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Using Asian Cultures as Props

I came across a short post earlier this week that said white authors needed to stop using Asian cultures as props for their stories. I was one of several authors called out by name. Though the individual didn’t specify, I’m assuming I was included because of Codex Born, which includes a group called the Students of Bi Sheng, a kind of Chinese parallel to Gutenberg and the Porters.

I’m choosing not to link to the post, for several reasons. First of all, while my name was mentioned, I wasn’t tagged or linked … which to me says this person wasn’t posting to get my attention or invite a response. Linking to them would potentially force a dialogue/conversation they didn’t ask for. Basically, it would feel rude. And second, while I think 99% of my commenters and readers are awesome, wonderful people, it only takes a few to create a “Release the hounds” moment, if you know what I mean.

I haven’t been shy about my belief that stories should reflect the diversity of the world. One of the arguments I’ve seen, generally from white, male authors, is that they avoid writing about “the other” because they’re “not allowed” to write those characters. It’s an argument I have very little respect for, because almost nobody is saying you’re not allowed to write about certain characters … but people will certainly criticize you if you do it badly.

I’ve been criticized for how I’ve written certain characters. I suspect every published author has. But this post was the first time I’d seen someone telling me flat-out to keep my ass away from their culture.

I should point out that this still isn’t the same as telling me I’m not allowed to write about Chinese characters. “I don’t want you do to this thing” =/= “You aren’t allowed to do the thing.” But it’s something I’m trying to understand.

I’m reminded of something Ambelin Kwaymullina said at Continuum. After her GoH speech, someone asked her whether she thought non-indigenous authors should write about indigenous characters. Ambelin made an interesting distinction. I don’t remember the exact wording, and I apologize in advance if I lose nuance with my paraphrase, but I believe she said she thought it would be okay to do so when writing in the third person, but she was uncomfortable with the idea of a non-indigenous author trying to do so in first-person.

I thought about that a lot. On the one hand, I want to write stories that are honest about our world, stories that aren’t stuck in an illogically narrow and exclusive universe. And I want to do so as respectfully and accurately as I can. It’s one thing for me to describe the diversity of the world; but no matter how much reading and listening and research I do, would I ever be able to write from the perspective of an indigenous person, and do so truthfully? Probably not.

It’s a complicated question. Obviously, we use first person for more than just autobiographical work. All authors write about characters who aren’t themselves. I’ve written about goblins and fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and autistic teenagers and handicapped cowboys and more. Why shouldn’t I write about Chinese book-magic, or do a story from a first-person indigenous perspective?

Some of the problem, I believe, is about power and representation. What does it mean if we have white authors successfully writing and publishing and selling books about Chinese characters, but work by Chinese authors is ignored or shoved aside? What happens when we’re only reading about other cultures through the blinders and assumptions of our own?

We end up with an incomplete, distorted, often damaging understanding. There’s an element of colonialism — we’re not interested in truly reading about other cultures; we’re just playing tourist from the safety of our own cultural framework. That’s a problem

As I tried to write the history of my character Bi Wei, describing snippets of her life from 500 years ago, it’s very possible that I messed up. I thought I had done adequate research and written respectfully, but maybe I was wrong. And of course, it’s not a simple yes/no. People disagree on what’s appropriate and respectful and so on. And no matter how well I wrote, I still wrote the book from my own cultural perspective. I’m not capable of doing otherwise.

Legally, all of this is pretty much a null issue. I have the legal right to write about whatever characters and cultures I choose. But I believe a writer has the responsibility to write respectfully, truthfully, and well.

I read a book a while back where the only Japanese character was also a ninja, and I cringed. The book was well-written in many ways, but that part felt neither respectful nor true. The character wasn’t Japanese so much as they were the prepackaged caricature we in the U.S. have seen so many times before. Have I fallen into that same trap? I try not to, but I look back at some of my early stories and see similar mistakes. Maybe in ten years, I’ll look back at what I’m writing now and have a similar reaction.

So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling. And I think it’s good for me to struggle with it. I refuse to write books where I pretend other cultures don’t exist. But I also recognize that there are stories I’m simply not qualified to write well, that no matter how respectful I might try to be, my story wouldn’t be true. (An odd thing to say about fiction, but I hope you understand what I mean.) And I know that sometimes I’m going to screw up.

