Writing Stories & Cultural Appropriation

Do stories belong only to those who are in the story? Who has the right to tell stories of minority cultures, vanished cultures? Is it only the members of that culture? Can anyone else tell those stories in a valid way? When does it cease to be storytelling and become cultural misappropriation? (Or, in the reverse, when does it cease to be cultural misappropriation and become storytelling?)

The examples in this Slate article, Going Native, are extreme, obvious examples of cultural appropriation — a white person actually pretending to be Native American to cash in on the tragedy and poetry expected to be inherent in the stories of Native Americans. And this is not fair to real Native Americans.

The real victims are Indian citizens and writers. People who have for so long been denied the opportunity to express themselves. There are many Indian writers with stories to tell that are ignored because they do not fit the preconceived notion of tragedy and cheap melodrama that make books like Love and Consequences so appealing.

It is wrong to take on the identity of someone from another culture. It is ethically, if not legally, fraudulent.

If you stick to the most basic morality and keep your own identity and write about other cultures, where is the line drawn between storytelling and cultural appropriation? Is it different if you are from a minority group and are writing about the majority? Can someone from another culture ever authentically tell stories of a different culture?

Ursula K. Le Guin pulls it off beautifully. She uses her experience growing up as the daughter of anthropologists/ethnologists studying the Native Americans of California to write wonderfully crafted stories of other cultures. With one important difference. None of her cultures are on Earth. Her works are labeled as science fiction because they all take place on other planets, with alien cultures.

Is there space for writers to stick to Earth and the amazing variety of cultures and people found here? I don’t know. What do you think?


Developed countries are shown in blue (Accordi...

Image via Wikipedia

Since the fall of Communism, there are two basic types of countries, those with fully developed capitalist economies, and those without. There are many shorthand terms for these two types, including First World and Third World, Oriental and Occidental, developed and developing, rich world and poor world, North and South. Many of these are considered outdated and/or insulting.

Developed and developing is most commonly used, with the understanding that it is imperfect and some countries (such as Singapore and South Korea) that used to be developing, and may still be referred to as such, are actually now developed.

There are other terms used to refer solely to developed countries, such as OECD or Western. Western is the most commonly used term, as it is the most easily understood. It, of course, is also imperfect, as Japan is commonly included in a list of developed countries but of course is not a Western country.

Today I do not wish to argue the merits of lumping developed countries with Western culture, but rather to argue that it is time to find another term for the United States and Canada.

Undeniably Western in outlook, and definitely developed, it seems a little silly to refer to them as Western, particularly when talking only about their citizens. Look at any map and you will realize that they are only Western countries when looked at from the perspective of Europe. If you look at the world from Asia, they now become Eastern countries.

I found this terminology to be particularly striking in a book I just read, Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. In the introduction, the editor, Paula Gunn Allen, wishes to distinguish between Native American culture (or Indian culture, as she refers to it) and that of the non-Native people who now populate the Americas. Instead of non-Native (admittedly a new term from the last 5-10 years and this book is from 1989) or some other term to refer specifically to the people who invaded these continents from Europe and their descendents, she chooses to use the word Western. I find this to be somewhat absurd, as oftentimes she does not refer to people still in Europe, but solely to those now in the Americas.

I have seen this terminology used elsewhere, too, such as in The Economist.

For Native Americans, Ms. Allen does have a valid point, that Native Americans, and their culture, are under siege from the oppressors who have stolen their land. But for the rest of us, isn’t it time to let go of colonialist terminology, and find new words for those of us who live in North America?

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