Cultural appropriation and the inclusion of the other

I read this excellent article by Jim C Hines today. I agree with it completely. There has been much discussion on published writing, especially SFF, being an old white man’s club and that we need to see more diversity in the stories we read. Then there are people saying that white people shouldn’t/can’t/aren’t allowed to write other cultures. It’s not actually a problem, because the second opinion is bullshit. Let me explain.

I don’t believe any subject or culture is off-limits for fiction. With fiction we actively engage with the world around us, we interrogate our reality and look at how it reflects back at us and we try to make some sense of it. Even the most dense, hard SF is, at its core, an exploration of simple humanity. In my world I’m surrounded by people of many races and cultures. I’m surrounded by people of varying sexuality. I will absolutely reflect that in my fiction. If I don’t, the darkest and most fantastical part of any dark fantasy or horror I write is this imagined homogenous world of hetero cis white people like me. That’s just horrible. I do not want to be a part of that vanilla environment.

But, and here’s the big but, I also firmly believe in the simple premise of don’t be a dick. I’m not going to take a white character and simply blackface them for the sake of some perceived cultural diversity. I’m not going to take a hetero guy and stick someone else’s cock in his hand and cry, “See! A gay character!” That’s not only disrespectful, it’s just bad writing.

But I’m equally not going to try to make a point of otherness either. Unless a character’s sexuality is key to the story, it’s not going to be a big deal beyond her saying “my girlfriend” rather than “my boyfriend”. Thereby we know she digs girls, that’s a part of who she is and that’s all we need to know. I’ve written gay couples who just act like any other couple throughout the story, because, you know, they’re humans. The fact that they’re together says enough. Unless the practice of their sexuality is key to the story, it doesn’t matter. Just like in real life, you don’t spend all your time with your gay friends talking about their lovelife, or your straight friends, for that matter. Most of the time, if not all of it, they’re just your friends and you talk about all the normal shit.

My story “The Darkness in Clara”, published in SQ Mag has a gay couple as it’s central protagonists. Their gayness has a direct influence on the story as the story deals with country town bigotry. I hope I did a good job with that yarn, but the story is more about bigotry that about being gay. The characters are just people who have their own problems to deal with. That story is free to read online, so you can judge for yourself.

Same thing with People of Colour (PoC). I know people of many cultural backgrounds, so I include that in my stories. In the Alex Caine books there are people described as having black skin, of Maori descent, of Chinese descent and so on. Those people add to the richness and diversity of my fictional world just like they do to my real world. But they’re just people. Their race is not relevant to their humanity or their role in the story. If and when a cultural history or race becomes relevant, then I use it and I try really hard to use it respectfully and accurately. I research, I ask friends, I try to get beta readers on the case. I’ve done proof reading for a publisher when they have an American writing a scene in England, because that’s my culture. In one case, I corrected the English characters so they said pavement instead of sidewalk and torch instead of flashlight and stuff like that. Otherwise, that would be lazy appropriation on the part of the American author not doing their research and not recognising difference.

When that laziness and disrespect is poured onto a culture or group already marginalised and struggling for recognition and inclusion, it’s even worse. It’s disrespectful and emotionally damaging. But should that mean we can’t or shouldn’t do it? Hell, no. It means we need to work harder, be better and do it right.

I try to get that stuff right. If I get it wrong, I want to be told. I’ll try harder. But to suggest that anything is off-limits is bullshit. It’s being a dick that’s off-limits and that will always be the case. So this long arse post is basically just me agreeing with Jim Hines in his post that I linked at the start. But I felt it necessary to say so in detail for myself. I’d be interested in your opinions.

EDIT: All this applies to female characters as well, of course, but that really should go without saying. They make around 50% of the world and they’re human too.

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