Over the past several years, there’s been a great deal of talk about the need for “diversity.” So far as I can tell, this means stories set in cultures other than those of white, Western-European males and told by protagonists other than white males. I certainly have no problem with this.
I do, however, have some misgivings about the idea that such stories must always be written by authors from those cultures, and the equally disturbing idea that when someone other than a member or a descendent of those cultures writes about them, even when projected into the future, or into a fantasy setting, that is “cultural appropriation,” and a literary sin of the first level. The rationale behind this judgment appears to be that no one who is not a member of a different or a minority culture can do justice to representing that culture in a fictional setting.
Beside that fallacious point, what is exactly the point of fiction? Is it just to be culturally accurate? Or to entertain? To make the reader think? And for that matter, how does one determine “cultural accuracy,” especially when there are significant social and even geographic differences within most cultures?
Taken to extremes, one could classify Rob Sawyer’s hominid series, about an alternate world populated by Neandertals, as “cultural appropriation,” since most of us only have a tiny fraction of Neandertal genes. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light could easily be classed as cultural appropriation of Hindu beliefs and myths. For that matter, Tolkien certainly used the Elder Edda of Iceland as a significant basis of Lord of the Rings. And I wrote The Ghost of the Revelator even though I wasn’t born in Utah and I’m not LDS [although I have lived here for more than twenty years].
Obviously, writers should take seriously the advice to write what they know, and know what they write, but “non-members” of a minority or another culture may well know and understand that culture as well as or even better than members of that culture. Should they be precluded from writing fiction based on those cultures because editors fear the charge of “cultural appropriation”?
This concern, unfortunately, isn’t just academic. I’ve heard editors talk time and time again about how they want more diversity, but… In one case, the significant other of a Chinese-American born and raised in Hawaii wrote and offered a YA fantasy novel based on Hawaiian myth to a number of editors. When several agents and editors found out that the writer was not Hawaiian genetically, they decided against considering the book. Several well-known authors have also told me that they wouldn’t have considered the book either, because dealing with Hawaiian beliefs would be too controversial.
Shouldn’t it just be about the book…and not the genetics/cultural background of who wrote it?