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‘Rick and Morty’ – Why do we love Rick?


‘Rick and Morty’ is a much-beloved animated TV show that follows a nihilistic super-genius scientist (Rick) and his hapless grandson (Morty) on madcap adventures involving time-travel, dimension-hopping and interstellar travel.

If you haven’t seen the show, its popularity might seem strange when you learn that Rick Sanchez is one of the most unpleasant characters on television. He’s the hero of the show, but he’s also a high-functioning alcoholic who constantly wears a splash of discoloured saliva on his chin, belches obnoxiously mid-sentence, and generally does whatever takes his fancy or whatever will further his quest for scientific discovery – including theft, cold-blooded murder and brutally insulting his family members, which whom he lives.

Rick 5

To Rick, young Morty is a “walking burlap sack of turds”. He calls his grandchildren “pieces of shit” and claims he can prove it mathematically. He said of Jerry, his daughter Beth’s cowardly self-victimising husband, “You survive because people think ‘Oh, this poor piece of shit, he never gets a break, I can’t stand the deafening silent wails of his wilting soul, I’ll hire him or marry him’.”


Rick asserts that he is “surrounded by inferior pieces of shit” and savagely insults the intelligence of his mostly-likeable grandkids and just about anyone else around him. Granted, he is a proven genius of significant resource and guile, so his arrogance may not be misplaced. But he is undoubtedly mean, selfish and disgusting.

Rick 2

So why is Rick one of the most likeable characters on the show?

Could it lie in the show’s great writing?

Most of the characters on ‘Rick and Morty’ are three-dimensional and endearing, despite possessed of some pretty serious emotional problems. The success of the show could come down to the balancing of its fine comedy (at the same time blindingly intelligent and scatological) against its ability to make us care about the characters, their flaws, and the promise of their redemption. Even Jerry’s doomed marriage to Beth (they are described as co-dependent and hateful of both themselves and each other) is a point of remorse for the characters’ many fans.

Viewers were unexpectedly moved in an early episode, when Morty is forced to replace a dead version of himself in a parallel reality and carry on with his life as though nothing happened. Morty sits on the sofa with the doppelgangers of his family, staring at an identical version of his home in bewilderment.

On the surface, Rick is vicious, egotistical and self-centred. But the show gradually reveals his nihilistic world-view (or universes-view), which might explain his often-dour expression. Nothing matters in an uncaring reality, he would say. Rick abandoned his daughter as a child to pursue his scientific endeavours and never showed any sign of regret, even though Beth’s abandonment issues are the reason she is trapped in a depressing marriage and is too afraid to confront her dad about the dungeon he built under their garage where he imprisons aliens.

Rick 1

And yet, in the Season 2 finale, Rick sacrifices his freedom for the sake of his family, a moment meaningfully underscored by “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails. Rick’s nonsensical catchphrase, always said with verve and a smile, is revealed to secretly translate as “I am in great pain, please help me”.

But it isn’t Rick’s unforced depth of character, unusual for an animated TV series, that makes a largely hateful man likable.

It’s because no matter his methods, Rick is good at what he does.

It would be pointless to list Rick’s fictional scientific achievements (like the microscopic universe containing a civilization he created to power his car battery), but they are beside the point. It’s Rick’s surety and expertise that frequently save the day.

This essay on writing from writer Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) explains the need to have your protagonist be good at what they do – He calls it establishing your authority. By showing your reader that your protagonist really knows what they’re talking about, you are creating a character that not only feels real, but is endearing. No matter how flawed or even evil your character may be, if they are an expert at something then there is something for the reader to admire. At the same time, the reader will trust you to tell a story that is convincing:

“Prove to your reader that you’ve done your research. That your narrator is the best, most-qualified person to tell this story. This method won’t engage the reader emotionally […] but it can be impressive and compelling.”

Palahniuk calls this the “Head Method”. It counterbalances the more common “Heart Method”, appealing to your character’s feelings and making them emotionally believable.

“You could also argue that Tom Clancy uses the Head Method. The way military and government procedures and technology are used to assure a reader that the protagonist is smart and trained – and therefore worth spending time with. This includes wonderful insider, jargon-y language.”

Palahniuk refers to The Contortionist’s Handbook, a novel by Craig Clevenger, who uses “a wealth of information to establish the narrator’s authority as a forger – a criminal so adept at his job that we can forgive his crimes because we’re so impressed by his obsessive, methodical work habits and skill.”

Palahnium knows what he’s talking about: One of the best things about Fight Club (book or film) is that every other line is a bit of information you didn’t know – what goes into a homemade bomb, or how a cinema project reel works. Learning as you go, you begin to intimiately trust the narrator as well as the writer. You realise you’re reading “something good”, not to mention informative and fun.

Rick is an arsehole, but he can always explain a complicated situation and how he is going to resolve it. Whether it’s more basic expositional dialogue, like explaining the characteristics of a particular alien race to the clueless Morty, or filling the viewer in on the plot so far, the result is that Rick is shown to be knowledgeable and capable.

How capable is Rick? In one episode he finds himself transformed into a sentient pickle, unable to move, and washed into a sewer. When anyone else would shrivel up and rot, Rick bites the head off a cockroach, uses his tongue to stimulate the nerves in its exposed brain, and uses its corpse to build an exoskeleton out of rat bones and sinew. Soon enough he’s on his way home to get himself de-picklised. The episode is a celebration of his unbridled genius, even though meanwhile his family is in a therapy session discussing Rick’s unrelenting selfishness.

Rick 6

But the ‘Head Method’ is as dicey a writing approach as any other. Take it too far and you run the risk of realising the ‘unique protagonist asset‘ trope, basically making your hero a superhero and suspending disbelief (Think MacGyver making a functional defibrillator out of some candlesticks and a live wire). A moderate example would be Jason Bourne, whose excellent combat skills set him apart from his foes even though he doesn’t remember how he got them.

‘Rick and Morty’ has come highly recommended by me for some time, but it’s only the most recent two seasons that have shown Rick at his worst, and at his best. For writers looking for tips on characterisation, pay close attention to the twisted psychology of Beth and Jerry and the co-dependent conflict evident in their marriage, and the scientific brilliance of an otherwise hateful Rick.

Imagine a Rick who was bad at science, who had no expertise at all … Would he still be likeable?


A temporary notice to clients

Dear current and future clients,

I will be unavailable for work between 26th April and 6th May 2018.

I will have some limited access to my emails, so please feel free to send any queries or quote requests that you might like me to look at upon my return.

This will not affect any current, ongoing projects.

With kind regards,


Bollywood’s latest legal wrangle is more than a petty squabble


You may not have heard, since British news seems largely uninterested in covering the story, but a Bollywood film has had major attention across India this week. “Padmavat”, the story of a Hindu rani defying a Muslim ruler, has been barred from release in four of India’s states. Since November, India’s High Court has been involved to overturn the local bans amidst a violent outcry.

The film stars favourite leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who have previously been paired up in similar epics Ram-Leela, a 2013 Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy, and Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Why the uproar? Although specific complaints have been about the sexualised treatment of Rajput legendary figure Padmavati (the “i” was removed from the film’s name in a superficial bid to appease some, following a recommendation by the Central Board of Film Certification, who approved the film’s release uncut). In a single scene, Muslim ‘king’ Alauddin Khilji dreams of a saucy tryst with the revered beauty Padmavati, the depiction of which has outraged Hindus across India.

