In Part 1 of this series, I talked broadly about my experiences with the colonizing forces of western (US) academia and some questions I have for the folks who choose to work in it professionally. Today, I’m back to discuss my concerns about what happens when the worlds of colonial academia and fiction writing collide.
When I first encountered online discussions of “diversity” in literature, I read a LOT of book reviews, amateur and professional alike. I especially enjoyed reviews by insiders – in other words, readers belonging to the marginalized group(s) represented in the book – maybe because, after years of seeing so many [insert unfavorable adjective here] outside representations of Japanese culture, I no longer trusted outside perspectives when it came to vetting cultural representation. Give me #ownvoices any day.
At the same time, I noticed a troubling trend in these reviews. Often, whether the review was favorable or unfavorable, the reviewer would discuss the author’s “research.” For favorable reviews, there was often praise for the number of sources the author seemingly utilized, sometimes accompanied by a quote from the author, to the effect of, “I read X number of books and employed Y number of beta readers!” For unfavorable reviews, there were often comments about the author’s “lack of research,” or “Wikipedia-esque” (read: lazy) level of investigation, sometimes accompanied by an incriminating quote from the author, along the lines of, “oh, this is just [insert culture]-INSPIRED fantasy – so I made stuff up to fill in my knowledge gaps!”
Obviously, one of the above scenarios is less desirable than the other, but beyond that, notice any similarities between the two? It’s probably easier to spot if you, too, read insider reviews. What I want to emphasize is this: in most reviews, favorable or unfavorable, the reviewers didn’t appear to question the word “research.” A number of them suggested research sources – books, articles, blogs, interviews, multimedia, etc – but the ideological framework governing the use of these sources was never discussed. In other words, no one came out and said, “but if you utilize these sources in a purely US-based, western-based context, you will still be missing a lot.”*
If you aren’t sure what I’m getting at, here’s an analogy to help. Have you heard of Haruki Murakami?** Maybe you’ve read his work? If you haven’t, he is a Japanese author who has been widely translated in English and other languages. Have you read his work in Japanese? If not, do you ever get the feeling you are “missing out” by reading a translation? Do you wonder if there are puns, references, or other cultural nuances in the original Japanese text that have been omitted from the translation for whatever reason?***
Now consider this: translators are folks who have trained SPECIFICALLY to navigate and reinterpret cultural differences through language. The average fiction writer? Statistically, they probably aren’t professionally trained in any kind of cross-cultural communication. And yet, every year, there are tons of books churned out by folks writing cultures not their own. What DO most of these writers have? In the US, probably some kind of exposure to the US education system – probably at least ten years of it, most likely more. Ten-plus years of increasingly rigorous and nuanced ways to view the world – through a (white) western, US lens. On top of that, however many additional years of navigating a (white) western, US professional world, if they have finished school. And yes, the above applies to both white and nonwhite US-based writers.**** By the time these folks get around to writing (and publishing), they’ve been immersed in western-centric, US-centric ideologies and practices for a long time – and from what I’ve seen, most of them don’t even realize it.
Think about it. If you are a US-based writer and you are reading this, do you self-identify as “American?” Have you ever questioned what that means? Have you ever wondered if it is problematic?
If your answers to the above questions were “no,” consider this: if you can’t/haven’t/won’t interrogate the nuances and problematic aspects of your own national/cultural identity, what makes you think you are adequately prepared to represent someone else’s?
If you are a US-based writer who self-identifies as “American” without seeing anything problematic in your choice AND you are preparing to write about a culture not your own – check your privilege. If you think you have “American” all figured out to the point where it is not as “interesting,” or “diverse,” or “underrepresented” as the culture you are planning to write about – think again, because you are missing something. I’m not saying you can’t write about that other culture – I can’t stop you from writing anything. But recognize that if you ARE looking beyond national/racial/cultural borders because you don’t think there is anything “interesting,” “diverse,” or “underrepresented” left to explore in what you call, “American” – stop and look back.
Unfortunately, as a quick look at recent YA releases in the US reveals, many US-based writers are unaware of or ignore the problematic implications of their western-centric perspectives. The standard remains “thorough” and “respectful” research, but no one questions whether the base definition of “research” as it is defined in US academia might not be the most appropriate way to approach another culture. This is especially important to keep in mind for writers utilizing the POV of a character from a culture other than their own. Assuming you make it as far as actually talking to people from the culture you are representing – and judging by insider reviews, this happens far less often than it needs to – if you are really LISTENING to their words, ideally your takeaway is along the lines of, “wow, there is a lot I don’t know and can’t know because I’m not an insider – and I need to figure out how to acknowledge this in my writing” – as opposed to, “wow, I know so much now and I am totally qualified to write from this character’s POV!”
