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[personal profile] deepad
Edited to Add (28th October, 2009): If you have been linked here and do not feel like reading an essay, listen to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 18-minute talk on 'The Danger of a Single Story' to hear the same points made clearly and movingly.

In reading and commenting on [ profile] matociquala 's post on writing the Other, I felt a lot of personal reactive emotions boil up. The following essay (screed? thingie?) is not a direct continuation of that conversation, nor should it be taken as specific to anything she said. I have used one of her books as an example, because context foregrounded it for me, but this is more my commentary on the Western, White novels and blogs I have been reading recently, and my experience as an Indian reader.

When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern.

But there were no taverns in India. Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

There are far more eloquent writers who have pointed out how difficult it is to growing up reading books (and watching movies) about a culture alien to you, and how pernicious the influences thereof can be. I am lucky in that Indian culture is more widely represented in Western media than other colonised regions—when I talk about Bollywood in the yuletide chat room, there are people who have an idea about what I might be referring to, bastardised ideas of ‘pundit’ and ‘caste system’ and ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’ are present in the English vocabulary. Yet still, my ability to connect fannishly with people from different parts of the world is mediated through the coloniser’s language and representation. Enid Blyton, with her hideous caricatures of African tribal boys helping the intrepid British children is read from Johannesburg to Jaipur—Iktomi stories are not.

These imbalances of power are what frustrate me in several discussions regarding issues of representation and diversity in writing that I’ve seen recently. I am summarising some positions that I have heard, and my responses to them.

One of the most frustrating arguments I’ve encountered is—If you hate it so much, stop bitching and write your own.

This naive position stems from the utopian capitalist belief that all markets are equal, and individuals are free to be what they can driven only by their inner divine spark.

Yes, writers create from the richly populated inner world of the imagination, and writers have evolved said imagination in many diverse corporeal circumstances of hardship and difficulty. However—no writer, I repeat my sweeping assumption—no writer is created from a vacuum. Almost the only universal characteristic I have seen in the biographical commonalities between writers across time and space has been their pleasure in reading (or accessing stories). Certainly the writers of the present era have grown up reading.

Now let me point out that I grew up speaking Marathi with my family, and Hindi with schoolmates and neighbours, but the only children’s books I read were in English. Less than a handful were written by Indian authors about Indian characters. (There are some good Indian language children’s books. You will not find them in the average Indian bookstore.)

I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.

And also, do not imagine that making it to print is some idealistic winnowing of quality. Someone once said to me, when I told them how much smaller the publishing industry in India was compared with the American one, that they supposed that what was published then, must be of the highest quality. It is not an equal playing field. This is like assuming that the one runner in India who perseveres in the face of poverty and institutional neglect and governmental lack-of-infrastructure will by virtue of her drive and passion be as good as the team of runners culled from the tens of thousands of children sent to athletic training camps in China for the express purpose of creating Olympic medallists.

The Western publishing industry has the luxury of being able to support the base camps of crappy first novels and cliché-ridden genre fiction hacks and niche-marketed speciality books that creates the momentum for the breakout book, the genius author. If you grow up in a country where every child has held a crayon in nursery school, you are at an advantage.

And just to make it absolutely clear—the Western publishing advantage was derived from the economic wealth those nations enjoyed by virtue of stripping the resources and talents of other peoples. I do not consider it an accident of fate that it is in America that the art of children’s picture books evolved (which I consider one of America’s most exquisite cultural gifts to the world). These books, printed in China on paper from Brazil—they cost (when they are imported at all) more than a full length Penguin Classic in an Indian bookstore. The books available in one fourth grade classroom at a low-income Minneapolis charter school where I have worked outnumber the entirety of books my private primary school in Delhi made available to me (And I reiterate, I am nothing but privileged in India). Remember on whose backs the resources for your public libraries were built.

Also--this research what you write about blitheness annoys me because the costs of research are skewed towards the First World economies. It's not just a question of Neil Gaiman going to China or Naomi Novik going on a research safari to South Africa; even Harlequin romance writers can afford to go on a cruise and write about a Latin lover. There isn't even an Indian speculative fiction genre--how many of us do you think, were we to be authors who wished to world-build in an AU Brazilian setting, would be able to afford a plane ticket to visit there. And on a smaller level--try talking to the elite academic professors at Delhi University or the University of Ghana. Find out how long it takes for academic journals to reach them, or how the library at the University of Chicago is better stocked in South East Asian texts than any Indian library. Compare how many undergraduates in the US have free access to LexusNexus, with the number of elite Indian private school teachers who rely on Wikipedia because they can't afford subscriptions to academic article sites.

The other argument that causes me to flinch reactively is the one which talks about writing the Other just like you would write any character—with respect for their individuality and uniqueness.

