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Jeff VanderMeer
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 05:26 pm:   

Lucius:

I had a question about cultural appropriation. I wonder if you've ever dealt with this subject in an essay, or had to deal with it in terms of readers or reviewers. Specifically, there's some concern among the political correct--and I don't necessarily use that as a negative term--about writers writing about cultures they don't belong to. Conversely, there's the danger of writing about a foreigner intruding on another culture--i.e., the intruding character creates a patronizing attitude toward the native culture.

You write a lot of stories with exotic settings and characters. And, frankly, seeing that gave me the courage to use my childhood growing up overseas as the basis for a number stories. But I was curious as to whether or not you even think about such dangers before, during, or after you write a story.

If this just isn't applicable, don't worry about responding.
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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 06:07 pm:   

<<<<you>>>

No. I don't feel limited to writing stories about middleaged men of the Caucausian heterosexual Persuasion. I think I'm capable of writing about women, gays, Latinos, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and any culture upon which I turn my eye. The idea that I should not be able to exercise my perceptions any way I choose is ludicrous. If a reader dosesn't like or agree with what I write, he or she can argue with their wallet, but not to like something simply because it is written by someone outside the culture, to make that sort of brain-dead pre-judgment, that's absurd. The idea that patronizing a culture by writing about it should be a matter for deep concern seems to neglect the reality that most cultures are under attack from far more dangerous enemies than writers of fiction. The thought that one cannot write anything meaningful or important about a culture one is not part of flies in the face of hundreds of terrific books written about our own culture and all others. In my lexicon, political correctness IS a pejorative term. Since I've lived in the Northwest, I've watched supposedly politically correct people be incredibly oversensitive toward elements of society with whom they have no interaction, and yet be completely ignorant of and/or insensitive toward elements of society with whom they do have contact. In general, politcal correctness seems a kind of lame-ass hedge against being accused of not being politically active. In other words, it's been my experence that people who profess to be politically correct and insist upon political correctness in others are rarely politically active. They're too busy being nice where it doesn't count.

That's the short answer, Jeff. The long one's probably not printable.
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Deborah Layne
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 07:48 pm:   

Hi, Lucius, Hi, Jeff,

You know, Lucius, your post put me in mind of friends of mine from college (early 80's) who were all down with all the Right Causes -- they were pro-Palestinian, anti-Contra, anti-Apartheid -- but come Friday night you could find them in the local campus bar making fun of the Southern Ohio rednecks and the working class kids whose only crime was they were studying engineering or business so they might be the first one in their family who didn't carry a metal lunchbox.

But, back to literature. At one time I was training to be a historian and one thing that makes a pretty good source is literature. It tells you all kinds of things about a culture even when (or especially when) it's trying not to. To take a particularly glaring example from SF (not written, midn you, but you coudl find its analog) -- let's look at Star Trek. There were all those episodes about racial tolerance, but if you look at them what you see is the 60s version of PC, but you also see women protrayed at bee-hived, mini-skirted bimbos who are just standing around waiting for their chance to kneel in front of the captain. Tells you a whole lot about the unquestioned assumptions of the writers, doesn't it? And they were _trying_ to deliver a message about equality.

Too often when people make the argument Jeff cites above, what they really mean is that they don't want anyone to write anything that doesn't glorify their own little pet cultures (whatever this month's favorite is), but it would be okay to go after, say, Southern redneck culture with both barrels blazing.

My two cents.

Deborah


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Jeff VanderMeer
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 08:35 pm:   

I agree, completely. But surely there's an additional response--in other words, there *are* works that condescend to other cultures and there are works that appropriate in ways that are stupid. Those simply constitute bad works of fiction, I suppose. A failure on the part of the writer. And I guess your answer is--no, you don't think about this issue. My curiosity has been satisfied.
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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 08:39 pm:   

Hey, Deborah...

The "pet cultures" thing really hits home with me. Down in Latin America, you get a lot of people saying that Americans, Brits, whatever, shouldn't write about their culture, but then many of them live under repressive conditions that don't allow them to write about their culture in certain ways. For instance, the Honduran story I have in Polyphony 2 treats of a subject that couldn't be written about by a Honduran writer living in that country, yet it really cries out to be written about. Another example, I'm researching a novel on a man named Lee Christmas, a Louisiana man who was a fascinating and seminal figure in 20th Honduran history, a soldier of fortune who basically helped cement the status of Central American countries as the Balkans of our region, but because the Honduran history books make no mention of him, his place in history is not likely to be dealt with by Honduran writers.

