Appropriate Cultural Appropriation by Nisi Shawl

Appropriate Cultural Appropriation by Nisi Shawl

This article was first published at the Internet Review of Science Fiction (2004) and republished in Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. It is reprinted here with permission.

For some of us, the attractions of another’s culture can hardly be overrated. Within the context of speculative fiction’s reputation as “escapist” literature, getting away from one’s own traditions and background may seem like a good idea. Surely to find that much-prized “sensawunda” sought by genre afficionados, we must leave behind what British fantasist Lord Dunsany called “the fields we know?”

But what if the realms beyond these fields are populated? One person’s terra incognita is another’s home. What are we to make of the denizens of these exotic lands? And what will they make of us, tramping through their yam patches in search of the ineffable, and frightening their flocks with our exclamations over their chimeric beauty?

To collapse the metaphor, readers looking for something “different” in fantastic fiction, and authors who attempt to supply them with it, often turn to mythologies, religions, and philosophies outside the dominant Western paradigm. Then, not too surprisingly, people who practice these religions or espouse these philosophies or descend from those who constructed these mythologies object. Their culture, they complain, is being misrepresented, defaced, devalued, messed with. Stolen. Often, said culture is the only resource remaining after colonialization has removed all precious metals from the ground, or the ground from under its former inhabitants feet, or, as in the case of the African slave trade, when it has assumed ownership of those feet themselves.

The following stanzas excerpted from Hiromi Goto’s poem “Appropriation Panel” (written during WisCon 27) voice her uneasiness in the face of another author’s culture-mining:


you are so interested
your eyes are glowing
it’s simply fascinating
you want to share it
you’ve done your research and you got permission from your native informant
you want my appreciation


you gaze upon your creation
she is a work of art
almost everyone loves her
you love her
you tug the kimono off her dainty shoulders
her perfectly formed arms
you burrow into her body
the small noises you make are disturbing in her silence
her eyes are open but she cannot see


I did not want to watch you do this
A lot of people are clapping
You stand up to take a bow
Your creation has fallen to dust
You do not care you will make another
The only limits are your imagination

(Used with the author’s permission.)

Yet if they ignore non-dominant cosmologies and traditions and exclude them from their work and their libraries, writers and readers could be said to have contributed to their erasure. How to resolve this conflict?


To begin with, we can reframe it. Rather than looking at a binary choice between (mis)appropriating a culture and avoiding its mention, we can consider a spectrum of roles it’s possible for transcultural writers and readers to play.

We can examine works in which authors have attempted to write about, or extrapolate from, another person’s culture for ways in which they succeed or fail.

We can question and reground our desire to write about other cultures.

In this article, I’ll do all of the above, to varying and (I hope) entertaining degrees.

During the same panel which inspired Goto’s poem, audience member Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

A good deal of transcultural writing’s bad reputation is owing to authors and audiences who act like Invaders. In one unpublished story I’ve seen, the writer took a sacred song here, a tattoo there, snapped up a feast featuring roasted pig and manioc root from somewhere else and presto! South Pacific Island culture at our fingertips! That this Islands analogue was inhabited by blond, blue-eyed people may have been meant to soften the act of appropriation by distancing readers from its victims. Or the point may have been to allow the blond, blue-eyed author or reader easier identification and access. The effect, unfortunately, was one of cultural theft squared. Not only were the appurtenances of the culture removed from their native settings, they were placed in the hands of people deliberately marked as racially distinct from their originators.

Further controversy is generated when certain authors reject the equivalent of Tourist status, under whatever name that status is presented to them. They prefer to see themselves as Guests: welcome everywhere they go, almost indistinguishable from those born to the cultural territory they’re visiting. A territory where they’re enjoying themselves so much they keep putting off their scheduled departure.

A Tourist can become a Guest, if the locals like what they see and ask her to return. But before taking on the Tourist role, a writer or reader will have no contact with said locals. When first learning about and incorporating aspects of another’s culture, then, we ought to act like the best of all possible Tourists: to stay alert and to be observant, watch for the ways our own background influences how we interpret our surroundings. We ought to remember that we have baggage. We ought to be prepared to pay for what we receive (but more about that below). We ought to be honest about the fact that we’re outsiders. And since we’re in an unfamiliar setting, we shouldn’t be ashamed of occasionally feeling lost. We ought to swallow our pride at such times and ask for help, ask for directions.

Whom should we ask?

When it comes to non-dominant cultures, there are no officially elected gatekeepers. Particular organizations have heads, councils, spokespersons, and so on, but there’s no overarching authority, no one clearing house to vet and approve all a writer’s transcultural efforts or a reader’s interpretation of those efforts.

So while it’s best to ask for help, it’s unrealistic for an author to expect to be awarded an embossed, beribboned certificate proclaiming the authenticity of her work. All transcultural writers can hope for is understanding and acceptance by readers in general, and by individual members of the culture they’re attempting to represent in particular.

