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.