Appropriation, Fiction, and The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Lately there’s been considerable fuss about the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ as applied to the process of creating fiction. In the most extreme form of application, the idea of ‘appropriation’ makes pretty much all fiction morally unsound. According to this interpretation, you are meant to write of experiences and cultural mores that you personally embody and engage with, because to do anything else is a form of cultural imperialism, a kind of intellectual theft.

Note I said that’s the extreme interpretation, all right? Obviously, not too many sane people want to see this kind of restriction laid down. Most people don’t want to kill off fiction altogether.

Of course, as usual the devil lies in the details. How much is too much? When is a culture sufficiently dead that you can borrow from it with impunity? How oppressed does a culture or a people have to be before you declare that they and only they are permitted to reinterpret their ideas?

While you’re mulling over these things, let me point out something which — to my mind, as a writer of fantasy and science fiction — highlights a massive problem with the stronger interpretations of ‘cultural appropriation’. The Hero With A Thousand Faces is a book by Joseph Campbell in which he compared myth-structures from all over the world. Campbell found many commonalities amongst them; enough to create a kind of over-arching “ur-structure” which arguably lays out the ground work for much basic storytelling, particularly in the fantastic genres. This narrative structure Campbell named “The Hero’s Journey”.

There are many different elements in the classic “Hero’s Journey” — many kinds of obstacles, side characters, helpers, hindrances, etc. But the nature of the journey itself is, if not universal, then so very well-known as to be recognizable in cultures from around the world. In its simplest form, the hero/protagonist leaves their familiar surrounds, goes on some kind of journey, and arrives at a place or condition which allows the hero to acquire some kind of wisdom, knowledge, or needed abilities. The hero then returns with this hard-won information, and sets about sorting things out at home.

That’s a serious oversimplification, but note that vital central element: the hero leaves the familiar, journeys to unknown realms, acquires esoteric knowledge and returns with it.

Quite plainly, the deepest heart of the most widely prevalent myth structure on the planet is all about cultural appropriation: about going and learning, or taking, or in many cases outright stealing some kind of knowledge, and returning with it to “enlighten” another culture.

Do you see now why I have problems with the strong interpretation of “cultural appropriation”? Certainly, there’s a valid argument for ideas of “cultural ownership”, particularly where the culture in question is small, oppressed, and endangered. But at the same time, if we insist on an absolute curtailment of the flow of cultural ideas… no. That idea is lunacy. People have always traded in ideas, back and forth. Pasta is Italian and rice noodles are Chinese, except the story goes that Marco Polo brought the noodly idea back from China and adapted it…

… and I, therefore, intend to continue borrowing, even stealing from other cultures, other writers, other artists. I aim to do so with care and respect. I aim to do so in the hopes of contributing new ways of thinking about those ideas, and in raising awareness both of those ideas and potentially even their sources.

If you’re unhappy with that? Cool. Go read somebody else’s stories.



  1. The issues regarding cultural appropriation were a topic of discussion over the opening speech by Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers festival this year. Yassmin Abdel-Magied who had attended that night had a piece in the Guardian which I though highlight the difference between what you refer to ” I aim to do so with care and respect” in contrast to what Shriver proposed which Abdel-Magied described as “It was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”.

    I agree it can be a fascinating discussion as to how we can know an experience we haven’t had.

    Interesting topic.

    1. I read both Shriver and A-M.

      I’m not buying into that discussion.

  2. I wouldn’t even lease into that discussion.

  3. It’s a real issue, of course.

    I had some interesting chats with an indigenous artist (painter) some years ago, about the market being flooded with non-indigenous fakes, about ideas of indigenous artists including discreet codes within their work to show authenticity, and a hilarious scam involving busking style “painting” for tourists. So I’m inclined towards sympathy with concerns about appropriation. (But then I would be, wouldn’t I?)

    Roger Zelazny’s brilliant Lord of Light is an interesting case. I have no doubt that someone from a Hindu (or Buddhist) cultural background reading it would be in a permanent state of facepalm. But of course, it’s an excellent piece of work. The contradiction is very clear here.

    But here’s where things get really interesting… If Science Fiction (and Fantasy, too) is to be of any interest or value in the future, it needs to be able to go beyond narrow US/Australian/etc conceptions of the future. The future is not “Yanks in Space”, but something very much more diverse, interesting and, frankly, inspiring.

    Too strong an interpretation of cultural appropriation jeopardises that.

    1. That’s the crux for us, isn’t it? I agree with you very strongly about Zelazny’s book. I’d argue that Zelazny not only avoids true appropriation by making it clear that his characters in the book are themselves appropriating identities and ideas, but that he makes an argument against appropriation in that the identity-structure appropriated by his characters becomes a tool of oppression. (Of course, his protagonist then appropriates yet another identity-structure to subvert the first set of appropriations… but even that is complex because I suspect many Buddhists would argue it’s impossible to appropriate the Buddha-nature!).

