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Voice Appropriation & Writing About Other Cultures

By Rukhsana Khan

For a while now, the issues of voice appropriation have been splitting the writing world, especially when trends in publishing were decidedly in favour of multiculturalism. Trends have cooled considerably, but the issues have not been resolved.

Many mainstream authors felt that doors were being closed to them because they weren’t from the culture they were writing about. The merit of the work was not always a factor, rather they felt it was a case of reverse discrimination. Whereas many ethnic authors, felt that an author foreign to their cultural tradition did not have the familiarity and respect to do their culture justice. Some also felt that mainstream authors were ‘honing in on their territory’--as if one’s culture amounted to a piece of turf that had to be protected from invasion.

At one point I must admit, I held a position in line with these ethnic authors I mentioned. Since then, I’ve modified my stance somewhat.

I’ve come to the conclusion that voice appropriation and writing about other cultures is inevitable. In fact it’s done all the time. Every time a writer writes anything that is outside their immediate field of experience, when a male writer uses a female protagonist or vice versa and especially when a writer writes historical fiction--they are writing about another ‘culture’. That said, there are ways a writer can reduce the possibility of gross errors and misrepresentation.

It may seem ironic that as a member of a visible minority I would have difficulty with issues of voice appropriation, but this has been the case for two of my books. The first, I’ve already written is called The Roses in My Carpets, and the one that I’m still working on, is a historical novel set in seventh century Arabia.

What people often forget is that Muslim culture is hardly a homogenous entity. In fact out of all Muslim culture, the only one I can speak with anything close to ‘absolute’ authority on is the "Pakistani-Muslim-who’ve-emigrated-to-Canada-at-a-young-age " culture.

But does that mean that we can only write about what we immediately know? Of course not. And in fact a person coming to a culture from a foreign viewpoint often sees things a person raised in that culture is blind to.

Let me share some examples of mainstream authors writing about Muslims and Islam and getting it wrong.

In a book called Zaki’s Ramadan Fast the author gets the pre-dawn meal wrong at one point. In the story they pray the dawn prayer before they eat. (This is backwards because once the prayer time begins, the fast has begun.)

In a picture book called One Night, the author has the main character, a young Taureg boy, praying while the sun is setting, which just so happens to be one of the three times of day when it’s actually forbidden to pray. (The other two are while the sun is rising and when it’s at its zenith. You can tell the sun hasn’t set because of the long shadows.)

I even read a short story once which was set in the desert. The author claimed that the covering dress of ‘old Islam’ was intended to keep the sand out rather than guard women from lascivious eyes. This is blatantly erroneous, and even misleading. Although I understand the author was trying to show the point of view of her character, who is rather obsessed about sand, there are too many people who’d go away from the story believing this statement. (It also ticked me off that a few sentences later she says the sand even gets into the main character’s pubic hair. I had to laugh. Shows the kinds of things authors take for granted. Fact is, it is part of Islamic hygiene to shave pubic and underarm hair, so the main character, by all rights, shouldn’t have had any.)

I know these mistakes might seem minor. Nit picky little details. But they can spoil an otherwise beautiful story. Especially for those the story is supposed to represent.

A while back I read a novel set in Pakistan. I ignored the territorial feeling that welled up in me that this author had invaded ‘my turf’. I really tried to be fair while reading it. The author is caucasian but I was hoping that perhaps she’d done her research and done my culture justice. She hadn’t.

I have to admit, the book was fairly well written, not surprising since it won a prestigious award. The descriptions of the desert, in particular, were intriguing. She even handled the tricky subject of polygamy responsibly in the first book. (The book was so successful she wrote a sequel. Unfortunately in the sequel, she reverted to every stereotype she’d avoided in the original.)

But what really galled me was that this author had transposed Western feminist ideas on a girl who, through the scope of the novel, had no access to that way of thinking. In other words this author had gotten the nitty gritty details of the culture right, but she’d gotten their thought processes, their inner logic, all wrong.

The other major problem I found with the book is that she wrongly portrayed some key information about Islam. As well, she seemed to have only a superficial understanding of Pakistani culture.

I think this author’s biggest error was in misunderstanding the basis of Pakistani culture. It seems to me that in any culture, religion plays a role. It is the foundation upon which the culture is built. Culture seems to be tied up with the traditions, dress, and practices of a people, whereas religion is the underlying belief system at the root of it.

