This is a bit more of a serious post – so it’s a bit longer. But I looked at this recently in my MA Creative Writing class and I think it’s important – so let’s dive in.
Writing inclusive fiction is a responsibility that all writers should acknowledge. However, where do we draw the line between cultural representation and cultural appropriation? How do we do justice to cultures that are not our own in fiction? And where do we cross the line from representation into appropriation?
Inclusive representation in fiction is important. K. Tempest Bradford, an inclusive fiction teacher, argues that:
‘Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.’
As a woman, it is certainly important for me that I see complicated, haunted, three-dimensional women in fiction, and there is a note that rings false when women serve a purpose, either sexually or as a plot device (usually in order for a male character to realise his ‘Truth’…)
I, however, still sit within the dominant paradigm. I am white, I am heterosexual and able-bodied.
So how does it feel for those who sit outside of this paradigm, to not see themselves reflected in fiction?
Bradford argues that fiction provides a mirror to enable us to have a cultural understanding of ourselves.
‘Fiction plays a large role in society and how individuals view themselves and others. It’s so important to see yourself somewhere, you need to have [that] mirror.’
This is not only the case in written work. The celebrated movie Crazy Rich Asians (adapted from the best selling novels) is an excellent example of this.
‘When I was growing up, I didn’t see many faces that look like mine or my family’s on screen… I think often when there’s just one Asian character in a story, there can be a real weight and a pressure that that character or that actor has to represent their entire race.
When I was watching the film, it made me realise you’re seeing Asians just being fully-dimensional beings. They’re sometimes beautiful and glamorous, but they’re flawed, sometimes tragic, sometimes comedic, a whole spectrum of fully-dimensional human beings.’
Whilst this is discussing the importance of representation on screen, the relation to representation in fiction is clear. When we have multiple examples of characters from a culture, we are able to see their individuality through their differences.
So how do we ensure our fiction is a mirror not just for us, but for others?
In their book “Writing the Other”, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward discuss the complexities of writing from a different cultural perspective and how to approach it. Throughout the course of the novel, they highlight the pitfalls and opportunities for writers wanting to diversify their cast. “Write what you know” might be an age-old memo to both budding and published authors alike, but it also means that those in the margins will not be reflected in your own work if your body of knowledge comes from being white, or male, or straight.
This is highlighted in what they call “the unmarked state.”
The unmarked state is your character before you have given your readers any physical attributes to imagine them with. They are a blank canvas for your reader’s imagination, so to speak.
However, what Shawl and Ward found in their research is that this canvas is not blank at all.
When you present a character to a reader without describing them, instead of lacking a persona, they take one on. And this is usually ‘white, male, straight, single, young and physically able.’
Even when we are not explicitly giving our protagonist characterization, they are white.
If we are to address this imbalance, this implicit assumption that unmarked characters fit the ‘dominant paradigm’, we must include characters of other races, other sexual orientations, other abilities and other genders.
For some writers, this thought might be unnerving. What prompted Nisi and Shawl to write their collection of essays was the comment they had heard in their writer’s workshops from a fellow writer. That she would ‘never write about a person from a different ethnic background. The whole story would probably be full of horrible stereotypes and racist slurs.’
However, it can be done, and it can be done well. I’m not going to copy and paste their book, but the underlying message from Nisi & Shawl is that of respect and research.
Cultural representation means not cherry-picking or fetishising elements of a culture without understanding the full context that sits around it.
It requires the author to critically analyse whether they are writing stereotypically, or whether they are forcing their characters from other cultures to act as plot devices, rather than three-dimensional characters in their own right.
It requires the writer to not make assumptions, to check and double check, and to perhaps have a sympathetic reader give them markers on where they may have (knowingly or unknowingly) ignored their analytical brain during the writing process.
If we want to write inclusive fiction, fiction that features not just a whitewashed cast but a variety of people: multicultural, multiracial, able and unable, gay and straight, we must understand that there is an enormous weight of responsibility on our shoulders in order to do that justice. If we fail to think critically when we write, if we fail to respect and research the cultures we want to portray, we are in danger of committing cultural appropriation.
We must approach it with research and respect, and only then can we call it representation.
If you want to learn more about cultural representation in fiction, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward offer online workshops. You can find out more about it on their website: https://writingtheother.com/