Cultural Appropriation In Fiction: Here Are Some Tips To Consider When Your Writing Includes Different Cultures

Person writing outside in a green area.

As a child, my dad told me he hung onto the wings of an airplane and flew all the way from his pueblo in Honduras to Los Angeles, where we’ve lived ever since. For a long time, I believed this to be true.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I told the story to my friend that I realized this was likely impossible. As I grew older though, I understood my dad’s need to coat the story with fiction and fantasy. It helped make an otherwise difficult reality easier to digest.

Since then, I’ve often wondered how much fiction is grounded in truth. I understand the benefits of creating a reality with filled with possibilities and different outcomes.

At the same time, I wonder if someone is able to respectfully retell experiences they didn’t live through without being inaccurate or appropriative.

The cushion that is fiction can lead writers to support their stories with the argument that it’s a made-up reality, that is, that it’s just a movie, just a TV show, just a book. But it’s never “just.” And as mainstream media moves towards more inclusive narratives, the danger of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation increases.

Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting certain aspects of a culture in a manner that disrespects the cultural significance and inaccurately represents a community. My favorite explanation is this video by the wonderful and intelligent Amandla Stenberg.

We’ve seen cultural appropriation play out in mainstream media as artists use other cultures as costumes in music videos, fashion shows, and books, among other mediums.

Inclusive Fiction

In an effort to ensure that fiction doesn’t misrepresent any given culture, sensitivity readers and inclusive fiction teachers have taken on the role of ensuring that the fiction being shared with the world is responsible and accurate. Sensitivity readers look over one’s work and make sure that their work accurately represents the community or identity the author has chosen to explore.

K. Tempest Bradford is an inclusive fiction teacher and writer. She teaches courses that educate writers on respectfully including different cultures in their fiction.

Fiction plays a large role in society and how individuals view themselves and others. “It’s so important to see yourself somewhere,” said Bradford, “you need to have a mirror in order to have a cultural understanding of yourself.”

Recently, we’ve seen inclusive fiction take the stage with movies like Black Panther, Moonlight, Coco, and Moana, among others. By giving agency and shifting the mainstream lens toward marginalized communities, that mirror Bradford mentions is being provided for underrepresented communities.

Although there’s still a long way to go, inclusive fiction does have the ability to show communities what is possible.

Black Panther, explained Bradford, is important because it shows what’s possible when a person from a culture that is their own gets full agency without other people interfering. The result is a celebration of their culture that is an expression of their community without stereotypes or assumptions.

Although writing fiction from outside of one’s own immediate community can be a fine line to walk, it doesn’t mean fiction writers should give up. It will, however, require a lot of research, cultural consultation, and self-awareness.

“Even though we need more people from marginalized communities writing their own stories and getting those published, “people from dominant paradigms need to learn how to navigate this stuff, too,” says Bradford. “Because representative fiction should reflect how the world is and the many identities that make it up.”

Often, writers take on the “salad bar” approach. This means they find an “interesting” aspect of a culture, whether it be tattoos or a spiritual ceremony, and pluck it out of the entire community without any cultural context. This then creates a shallow, inaccurate, and insensitive representation of a community.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, CEO of Inclusive Media Solutions, writer, and sensitivity reader, calls this form of cultural appropriation in fiction “cherry picking.” By picking what they want to highlight and what they wish to neglect, she says, writers are being disrespectful in a lot of contexts.

“Someone might be taking part in something that is not from their identity,” continued Gussine Wilkins, “but they’re either doing it in a mocking way, not giving proper credit, or ignoring its historical background and once again cherry picking the so-called “cool” parts in order to seem like they are worldly.”

As a means of avoiding this approach to appropriation, Gussine Wilkins highly encourages “socially responsible media,” that is, “making sure you’re fact checking and getting the respectful engagement of people from the community you’re writing about.”

This salad bar, cherry-picking approach that both writers mention is an extension of a colonial mindset, says Bradford, “A lot of people seem to think that everything is up for grabs. Even though we are allegedly not a colonial power, that colonial mindset still exists within a western culture so that mindset plays out when writers decide to try to take stuff from other people’s cultures to include in their fiction.”

So before writing any fictional piece regarding a culture different from your own, make sure you’re doing so in a respectful and intelligent manner. I talked to two inclusive media experts, Bradford and Gussine Wilkins, to compile a checklist that you need to keep in mind to make sure you’re not culturally appropriating in your writing.

1. Do your homework. Research, research, research.

Don’t come from a place of ignorance, be responsible, and make sure to inform yourself. Find some way to get the information about the community that you’re trying to portray from a source that isn’t biased.