Your point about Southern redneck culture also resonates. The politically correct cadres seemed to have excluded this culture from their roles. It's perfectly acceptable in most American setting to speak of rednecks in terms of ridicule, to use words regarding them whose analogs when applied to blacks, native Americans, etc, would be considered epithets.

The main thing for me about PC is that it should have nothing to do with the governance of literature. One of the purposes of art is to be dangerous, inflammatory, controversial, and some of the world's great writers would never pass the PC test. One of my personal favorites, Louis Ferdinand Celine, the man who basically invented black comedy, was an anti-Semite and his anti-Semitism informed some of his work. I don't happen to be an anti-Semite, and if I were fortunate enough to speak with Celine, we would doubtless argue the matter; but that said, his work is irreplaceable and we would be the poorer without it. The point might be made that Celine's work helped create misery. Doubtful. Celine's perspective on the human condition was so bleak, his view of Jews was only marginally more dark than that of his view of the rest of humanity. But be that as it may, his voice is an important one, if only to point up the pathology of racism.

Anyway, good stuff, Layne.
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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 08:43 pm:   

Jeff,

I'd say this about art that condescends to other cultures, just as I said about Celine -- the voice is important to hear, even for its frailty. The voice of cultural bandits and imperialists have a certain validity--they reflect a reality. I'm a First Amendment guy. Let people talk, let people say what they will and then people will actually think. That's a good thing.

Lucius
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Vandana Singh
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 01:17 pm:   

Dear Mr. Shepard and Mr. Vandermeer:

This is a subject of great interest to me.
I have to say that when I come across bad fiction about India (where I'm from) --- which, by the way, is perpetrated by some Indian writers as well --- I get rather upset. I came to this country for graduate studies and had to deal with the barriers created by stereotypes. Sometimes it was funny --- a student once asked me if we rode elephants to school, and I had to say (reluctantly) that we didn't (although the buses in Delhi are truly alien things, stranger than elephants). It was also annoying to be taken for someone out of Temple of Doom. I had, in my childhood, read a bunch of really bad stories about the Kali cult in India by British authors and was dismayed to find that motif repeated in SF. There was no acknowledgement of what Kali is today (a symbol of an anarchic and very diverse women's movement) --- which would not have been hard for a Western writer to find out about, considering the information out there. I could also go on about the way Hinduism is misrepresented in general, but I'll desist for now.

Having said all this I agree with Mr. Shepard that while I will complain about these people I would not shut down their presses. An artist has to follow his or her impulse first. I acknowledge that and the only thing I will do about it is to use my pen (or keyboard) and add to the fracas. (But it must also be admitted that it is difficult for someone from "over there" to make their voice heard in this country. People just think you're being weird because you are a foreigner).

I was once in a week-long class taught by Ursula Le Guin and we had a really long discussion about cultural appropriation. There was a lot of talk about writers not doing their research and being insensitive to other cultures and religions. But at the end most of us agreed that however imperfect a writer's vision of another culture, it was necessary to make the attempt (provided your artistic impulse led you in that direction) --- because one of the side-effects of any honest attempt was to transcend for a moment the fatal ghettoization of the world.

So I admit to being nervous about reading, say, a novel set in India --- but I try to make the attempt, in order to see what the author sees in us. If it is honest, I salute it despite any flaws. If not, I complain. :-)

Vandana
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 02:07 pm:   

Vandana,

Have you read Song of Kali, by Dan Simmons? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

Jason
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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 03:09 pm:   

Hi, Vandana...

Appreciate your comments. All I can say is that here's how I feel. Often I write about expatriates, and I generally write about how they relate to the culture in which they are self-exiled, whether that relation is funded by misunderstanding or its opposite. Actually, it's more valuable to me as a writer if the character misappropriates the culture he's in. In course of writing these stories, I'm sure my own understanding of the culture is incomplete. Hell, I don't fully comprehend my culture. Misunderstanding is a human condition. If we are to avoid that quality in the interests of political correctness, we wouldn't write anything. Anyway, if one is to write about the expatriate culture, one has to deal with a foreign land. Obviously there's been a great deal of colonialist writing that perpetrates stereotypes, and this is regretable. But that sort of writing usually doesn't last, and even during its span of influence, it usually--especially nowadays--stimulates controversy, which is a good thing.