To be clear, the film is not, strictly speaking, a romantic picture. So what is the real problem?

As usual, it’s about Hindus and Muslims, who just can’t seem to get along. It’s not surprising following centuries of invasions, massacres, Partition, heated rhetoric and ongoing bloody conflict. Frustrating is the way that the two sides can’t leave history where it belongs, in the past, and work towards a future of peace and cooperation. It’s easy for me to say. But it’s also easy to do. One simply puts down the sword.

I’ve simplified: it’s not just about Hindus and Muslims. It’s also about India and Pakistan, and about women and men. Women have a pretty shit deal in both countries. Padmavati is idolised as a powerful woman, despite her act of power being sati, suicide-by-fire. In this case her self-immolation was to protect herself from being ravaged by the enemy, but almost always sati was and is an act of social pressure and culturally-imbued madness on behalf of a widow, whose death must inevitably follow that of her husband if she is to remain pure and respectful. She does not, in any real sense, feel like she has a choice. I myself have seen the red paint handprints on walls of village buildings and forts that were the historic signatures of those about to die because of men.

I would like to say that the film controversy is, in some way, in sisterhood with the powerful MeToo movement/s here in the West, but it’s not. Boil it down, and it’s still about Hindus and Muslims.

So powerful is the outrage that the as-yet unreleased film has inspired the following:

  • Mass protests across large portions of the country, primarily Hindu-strong regions such as Rajasthan
  • Legal attempts to ban the film, or at least censor it
  • The invasion of the film set by one of India’s growing sinister caste groups, and personal attacks on the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Vandalism of cinemas who hadn’t denounced the film
  • Threats of violence against the lead actress, Padukone
  • The burning of effigies of Bhansali, and
  • A £1m+ bounty on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali.

Bhansali has denied that the film includes such a sequence at all.

But such is the mass madness that comes with the peculiar mob mentality of some Indians. Fuelled by ignorance of the truth, validated by the belief that they are on the side of God or gods, and buoyed by centuries of bloodshed and bigotry (against both faith and gender), violence has washed across the country yet again.

Padmavati is not a historical figure, but a fictional heroine, here portrayed in a work of fiction.

Is it naive to expect sense from hordes who are lit on such fuel? Yes, obviously, but to paraphrase Lenon, I’m not the only dreamer. My India novel ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ was a necessarily naive novel, written from the outside by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the ancient fued between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Only, I do have a stake, and it is a desire for less death and suffering in the world, on behalf of humanity, and as a member of the human race I was more than happy to speak out in my own modest if offensive way.

When I passed free copies of ‘Cycles’ to my Indian and Pakistani friends I was always told that the first chapter was good. But then followed silence. The novel is about the growing pains of modern India, a grand attestation I make, with some embarrassment, through a more modest analogy of teen rabblerousers in Rajasthan. In part it is also about the romance between near-atheist Hindu boy, Shivlal, and near-irreverent Muslim girl, Mariam. Told, I hope, sweetly, but paying due respect, I also hope, to the fierce history that precedes my shallow experience with the societies involved, I expected the star-crossed romance to go by without much offense caused. My desi friends, after all, were worldly-wise and, in their small ways, irreverent of their own traditions to get involved with this gora backpacker/kafir scribbler. But their silence spoke volumes.

I make explanations for my naivety: It is naivety that will allow dreams to pave the way for future change. I make explanations but not excuses, since I was deliberately naive, and because an ‘enforced naivety’ – the choosing to forget about the things that don’t matter, in order to make things better for ourselves and our children – is what India and Pakistan need. But who am I to say this? I am a human stakeholder, that’s who.

It’s hard for me to hide my sad, weary disappointment. There is a lot of love in the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. But passion is a double-edged sword, and it continues to threaten to slice on both swings. I hope that there can be some new peace and cooperation found once this latest scandal blows over.


The BBC has given some small coverage to the controversy, here, here and here.

You can read about ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here. 50% of profits go to Action Village India.

I strongly encourage discussion on this and related matters! Leave a comment here or email me at davidbrookesuk(at)gmail(dot)com.


Murakami Dram #02 – Sputnik Sweetheart


Oh, Winter sets in. The days, not just the evenings, are bitterly cold. For hours my fingertips have been icy  – more than one woman has complained of my cold hands, a “symptom of my gentle heart” – and even though the radiator is on behind my sofa I still need a thick sweater to keep off the chill.

It is 21:04 on a Monday, and I am cold inside.

Beside me is a glass of Château L’Estran Médoc – that’s a red. Red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature, but even though it’s been far from the fridge for the best part of a week, the glass is still cool to the touch. I feel obliged to warm it up in my palm like a snifter of brandy.

Trust me to pick a Murakami book that features neither whiskey nor jazz.



Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the first Murakami novels I read. My edition is from 2002, in the bold translation by Philip Gabriel. It is rough around the edges – the book, not the novel, which is as crisp as a new banknote – its pages faded to sepia, bolstering the vivid black-and-whiteness of its cover. The erotic cover photo was taken by Nobuyoshi Araki, a prolific and borderline-pornographic artist from Tokyo. He photographed Bjӧrk. He shot Lady Gaga contorted in ropes. Sputnik Sweetheart is Haruki Murakami’s most sexually-charged novel.


The brief is “find the jazz in the book and listen, find the whiskey in the book and imbibe, read the words and splash a few of my own down.”

But in the 229 pages of sensuality and strangeness that is Sputnik Sweetheart, I find no mention of whiskey. There is, astonishingly for Murakami, not a single jazz number mentioned. Perhaps it is because it is a woman-driven narrative, and these are dreary man things, things that men can linger on and forget to. Sputnik is instead filled with classical and wine:


According to her father, her mother had chosen the name Sumire. She loved the Mozart song of the same name and had decided long before that if she had a daughter that would be her name.


Sumire is, arguably, the protagonist of the book. Young and creative, unable to string her thoughts into the coherent novel she hopes to write, this 22-year-old dreamer’s name means “violet”. Like the flower, she is a fragile, vulnerable, and – as the nameless male narrator who loves her points out – exquisite.

And the exquisite Sumire thinks she is strange for never feeling any romantic or sexual desire until she meets Miu, a woman 17 years her senior. Miu is married and has a cultured lifestyle funded by, it seems, the sourcing and trading of fine wine that she sells to her Japanese clientele.

No wonder there’s little whiskey but lots of vino in the book.

Sumire’s unconventional love story is told by “K”, who has loved her for a long time. He is a teacher (Couldn’t I have been!) whose dead-end affairs with married women seem to be a substitute for his unrequited affection and throbbing desire for sweet Sumire, who appears largely oblivious. She calls up K from a payphone in the middle of the night, waking him up, and he doesn’t object. He wants to hear her voice. He’s that pathetic – or that in love.

So that’s the theme, I thought when I re-read it. Something crunched a little within me.