Research involves everything from reading books by writers from the culture you’re trying to portray to actually talking to people from an identity.

A decent example of a well-researched novel is Submission by Amy Waldman (who happens to be a journalist so her research skills are noticeable). This book depicts a controversy that arises after the jury for the 9/11 memorial chooses a design by a Muslim architect. Although not perfect, her novel still refrains from perpetuating stereotypes and integrates the conversation of race in the United States.

2. Identify bias.

We all have stereotypical understandings of other identities based on the stereotypical foundations of our culture. It all starts with identifying the basic stereotypes that you’ve been fed so that then you can leave them behind.

J.K. Rowling’s recent work, History of Magic in North America, is an example of irresponsible fiction writing that received criticism from the Native American community. Her work has been criticized for equating Native American traditions and spirituality with fantasy. This then perpetuates the stereotype of Native Americans as magical and fictional beings, which in turn erases their existence.

3. Talk to people.

Talking to people from that culture can be hard especially for introverted or shy writers, but you have to talk to people in order to understand the community at all. Do your due diligence and get feedback, input, and notes from the culture you’re writing about.

4. Be mindful.

Part of the reason why some people have these negative and harmful things in their writing is because they don’t know any better. It’s not about censorship, it’s about being mindful about what you’re putting out.

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American sci-fi/fantasy novelist who wrote about deciding to put an end to her book. By being mindful of her position of power, she recognized the harm that her narrative could have on the marginalized community she was writing about. On a blog post detailing this experience, she wrote, “…if you are going to prioritize your own feelings on a subject, as someone outside a community, over the feelings of people inside the community, then maybe that’s not something you should be writing in the first place.”

5. Know the space you’re taking up.

Understand your own place in the world and the space you may be taking away from other authors.

6. Recognize that you don’t always know what you don’t know.

Huh? That’s confusing, I know. What I mean is that even if you think you understand the issues around representational fiction and diversity, you should recognize that you don’t necessarily know it all.

Be aware that you always have a lot to learn. It’s not meant to overwhelm you, instead, it’s meant to make you stop and think.

7. Get a sensitivity read.

Once you’ve actually created a piece of fiction, get a sensitivity reader to look over your work to make sure there aren’t things that you missed in your research that can only be played out from someone of the identity you’re trying to portray. A sensitivity reader will critique your work to check if you’re being sensitive about the community you’re writing about and will evaluate your piece for insensitive language and representation, cultural inaccuracies, and bias.

They will help ensure that your fiction is an accurate representation of their community and also allows a respectful way of including someone from that identity into the work so that their voices are also heard.

Here is an online database with sensitivity readers. Pay them for their work! This is by no means an easy job and it can be painful for some to read through misrepresentations and stereotypes.

8. Expand your network.

Try to get more than one opinion because no one person from an identity is a modelist and not everyone is going to think the same exact way.

Send a call out and go through your networks and your extended networks. It may never have occurred to someone who is an expert to do a sensitivity read, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have insight into the experiences that are being written about.

9. Read Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

It’s not expensive, it’s short, and it’s a really good primer.  

This book provides various workshop techniques and exercises to help writers create accurate characters with different identities that are not offensive or stereotypical. It also offers advice on writing about identities beyond race such as orientation, age, ability, religion, and sex. In the chapter “Don’t Do This!” for instance, examples of themes and characteristics to avoid are laid out for writers. There are also two essays by Shawl. You can read “Transracial Writing for the Sincerehere.

10. Take Cynthia Leitich Smith’s advice and read 100 books.

In this article, Smith says that if you want to write about any culture, then you need to read 100 books by people from that culture.

If you read 100 books from a certain group, you’re going to have a deeper understanding of that group and a changed perspective. They can be fiction, nonfiction, picture books, etc. — they don’t all have to be novels.

If you can’t find 100 books written by people from that culture, then maybe you should reconsider whether or not you need to be the one to bring people from that culture into your work.

11. Take “Writing the Other” online courses and webinars here.

K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl teach these courses to help authors write inclusive fiction. These workshops offer advice for writers creating characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, and racial heritage are different from their own. They combine lectures, discussion, and writing exercises to make sure writers are being responsible and accurate. The next class is a Deep Dive into dialogue and dialect.

Itxy Quintanilla is a multimedia journalist telling nuanced stories through writing, photography, film, and audio. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and received her B.A. in English and Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You can find her snacking on trail mix and daydreaming to the sound of Frank Ocean. Follow her on Twitter @itx_yagirl