However, what I did get done was the first draft of this blog post, because, Dear Readers, last week I read an interview with the writer Jay Kristoff - author of the novel STORMDANCER - and had a very strong reaction to it. And as you know, when Zolah has a strong reaction to something, she likes to rant about it here. I've actually been holding myself back from posting this for several days because I wanted to give myself time to cool down and look at the issue rationally (ha ha. Yeah. Well, I tried).
Unless you've been living under a rock, I'm sure you've seen some of the buzz for this novel. It's a huge book. Everyone is talking about it. Now I am going to talk about it too, but not in the way that the majority of other people are, unfortunately.
First off I should say I haven't read the book. Nope. Not a single word of it. But I was hugely excited when the synopsis hit the internet, just like everyone else:
Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.When I saw the covers, that just shot my excitement up to a whole new level:
But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.
Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.
Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
They look SO GOOD, right? I even put the US one (that's the illustrated one) on my board for The Trilogy on Pinterest! And then it all went horribly wrong because I read this.
Just in case you don't want to click away or the interview disappears for whatever reason, I'll reprint the part that I'm concerned with - the part that made me stop like someone had smacked me right in the face with a cast-iron skillet here:
Why did you locate your novel and upcoming series in Japan?Oooookay.
I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies. I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…
How much research did you have to do with regards to authenticity?
Less than people seem to think. It’s kinda odd – I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.
Before I go on, I want to say that this blog article isn't an attack on Mr Kristoff. As I said earlier, I haven't read his book. He could have been misquoted, misinterpreted or simply being funny rather than serious in this interview. I don't know him in any way at all, let alone personally. I'm not writing this to hurt him or his book sales - and in fact, from the amount of advance buzz his book is getting, I'm sure that it's going to be a huge success regardless of what little-midlist-me might think.
However, by answering these questions in this way, he has made it impossible for me to ever read STORMDANCER and that, quite frankly, p*sses me off. Why do these remarks affect me this way? Because they raise issues of diversity - that wonderful thing that I love to see, which I attempt to write, which I want to encourage with every fibre of my being - and cultural appropriation, which is not, in any way, shape or form, OK.
What's the difference? Well, I talk diversity here and here but basically when you write diversely you attempt to include strong, realistic portrayals of many different kinds of people, most especially those who are traditionally excluded, marginalised, silenced or stereotyped by the mainstream media of the West (which, as we know, really only likes to see white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered people, and particularly men, in juicy roles). This often means writing about other religions, other ethnicities, and other cultures than your own. The whole point of attempting to be a diverse writer would be to write about those cultures with respect, attempting to show them as fully realised, complex and valid.
Cultural appropriation on the other hand, is where a privileged author uses the trappings of another culture as an 'exotic' background and its people as a quaint novelty, mere window dressing for some story he wants to tell, without having any respect for or interest in that culture, or in representing it truthfully and accurately.
Diversity is a way of unfolding our awareness of the world, of exploring our differences and acknowleging that all of humanity has a story. Diversity is about expanding your mind. It's about learning.
Cultural appropriation is about reinforcing stereotypes because they give you a quick and easy way to add colour or excitement to your story. Cultural appropriation is about being so unconsciously certain that your way of life is the only real or important or valid one that it doesn't occur to you that you might not be perfectly qualified to use an entirely different culture as a backdrop for your story without doing any real research about it. It's about putting assumptions, stereotypes and inaccurate information on the page and actually being proud of it because you think the mere fact that you stooped to visit another culture with your writing ought to be an honour for that culture. And if you misrepresented something, no one who matters (ie. no one from your culture) will either notice or care.
Diversity is casting a character in a film with a black or Asian or Indian or Native American actor just because they're a bloody good actor and there's no reason the character should be white.
Cultural appropriation is casting a white person in a role that should be filled by a black, Asian, Indian or Native American actor and then saying that it's OK because the make-up department put bronzer and a wig on them.
I'm a fantasy writer. I know full-well that sometimes the setting must serve the story. Shadows on the Moon is set in Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni rather than the real, historical Japan because I knew I couldn't tell the story that I wanted to tell in any version of real Japan. But that didn't stop me from exploring Japanese culture to the fullest of my ability, even if two thirds of the stuff I found out never made it into the book at all. That didn't stop me from attempting to show all the aspects of Japanese culture that borrowed as much respect within my story as possible. That didn't stop me from being *interested* in the culture from which I was taking inspiration.