So there’s no jazz this time, either – I picked a belter for my second entry in this series, didn’t I? – but there’s a touch of bossa nova and a sprinkle of swing:


  • I folded my hands behind my head and watched Sumire as she slowly yet eagerly devoured her cake. From the small speakers on the ceiling of the coffee shop Astrud Gilberto sang an old bossa nova song. “Take me to Aruanda,” she sang. I closed my eyes, and the clatter of the cups and saucers sounded like the roar of a far-off sea. Aruanda – what’s it like there? I wondered. (p.33-34)


  • “If I were a good-for-nothing lesbian [says Sumire to K, confused by her feelings for Miu] would you still be my friend?”

“Whether you’re a good-for nothing lesbian or not doesn’t matter [K replies]. Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus ‘Mack the Knife’. That’s what my life would be like without you.”

“I’m not sure I follow your metaphor, but what you mean is you’d feel really lonely?”

“That’s about the size of it,” I said.


Swing would spoil the mood, I think. If Sputnik were a piece of music, it’s much more likely to be the springy Latin jive of Astrud’s bossa nova. This is the music I listen to as I unscrew the wine, wait for a glass to warm and breathe, and drink.


You’re supposed to describe the bouquet of a wine, aren’t you? Is that what I’m expected to do? I wanted whiskey. I’m not much of a wine drinker. The last person who made me drink wine lives half a country away and isn’t someone I particularly want to speak to again. She was the sort of person who is impressed by a wine connoisseur, who finds learned commentary on which-goes-with-what an admirable trait.

Good luck to her, I think, not enamored with my judgemental side.

I would describe the bouquet of the wine as “red”.


Happily, part of the novel is about writing. It’s not especially enlightening, though. We won’t get much insight into Murakami’s (near) masterful prose construction. But Sputnik is a fine example of tight writing: there is very little flab, and the bits that you think are flab turn out to be relevant later on, and their conspicuous irrelevance glows with hidden meaning. Those pieces aren’t irrelevant, you realise. You just haven’t understood their relevance yet.

Sumire clings onto her dream of being a novelist into her twenties (around the same time that I was wrapping up a BA in English and Writing, still hopeful myself). It’s only her mother’s financial support that allows her to continue to dream:


Sumire might very well have been thrown out – penniless, without the necessary social skills – into the wilderness of a somewhat humourless reality. The Earth, after all, doesn’t creak and groan its way around the sun just so human beings can have a good time and a bit of a laugh. (p.12)


How true, Mister Murakami. It’s something that I’ve had to remind myself of lately, wishing I’d forsaken a creative education for something more practical. The further away from that decision I get, the more I realise my true life and the alternate reality of success have diverged. In one’s twenties a creative personality is interesting, alluring even. In one’s thirties its lifestyle smacks of man-childishness, of miserable loserhood.

But wait, there’s more on writing! Sumire blames her writer’s block on having recently stopped smoking. Because she can’t smoke, she can’t write. But she admits that it’s an excuse:


“What really upsets me is I don’t have confidence any more in the act of writing itself. I read the stuff I wrote not long ago, and it’s boring. What could I have been thinking? It’s like looking across the room at some filthy socks tossed on the floor. I feel awful, realising all the time and energy I wasted.” (p.54)


“Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong … The world’s crawling with stupid, innocent girls, and I’m just one of them, self-consciously chasing after dreams that’ll never come true. I should shut the piano lid and come down off the stage. Before it’s too late.” (p.55)


How I know that feeling. I came close to giving up writing in 2013. After the girl now across the country, after the trip across the world that led nowhere, after something near rock-bottom, I decided that my work was shit and the future I dreamed of was hopeless. One or two very nice people encouraged me to keep going. I gave myself a fun little project to see if I could reignite my passion, and the result was The Gun of Our Maker, a Western, written almost entirely for me. It’s perhaps the favourite thing of mine that I’ve ever written, maybe even the best. But it’s a Western, so obviously it didn’t find a publisher. I’m happy with that.

Go back before the nowhere trip, before the office job that nearly shattered me, before the first thing I ever had published (Half Discovered Wings, Libros International, 2009), back to university when I didn’t need to think about the future. And there I met people who were the same as me for the first time in my life, and pretty much for the last time, too. Some of them were a mess, some of them were beautiful, some of them were beautiful messes, and one of them I loved.

I think of what we all wrote and talked about back then, over wine much like this Château L’Estran Médoc I’m working my way through (glass three forthcoming), and I remember times that were both the best and the worst. Far from the Dickensian sense, these were times that defined me and that I’ve moved so far away from that I can barely remember, and yet I’m still tied to them. I could almost recount more stories from those three years than I can in most of the 15 years I’ve lived since. I have journals full of them, most of which scream with pain. Like K and Sumire, the one I loved didn’t love me back, and maybe that’s why I love Sputnik Sweetheart.


It’s 22:04. The wine is heavy and dusty. The Médoc that Miu and Sumire drink together (p.51), long before Sumire’s ill-advised but inevitable attempt at seduction, is almost as old as I am, but Tesco doesn’t stock a 31-year-old Médoc, so I was obliged to settle for the oldest and most expensive Médoc that they did have, which was from 2010. Seven years. Where was I seven years ago? 2010, soon after the conclusion of my Master’s degree, in almost-doomed Writing. I’d found a job on the fifth floor of a Sheffield city centre building beside the City Hall, and when I looked out through the boss’ window during a private meeting I thought that I was moving up, that things were coming together.

How are the wine and music co-mingling? I’m not sure. Astrud on YouTube has a long autoplay life: she’s been going for an hour and bounces from mellow lounge jazz to acid jazz to full-blown Brazilian Firestarter. She’s become background music, a blur of sweet accented vocals and wind instruments, and the wine has made my tongue numb and fingers heavy.


I’m re-reading a scene in which Sumire calls K at about 3 in the morning. He wakes, he talks to her, they discuss things that are both meaningful and utterly meaningless.


I drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon floating in the sky like some pale, clever orphan. I knew that I wouldn’t get back to sleep […] I sat, reading, waiting for the dawn.


When I was at university my love would call me, and I’d be ecstatic to wake to the jolt of the phone. This would be between semesters, between years, in the long weeks between seeing her. Back then going home to my mother’s felt alien, temporary. It would, a few years later, become my home again. But at that time I’d wake to my love’s call and wonder where I was, and I’d look out of the open window, as we talked shit for two hours, across the fields and trees, hearing the distant swish of traffic, and have silly night-dreams.


Also during university was when I would get drunk. It wasn’t that often, and still isn’t. Those nights at clubs weren’t especially fun for me. I don’t dance. I’m the kid who stood at the edge of the room at school discos. When I dance, people laugh at how awkward I am and I’m obliged to acknowledge it and laugh with them. Drunk then, like drunk now, is having a slow body but a quick mind trapped inside, along with quick music on the outside that makes my body feel even slower.

Sluggish, I pour a touch more Médoc. It’s not an unpleasant feeling after a long few weeks. Up or down, back or forth, I don’t know where I’m going. I feel like a knot in the middle of a tangle of elastic bands stretched wide: things jingle me here, jangle me there, and I have the impression of being moved, and yet I’m still where I was, a knot in the middle going nowhere.