You know why I flinch? It’s because the assumptions flatten the problem. A poorly written book has cardboard cut-out characters, and a well-written book has thoughtful, nuanced characterisation. But I have spent a lifetime reading well-written books with nuanced characters that hurt me by erasing or misrepresenting me. Sara Crewe gets sent to boarding school because my home had a bad climate for her to grow up in. Libba Bray can in 2003 write about a lesbian schoolgirl in Victorian England, but posit that Indians sell snakes to eat in a Bombay marketplace. And the White characters in Gone With the Wind, and Atlas Shrugged—two books I idolised and reread voraciously as a teenager—are iconoclastic in their individuality.

Asking an author to write the Other with respect and assuming it to be sufficient, is like telling a person that being polite to everyone is sufficient in their goal of being an anti-racist ally. This is crap. Your definition of individuality, just like your definition of politeness is culture-specific. And just like I do not want to see yet another Indian princess or lascar stereotype, I do not want to see a White American with brown skin and kohl and an elephant sidekick.

I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you. And I do not want that.
White people decrying their race and culture baffles me, because it is a lie. Your alienation from your own mainstream does not equate with your fundamental similarity to my differences with your culture. Even when we feel or are called 'White' or 'Western', we cannot shrug off our identity; we become the vanguard of its complexity. And we are far, far more immersed in your culture, than most of you could ever be in ours.

What I resent is the implication of accessibility. That it is as easy to understand people of different ethnicities and cultures as it is to understand the diverse experiences within the identities you share with people. Yes, writing about Indian-Americans or Korean-Canadians or Sengalese-Britishers implies a certain shared national experience. But hyphenated identities are not the only manifestations of a culture, and as someone who identifies as Indian, I want to say--No. It is not that easy to understand me, or my experience, or to accurately represent it. You don't see Native Americans writers going around claiming familiarity with Australian aboriginals on the basis of some shared philosophies, or Chinua Achebe writing about Afro-Caribbeans like an extension of his own world. 

And finally, I would like to say that this well-intentioned championing of diversity is specific to countries that are trying to celebrate their appropriation of other cultures. All this write the Other talk—you never hear someone saying that to or within an Indian authorial context. Nobody seems to complain that R. K. Narayan or Anita Desai or Ruskin Bond don’t feature Black or White characters. And I haven’t heard anyone criticise Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth for their inaccurate or stereotypical portrayal of the White characters they write. Because when they write about White people, it is not appropriative. No one that I know of has borrowed Arthur and Lancelot to turn them into part of the army that helps Rama defeat Ravan.

On the other hand, there is a disturbing trend of Euro-centric mythology crossing the water to the US, and then appropriating the other cultures present in its service. For instance, I read Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron with a great deal of pleasure—the writing was strong, the characters compelling, and the plot complex. And there were two major Black characters—one of whom was a Merlin (an important figure in the war between the Faerie and the Promethean men), and one of whom was a kelpie. But why? Why would an African-American woman have to participate in an Arthurian narrative, and why must Caribbean orisha spirits be subsumed into a Celtic myth in order to serve the conceit of something so specifically White European as a Seelie and an Unseelie Faerie court? (And Avalon's Willow pointed out; the character at first terrifies and attempts to capture one White Woman and then is bridled and made a servant/unwilling sidekick of another.) I do not want rakshasas and apsaras to be part of a fairy court, or an Indian-American to do a havan that permits the heroine to sanctify the sword that will kill the dragon.

Dragons are not universal. If I am defensive, it is because I have had to learn how to love Tolkein while trying to find myself in the unmapped lands in the East where the Green and Blue wizards disappeared to.

Edited to add some links and a few paragraphs I thought of in hindsight.
ETA 2: Feel free to link, however I would prefer that discussions regarding White Ally responses happen here, or at least after reading that post, which is a cumulative response to some of the comments made in this one.
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Date: 18/1/09 02:51 am (UTC)
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)
From: [personal profile] oyceter
While I do think that Japan frequently does look down on Americans or Europeans (more Americans, I think) and portrays them in buffoonish ways and while manga takes symbols just because they're cool, I'd still characterize it as assimilation and not appropriation.

Even if all Japanese people felt superior to all white people, they still live in a world in which much of the economic, political, and social power remains in the hands of white people, one in which they celebrate Christmas and Valentine's Day and frequently make characters blond-haired and blue-eyed to symbolize beauty and learn English in schools.

I would more classify manga representations of black people and black culture, or of other non-Japanese non-white cultures as appropriation, because there is more of a power differential.

Furthermore, manga isn't only read by Japanese people; and I'd say that the frequent portrayal of white as cool is prevalent in Taiwan as well, and I'm fairly sure it's also prevalent in other areas where manga is read, like S. Korea and HK and Singapore.