Couple of questions. How do you feel about V. S. Naipaul's non-fiction about India?

Do you write American characters, or characters from other cultures than your own?
I've only read your Polyphony story, so pardon my ignorance.

Lucius
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Vandana Singh
Posted on Tuesday, March 04, 2003 - 03:15 pm:   

Hi Jason and Lucius:

I have not read “Song of Kali.” It is on my list of must-read SF&F books set in India, and I plan to read it (along with “The Peshawar Lancers,” “Shiva 3000,” and some others) and write a review. Since I generally don’t read gory horror it may be a while, though.

I read some of Naipaul’s fiction in bits and pieces when I was a teenager growing up in India, and at that time found him depressing and negative. I had friends and relatives who were civil rights activists who saw poverty and horror and cruelty on a daily basis and they weren’t that negative. I have not read his non-fiction and therefore cannot comment on it. My impression (from what others have said of his work) is that however mean and curmudgeonly his voice, he is important because he needles people and thereby adds to the discourse.

Just to clarify, when I talk about being disgusted with some portrayals of India in SF&F stories, I am not protesting honest critique of the country or culture (I criticize both all the time). When the writing arises from ignorance, prejudice and hatred then I condemn it. But I still would not snatch away the pen of the perpetrator.

One way I try to guess where the author is coming from is by looking at the characterization. Many of Lucius’ stories have unforgettable characters (I am particularly fond of the colonel in “The Drive-In Puerto Rico”) crafted with great sympathy and care. The setting of the story comes alive partly because of the vividly drawn characters.

One of the problems with the treatment of non-Western cultures in SF&F here is the absence of context. Let me illustrate this by an example. I once read an anthology of North American SF&F which contained 3 stories by 3 different Western authors featuring Third World protagonists. All three protagonists happened to be narrow-minded in their outlook and murderers to boot (one was a Kali story). Now I am quite aware that the Third World has its share of murderers so I am not protesting that. What is disappointing is the fact that there aren’t enough stories featuring Third-Worlders from other areas of the character spectrum. Which skews the portrayal of the third world in the collection and in the field in general. In an individual story I imagine context can be manifested by non-stereotypical, complex characterization (which is what I see in your stories, Lucius) as well as details of setting.

As to whether I put American characters in my stories --- I am just beginning to have the confidence to do so. Even after some years in this country there are many things I don’t understand about Americans, although I am married to one. I have included non-Indians in far future, off-world stories, which are as yet unpublished. (The story in Polyphony is the only one I have had published to date although there is another one coming out in an anthology in the summer.)

One of the things Lucius said resonated with me: that we don’t understand our own cultures, and that misunderstanding is a human condition. I write almost exclusively about India because distance and nostalgia bring cultural differences into sharp relief --- things I took for granted about India begin to obsess and nag at me until I set them down on paper. A lot of my writing is an attempt to make sense of my experiences in India.

Best,
Vandana


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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Tuesday, March 04, 2003 - 03:46 pm:   

Hi, Vandana...

Naipul has always impressed me as a fiction writer, but his non-fiction about India seems to reflect something of a colonialist view. He's extraordinarily intolerant of the culture in certain respects and it strikes me that this is not untypical of overseas Indians, in that many, especially those who were born in the West and returned to India as teenagers or children on visits, tend to condescend toward their mother country.

The idea pf cultural appropriation is handled here with PC unsubtlety. Regional cultures -- southern culture, in particular -- incessantly are misapropriated and treated without nuance or appreciation. Yet no one complains. The notion of cultural appropriation seems to many only apt when voiced toward those who write about the Third World.

I appreciate your kind words about my work. I've often thought about writing something set in India, but though I've spent time there -- mostly around Darjeeling -- I've never felt qualified. The culture has such a complex surface, it's difficult to perceive what in essence may be going on. I hope to get back there. I might not be so chicken this time.

In any case, I'll look forward to the new story. I quite enjoyed the first.

Bests,

Lucius
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Vandana Singh
Posted on Wednesday, March 05, 2003 - 12:08 pm:   

Lucius, what you say about Naipaul agrees with the perceptions of Indian friends who have read his fiction and non-fiction. They grumble about him a lot. I don't think he is generally liked in India.