In the book, K gets letters from Sumire. She’s been on travels with Miu. K has no idea if they’re involved. It’s not clear if he’s jealous. When he slices open the envelope to remove her letter, I’m reminded of the letters my love would send me between Years One and Two, in reply to the ones I’d send her. Handwritten, a dumb anachronism even in 2003, more so now. I miss the tactile nature of them, the whorl of someone’s idiosyncratic handwriting. I write my journals by hand now. She features sometimes. Not often.

My lips are numb. Because my glass is small, I’m barely down to half a bottle. Work tomorrow. Mustn’t overdo it. Just allow the melding of music and tipple and wordplay.

Reading Sumire’s letters through K’s eyes, I feel how he goes about his small life before and after opening those envelopes. He loves her, but he is apart from her, and he just moves about his empty apartment, goes about his business: cooks a meal, goes out for a few hours, comes home. Meanwhile he thinks about what she’s written, tries to read between the lines.

On page 92, Miu calls K from Greece. She and Sumire have been staying at a sunny villa there, but something has happened. Miu can’t go into details; it’s too strange. The call has come in the middle of the night. Miu asks K to come, to the villa on the Greek island. He does; he goes right there.

One time, my love texted me in the middle of the night and I knew that she was upset. I didn’t know what the problem was. She was like me: up and down. Hair trigger, sometimes. Thinking too deeply, feeling to acutely. I got up in the middle of the night and went to her. Her dorms were miles away from mine, and I was a student so I couldn’t afford a taxi. I walked, completely misjudging the distance. For a long time. She tried to dissuade me, saying without saying that she had already pushed other people away that night. She didn’t want to do that with me, too. I went anyway. I arrived and found someone else there. Another concerned lover. She went into the kitchen and made us both tea. It took a long time. I didn’t say a word to the other lover. It made me cold from the inside out. It had brought me outside of myself, made me realise that there were real things beyond my fantasies. I don’t recall whether I finished the tea. I wrote a few bad poems about the experience.

Is this the power of Murakami’s writing: to poignantly make us feel something like unrequited love without ever using the phrase “unrequited love”? Or else to so deftly conjure an adolescent feeling from long ago that it’s just a story now?

Poor K. He goes to help Sumire, and arrives at the island to find that she’s disappeared. Rejected by Miu, she just up and disappeared in her pyjamas. No-one knows to where. Now they have both lost her, and possibly she has lost herself. The impression is that she has gone to some other place, somewhere she can exist apart from herself and the hurtful things that life has brought to her. She is a fragile violet, a proverbial “shrinking violet”. Injured by the things that most of us suffer in life, she steps away somehow. Her disappearance is an unsolved mystery.


So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us – that’s snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness. (p.225)


Well, damn. Even Astrid is dampening the fast beat of her melodies against the slow shutting-down brought about by the wine:


Now he’s gone away
And I’m alone
With a memory of his last look
Vague and drawn and sad
I see it still
All the heartbreak in his last look


But the mixture hasn’t brought about a sadness, despite the drawn-out melancholy of the literature. I wanted to experiment with the combination, to see how the sound and sips of Murakami’s fictional reality accentuate, or in some way endorse, his written word. This time there is a disconnect. The wine is weighty and affecting, but probably because I’ve hardly eaten today. My mood before the wine has drawn the wine into it; the wine has created nothing. The music draws me out. Maybe if I’d sampled the classical music that peppers the book – Mozart, Brahms – I would have felt something more powerful than distant, blanched feelings of a nigh-immemorial heartbreak, inspired by what I found in the pages of the book.

Next time I’ll plumb a longer text, maybe – Kafka on the Shore beckons, my first Murakami, my window into his surreality. But I know that I’m drawn to somewhere else, somewhere south of the border, west of the sun.


Murakami Dram #01 – ‘Men Without Women’

It’s 20:38 on a Tuesday evening. It gets dark early now, before five. I left the office in darkness and, today, in rain. My feet were wet by the time I got home; I stripped off my soggy socks and got changed. In my coat pocket was a roll of goat’s cheese, ripe for crackers. This I put in the fridge. I snapped the kettle on to warm myself up.

Now stretched out on the sofa in comfortable clothes, with Art Tatum’s grainy 1940s cheerful piano solos filling my small apartment, I twist the cap off a minibar-size bottle of Dewar’s White Label whiskey and pour its contents into a heavy-bottomed glass tumbler. The lights are turned down low.

It’s time for my first Murakami Dram.


In my last post I outlined the simple plan. Whilst re-reading Haruki Murakami’s surrealistic, melancholic, effortless prose, I will take my cues from his characters and listen to their jazz, drink their brands of whiskey in the way that they like it, and revisit some of my favourite passages from the novels.

These posts aren’t reviews, more gentle thought experiments. For my own amusement, and perhaps yours, I’ll experience the unique combination of dram, tune and written word provided my Murakami-san and see what spills out of that subtle change of consciousness. Who knows – perhaps I’ll enter a Murakami mindset and tap into his genius? Or maybe, more likely, I’ll just have a fun time.

In this first post I’m reading Murakami’s Onna no inai Otakotachi, or Men Without Women (Penguin Random House, 2017), in the translation by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen.


Men Without Women is Murakami’s latest, released earlier this year in fancy hardback. It is his second collection of short stories in translation, brought together under the theme of men ruminating on their relationships with women. Like any collection, some stories are better than others.

I’m sure that every novel by this understated but highly-rated Japanese author features his trademark mentions of jazz, whiskey and women. The motifs are so common that his global fans, especially his Japanese followers (unsurprisingly middle-aged men) frequently gather to drink a few measures to some soulful tunes and discuss his work. No doubt they were gutted that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature again this year, as was I.

Let’s start with the jazz. As expected there were a few mentions in “Men Without Women”. In the story “Drive my Car”, protagonist Kafuku sips a “single malt whiskey in the booth at the bar” more than once, though there are no brands mentioned. In the story “Kino”, a visitor to Kino’s jazz bar places an order:


He raised his hand an inch or two to motion Kino over, and ordered a whiskey. “Which brand?” Kino asked, but the man said he had no preference.

“Just an ordinary sort of Scotch. A double. Add an equal amount of water and a little bit of ice, if you would.”

An ordinary sort of Scotch? Kino poured some White Label into a glass, added the same amount of water, chipped off ice with an ice pick, and added two small, nicely formed ice cubes. The man took a sip, scrutinized the glass, and narrowed his eyes. “This will do fine.”


It turns out that there is more than one brand of “White Label.” My supermarket offered a large bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch, but I ended up ordering a teeny-sized double measure from Amazon instead. It’s been sitting on my kitchen counter for a couple of weeks, as life threw its usual mixture of best and worst at me.

Next, the jazz.

