Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!
Edit: Deepad's open letter and my response here.
Edit: Deepad's open letter and my response here.
I want to talk about what is labeled as "RaceFail 2009" and "RaceFail 2010". On one hand, it's great that there are people who are concerned--and speak out--when such topics arise. I've witnessed and read about ethnocentrism and it's a flaw that a lot of cultures fall prey to (Germany being the primary culprit during World War II). That there is a small but growing awareness of the literature of other cultures is, in my opinion, a liberty that only occurred because of humanity's continued struggle for "enlightenment" (or progress, if you find enlightenment such a spiritual or abstract term).
It's also all too easy to chide the ignorant or the ones who rally for ethnocentrism in literature (whether they're conscious of this or not). No, what I want to talk about is how the champions of cultural diversity can sometimes get it wrong.
When I read about RaceFail, one of the impressions it gives off (whether implicitly or explicitly) is that you can't write about cultures that aren't your own. This isn't necessarily what RaceFail champions are intending, but I've seen some people come to that conclusion, or are scared shitless by the incident that that's the implied threat of such a debacle.
Which is a tragedy as there is the possibility of genuine insight when an external party writes about another culture, in much the same way that there is value in someone writing about their own culture. In the former, because of distance and a lack of presumptions, fresh perspectives arise. For example, I've heard the Philippines described by a foreigner as "more America than America" due to the proliferation of shopping malls, high-rise buildings, and commercial outlets in Manila (specifically Makati City). Which, in retrospect, is true, but this conclusion would never have come from a Filipino (as it's typically a dream of poverty-stricken Filipinos to migrate to the US). In fiction, we have texts like The Heart of Darkness and The Good Earth which, for the most part, is Westerners writing about a culture that's not their own (although one could make the argument for Pearl S. Buck, who spent most of her life in China).
That's not to say that fact alone is excuse enough to arbitrarily write about another culture. As they say, do your research, but that's easier said than done.
And even if you do your research, the problem still remains that you won't convince everyone. Let's say you manage to write a great scene describing Manila. Some Filipinos reading your text will agree that it's a faithful description of where they live. Other Filipinos, on the other hand, will simply disagree with you. And it's very well possible that both sides bring up valid points, as both have different experiences and perspectives. Or to put in another way, we as critics don't agree on whether a book is a good or not (just look at the disparity of reviews in general, let alone consolidated reviews posted on Amazon). The perception of culture is similarly subjective. Just because one "cultural expert" doesn't veto your writing doesn't mean the next one won't. We can look at the writings of SF authors who write about other cultures: Ian McDonald, Geoff Ryman, Paolo Bacigalupi. Some Brazilians will praise McDonald's portrayal of Brazil. Others won't. Does that make McDonald a good or horrible writer of other cultures? Or better yet, as a writer, should the fear of being criticized as such stop you from writing, especially when you feel you have something important to say?
An example close to home is the novel Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Oh look, the protagonist is Filipino. But to me, that's a superficial description. As far as I'm concerned, nowhere in the novel does the hero's Filipino identity come into play. In fact, if it wasn't mentioned towards the end of the book, you wouldn't really have guessed that he was Filipino. But that's my take on it. There are other Filipinos who love the book because hey, the protagonist is Filipino, if only in name. The book has personal value to them, even if that's not the case for me. I don't, by any means, have the last word when it comes to the Philippines in science fiction.
The problem with RaceFail is that while yes, it does champion doing research and being careful when writing about other cultures, there's also a sense of elitism that scares off potential writers. Instead of espousing "research about China before you start writing about China", the (un)intended effect is "I won't write about China because I can never do justice to my research of China". And that's a sad state for cultural diversity, because instead of encouraging people to write about other cultures, it halts the dialogue.
My generation was weaned on Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of the original series but there are some observations that can be made with regards to the latter. Yes, Star Trek was culturally progressive for its time, but it's also distant from our modern concept of racial diversity; the main protagonist was still a white privileged male, and while the supporting cast is multi-ethnic, they didn't stray too far from their designated roles (Star Trek's "trinity", after all, is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy). Star Trek is culturally flawed by today's standards, but because it did take steps to foray into cultural barriers--even if it got them wrong some of the time--it was a stepping stone that paved the way for cultural progress.
That's not to say cultural mistakes are excusable, or that they should even be tolerated, but when a conflagration like RaceFail occurs, I want everyone to keep in mind what the primary intent of cultural awareness is. In society, most people see imprisonment as the opportunity for punishment instead of reform, and while the former paradigm is valid, society benefits more from reformed criminals than dead ones. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I want to see positive reform, instead of simply condemning writers for making mistakes. I want to live in a world where writers are educated enough to write about other cultures and get it right, instead of a society where writers don't write about other cultures for fear of getting it wrong (or worse, getting it right and still drawing the ire of fans and readers; each culture has their own taboo subjects after all that someone within that particular culture will be apprehensive discussing in public).