The bottom line is, there are things you can’t learn – not because you didn’t read enough books, or visit enough locations, or interview enough people, but because you are not them. There is no methodology to get around this. There is no high-tech button or magic spell. Your research will get you farther than people who didn’t do any – but it is not and never will be a substitute for insiders telling their own stories. If you can’t acknowledge this, write about something else. Writing as an outsider without acknowledging how your perspective dissociates your voice from those of insiders is privileged, disrespectful, and harmful. Be aware of yourself. Be aware of the frameworks that shaped your perspective. You are part of something larger than yourself. You do not operate in a vacuum. Individual accountability is also cultural accountability. If you are writing as a self-identified “American” with no reservations, I can guarantee your work will reflect the same ignorant privilege and colonial mentality. You can’t vet something if you don’t even realize it’s there.
Fellow writers, we can do better. Creativity is a formidable weapon – and we all have arsenals packed full of it. If we can bring characters, worlds, and stories to life merely by typing words onto a page, we can apply those same imaginative skills to our roles as writers. We can create POVs that acknowledge how our perspective differs from that of the character/culture in question, or plots and themes which address the outsider/insider dilemma. We can develop character attributes and settings which don’t stereotype, exotify, or otherwise harm the people we write about. We have vast imaginations – we just need to utilize them as learners, not colonists. Let’s open our minds to what others have to say, not take their words and try to fit them into premade boxes.
People smarter than me have already challenged the institutionalized prejudices inherent to terms like “literature” and “craft” – now, we can also push the boundaries of “research.” We can find the courage to reject the safety net of our US education***** and seek guidance from #ownvoices. Ask them, what does “research” mean to you? What should I do in order to gain what you would consider a thorough understanding of x topic? Is it appropriate for me, as an outsider, to write about x topic? If the answer is, throw your Ivy League book learning and PhD out the window and do y thing instead, do it. If the answer is, come to our community and live among us and practice our customs for z amount of time, do it. If you aren’t prepared to do what is asked of you, reevaluate your commitment to your topic. If you cut and run when things get uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar, you aren’t the best person to tell this story.
Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page – links are getting ever closer to being fully live – for assorted opinions on similar topics. There may be a Part 3 of this series, but no promises. Until next time!
*Some of these reviewers also self-identify as “American” or “[insert culture] American.” While I don’t begrudge them the ability to call themselves whatever they want, I do wonder if they’ve considered ALL the aspects of claiming an “American” identity. See my post on “Japanese American” identity for an explanation of what I mean by this.
**I mostly use first name-last name on this blog for consistency, but occasionally you’ll see me use last name-first name if I feel like it. In Japan, it is last name-first name.
***I have yet to read Murakami in Japanese, but I can confirm these losses occur when manga is translated from Japanese to English. I highly recommend reading the original Japanese whenever possible…because TWITCH. (Don’t get me started on dubbed anime.) I chose Murakami for the analogy because I often see readers of the English translations of his work praising his use of language – which erases both the original Japanese text and the translator’s role. More on translation and language in a future post, I think.
****Nonwhite writers, with the knowledge gained through their lived experiences, probably have at least some idea of what they are getting into when they choose to write about a culture not their own; however, nonwhite people are not immune to white supremacy. As I’ve said before, we don’t get a free pass on cultural rep just because we’re not white.
*****Something that greatly interests me but that I haven’t been able to speak to many people about is the globalization of western-based practices, from education to economics to aesthetics and beyond. As a US-based, nonwhite writer looking outward, I feel that what I refer to as “(white/western) colonization” has had certain similar effects around the world as it has had in the US – and not all FROM the US, either. (Insert your semi-regular reminder that white/western colonization was happening long before the US came into the picture. As much as we – fellow US-based writers – acknowledge the past/present/future effects of colonization in the US and our roles in it, let’s not forget the rest of the planet. Acknowledge your role, but don’t center yourself in a discussion that actually has global scope.) But, I don’t have the lived experiences of being non-US-based to back this up. I’d like to hear more from non-US voices who DO have these lived experiences – what do you-all think about the effects (if any) of westernization on your nation/ethnicity/culture?