North American society is based on a Judeo Christian religious foundation. People don’t often refer to it overtly, but it is there, underlying what people say and do. And it surfaces from time to time. To ignore it, is to ignore a vital component in the psychology of North American culture.

Even when people aren’t particularly religious, they will still refer to religious principles at times of crisis. In Pakistan, the foundation is Islamic, and this author had completely ignored it. What this lady had done was write a story with a Western-type heroine in a Pakistani setting. It was no wonder that the book was so successful. But I found it extremely patronizing.

I think if you’re going to write about another culture, in order to do it justice, you have to almost set aside your own feelings and completely identify with that culture. You must adopt its values as your own for the scope of the book--not an easy task. It is my opinion that only by doing so, can you give the culture the respect it truly deserves. If you ‘adopt’ the culture, the story will stand a better chance of being ‘true’ to the spirit of the people. Unfortunately most authors play ‘dress up’. They treat the other culture like a costume.

With all the criticism I’ve levelled at others in the past, it was with great trepidation that I wrote my first story outside my culture, The Roses in My Carpets. It’s about a young Afghani refugee boy. Thing is I’m not an Afghani or a refugee, or a young boy. Some would think that Afghanistan being right next door to Pakistan would be close enough in terms of ethnic proximity, but the cultures are quite distinct.

I had no way of knowing if I was taking liberties with the Afghani viewpoint. And I was particularly afraid because I knew how annoying it was when non-Muslim authors got Islamic stuff wrong. I dreaded an Afghani telling me, "How dare you write such a story! That’s not the way it was at all! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Stick to what you know!"

I was so afraid of this that even though my husband’s brother is married to an Afghani refugee girl, I didn’t let her read the story until it was published. If she’d said it was a load of crock could I, in good faith, still publish it? I believed in the story. I wanted it published.

I watched her face while she was reading it for the first time. Gradually, after no anger was immediately apparent, I began to relax. She finished the story (it’s a picture book) and looked up at me with a frown. She said, "The book is good, but it was worse than that you know."

I was so relieved. I smiled and said, "Yes. I know it was worse. But I had to understate it to make it believable."

Later she let her brother read it. She told me that he broke down in the middle of it, sobbing uncontrollably. She’d had to comfort him. (Afghani men are not known for sentiment. They tend to be rather tough.)

"Yes!" I thought, "I got it right!" After that I stopped worrying about being challenged regarding that book.

The novel I’m working on now is much more difficult. Not only is it set in another culture, it’s set in another time period, seventh century Arabia. What makes it harder is that I don’t speak Arabic.

The only reason I think I can pull it off is because it deals with Islamic history, and being Muslim, I’ve always identified with that. I can read and write Arabic, and I’ve taken courses in it so that I know a bit about its grammar and structure. But the biggest challenge has been understanding the bedouin mentality and culture. What further complicates things is that my characters are not even modern bedouins, they’re pagan bedouins of pre-Islamic Arabia. The research has been a challenge but the hardest thing has been to allow my characters to do things I totally disapprove of. (The only up side to this is that if research is so hard, then not too many people will know if I goof. But I still don’t want to goof.)

In order to be true to the culture, I’ve had to sublimate my morals to a certain degree, and write uncensored. Not easy. I keep wondering what people will think of me.

One of the hardest things to understand was how the pagan Arabs could bury their infant daughters alive. (The story is about a fifteen year old boy who wants to save his sister from this fate.) In order to do this, and to understand the main antagonist, the boy’s father, I wrote a scene from his point of view, where he does just that. It was a very disturbing experience. I don’t like to read that piece, and yet it was completely necessary in order to understand and respect his cultural reasoning.

Sometimes I think I’m not so much a writer as a chronicler. It’s as if I follow these characters around on adventures and my task is just to write down what they say and do--that’s all. My job is not to judge them. Nor is it my job to scold them or coerce them into a different course of action--one that is not in their character. I have to allow them to act in ways that are true to themselves.

I know it sounds crazy, but then whoever said that writers were totally sane? (Cue the Twilight Zone music.)

To conclude, my advice to anyone wanting to write about another culture is first and foremost do your homework. Don’t take any detail (like pubic hair) for granted. Secondly, sublimate your own cultural values and prejudices for the duration of the book. Write true to that culture and to your characters. And most of all, respect the culture you’re writing about. That way if anyone steps up to challenge your work, and you can bet someone might just do that, at least you’ll be satisfied that you did your best.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.