Cultural Appropriation and Fiction Writing

A few weeks ago we had the dust-up about J.K. Rowling’s new story on Pottermore, and it raises the question of how fiction writers should approach writing what they don’t know. As someone who wrote a still-in-the-drawer first novel about another culture (ironically, the Navajo, like Ms. Rowling’s story), I have some thoughts on cultural appropriation and fiction writing:

1) It’s going to happen. Remember the old adage, Write what you know? That is a lie from the pit of hell. We as writers inherently have to write what we don’t know. It’s why we write: to understand, to ask questions about the unknown, to live life from a different perspective. We should own the voice we have, certainly. But in order to break out of our boundaries, we have to go exploring.

2) Approach with humility. If you’re going to write a character with a different culture from yours, or borrow something from a different culture, respect it. Respect that other cultures have different ways and traditions that you may not ever understand. Your job as a writer is to approach with a sense of humility: ask questions, be curious, learn.

3) Be certain. What’s the reason for including this character or this cultural story? Too often fiction writers have romanticized the Other – the noble savage, the Uncle Tom, etc. – in order to create either a binary or more intrigue in the work. Why are you including this character or this situation? Is it to push the story forward? Or is it just for interest? (In my still-in-the-drawer first novel, my main character travels West during the Civil War and encounters the persecution of the Native Americans – it’s part of the plot, part of the story I wanted to tell).

4) Do your research. Oh my gosh. Do. Your. Research. Read every narrative you can, read every history book you can. Talk to people. Take a visit. Learn the language even. You are at a disadvantage with your knowledge going into it. Doing the research – specifically talking to people from that culture or heritage – will not only give you personal information and stories, but will give you a sense of whether they’re Ok with it. Also, you can cite all of this in your acknowledgements to signal to others readers that you did do your due diligence. (If you don’t want to do the research, if you don’t want to put forth the effort, then go fantasy and make up a culture or world to further your story.)

5) Be certain again. Get early readers to give you feedback, and see if something feels off, stereotypical, or superficial to them. Ultimately, as we’ve seen from Ms. Rowling’s mistake, it could be a make or break moment, to either bridge cultures or do damage.

Those are mine. Do you have any suggestions of your own?

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