      Nevertheless, I also think you’re right about the probable reaction of many Hindu readers. It’s a difficult line to walk — but in fantasy and particularly in SF, there’s a real need to walk it. Hence me stepping into this conversation.

  4. This is a fascinating discussion right now and one that is bought up heavily in both academic and creative conferences and marketplaces.

    I wonder where music would be now without heavy cross-pollination between cultures? How much training do you need in another culture’s musical style before you can incorporate it into your own? I know much of the focus at the moment is on literature but surely this is a universal artistic discussion

    It’s interesting to see the shift in my own work and the conscious effort I put into finding authentic stories that do not appropriate. One of the main issues we have in (white) Australia is that we are so culturally young, a bit displaced and lost. I feel no link to Europe I know as an artist I have often gazed with envious eyes at cultures with deep historical roots and practices.

    This is where I believe creative rigour is important. Can I justify my use of a story, a scale, a language, a technique? Is my practice informed and respectful? Have I sought the appropriate permission or training? In my experience, artists and peoples are more than happy to share, if I am willing to take the time to ask.

    1. Asking is definitely valuable. It’s a good approach. But it’s also problematic. Suppose you want to work with a common Japanese folk instrument because you like the sound. Who the blazes do you ask about that?

      Establishing ‘ownership’ is fraught. And sometimes, no matter what choice you make, you’re screwed. Consider literature: if I write stories in Australia and don’t include Aboriginal characters where appropriate, then my stories are suppressing and preventing representation. On the other hand, if I represent Aboriginal characters after careful research, then I run the risk of ‘appropriating’ — and believe me, finding ‘ownership’ of Aboriginal cultural elements is insanely difficult. Finally: if I create Aboriginal characters and represent them as seen through the eyes of my (white) culture… why then, I’m suppressing and stereotyping.

      There are ways to negotiate the maze, but they’re incredibly difficult, and often the effort is still rejected and misinterpreted. But if you don’t try, you still lose.

      1. Ownership is indeed a problem. However, when I am asking.. I am not necessarily asking to use a thing, a story, a technique etc.. I am asking to learn about it.

        To use your example of an instrument- take Indian Classical Singing. I love the way this sounds, I would love to use it more in my music. Because of this, I went out and found myself an Indian Classical Teacher. I now know a lot more about Indian Classical Singing and feel confident that I could incorporate some of the musical elements into my music without offence. However, if I wanted my music to sound ‘authentically’ Indian I would need to use an Indian singer because it would take me years to master this instrument.

        If I apply the same standard to operatic singing.. It makes me very cranky when someone without any technique calls themselves an ‘opera singer’ just because they can ‘warble’ their notes. I would expect someone to take the time to study the history and learn the technique properly. Is this cultural appropriation or just appropriation?

        In terms of indigenous appropriation, that is a minefield at the moment. it’s also a minefield I know quite well. My last work, Void, used the Yugambeh dialect as one of the three libretto languages. Before using the language I went out to the Yugambeh Museum and spoke to the nice people there. They not only assured me that I could use the language, they were excited about it. They gave me a letter of consent and the details of a dialect coach. Despite having this blessing, I am continuously facing issues of appropriation and having to defend myself… primarily from white people. It made me seriously question my choice to use the language and I now wish that I hadn’t. Not because it was appropriation but because I don’t think the country is ready for white people to be using any indigenous culture.

        To explain… I believe we are currently going through a very unstable period of transition where our Indigenous peoples, culture and art are becoming visible and prominent. This is unprecedented in Australian history because we have oppressed this culture for so long. Appropriation in the past was never an issue because the indigenous population had no voice to tell us ‘no, you can’t use that’. I think that while we are passing through this transition there is a lot of discomfort on both sides and I really think we need to give it 10-20 years to even out. We need to let indigenous people share their art, their music, their culture. At first, this is going to be through the presentation of art, eventually, I hope this passes into education.

        We are really at the very beginning of the healing process. I personally won’t be picking at the scab anymore.

        1. Everything you’ve said is pretty much on the money for me. And I very much understand the desire to leave things well enough alone. But as Alan noted, in science fiction we’re faced with the problem of representing possibilities — and if we choose to represent possibilities which incorporate only ourselves… what good are we?

          It’s a real problem. This debate here (and on facebook) is proving illuminating. I’m going to let it roll for a while, and then post another set of ideas which is relevant to the topic. Thank you very, very much for taking the time to chip in, though.

        2. BTW: the particular problem of having to defend yourself from claims of appropriation which come from people who actually have no stake in the matter is — yeah, not surprising, but definitely facepalm disappointing.

  5. “Cultural Appropriation” is one of those catchphrases which is quite fraught. While I agree it is a thing, I don’;t think it’s a one-size-fits-all rallying cry, and each case needs to be handled on its own merits.
    The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is wide and blurry and depends on where you stand… and one of the questions always has to be: Who are the gatekeepers? Do they actually speak for all those they claim to speak for?

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