I think some Indian writers who come to this country in their adulthood also indulge in cultural appropriation in a sense --- perhaps it is more accurate to call it exoticization in their case. They pander to prevailing stereotypes instead of telling the truth. Some stories of writer Chitra Divakaruni, who has done magic-realist stuff, are (unconsciously or not)like that. And she's not the only one.

An Indian writer who reminds me a bit of you in his attention to details of culture and character is Amit Chaudhuri, particularly his short novel "A Strange and Sublime Address." It is not spec-fic and barely has a plot but it has a universal quality that transcends culture. His other work hasn't impressed me as much.

I hope you do write a story about India. The best way to experience India is through friends that live there. The craziest things happen in India --- I could tell stories about my huge extended family that nobody would believe. So it is nice to know someone who can interpret the madness for you, at least to some extent. Otherwise it is too much like an alien planet. But despite the differences between cultures, we're as human as anyone else.

Cheers,
Vandana
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Lucius Shepard
Posted on Friday, March 07, 2003 - 08:08 am:   

Hi ,Vandana...

I'm going to check out the Chaudhuri book, Sounds interesting.

As regards "exoticization," I think we see that everywhere. American dtetective novels, for one, generally tend to make their settings and side characters more exotic than the actual, often to the level of stereotyping. India, when seen from afar, tends to lend itself to such because the brilliant colors and shapes you initially perceive.

I'd be interested, when you have a moment, in hearing your recs of books by Indian writers that you feel capture the reality of the country with some effectiveness.

Take Care,

Lucius
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Robert Micallef
Posted on Sunday, June 29, 2003 - 04:38 pm:   

Hi Lucius,

I just wanted to say thanks for your writing. There have been times when both health and wealth has evaporated, but somehow I managed to hold on to your books.

I know this is going to sound blantantly selfish but I thought I'd make a plea for publishing an epic Sf Poem you titled "Conduct". I believe it is a work in progress? I know you said that you had no plans for publication but I've been fiending for this work since you mentioned it in an interview.

Here's the selection from the Nick Gevers interview....

"I'm also, much to my surprise, working on an epic science fantasy poem set
in a far future earth. Its working title is "Conduct", from the tenth
hexagram of the I Ching. I have no designs to publish it, though I may end
up making a nice illustrated book out of it. The setting is a
quasi-utopian Far East in which the past has been recreated to suit the
image of the present created by SUN TAI, a machine mystic who may be the
avatar of the age and has reordered the universe on a quantum level...
"...so almost all that should have ever happened had, and some things that
once were, now had never been."

Just Hoping to See a Copy Someday,

Rob
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Lucius
Posted on Sunday, June 29, 2003 - 08:02 pm:   

Hi, Robert...

When Conduct is done --it's kind of a side project, so it may take til next year--I'm pretty sure I can find a small press who;ll take a flyer.

I know how that health and wealth thing goes. I'm very flattered you've considered my stuff worth keeping.


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Lucius
Posted on Thursday, August 28, 2003 - 07:16 pm:   

More thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. I was recently apprised of a workshop whose purpose is to teach writers to write "sensitively and covincingly" about other cultures. I'm not sure this is a goal to be desired. It well may be that some people need to have some basic instruction, but my feeling is this -- when you write about other cultures, no matter how perceptive you are, you're always also writing about your own, and if you start screening your work by means of a generic standard of sensitivity, then it's almost guaranteed that you're going to be writing cowflop.
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Mike
Posted on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 04:35 am:   

Story title: "The Wogs Westerners Don't See." Or maybe not.
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 06:18 am:   

Well, I'd guess I'd go with Maybe not on that one, Mike.

Would having a racist character in a story be considered "insensitive" by those who're now trying to make the rules? It's my experience that it would be so considered and personally I think that's BS. One is supposed to write about the world, not the world according to...whoever.
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Rob
Posted on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 06:52 am:   

How do you feel about the "gender sensitive" stuff expected now? Adding an extra he (or she) to everything or having to use ugly words like (fill-in-the-blank)person all over the place?
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 07:33 am:   

Rob...

Fuggedaboutit. :-)

The sentence is the boss with me. If it sounds good (reads well), do it.
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Rob
Posted on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 03:23 pm:   

Art over politics is A-OK with me.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 11:21 pm:   

I know I'm chiming in late, but what the hell...