The bibliography at the end of this article contains a few suggestions for further reading, among them examples of successful transcultural writing. As to specific techniques I’d recommend for those who want to write this sort of thing, there’s some overlap with my earlier essay “Transracial Writing for the Sincere,” wherein I enumerate ways to create believable characters of a race other than the author’s.

However, members of the same race can easily come from different cultures, as any North American black who travels in Africa can attest. To a certain extent, members of different races can come from the same culture as well. Culture is both more real and robust than race (a classification once supposed to be biological in nature and now revealed as a social construct), and more ephemeral and fragile: accusations of cultural theft are far more common than accusations of the appropriation of another’s race. The sets overlap, but aren’t identical.

When at all plausible, the best point of view from which to recount a transcultural tale is one which in some way mimics the tale-teller’s position vis-a-vis the culture: that of an alien. The correspondence need not be exact. The point-of-view (pov) character need not be the author somehow transported to the story’s setting. Their distancing can come from other factors. Perhaps they’ve been raised by someone reluctant or unable to share cultural knowledge, as in Due’s The Good House. Perhaps they’re a member of a racial minority within a non-Western culture, who yet identifies with that culture, as does Chung Mae, ethnic Chinese heroine of Geoff Ryman’s Air, which is set in the mountains of Karzistan. Or they may have been isolated by a disaster or the act of a colonizing power. And of course, the narrator or pov character need not be the story’s protagonist.

(A caveat: having a character merely incorporate the author’s reaction to that character’s own culture will not give you the sort of perspective I’m talking about here. In fact, it will almost always detract from the story’s verisimilitude.)

Here are a couple of examples of successful “alien” characters, taken from two recent novels which explore how African traditions underpin that most European of myths, the search for the Holy Grail. In Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, new Canadian writer Minister Faust uses the point of view of the descendants of the East African immigrants, divided by centuries and continents from the relevant legacy: the wisdom of Osiris. Alex Irvine, a white writer from the U.S., gives us multiple narrators in One King, One Soldier. All these are also white, but one is possessed by the spirit of a black man, so that while he cannot speak with this man’s voice it haunts and inhabits him as he journeys on foot up the Congo.

Additionally, portraying a culture calls for paying attention to setting, dialogue, action, and a host of other elements above and beyond character. While I won’t go into these to the same extent that I’ve looked at character, I can offer some helpful questions:

Is your adopted milieu a “frozen culture”—one which looks like a picture postcard from an exotic locale, hermetically sealed off from developing technologies, the influences of other cultures, even climatic and geological forces? In a way, these settings are just further instances of the same bad writing that fills bookstore shelves with fantasies set in the never-ending Middle Ages, but they can exert regrettable influence on how we view current non-Western cultures and their members.

In an effort to create an original setting, have you adopted a “mix-and-match” approach, including some cultural elements while leaving others on the cutting room floor as irrelevant or distasteful? Be aware that material you reject may seem crucial to members or descendants of that culture, and may render what you retain inexplicable to them, and to other readers.

Is the culture you’re portraying intrinsic to the story, or is it only there to fancy up your depiction of events that might have taken place anywhere, at anytime? Just as some transracial characters come across as no more than color-tinted versions of the author’s racial identity, some transcultural settings seem to be no more than the author’s home ground with a few representative foreign props scattered around. Science fiction and fantasy stories in which things of a speculative or fantastic nature are tangential to what happens are usually unsatisfying, and an analogy can be drawn from this to the appearance of cultural details in transcultural stories.

Does the characters’ dialogue appear as dialect? Actually, all speech is (arguably) made in one or another dialect. Understanding this can greatly increase our objectivity on the matter. In attempting phonetic transcription of any particular version of English we mark it as nonstandard, and in some sense deprivilege it. The unmarked state is “normal,” and therefore superior. At the same time, the rhythms and accents of Caribbean speech, for example, are distinctive, and to ignore them would do verisimilitude a disservice. Again, monochromatic or static representation is less likely to ring true. Accurately reflecting usages and idioms is an exacting technique for giving depth to characters and cultures. Variations of vocabularies, inflections, etc., exist within a culture, and should be shown. And characters can also “code switch;” that is, they can use different speech patterns and vocabulary depending on their environment.

When dealing with characters speaking another language than the one in which the story is written, the choices become more clear-cut, because they’re more obviously voluntary. By assigning unusual speech patterns to English translations of the language of an adopted culture, a writer will distance her readers from the people of that culture.

Desire, the last item on my outline for this article, is where it all begins. My introduction mentions the draw of exoticism. Of course motivations are never simple, and a love of the “exotic” can be the product of complex forces. Sometimes a person feels an inner resonance with another culture. My younger sister Julie, for instance, was fascinated as a child with all things Jewish, —not the religion per se, but the culture as a whole: food, music, and so on. Looking back, it seems likely that this was due to the ambiguous status of Jewishness; it’s seen as separate in many important ways from dominant white culture, yet was nowhere near as stigmatized as our identity as “Negroes” in the place and time in which we grew up.