I don’t have an easy answer. I do know it’s something for me to be aware of as I’m writing, and it’s something I hope people will continue to challenge me on when they feel I’ve botched it. I also know we need to do a better job of reading and publishing and promoting work from outside of our own narrow cultural lens.

I would be very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 50 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 7th, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC)
I can't help but look at the words used: it wasn't "don't write about my culture," but rather "stop using Asian culture as props." (If that wasn't the actual wording, you may want to edit your post to reflect that.)

To me, the second statement implies something very different from the first. A prop is a thing, a tool -- implied to be kind of a fake one -- used and then probably discarded in the course of a larger story. (An immmortal Scotsman running around with a katana because Katana Are Sexy: that's using an Asian culture as a prop, quite literally.) If that was the word employed, and you were indeed being called out because of the Students of Bi Sheng . . . your usage was one that basically said, "look, white people are not the only ones who ever invented something like this." You had Chinese people as agents in the story, pursuing their own ends for their own reasons. If you got details wrong or were insufficiently respectful or are ultimately bound by your own cultural perspective, I'd like to see you criticized for that -- not called out with a phrase that to me seems to be pointing in a different direction. Otherwise we're likely to end up having the wrong discussion as a result.
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:46 pm (UTC)
Both statements were made, though the wording isn't quite 100%.

There's a part of me that really wanted to ask for specifics about what I was being criticized for. At the same time, if this is how the individual feels, they don't have to justify or defend that to me.

It's ... well, like I said, it's something I'm trying to think about, once I got past my initial knee-jerk defensiveness.
(no subject) - swan_tower - Aug. 7th, 2014 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ss_basu - Aug. 8th, 2014 05:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bookishdragon - Aug. 8th, 2014 12:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - northernwalker - Aug. 8th, 2014 01:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC)
If you're not allowed to write about the other badly, then how are you supposed to get better at writing the other? Your early other characters may not have been as good as they would be now, but you wouldn't be as good (however poorly that may prove to be) at writing them now if you hadn't tried in the first place.

"Write about what you know" is a good early step for a writer, but fantasy and sci-fi writers know that it's a strait-jacket when writing in their favoured genre. Your stock in trade is to write about what you don't know. Of course, when not making up cultures and characters you have less freedom than when writing about goblins, say, and you should be expected to do research into a real culture when writing about one, including into the mistakes that other writers have made. But, like any writer, you have to at some point stop the research and actually write. And being mortal and not godlike, what you're going to write is not going to be perfect. Well, that's life as a writer. You do better next time. You improve.

If your critic doesn't want to read your treatment of their culture, then the solution is in their own hands. If they want your writing to improve then they can criticise, as indeed they have. Ignore the cries to stop writing about X, but listen to the criticism (as much as you can stand, anyway).

Besides, it's not as if Chinese culture is in any immediate danger of being lost to the world. (Han Chinese, anyway.) A billion speakers and writers of Chinese can write about Chinese culture and get it right, presumably. A few Anglophone writers aren't going to make much of a dent in that.
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:52 pm (UTC)
Barry Hughart isn't Chinese but I really enjoyed his Bridge of Bird series. He writes respectfully and entertains with good and not-so-nice characters alike rather than painting everyone with the same brush. I'm not concerned about the ethnicity of the author, I'm interested in whether the tale is true and good.

It's kind of a catch-22: don't people want more diverse casts of characters? And if so, wouldn't it make sense to make reference to these characters' cultures?
Aug. 11th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC)
Loved that book, but it's clearly listed as Fiction. Take everything with a grain... a tablespoon of salt. Also, he put gods and supernatural events everywhere, because apparently that's where gods and supernatural events live. As they do i most non-citified places, where humans just plain crowd them out.
(no subject) - tuftears - Aug. 11th, 2014 11:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2014 06:54 pm (UTC)
If we follow this rule to it's logical conclusion, then only multiracial authors will have diversity in their fiction.

I don't think it's fair to say "don't write about my culture". I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask for someone to respect their culture, however.

Some else bugging me about this is "Asian culture". This phrase wraps into it an incredible diversity of cultures. Is Thousand and One Nights references Asian culture? Polynesian folktales? Cargo cults?

