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.


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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

Horowitz

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.


Coldplay

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?

—db

Buy ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here.

 

Paperback for more

News!

To date my novels Cycles of Udaipur and The Gun of Our Maker have only been available for e-readers like Kindle.

Coming this Sunday, you’ll now be able to order them as actual paperbacks made of actual paper, thanks to Amazon!

If you already have the e-books, feel free to get a lovely tangible version too for your bookcase. They look real pretty.

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Available for pre-order: ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ by David Brookes

I’m thrilled to announce that my new novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’, is currently available for pre-order! It will be published in ebook format to coincide with Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival in honour of the deity Shiva, occurring on Monday 7th March 2016.

You can read more about the book and pre-order your copy here on Amazon (for Kindle) or here on Smashwords (for non-Kindle e-readers).


 

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CYCLES OF UDAIPUR
David Brookes

Rajasthan is a vivid land of colour and spice, Maharajahs
and gods. But the vibrant city of Udaipur is not the peaceful
Hindu refuge it once was, and as India races towards
modernity its youth faces a cultural identity crisis.

When young Raj hits a cow with his motorcycle, little does
he know that he has started a chain reaction that will
obliterate his close-knit group of friends. Mariam is a Muslim
artist forbidden to paint Hindu deities. Her paramour Shiv
aches to be a politician in a city ruled by gangland overlords.
And lovelorn Vansh finds himself sucked into a mystical
vortex from which his mind may not recover.

Set against the sweeping grandeur of Rajasthani history,
Cycles of Udaipur spins on the axle of tradition and
progress: a tangled web of hope, faith and enduring passion
that epitomises a new India heretofore unknown to the West.


 

Thanks again to everyone for their encouragement and support. Happy reading!

—db


 

New Release: ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ – coming soon!

I’m extremely happy to announce that my latest novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’, is almost ready for publication via Amazon and Smashwords!

Set in colourful Rajasthan, India, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ has been described as a coming-of-age story for a whole country, as India rapidly modernises in the wake of Partition and globalisation.

More details to follow! Thanks to everyone whose love and support helped bring about this novel after four years of hard work.

199 Pichola Lake

Pichola Lake, Udaipur – 2012. (C) David Brookes

—db

100 years of Bollywood – What desi fiction does right

Deepika Padukone passion

Deepika Padukone in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Bollywood recently celebrated its 100th year. Indian, Pakistani and Tamil has been close to my heart for a few years now: in 2012 I backpacked around India; some of my favourite people are Pakistani; and I spent a long and joyous time researching my (hopefully) upcoming novel Cycles of Udaipur. I’ve watched enough Bollywood films in the last few years to catch up with three decades of world cinema.

As the single most distinctive form of cinema, Bollywood is often a love-or-hate thing for British audiences. I live in Sheffield, one of the north’s most cosmopolitan cities, so our mainstream and indie cinemas draw in big crowds for their frequent showing of Asian films. I’m usually one of the very few white faces in such crowds, but I rarely feel such a buzz or sense of camaraderie than at those viewings.

So what can writers learn from Bollywood cinema?

Jodha Akbar passion

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai in Jodha Akbar

If there’s one thing to define the “genre”, besides the spontaneous song-and-dance numbers and spangly productions, it is the emotional power that such films project. I know people who avoid Bollywood purely because each film is such an emotional rollercoaster. If I cry during a “filmi”, it’s probably because I’m watching Jodha Akbar (2008) or Ram-Leela (2013), or films like the lesser-known Raincoat (2004), each of which has a powerful emotional core that beats most dramatic films of the west hands down.

Jodha Akbar is a historical epic centering around the marriage of a Muslim conqueror and his Hindu lover. It is a story of love that transcends all barriers, much like the crux of Ram-Leela, a modern-day Hindustani Romeo and Juliet. Literature of course is no stranger to the themes of love, which has been explored in all its facets for thousands of years. But too many English-language novels neglect to dig deep enough into this fundamental emotion, shying away for fear of being too flowery in terms of prose. Is this a flaw of Western literature, or is it the right balance for our comparatively reserved culture?

Raincoat film passion

Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat

Ram Leela passion

Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone in Ram-Leela

There is a reason that so many Bollywood films are musicals; the emotions at play are far too powerful to be contained. This is a statement that is arguably laughable, but there is a lot to learn from the unashamedly ebullient nature of desi films. British literature at its best is a cultural caricature: restrained, emotionally suffocated, bleak and dour. D.H.Lawrence, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer and John le Carré make a fortune of the misery of their characters, with only a rare few – unsurprisingly operating in the fringes of genre fiction – allow their natural brightness to shine through: the likes of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Ruth Rendell.

I hopefully need not return to what I think of contemporary “romantic” fiction, all of which operates on the largely worthless scale between erotica and chick-lit.

The blandness of English literature could well do with a counteracting injection of Bollywood-style passion, not just of the tear-jerking variety, of which we have become quite adept, but also encapsulating the wealth of untapped positive emotions would bring colour to those drab bookshop shelves.

—db

Holy cows and swastikas – “Cycles of Udaipur”

199 Pichola Lake


In 2012-13 I was lucky enough to take some time to travel the world. My first stop was India, a country so crazy I don’t have the space to describe it properly here. India is a bizarro-England, in some familiar and in some the complete opposite. It is frantic, deliriously colourful, filthy yet pure, spiritual yet seemingly gods-forsaken. I loved it.

Despite the great times I had in subsequent countries – including the currently blighted Nepal (donate here) – I decided that my next novel would be set in India, which is in many ways unexplored by modern literature.

Contemporary novels set in India (at least, those written in English), are enamoured with the history and spirituality of the country, at the expense of reality. They acknowledge the issue of poverty and patriarchal social structure, but shirk its rapidly-growing modernity for a daydreamy post-Raj interpretation. They fail entirely to deal with the disillusionment of its modern youth, the outpacing of technology and wealth compared to the cultural maturity of its emerging middle class, and the much-underpublicised rise in sophisticated gang crime.


Cycles of Udaipur


I adored many of the cities I visited during my time in India, but my favourite was almost certainly Udaipur: beautiful, serene, artistic Udaipur, in deep Rajasthan.  There are two cities in the world that I felt a strong immediate bond with upon visiting (the second is Kathmandu, specifically Boudhanath). I set my novel, “Cycles of Udaipur”, in Rajasthan and set out to explore the new tribulations of India’s youth as described above.

The finished result is “Cycles of Udaipur”, which has been much changed and edited since I finished its first draft a long time ago. I’m now very excited to approach my first literary agency, which the is the first step on the long, steep, painful road towards traditional publication.

I’ll keep you posted – in the mean time, wish me luck!

—db