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June 12, 2006

The Long Overdue Cultural Approprittymatationing Post

Pam, who was at Wiscon but I dint get to (finally!) meet, says almost everything about cultural approap that I would want to say, but better, as usual.

Therefore I will neglect to control myself and add a few items:

1. One thing no one wants to say, so let me be the first: yes, having been marginalized does give me privileges in this question. So there!

No I'm not gonna play duelling discomforts. Any white American man with a stutter or an empty bank account probably had a worse childhood than I, granted easily. But any white American man growing up on American soil got to see himself reflected a million-fold in the forms of family, language, and uses around him, in media, in school, and most especially in precious, precious fiction. And I, quite simply, did not. The first media creature that anyone in my neighborhood ever compared me to was the bleached blonde Chinese girlfriend in George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" video (I was fifteen). I always felt a great yearning toward David Carradine's character in "Kung Fu", because, until the last ten years or so, he was the only Eurasian media character I ever saw. They wouldn't even let me have him, though: I was too foreign, and waaay too uncool.

Some of the best storybooks I read as a child -- Mulan and bandit stories, bilingual comic book versions of "Journey to the West" -- were things I couldn't share with friends. They wouldn't have been interested in an immortal monkey when there's a superman around. Plus, I didn't need to be distinguishing myself even more. I was too busy perfecting my ability to memorize song lyrics after three hearings, an ability I developed to make up for my inability to pick out slang and idioms from the rock-star-slurred lyrics, a skill that is pretty much the last thing you pick up when learning a second language. I was too busy consciously regulating the rhythms of my speech, something my friends did without thinking; too busy covering my embarrassment when I blurted out the wrong expression and everyone, once again, laughed at me; too busy scrabbling at the gates my friends didn't even know they were keeping.

So no, you don't get to have Mulan now. Don't even try it with Monkey King. Don't show me your tai chi moves, mofo. I don't care how many semesters of Mandarin you took in college, or how many years you taught English in a little village a hundred li west of Guangzhou. I don't care that your Chinese is better than mine, or that my "familiarity" with the muddercountry is less recent than the building of skyscrapers in Shanghai. And go scrub that stupid tattoo off your arm, here's some steel wool. Yes, I am the fucking arbiter of all things Chinese, as far as you're concerned, and if I don't give you a pass, you're a fraud.

You don't get to have the whole world and my little piece of it, too.

2. Pam says:

To me, writing is three things:

Empathy
Research
Effort

and to that I'd have to add: talent

In our relentlessly middle-class way, we want everything to seem egalitarian. But everything is not equal. The one thing the Art-screamers (those who celebrate Art with great passion and ignore Responsibility) love to avoid is the thing that sheparates most of 'em from the goats. People can try, with great willingness and honesty, to be respectful of another culture in their writing, and simply fail because they don't have the talent.

Geoff Ryman creates a fictional, third-world, "other" country in Air, which succeeds because it's so damned alive, because we can almost hear the characters breathing in the next room. Someone of lesser talent could try almost the same thing and offend nearly everybody simply because their world-building and characterizations fall flat through choplessness. (And no, I ain't gonna name names.)

The POC (people of color) in this current debate are busy trying to reassure the Majority Types (lessay, "MT's"?) that no one is trying to bar anyone from the field permanently. So let me take an utterly sober moment to say that people who suck at writing should be barred from the field permanently. If you've got your little elven-sword-Bombaday formula down and you're serving the 13-year-olds and no one's getting hurt, then stick to it. If your planet-hopera has no people of tint, but you're also straight-to-mass-market and not getting reviewed, be my guest. No one cares. Find your level.

Writing the Other takes skill, sensitivity, perfect pitch, oh, and talent, and -- just as I would not entrust my tumor-riddled brain to a mediocre surgeon to learn on -- I will not entrust my precious few reading hours to a lesser talent to mangle an "other" culture. I want Geoff Ryman, Maureen McHugh, Ursula Ursula Ursula, and oG help me, before all others, I want my Octavia, Nalo and Chip.

Yes yes, everyone should have to take a Writing the Other class early on in their writing development so that they learn early that it's okay and yes there are ways to do it. Then the ones with the inner tuning forks should be petted and kicked by turns, and the ones with the tin ears ruthlessly culled. Licenses should be issued ... and denied.

3. All hair-splitting triumphalism aside, those who write without Responsibility are just plain bad writers. The best writers -- both the ones who really turn me out, and the ones consistently rewarded with Appropriate Prizes -- spend a great deal of time and skill in their works cultivating and developing their audience. They use their books to teach you how to read their books, to teach you the language they wish to use, and to bone you up on the terms of their discourse. Their books end, leaving you, not sated, but full of intelligent, knowledgeable questions, full of Things To Talk About. The best writers do not write to please -- either themselves or their audience. The best writers serve their audience -- and themselves.

Such writers can certainly be, and often are, huge, squirming assholes in person: arrogant, faithless, vindictive. On the page, though, they hold to their duty like it's sacred. Truly good writers may in interviews spout arrant hooey about the Muse and Sacred Art, but they are workhorses, yolked and patient and, between the lines, even humble for the exigencies of making their work what it needs to be. Good writers will not, just now, because of the shrieking of bloggers recently returned from Wiscon, be waking up to the problems of cultural appropriation. Because of their acknowledged and already engaged responsibility toward their work and towards their readers, they will have spent a great deal of time already working through these questions.

And it'll come out in the work, quietly, loudly ... somehow. And I will read their work with quiet satisfaction, feel my intelligence shuffle forward immeasurably ... and then turn screaming back to the cult approap debate, leaving them out of it.

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