While I think any author could use constructive criticism to enhance their art, this isn't a constructive prescription, it's a proscription. Who made this blogger the gatekeeper of all things Asian?

Aug. 7th, 2014 07:02 pm (UTC)
To be fair, there's a lot of U.S. based fiction that treats "Asian" as a giant homogenous soup of geisha girls and rice and ninjas.

For most of the post, the individual referred specifically to the use of Chinese culture/character. And thus we hit one of the drawbacks of me choosing not to link :-/
Aug. 7th, 2014 07:11 pm (UTC)
goblins and fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and autistic teenagers and handicapped cowboys and more

so you arent a Goblin Princess Libriarian? *shocked face*
Aug. 7th, 2014 07:14 pm (UTC)
Not that you know of...
(no subject) - ariaflame - Aug. 8th, 2014 07:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2014 08:23 pm (UTC)
"Asian" covers rather a lot of ground. Even "Chinese" includes not merely a lot of territory and history, but 5 major languages, a number of minor languages, and many diverse cultures. As the '60s Maoists used to say, "100 Flowers Bloom."

A writer could research 1 Chinese culture and have members of the other cultures there think he'd made mistakes, when he hadn't.

But there is a Generic Oriental, which is offensive even to someone like me, who is white and merely lives in an area where a lot of people live whose genetic make-up hails from southern China. That we should all avoid. IMHO.
Aug. 7th, 2014 09:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I wonder if anybody is going to ding me for the "fake" dragon names in my next book, when in fact they're the romanized Hokkien forms (rather than the more-familiar Mandarin forms).
(no subject) - chamekke - Aug. 9th, 2014 07:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Aug. 9th, 2014 09:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - redxcrosse - Aug. 8th, 2014 04:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aberwyn - Aug. 8th, 2014 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - redxcrosse - Aug. 8th, 2014 11:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)
Think about this as if it were a review--which it is, only less fully explained. You probably already know from reviews that some will dislike the same work that others love, and you just have to learn what you can, if anything strikes home, and keep on doing what you're doing.

In this case, for me learning would include reading what I could from historians and Chinese (or Chinese-American) authors, but then I'm a researcher by nature & profession. The more I think about it, the more I think you're right not to link & not to engage there.
Aug. 7th, 2014 09:52 pm (UTC)
Complicated indeed!

The colonialism element that you bring up is important, and it's why in addition to advocating for diverse *stories*, people are advocating for diverse *writers*--because people speak with different voices and tell stories differently. People's unique voices are inimitable. But you do support diverse writers! And when it comes to your own writing, you can only be who you are.

If you can give pleasure to people from the culture you're representing with the story you've written--more people than you're upsetting--then I think you're probably doing it okay. As nellorat says, it's like a review: no book will please everyone. And, you're only obliged to consider, thoughtfully, what people say in criticism. You're not obliged to accept it.
Aug. 7th, 2014 10:28 pm (UTC)
My answer to this got long, so I moved it to my own journal.
Aug. 7th, 2014 11:47 pm (UTC)
I think it's better you do it than not as long as you were sincere and conscientious. Here are some links talking about and resources for such stuff:


Aug. 8th, 2014 12:32 am (UTC)
I think everybody should write what they feel the need to write regardless of their status and do it as well as they are capable of doing it and if that's not good enough... well, nothing ever is really. Fail better and all that.

(Then again, I'm not sure how you use a culture as a prop. It's more of a set, to my mind. Hmmm... )
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:35 am (UTC)
I happened to see a reference to this journal entry of yours while I was logging in and I'd like to share my own POV on this topic if you don't mind.
You said:
"So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling."
I understand how that feels. There are so many intricate and exotic cultures around the world that are so much fun for a writer to explore and they're equally fun to read about.
Unfortunately as an American, who was also born and raised a Southerner, I also understand all too well where that reader is coming from.
I long ago reached the point where I don't want Yankees writing ANYTHING set in the American Deep South whether it be modern times or pre-Civil War times. My reason is quite simple. They usually haven't taken the time or effort to do their research before they sit down to write and it shows. Ninety-nine percent of the time their writing is the literary equivalent of a length of toilet paper hanging out of the back of someone's pants, it's so poorly done.
Probably the only person I've come across who does a decent job of writing a story with a pre-Civil War setting is Barbara Hambly. I think her fantasy and science fiction writing that she did early in her career actually gave her the training in world/culture building that she needed to approach the job properly. Too many would-be "southern writers" never realize that the pre-Civil War South is an entirely different culture in every aspect from our modern South even though the two share the same real estate and most of a common language with each other.