There’s got to be a mention of jazz in there somewhere. I scoured the book a second time after the enjoyable first reading and was surprised to confirm that it really was 153 pages before there was any mention. Only the story “Kino” mentions music, which isn’t shocking considering it’s about the owner of a bar:

  • ‘Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence, and loneliness soak in. He listened to a lot of Art Tatum solo piano pieces. Somehow they seemed to fit his mood.’ (“Kino”, p.153)
  • ‘As always, Kamita was at the farthest stool down the counter, sipping a White Label and water and reading. The two men were seated at a table, drinking a bottle of Haut-Medoc […] The two men smoked a lot, though, which for Kino, who hated cigarette smoke, made them less welcome. With little else to do, Kino sat on a stool and listened to the Coleman Hawkins LP with the track “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He found the bass solo by Major Holley amazing.’ (“Kino”, p.154-155)
  • ‘That night, though, the woman came to the bar alone. There were no other customers. It had been raining for a long time, and when she opened the door cool night air crept into the bar, carrying with it the scent of rain. She sat at the bar, ordered a brandy, and asked Kino to play some Billie Holiday. “Something really old, if you could.” Kino put a Columbia record on the turntable, one with the track “Georgia on My Mind.” The two of them listened silently. “Could you play the other side, too?” she asked, when it ended, and he did as she requested. She slowly worked her way through three brandies, listening to a few more records – Erroll Garner’s “Moon-glow,” Buddy DeFranco’s “I can’t Get Started.” […] She just sat there, listening to the music, lost in thought, sipping her brandy.’ (“Kino”, p.162)
  • ‘All he wished for was some music. Teddy Wilson, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton – sometimes he longer desperately to listen to their old-time jazz, with its steady, dependable technique and its straightforward chords. He wanted to feel the pure joy they had in performing, their wonderful optimism. That was the kind of music Kino sought, music that no longer existed. But his record collection was far away.’ (“Kino”, p.178)


It takes me a while to write up the mentions above. I’ve yet to take my first sip of White Label, with an equal measure of water, plus ice. The cubes aren’t “perfectly formed”, more like shallow oblongs, so I’ve thrown in three instead of two. The idea behind ice in whiskey is to soften its harsh burn, should it be that kind of tipple – so too with water. Perhaps both water and ice is redundant, but this is how the strange visitor to Kino’s bar, Kamita, drinks it, and so this is how I will.

It’s only fitting that I re-read the story “Kino”, since it’s the main source of both the whiskey and the jazz. It’s a story of a man who loses his wife, coolly shrugging off the pain of her infidelity, and opens a bar that soon becomes successful. In typical Murakami style, the story takes strange dreamlike turns, featuring an aloof and wounded young lady, smouldering with sexuality and sadness; a procession of snakes; and a force of darkness that soon traps Kino in a place so lonely and isolated that he’s forced to confront his situation as a man without a woman.

As I open the book for the third time, my Art Tatum piano solos have tinkled out. I uncovered a ten minute version of Coleman Hawkins’ “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” on YouTube. It’s riotous, almost disrespectful of the original tune (his take on a slave song from the 1800s, based on the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho, in which Joshua led the Israelites against Canaan (Wikipedia tells me this is Joshua 6:15-21) under the auspices of God. This version is instrumental (not counting the fuzzy, indecipherable scat), lacking the punch of the Hugh Laurie cover I’ve been listening to for the last six years. It’s fun, and reasonably fitting for the story’s opening pages. I let YouTube fetch a few more jazzy Hawkins numbers to carry me through to the second act.

The watered down White Label is very pleasant. It’s smooth going down, leaving only an after-sensation of something having scraped my pharynx. The coolness of the ice makes it feel light. The jazz puts me in a pleasant mood; my blues have long floated away, and a candle is burning down, and I’m conscious of the subtle scrape of the pages as I turn them in my (slightly overpriced but pretty) hardback volume.

After all the prep for this post, by the time that I get a few pages into the story – the part where Kino catches his wife having an affair with best friend and subsequently quits his job, soon to open his bar – the whiskey has given me a pleasant buzz. I’m enjoying the music. There is only a trace of the ache behind my eyes that my day job gives me. And I’m relaxed.

Kino’s problems make me think about how many others suffer such cruel, but common, fates. No blame is ascribed to either Kino or his wife. My stance on cheating is that it is hardly ever acceptable. Forgivable, eventually, as most things are. I’m lucky enough to have only been cheated on one time (as far as I know). Like Kino, I walked away without feeling much of a sting. Also like Kino, I carried it with me without realising, and it’s affected by relationships since, not just with women but with friends and family. Everyone cheats, it seems. No-one seems to be faithful in the way that I have been.

Time for a deeper draught of the old White Label, I think.

When Kino tells his aunt that he’d like to rent her space (to convert into a bar) and admits that he and his wife will soon be divorcing, she is silent for a while. Then she offers him a discounted rate. Did she instinctively sense that he was hurt? Was she empathising, or sympathising? Just how many people have suffered as the result of people being shitty to one another, anyway?

YouTube has morphed away from My Hawkins and into something else. I summon Billie Holiday from amongst a thousand other versions of “Georgia on My Mind”. Is she singing about the place, or a person? The mind is exceptional for keeping someone just under the surface, all day every day, until the hurt heals over. I choose to believe that the brain is wonderful for finding a way to eventually heal from the pain, rather than finding a way to dwell on it.


He wasn’t sure why, but he felt no anger or bitterness toward his wife, or the colleague she was sleeping with. The betrayal had been a shock, for sure, but, as time passed, he began to feel as if it couldn’t have been helped, as if this has been his fate all along […] He couldn’t make anyone else happy, and, of course, couldn’t make himself happy. Happiness? He wasn’t even sure what that meant.


Surprisingly, the music is keeping me chipper. Billie Holiday performed the blues in the way that made them popular: cheerfully. A release from the weight that melancholy brings, by unlocking it with word and voice, but then carrying it away on melodies that bring lightness and cheer.


Love me or leave me or let me be lonely.
You won’t believe me, I love you only.
I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else.

—Billie Holiday, Love Me or Leave Me


In Kino, a regular customer – a soulful woman with an abusive partner – listens to Billie and Erroll and Buddy and then shows Kino the scars of her past. She has “something special about her, something that stood out”. In a particularly so-called male-fantasy way, the sultry woman takes control of the situation, then leaves Kino alone in his bed at some point in the night. He surveys his own wounds – scratches, bites, an aching penis. Even fantasy encounters hurt, apparently. But not as much as cigarette burns.

Fittingly, Billie begins to sing “Blue Moon” – You saw me standing alone / without a dream in my heart / without a love of my own.

I prefer the Elvis version, appropriation be damned.

By the time I reach the halfway point of the story, when Kino’s wife visits soon after their divorce is finalised to apologise for her infidelity, I have a touch of headache at the front of my skull. There is still a little whiskey left, soon to be supplemented by a cheaper but more meaningful 12-year-old Glenlivet I’ve been keeping as a celebration of finally owning my own place. I turn the music down a touch rather than switching to tea just yet. There is still a lot of story to go.

Why doesn’t Kino give his cheating ex-wife a piece of his mind? “You’ve apologized, and I’ve accepted your apology. No need to worry about it anymore,” he says to her. How bland of him.

An ex of mine likes the idea of this little Murakami project. She hates whiskey and doesn’t like jazz, but she’d like to join in. I tell her, hazily, that she’s not allowed – didn’t she read the title of the book? This one is for Men Without Women. We’d had our chance. But maybe for the next book I’ll do this with a sparring partner.


