On Writing About Another Culture

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

UPDATE: I no longer agree that just “getting it right” is enough. I’ve taken a different course with my novel, but the resources in this article are very good and worth reading, as is the book Writing the Other.

When I started writing stories as a kid, I remember wanting to write about things beyond my imagination and understanding. I was of course, like most young girls growing up in the 80s and 90s, very much smitten with the wondrously  daydreamy Anne Shirley. But like Anne, there came a time when I found myself with writer’s block. The practical advice she was given was also parroted by my own mother: write what I know.  It’s a nice sentiment.

That belief still swims around in my mind every so often, and sometimes it cripples me. For the past few years, I have been writing a story set in another country, focused on another culture. On numerous occasions I have questioned my right to tell the story at all and felt a lingering fear that I will misrepresent the people I am writing about. Despite having spent a month in the country where my book is set and having had some first hand experiences, I cannot say I know or even understand all the intricate aspects of that culture. What I know is that I love that place, the people, and the experiences that I had. What I know is that, even with trying to write the story in America with decidedly American characters, I can’t imagine the story anywhere else or about anyone else. I try to remember that when feeling doubtful.

I also know that I have to be willing to commit myself to a lot of research, to being educated by members of that culture, and finding sensitivity readers who will point out my discrepancies. As I write and rewrite, I am committing myself to be mindful and aware in my portrayal of the culture and the people in my story. I am also committing myself to future criticism. However, if I have done everything I can to tell an honest story I will need to accept it with grace.  I can only hope that all these things added up are permission enough.

There has been a lot of talk and debate over the last few years about writer’s appropriating other cultures in their writing or being opportunistic with the “trends.”  So I spent sometime researching what is being said. If you’re in the same boat or just interested in the topic, below is a list of articles I found insightful while wading through my own insecurity:

(I tried my best to include articles written by authors of differing cultural backgrounds. Please add any other’s you find in the comments below)

Cultural Appropriation in Fiction (11 very valuable tips here!)

How to Write About Cultures Not Your Own Without Cultural Appropriation–A Tentative Guide (Great tips with a list of books they felt dealt with the issue well)

Whose Life is It Anyway?
(A great article looking which explores numerous authors’ view on the issue)

Writer’s Imagination vs. Cultural Appropriation
(A thought inducing article. I apologize for the stimulus nightmare–the videos in the sidebar are out of control!)

Should Authors Write Outside Their Cultural Identity? (Reading two different authors take was enlightening. One for, One against)

Cultural Appropriation Is, in Fact, Indefensible (A great think piece)

The Cultural Appropriation Primer (A great list of articles for further reading)

There is also a thoughtful article by  Rukhsana Khan called “Voice Appropriation and Writing About Other Cultures.” Since the author requires written consent to share the article, I’ll let you Google it yourself. I do need to say she doesn’t seem overwhelmingly optimistic about the whole idea; she only gave examples of how it had been done poorly. Regardless, it made me think a lot about what is required of me to “get it right.”


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