I didn't do a perfect job. I made mistakes. Some have already been pointed out to me and possibly in the wake of this post people will turn up and tell me about even more. Messing up is part of attempting to do that scary diverse writing thing and I've accepted that, and the butt-kickings that may deservedly bruise my behind as a result. The point is I CARED. I tried. I did my best.
Setting your book in a culture you know very little about, then proudly telling the world that your only research was random anime and manga you'd seen over the years, Wikipedia, and some guy you know (who, from the sound of it, isn't even actually Japanese)? That doesn't display interest, or caring, or respect for that culture, does it? It's so breathtakingly wrong that I'mkind of shocked, in this day and age, that anyone could speak like that without pausing halfway through and realising: I sound like a complete *sshat.
Fantasy is shamefully guilty of a European focus, it's true. But if your answer to this is to base your book's fictional country on a different culture in which you have less interest than a kid doing a book report for school? That doesn't mean you've broken through the shameful focus on Europe. It means you've just randomly used someone else's culture to try and make yourself look somehow better, more broadminded, more liberal, than all those Europe-focused writers without actually BEING better than them. It means you've just added to the already extensive history of exoticised, novelty-value portrayals of non-Western cultures. Which is an *sshat move, man.
It also leads to problems like you thinking that 'sama' in Japanese is the exact same thing as the word 'Sir' in English and using it accordingly. Which, as anyone who has any kind of interest in Japan would know, is a complete misunderstanding not only of that word, but of the usage of the honourific system of address. As does believing that 'hai!' is the same as 'yes!' (hint: it's not, and it makes your characters sound very odd indeed if they're constantly using it that way). Also, if you're going to have the word 'Japan' right there on your front over it might be a good idea not to use Pandas (native to China - an entirely different country, even if it's filled with more of those Asian people!) as a feature of the wildlife in your story. These are just three of the problems which other people have noticed in the book, and which even an elementary level of research would have eliminated. I mean, I'd expect anyone who'd read a couple of volumes of manga to have picked those issues up.
What's even more baffling is that there's apparently a glossary explaining, among other things, the correct meaning and usage of both these words at the back of the book, so someone at the publisher did do the research and did know all this - but either it wasn't thought worthwhile to edit the book to make it more credible, or the writer refused to consider that the way he wrote it in the first draft wasn't fine.
In case anyone needs this confirming? As Westerners, whatever we think we know, or what - God help us - 'everyone knows' about any culture other than our own? Is not a good enough basis on which to build a respectful portrait of that culture. Nor is a passing interest in films produced by that culture, or having known a girl from that culture once, or having read a book about it in school. The West has spent its entire history marginalising, exoticising, exploiting, silencing and generally stomping all over every culture that wasn't its own and that means we've only seen the bowdlerised Western version of anything that isn't the West. Intuition doesn't cut it. The idea that 'we're all the same deep inside!' doesn't cut it. It's just not good enough.
Show some respect and do your frakking research.
No, you still won't get it perfect, most probably. But at least you won't have treated other people's cultures as if they were crispy bacon flavoured topping you sprinkle on your salad to make all the green leafy bits look a bit more appealing.
In order to back up my outrage over this issue, let's have some posts from other people who tackle cultural appropriation with far more eloquence than I could hope to. First, let's have this stingingly brilliant post from Wistfully Linda in which she talks about Green Eyed Asian Love Interests.
And now a review from Cyna on You Kill Me - warning, adult language on this one! But also a really detailed examination of the various problems in the text, including the ones mentioned above and mmmmmaaaaany others.
Finally, this well-reasoned post from author Ellen Oh, who talks about The Importance of Proper Research.
In closing, Dear Readers: diversity is a very good thing and I hope you will strive to achieve it in your lives and your writing. Keep at it. But remember that diversity always comes from a place of humble respect and willingness to learn. If you find yourself writing about people and cultures who are entirely different from you and yours - about whose unique experiences you actually know nothing, remember! - with the smug attitude that Wikipedia has all the information you could possibly need? You're writing like an *sshat.
You are not *sshats, my loves. You are better than that. We all should be.