“Maybe I don’t have the right to say this,” this woman – his former wife – said, “but I think it’d be good for you to forget about what happened and find someone new.”

“Maybe,” Kino said.

“I know there must be a woman out there who’s right for you. It shouldn’t be that hard to find her. I wasn’t able to be that person for you, and I did a terrible thing. I feel awful about it. But there was something wrong between us from the start, as if we’d done the buttons up wrong…”


When Kino is forced to go into hiding following some strange occurrences, he is shocked almost to paralysis by a knocking on his hotel room’s door. He knows who is knocking, but he can’t answer. He sees a monstrous shape crawling near his window. Something he should face, but can’t. It’s his hurt that he should have acknowledged years ago, his living pain. By denying it then, he has a reptilian coldness within him now.

What is it about Murakami that allows him to tap into simple hidden truths? Is he a man without a woman? His characters so often share his interests – jazz, whiskey, running, reading and writing – that it wouldn’t be wrong to call him a partly-autobiographical writer. Has he also suffered loneliness, despair, and hurt? Is this why he can write a book about man’s specific brand of aloneness? Like Kino, is he facing the pain in his own heart head on, by writing this story?

The glass is empty, the candle is burning down. It is 22:39.


Introducing: The Murakami Experience

Haruki Murakami STP editing

Reading has always been my greatest solace, and my most solaceful reads have been from Haruki Murakami.

I read Kafka on the Shore soon after its publication in 2002, during my university years, and soon devoured his entire back catalogue and have snapped up every one of his novels since.

Known for his elegant prose and surrealist narratives, Murakami always reminds me that there is beauty in the mundane, and that it’s normal to feel pain and confusion.

Recently overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature again, this year in favour of lesser-but-still-OK Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, Murakami’s disappointed fans have been remorseful in typical style, with whiskey and jazz, both hallmarks of Murakami’s stories (along with lonesome male protagonists, quietly sad women, and cats).

I took great pleasure in reading his latest book, the collection of short stories Men Without Women. Inspired to revisit his previous works, I’ve also decided to embark on fun project that I’ll share with my dear readers between more useful posts on editing and writing.

Whenever I encounter mentions of a specific whiskey or jazz piece as I read a Murakami novel, I’ll spend a relaxed evening listening to that very piece and sipping that very dram whilst reading a favourite chapter or two, and then writing about the experience that comes from that unique combination of Murakamiist things. Perhaps I’ll get sucked into a dadaist Murakami mindspace, or find myself able to talk to cats…? Or maybe I’ll just enjoy myself.

Join me in a week or two for my first Murakami Dram – reading Men Without Women.


Cultural appropriation or cultural representation?

Part 3 of a 3-part post about cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


Appropriation or representation?

Following on from last week, I’m going to jump straight in with a snippet from this article from the Guardian, which first quotes author Courttia Newland, then author Ahdaf Soueif:

“The issue isn’t whether or not [white writers] are given the right to create characters of colour. Rather, it is whether they do it well and the privilege that comes with being enabled to tell stories that writers of colour are routinely marginalised for.”

Newland said white writers must recognise the privileged position from which they write, and understand the basis of accusations of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation is about power, or the lack of acknowledgment thereof, and respect,” he added. “There’s a reason Eminem largely escapes that type of criticism and Miley Cyrus doesn’t. It’s mainly to do with their actions.”

Booker-shortlisted author Ahdaf Soueif said: “In the end, what it comes down to is: are you going to write well or not? I think a novelist should be able to write about anything or anybody they like.”

“People and countries like Egypt and Palestine are used by writers as if they were simply stage sets, backdrops on which they can write their fantasies,” Soueif continued. “It is problematic, but it is not a problem to be solved by some kind of edict that says you can only write white male characters if you are a white male. The problem is far more subtle than that.”

A subtle problem indeed. If we approach the issue with a hammer and say “it’s wrong to write outside of your own ethnicity and experience” then we may as well stop writing. As with Tibetan monks (see my last post), chunks of humanity will fail to be represented simply because there are far fewer talented writers willing to represent their groups. I’m not suggesting that they need a privilaged white saviour to step in for them. I’m suggesting that a hammer approach will harm diversity, not help it.

A hard approach in the writer’s favour would be like that of Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2003, Serpent’s Tail). Shriver caused her own furore last year when she essentially said that writers should be able to write about anything they want to. “That’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes,” she said.

Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately wrote a rawly honest rebuttal, in which she said that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.

Although Abdel-Magied made the fine point that those with actual experience should be given the opportunities to tell their own stories, she fails to offer any solutions, or explain why exactly the writer stepping in is so terrible. I wrote earlier in this series of posts about the bias that comes from filtering another’s experience through our own. Again, we have lost focus of the argument: Is it bad that marginalised groups don’t have the same opportunities? Undoubtedly. But that is not the question. The question is: Is it wrong for me to at least try?

There seems to be the assumption that writers don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, many don’t. But how about if I spent a week interviewing a gay Aboriginee about his or her experiences and wrote a story about those? Is that still wrong? I’m still picking which bits that I want to write about, and it will be naturally be as a narrative rather than verbatim, i.e., my own words. This is an extreme example, but this is not that far from penning a fully-researched novel. It’s worth remembering, when discussing this, that writers look shit up. Some spend years reading every book to hand – including first-hand accounts and verbal histories – conducting interviews, watching documentaries, travelling to the countries/people in question, and generally working their damndest to achieve authenticity. This will not eliminate bias, but writers who care about a gay Aborinee’s story enough to dedicate a year or two to writing about it are probably already aware of their biases, prejudices, and the ever-present threat of accusation.

“But the writer is taking their identity,” Abdel-Magied and others might say. I’m reminded of a story told to me by an old girlfriend. She had a falling out with the girlfriend of her brother. Apparently they dressed alike, and one dramatically complained that the other was “stealing her identity”. Racial identity is a serious matter, but the idea of its theft is weak. Like the girls, one is not diminished by another’s admiration or duplication. A person’s race is not a Ming vase that is more valuable if there are no others. However, that is a long-running argument in the arts in its own right.

Abdel-Magied makes a startling leap in logic: “The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…” Perhaps this follows in the heat of the moment, but I don’t believe that even belittling or attacking another person directly qualifies as considering them “less than human”. And a writer is not (usually) belittling their subject: they are, according to the traditions of drama and, yes, entertainment, sympathising with them. How else could the reader care about our protagonists? Novelists are not usually writers of disguised hate speech. It’s surely established that most creative types are funamentally liberal.

Omar Musa, the Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, told the Guardian that he finds the issue difficult; the suggestion that writers shouldn’t move outside the boundaries of their own experiences comes into direct conflict with what he sees as the purpose of fiction: to empathise with and understand other people’s lives.

This is the point that I find myself going out on: that writers are not, generally speaking, horrible people. There is, of course, a great risk that even the best-natured writers will unwittingly draw upon stereotypes or be reductive, but I believe that this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only in this way can we assess and learn from what is genuinely offensive or unfaithful and truly engender diversity. The bottom line: authentic cultural representation.

— db

Further reading:

This personal article from the Huffington Post also poigniantly disscussed the complex issue of cultural appropriation, partly in favour of Shriver’s strongly-worded speech.