In addition, a writer may have other reasons for wanting to write transculturally: to speak for those unheard at one or another level of discourse; to point out similarities between themselves and people generally classified as dissimilar; to hitch a ride on some literary bandwagon such as magical realism; to learn about, understand, and sympathize with members of another culture. Readers have their own versions of most of these motives. Some of these motives are suspect, some are laudable. Some are both.

Many of my ideas on working artistically with another’s culture derive from my religion; specifically, from Ifa priest Luisah Teish’s thoughts on ancestor worship. In her classic Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals, she advocates broadening the concept of descent to include the enjoyment of all the benefits we derive from all the world’s cultures: “Is your dress made of Japanese silk? Yes? Then revere those ancestors. Having cornbread with dinner tonight? Recognize the work of the Native Americans.”

In the same vein, a young character in Samuel R. Delany’s short autobiographical novel “Atlantis: Model 1924” declares his intention to originate from everywhere: “‘From now on, I come from all times before me—and all my origins will feed me. Some in Africa I get through my daddy….Some in Europe I get through the library: Greece and Rome, China and India—I suck my origins in through my feet from the paths beneath them that tie me to the land, from my hands opened high in celebration of the air, from my eyes lifted among the stars—'”

However, any connections I make with unfamiliar cultures must be more than one-way. When acknowledging benefits derived from a cultural source, I also acknowledge that I have responsibilities to that source: the responsibility to recognize it, to learn from it, to protect it, to serve it, to enhance it somehow if I can, to promote it to others. The extent to which I do this depends partly on the extent to which I benefit, and partly on the extent to which I’m able to reciprocate that benefit.

Immaterial things—ideas, beliefs, customs, paradigms, and other non-physical artifacts—have value. This is a concept any patent lawyer would agree with; it’s something that writers who hope to sell their work are literally banking on. But when applied to the topic of cultural appropriation it elicits protests against “commodification.” Culture, though, is commodified daily. The main variables in its commodification are the buyer and the seller. There’s no reason I know of that only corporations ought to profit from manipulating this equation. The irony-laden efforts of an eBay entrepreneur to sell his “blackness” online a couple of years ago effectively dramatized commodification’s current one-sidedness.

Value fluctuates. If cultural knowledge is information, it can become less valuable when its transmission is masked, like a radio signal, by a lot of noise. The valid information becomes indistinguishable from errors, misinterpretations, and deliberate fabrications made on the part of the transmitter. For instance, I practice an African-based religion called Ifa, and I incorporated some elements of Ifa into an unpublished story of mine called “Wallamelon.” But I also imagined a non-existent form of divination as a tradition of the heroine’s lineage. I’m arguably devaluing my own (adopted) culture, because of my inclusion of this imaginary rite. However, a non-practitioner will be able to distinguish between actual Ifa and my fabrications by reading the disclaimer I’ll include on the subject. Honesty and precision are one sort of currency.

Money is another. Some cultures have lots of it; some have less. If you’re borrowing creative elements from a non-dominant and/or non-Western culture, consider making a cash donation to some institution that supports, preserves, or furthers the knowledge of that culture.

I’ll close with a quote of encouragement for readers and writers in this area from Ryman: “I think that it’s a good thing for the imagination to do to try to imagine someone else’s life. I see no other way to be moral, apart from anything else. Otherwise you end up sympathising only with yourself….”

Works Referenced

  • Cutter, Leah. Paper Mage. New York, NY, Roc, 2003.
  • Delany, Samuel R. “Atlantis: Model 1924.” Atlantis: Three Tales, Hanover, NH, Wesleyan University, 1995, 113 – 115.
  • Due, Tananarive. The Good House. New York, NY, Atria, 2003.
  • Faust, Minister. Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. New York, NY, Del Rey, 2004.
  • Frost, Gregory. “The Prowl.” Hopkinson, Nalo, ed., Mojo: Conjure Stories. New York, NY, Warner, 2003.
  • Irvine, Alexander C. One King, One Soldier. New York, NY, Del Rey, 2004.
  • Jones, Gwyneth. Divine Endurance. New York, NY, Arbor House, 1987.
  • McHugh, Maureen F. China Mountain Zhang. New York, NY, Tor, 1992.
  • Murphy, Pat. The Falling Woman. New York, NY, Tor, 1986.
    • ———. Wild Angel. New York, NY, Tor, 2000.
  • Ryman, Geoff. Air.
    • ———. The King’s Last Song, or Kraing Meas. (Forthcoming).
  • Sellman, Tamara Kaye. “Practical Magic: Understanding the Other.” MARGIN Magazine, Summer 2004, Available Online.
  • Shawl, Nisi. “Transracial Writing for the Sincere.”, October 1999, Available Online.
  • Sterling, Bruce. “Maneki Neko.” The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1998. A Good Old-Fashioned Future, New York, NY, Bantam, 1999.
  • Teish, Luisah. Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. New York, NY, Harper & Row, 1985, 70 – 71.