Obviously, cultural appropriation is a touchy subject and I can understand why. There are good arguments as to why it’s inappropriate in certain instances, but alternatively, there are also times when it’s taken too far. In the world of social media, the loudest voices aren’t always on the right side of the debate.
From the standpoint of a fiction writer, cultural appropriation is something I think about when I have an idea for a story. Because I read a wide variety of authors from different backgrounds and cultures, my ideas tend to pull bits and pieces from these sources. And it’s not just fiction. I read a fair number of non-fiction books, as well. I enjoy reading history, biographies, and books covering different areas of science. This means my imagination is full of ideas from all parts of the world.
One thing I decided to do when I began to get serious about my fiction writing was to not focus solely on white male protagonists. I mean, sure, a few of my main characters fit this description, but overall, I try my best to write characters ambiguously. I want readers to be able to picture a character as they see fit. What better way to draw a reader into a story than to allow them the opportunity to see themselves – or someone like them – as the main character?
But in doing this, am I crossing a line?
One of my favorite stories that I’ve written, “Sunwalker” (published in Space & Time magazine and in my first collection of short stories), has a Native American as the protagonist. The idea came to me in a dream, a young man standing on a mesa at sunset, looking over the desert. I didn’t think much about him being Native American. I just found him interesting and wanted to see where his journey would lead me.
Writing the story, I purposely avoided talking about his tribal affiliation because I didn’t know enough to be truthful in the story. The same goes for the mythology I used. I didn’t pull from any particular Native-American legend, but instead used a bit of what I knew and added a little to it. Overall, the cultural aspect was in the background. The focus of the story was my protagonist and his journey.
But was it cultural appropriation?
According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation is, “the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.” It goes on to state that it occurs when, “these elements are used outside of their original cultural context.”
Based on this, I don’t think my story fits this definition. It’s a work of fiction and, while my protagonist is Native American and a variation of a creation myth is used as a plot point, the story uses these elements within the context of the culture.
For fiction writers, I think there’s more leeway when it comes to writing about other cultures and including characters of various genders, ethnicities, and sexual identities. Unless we’re writing something hateful or incendiary, I feel it’s much better to be inclusive than non-inclusive.
Of course, there will always be those loud voices screaming into the social network void about whatever has riled them up at the moment, but we can ignore them. The point is that as long as we write respectfully, there’s no harm done. Let’s focus on telling good stories and appealing to a broad range of readers.
I want my stories to reflect real life as much as possible, and with there being so much variety in the human race, why limit myself to the same stereotypical tropes over and over again?