Of interest to writers may be this collection of thoughts from published authors.

A writer’s experience with the dangers of cultural appropriation

Part 2 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.



A writer’s experience

When I first began searching for representation for my novel “Cycles of Udapir” in 2015, I was told by one literary agent that “it is hard to sell a novel centering on Indian street boys and girls written by a Brit.” In the same sentence, he praised the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, written by Yorkshire-born Simon Beaufoy and directed by the English Danny Boyle.

What is a writer to do? In my last post I bemoaned the horrible device of writing a novel set in another country but with a white protagonist, which apparently skirts the issue of cultural appropriation but could land you in “white saviour” territory.

I have to ask, who are writers trying to kid with this? The white protagonist (by which I really mean “protagonist who matches the writer’s ethnicity etc.”, in my case white British) is meant to be a buffer, providing a legitimate filter through which the “other” is perceived – in the case of “Cycles”, my Indian characters. It would be offensive, we’re told, for me to write from the point of view of an Indian, so I must show my Indian characters through the lens of my privilaged white perspective: a white British protagonist.

It’s not good enough that I just want to write a story about Indians, which is my prerogative and which might be something that people want to read regardless of my ethnic background, as though that matters.

My latest novel, which is turning into something of an epic, deals with Tibetan Buddhism and the situation of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile following the occupation of Tibet by China. My young protagonist is Tibetan (plus a little Chinese) because the book is about Tibetans. Not only is it more interesting for me to try to get inside the head of someone with a different background and mindset to me, it is surely more interesting for the reader, too. Don’t we already have enough fiction with Western protagonists? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for more diversity in fiction?

Novelist Zoë Marriott said that writing rich, diverse characters was not the same as appropriating someone else’s culture. “People from marginalised groups are always being promised diversity and being delivered patronising, whitewashed and outright offensive portrayals instead,” she said.

This comes closer to my perspective, which is, crudely, “It’s fine if it’s done right.” But even this view is debated.

A writer’s dilemma

What is my specific problem? My book is about Tibetan monks and, unsurprisingly, not many Tibetan monks are novelists. Even if they were, they perhaps wouldn’t want to tell the story that I want to tell, which I believe could be meaningful and culturally significant. But of course, then I’m stepping in and being a “white saviour” myself, defending downtrodden minorities from my privilaged position. You only have to see how people react to famous actors providing relief abroad to know how that goes down.

I could write the book as I want to write it, be forced to self-publish, and have fairly reasonable accusations of cultural appropriation and possible racism levelled against me (assuming it ever gets finished and anyone ever hears about it).

Alternatively I could rewrite the entire novel from the perspective of a Heinrich Harrer-type character. Frankly this is boring, and will only serve to dilute the story. The book is about Tibetans, not what a white boy thinks about Tibetans. The reader already knows and accepts that these are a white person’s perceptions of another cultural group. Why must the writer go through the sham of creating a character to tell the reader what they already know? Frankly, it’s patronising and a waste of time.

Finding the root of the problem

In my my last post I wrote about the response to J. K. Rowling’s use of Native American folklore. The Rowling situation illustrated a point that has dogged the cultural appropriation debate for a long time: peope can’t remain focused. The issue at hand is not whether the words are offensive, or mis-representative, or reductive, but whether there is such as thing as appropriating another person’s culture in the context of fiction, and whether that is a bad thing. If “appropriation” means “using”, i.e. I wrote a book set in another country, then this debate shouldn’t even have started. Of course I’m permitted to set a story in another country. Of course I’m permitted to imagine what the life is like of somebody who isn’t me. Believe it or not, I’m capable of empathy and have rather a good imagination, and I’m capable of undertaking research.

If we can’t establish the foundation of the debate, then every other question is meaningless. If we can start at the bottom and build up, then we can begin to have constructive conversations on what is permissable and what isn’t. In reality, no-one will be able to agree on what is permissable, on both sides of the argument. Every person is unique even amongst their own people, and that is why art is possible and absolutely necessary in all its forms.

One viewpoint is that the diversity is supposed to come from those groups other than the dominant one. Anything else is arguably patronising. Regrettably for all the dominant group is (almost?) always Western white folk. It is no lie that the entertainment industry (to name just one) is geared towards whiteness and makes it extremely difficult for other voices to be heard. According to the argument, it’s not enough that there are very few novels about Tibet and that I’m in a position to try to write one (i.e. have the time and information and skill (?) available to me). It should be Tibetans writing about Tibet and it’s the industry (a reflection of societal bias) that’s stopping this from happening. By writing about Tibetans I am appropriating their culture (and probably getting it wrong in the process), whilst at the same time making a profit (ha ha!) from an industry that is, perhaps indirectly, blocking genuinly diverse voices.

This is one view, but it’s not one I wholly agree with. Isn’t it possible to represent another’s culture without appropriating it? That is the question for Part Three

I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this topic! Feel free to comment away.

— db

The Anthony Horowitz row – Why cultural appropriation isn’t straightforward


Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Part 1 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.

What’s it all about?

If you haven’t heard, Anthony Horowitz, writer of the Alex Rider series and the latest James Bond novel, recently claimed that he was ‘warned off’ creating a black protagonist  because he is a white writer. Allegedly, an editor said that it would be inappropriate, ‘artificial and possibly patronising’, to do so.

This has reignited the old debate about cultural appropriation in literature, with several writers putting forward their points of view.

Ben Aaronovich, writer of the ‘Rivers of London’ series, tweeted of Horowitz: “If you don’t feel confident or just don’t want to write black characters, just say so. Don’t pretend it’s political correctness gone mad.”

What is Aaronovich actually claiming – that Horowitz made it up? I don’t believe that to be true, especially since no-one’s previously come out to say, “Oi, Horowitz, where are all your black characters?” Hororwitz wasn’t responding to an allegation. Therefore Aaronovich can go away if he’s not going to add anything constructive to the argument.

More helpful is the view of Patrice Lawrence, author of the best-selling ‘Orangeboy’ (2016, Hachette), who said that “[t]he whole issue of equality and diversity has been hijacked by white writers.” It seems that we have appropriated appropriation. The  Guardian article goes on to say to how some people claim that working class white people don’t have equality either, so perhaps this is what Lawrence means. Anyone who thinks that manual labourers in Sheffield’s Manor Top have it as bad as, say, African slaves worked to death in the bellies of British galleons, could do with a wake-up call.


From Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, set in India. Photograph: PR company handout

Can “appropriation” be done right?

An aggressive article by the Guardian’s Rashmee Kumar last year referred to the “colonial representation” of India by “ignorant white people everywhere”, in response to a Coldplay music video:

Director Ben Mor sprayed the “essence of incredible India” onto his video, a diluted perfume invented by white, western creatives whenever they want some Indian inspiration. Under the western gaze, India is a lush, exotic land filled with dingy slums inhabited by pious, levitating holy men and lanky brown-skinned children who are always throwing colored powders at each other. This idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony.

Forget the nonsensical implication that a 3-minute music video could ever capture the entirety of a country’s complex culture; Kumar seems to believe that all Western interpretations of India are as “myopic” as Mor’s video and that no-one but an Indian could possibly get it right. The article suggests that it’s wrong to portray only the exotic and positive elements of a culture (but strangely tosses slums into this category), calling it “reductive”.

