books written by white writers are just that, kinda meh. They hurt not because they are themselves Overtly Racist In Every Possible Way, but because of the structural support they have been given. That publishing as a whole seems to be spotlighting them, investing heavily in them and marketing them at readers. That they got arts council funding and rail station adverts. What we are responding to is that imbalance of power and opportunity.
Which comes to my thesis statement: I worry that any more detailed callout and deconstruction of any given culturally appropriative book would result in far more harm and self-censorship in writers of colour.
I say this because I know I respond that way. I worry about my “authenticity” almost constantly. I worry about writing it wrong, about myself being too “westernised” and thus disqualified from writing. I worry that my own writing would be tinged by that fundamental “whiteness” of viewpoint.
And I know far, far too many authors of colour who also worry about all this. Especially when this conversation gets muddled up with gatekeepers from our own cultures.
A lot of critique does descend inevitably into nitpicking because that is the easy to engage with. And it’s what the larger writing community demands. Because more white writers are always in the wings, asking “how can I do this and not offend people?”
So it gets boiled down to simple, factual, refutable errors.
And rules. So very many rules!
But the alchemy of writing is, to me, more complicated than that. An author’s identity is part of the text. I love saying that a thousand monkeys at typewriters can’t write Shakespeare even if through the randomness of the universe they stumble on the exact words from his plays because they aren’t a 17th century merchant/poet/actor from Stratford. And the same applies here.
Moreover, fantastical worldbuilding is not about creating facsimiles of real history or even real culture. It’s not always about what exactly did the Steppe warriors wear or what sort of fishing equipment was used in the 14th Century. If I write about the Great Dragon Emperor and I have him eat what is basically my grandmother’s cooking, that is indeed an anachronism but it is not an error. I did it on purpose because my grandmother’s cooking is just that awesome. I did it to canonise her.
And I fear our writing discourse being so very focused on white writers gives us this overemphasis on research and “getting it right”. It adds to this feeling that this genre can only be written by people with multiple degrees and have done years of research. It’s an oppressive feeling that ends up silencing far, far more potential authors of colour than anyone else.
As I said above, I want nothing more than authors of colour just writing the first thing that comes into their heads. They are enough, as they are. They are allowed to write magpie settings that are just everything cool they half remember. I’ve seen far, far too much perfectionism in my time. It’s deeply paralysing. The weight of needing to speak not just for yourself but for everyone. More than anything, I still fear getting it wrong and causing the harm that I have myself seen and felt.
I’ve got no conclusions. This is just the last paragraph of a ramble from my head because it has been haunting me for days. Thank you for reading.