Lucius, Vandana (and anyone else who has something to contribute),

What do you think of Homi Bhabha and Guyatri Chakravorti Spivak on the subject of Third-Worlders speaking out for themselves?
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Lucius
Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2003 - 07:12 am:   

Frankly, I get the idea that Bhabha is something of a posturer -- but that just may reflect my disdain for anyone whose work is imprinted by the influence of Jacques Lacan. Spivak's another matter. I'm not authoritative on her work, but from what I gather, I have great respect for what she's saying. And I believe Thrid World lit should be read, celebrated, used as an authority, etc. But....I go back to what I said previously. I don't believe people really understand their own cultures -- and writers, though they may be eloquent, are rarely balanced in their views. To suggest that my view, say, of Honduran culture is biased, prejudiced, inaccurate, etc; is basically to say that orange juice is orange, But there are not so many Honduran writers and those that are around are generally dissuaded by their oublishers from writing anything meaningful. Honduran history, as taught in Honduran schools, is absolute bullshit.. For instance, in high school history books I've examined, there is no mention of the United Fruit Company or Standard Fruit. These two companies essetially ran the country for the first seventy years of the 20th century --they fomented war, rebellion, controlled the political arena, and yet the majority of Hondurans are educated to believe that none of this ever happened, despite the fact that Standard Fruit continues to be a force in the region. Does being brought up with this malformed view of one's own history permit a more accurate cultural reading than that given by an "outsider" who has a more comprehensive view of Honduran history? Without tooting my own horn too much, the series of stories I'm writing about Honduras constitute more of a record of the culture than is currently being effected by Honduran writers. Hopefully this will change, but for the moment my contribution has some value culturally speaking. Eventually some young Honduran writer will come along and piss on my grave and say I was nothing but an imperialist. That's fine--that's the way of the world, but for right now, I'm performing a cultural service, even though it's not my main intent.

So, I guess I;m a believer in letting all points of view shine. The expatriate view as evidence by writers like Paul Bowles, Robert Stone, VS Naipaul, etc, does, IMO, have value -- I refuse to believe it does not.
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Deborah
Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2003 - 09:28 am:   

Lucius, what did Spivak say that you found useful or interesting? She was at Pitt when I was in grad school and I tried to read something of hers, I think it was something like Reading Marx Through Derrida or something like that I found her incomprehensible. In fact, I heard her speak a couple of times and had the same experience...but then I had the same experience trying to read Derrida. Maybe I was too much of a Logical Positivist back then.
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Lucius
Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2003 - 10:05 am:   

Deborah,

it;s been a while since I read her, but in general, I like Marxist positions, through whatever lens they are viewed. I appreciated what I perceived as her passion, which--albeit occluded to a degree by the basic academic posture--I found sincere. Again in general, I also appreciate the thust of her arguments, which is, to my mind, that we should listen to Third World voices....though not to the exclusion of all else. If I were to characterize my political stance, it would be as some form of Marxism. This relates to my concerns for the Third World, because I just don't see democracy as being a viable next step for Third World economies.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, September 14, 2003 - 12:16 pm:   

Lucius, I agree that Bhabha carries a whiff of imposture about him. Not only is his prose deliberately opaque, but his ideas are self-promoting, and he holds himself up as a kind of ultimate translator of the voice of subaltern cultures, something which would sound patently ridiculous if (e.g.) a Kennedy claimed to be the voice for a community of Appalachian lumpen-proles. Yet most Anglo-American academics are reluctant to nay-say someone from a Third World country, even if he was born to privilege in that country.

I have (or had) a great deal more respect for Spivak, especially for her work translating Derrida, and her use of his ideas in theory and criticism. But she lost me in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In it, she admits that essentializing a culture for the purpose of representing that culture is the worst kind of appropriation, since it replaces a genuine (but culturally inaudible) voice with a master-culture's approximation of that voice. But because she is impelled to find some kind of representation for the oppressed, she decides to essentialize "strategically." This was a tragic surrender to bad faith, and it also seemed to suggest a mindset (like the one often encountered among PC whites in the States) which invests value in a subaltern culture only to the degree that it remains firmly subaltern. The moment the proles become bourgeois, they become politically uninteresting to those of the privilege Left.

I asked about these two in the hopes that someone would recommend a more genuine alternative. I've never travelled in India or its neighboring states, so my knowledge of voices outside academia is severely limited.

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