In all art forms an interpretation is reductive, simply because it’s not possible to describe the whole of a culture’s history in one painting of a ship, or relevant to write out the whole of a culture’s economical situation in a film that is meant to be a romantic comedy. As always, an artist will take the elements that are relevant to the story being told. Later, Kumar suggests that the mere act of “invoking” India is something offensive. The message: stay away unless you’re Indian, or at least know what you’re talking about. The latter I agree with whole-heartedly; the former is offensive and divisive.

There are many excellent points in Kumar’s article, especially about representation, and it’s well worth reading in full.

The “fine if it’s done right” perspective doesn’t always apply. J. K. Rowling took heat for writing a fictional account of wizards in historical America, which linked her stories to true beliefs held by some Native Americans. The result was an accusation of cultural appropriation:

“You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” said campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

Was Rowling “claiming” Native American spiritual beliefs? I don’t believe so, any more than I’m “claiming” the beliefs of Catholics when I write about 16th Century Britain, the people of which are just as much “other” to me as a Native American. Referring to something is not the same as claiming it, and forbidding a writer to write about something other than which they are personally ethnically connected is firmly against what art is about: creating in order to bring people together. Saying “keep away from our stuff” does not help anyone to build a true understanding of another’s culture.

Some complaints were along the lines of “my beliefs are not fantasy”, despite the consensus of almost the entire planet believing that they are (every believer in any god but yours thinks you’re wrong). This complaint is not the same as “you didn’t write about it respectfully”, which should be the point. Others quite rightly took umbrage at Rowling referring to a “Native American community”, when actually “Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another”.

Rowling was quiet after the accusations, despite receiving thousands of comments. I don’t blame her: even talking about the issue is an invitation to be pulled apart (I expect I shall be saved by lack of readership). In the second part of this series of posts I will talk about some of my own experiences and take a look at what could be the root of the problem. In the meantime, I sincerely invite comments and discussion.

— db


Why fiction might need “white saviours”

In fiction, the “white saviour” trope is the unfavourable use of a white (typically Western) protagonist who saves a group of non-white (typically non-Western) characters from a situation from which they have been unable to free themselves.

Wikipedia puts it better:

“The narrative trope of the white savior is how the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts—such as morality—as innate characteristics (racial and cultural) of white people, rather than as characteristics innate to people of color.”

In almost any sense, this is not cool. It frames the person of colour as being too weak, incompetent or ignorant to solve their own problems, and it takes a outsider to ride in on a white horse (sometimes literally) to show them the light. This has appeared in a great many novels, films and TV series and continues to happen (Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ (2017) and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-present) come to mind.

Iron Fist

Finn Jones in “Marvel’s Iron Fist” (2017)

Game of Thrones

Emelia Clarke in “Game of Thrones” Season 3 (2013)

As a young reader I was frequently irritated by novels set in other countries but which had a Western protagonist. I now see the advantage of this: the writer gets to show the exotic setting through the eyes of a newcomer, highlighting things of interest to an unfamiliar reader that would be ignored by a native protagonist as being too boring or too normal to be worth mentioning. But since the protagonist is (should) usually be important enough to the story to warrant having a novel written about them, they are typically the hero of the story, and this almost inevitably puts them in the position of a ‘white saviour’ type.

Personally, I would rather have the novel steeped in the local culture entirely; and besides, wouldn’t I be more fascinated by a protagonist who thinks and acts like a native? I’m smart enough to work out the differences myself, you know. Some of my favourite novels dropped me right into the thick of it, such as Salmon Rushdie’s masterpiece ‘Midnight’s Children’.

The problem with the current publishing industry (in the West) is that although exotic people and locations sell, naturally enough, today’s floundering publisher wants to flog as many books as they can, and that means alienating as few readers as possible. According to the industry, the weary commuter on a bus doesn’t want to go to the trouble of understanding a ‘foreign-minded’ protagonist. They don’t want to be challenged and have to look up unfamiliar words. It should be made as easy as possible for the reader, since most books sold are lowest-common-denominator fiction in the romance or crime genres found in Tesco, which I generally think of as formulaic fiction for dum-dums (sorry).

The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise in ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)

Temple of Doom

Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1984)

I ran aground in this respect with my last novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ (2016). ‘Cycles’ is set in Rajasthan and deals with a group of lost teenagers struggling to find their place in modern India. Knowing what I (thought I) know, I chose to include one character who is an outsider who could introduce the glorious, frantic, artistic beauty of Udaipur to the reader in the opening section. This came in the form of Bindya, a young woman of Indian descent who was born in Udaipur but emigrated with her parents to Birmingham, England as a teenager. Years later she returned to this strange but familiar land, where she set up a youth centre. Although the main characters look to Bindya for advice, since she is older, she is actually just as lost as they are and is of little help.

I had hoped that this slight Westernisation of a character would be enough for the literary agents to whom I submitted the novel for representation. Actually it didn’t help at all. One agent said that no-one was interested in a book set in India written by a non-Indian (Isn’t that a bit–? Never mind). Another said that Bindya’s first chapter, in which she returns to Udaipur after a short trip away, read like travel writing (i.e. she was too much of an outsider). It seemed that I wasn’t going native enough – but did I have a right to go further, since I myself am an outsider? I was self-conscious enough about that when I set out to write ‘Cycles’.

Recently, whilst doing a lot of enjoyable reading and pretending it’s research for my current novel, I returned to the vibrant graphic novel ‘The White Lama’ by Alexandro Jodorowsky (writer) and Georges Bess (artist). The story is full-blown fantasy (unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, shamanistic magic and demons), but I love the mystic melodrama of it. The story is set in 19th Century Tibet, where two white missionaries are killed soon after they arrive, and their orphaned baby is raised by local Tibetans, who believe him to be the reincarnation of a revered lama. He grows up to reach a high level of enlightenment, develops a set of fierce magical powers, and then saves his adopted people from tyrants and dark sorcerers.

The White Lama

Isn’t this just another example of a white saviour? I thought (secretly loving pretty much everything about it). The book is even called ‘The White Lama’…! Why couldn’t it have been about a Tibetan baby? Fair enough, he is a reborn Tibetan ‘soul’….

This was agonising for me, at a time when I had completed the first 70,000 words of an epic novel set in India, this time focussing on Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala. At first I imagined my Tibetan protagonist having a Heinrich Harrer-type confidante, but wasn’t that equally shabby of me? Eventually I settled on having the protagonist’s mother, who is the main focus of much of Part One, being the daughter of Tibetan exiles raised in Switzerland, where there are 4,000+. Like Bindya in ‘Cycles’, Padma Pema temporarily allows the reader to see the growing drama that surrounds her through the eyes of an outsider, though this time in a way that is far more significant to the plot.

Neither Bindya nor Padma Pema are saviours in their stories, but they do their jobs. It seems a fair compromise between a white hero in an exotic land and a ‘totally native’ novel written by an outsider.

What do my readers think? Are there any warranted examples of ‘white saviour’ types? Should writers only write about their own cultures?


Buy ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here.