As a Southerner, I enjoyed reading Hambly's "Free Man of Color", a novel written about a black man who was born into slavery but set free by the man who took his mother for his mistress. It felt right and it felt right in every tiny bit of detail from beginning to end, so I think she succeeded in writing about a Southern black man even though she is white.

Perhaps what this reader truly objects to is someone who isn't from their culture PRODUCING SHALLOW GARBAGE WITH A SETTING WHICH BEARS ONLY THE VAGUEST RESEMBLANCE TO THEIR CULTURE. That reader might actually like a book written by a white writer who's taken the time and effort to learn the culture thoroughly before they actually sit down to write something set in that culture.
That white writer could also go that extra mile, just as Hambly did, of finding someone of that culture to proofread their book for cultural mistakes.

I hope you'll find some useful food for thought in this.

Aug. 8th, 2014 03:07 am (UTC)
Hambly is also a historian, and college history professor as well as a sf/f writer.
(no subject) - rhodielady_47 - Aug. 8th, 2014 01:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katyakoshka - Aug. 8th, 2014 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhodielady_47 - Aug. 8th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylviamcivers - Aug. 11th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhodielady_47 - Aug. 12th, 2014 12:50 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 8th, 2014 03:27 am (UTC)
Hiromi Goto's Wiscon speech addresses your issue to some extent. I'm including a quote but it's not a full representation of what she said so I encourage you to read (or re-read) the whole speech.

I don’t think the “burden of representation” rests upon the shoulders of those who are positioned as under-represented. If this were the case we would fall into an essentialist trap that will serve no one well. However, I’m okay with saying that it is my hope that white writers who are interested in writing about cultures and subjectivities outside of their own consider very carefully: 1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?
Aug. 8th, 2014 11:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for that. I'm going to use that link and quote in the comments over on my main website, as it's rather dead-on.
Aug. 8th, 2014 10:52 am (UTC)
I have to wonder if the main reason you were criticized was because of your usage of a historical Chinese figure. I don't know what you wrote about the character, so I don't know if your Bi Sheng was an oc or not. I do know that Bi Sheng is a chinese historical figure with pretty unique name so that may be one reason.

Also, always keep in mind that when you start talking about another culture you don't really know anything about, you're bound to get things wrong. Cultural nuances aren't always easy to search. There may be a whole host of things you skipped over without knowledge or intent. To you it will always be an honest mistake but to a person of that culture, you may have just insulted them.

In my book, diversity is okay no matter who it's written by but you should try to keep things in your own culture. Writing about an asian american would be much easier than writing about someone from the Yuan dynasty. If you do really want to write about another culture, have someone from that culture beta for you.

Edited at 2014-08-08 10:52 am (UTC)
Aug. 8th, 2014 11:54 am (UTC)
I was using the historical figure, but Bi Sheng wasn't a character who appeared in the book; he was simply referenced as being involved with the development of printing in China, and the magic that went along with it.
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:07 pm (UTC)
I'm actually having fun adapting a Japanese story based on a Chinese legend (the one about the two snakes who become human and one falls in love with a scholar) to 1980s Minnesota. The story was called Bewitched and it was written in the 1700s I believe and it's from the perspective that the human who falls in love with the snake is letting down his family.

Anyhow adapting it is an interesting task since cultural values such as family being everything need to be translated in different ways - and no matter how close a Midwestern family might be, they are not all going to be living under one roof and taking orders from the father figure. I also had to turn the theft of a sacred object from a temple into a murder because that seems to be how serious the action is in the original story.

I am cautious about using stories about Asian culture mostly because I wrote a novel that attempted to tribute the Hong Kong movies taht I loved in the 90s and it's pretty cringe-worthy (thankfully never published) in retrospect, but putting a big sign that says "ONLY X can write about X culture" is silly. Even when Y writes about x culture is can be good and true. And even if it's not there are usually some opportunities for unintentional comedy (like writers describing Jewish characters as "looking like an Old Testament prophet" - it's always Irish writers taht do it too).
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Jim C. Hines


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