Recently I’ve had the pleasure, from afar, of watching a couple of Internet storms on the topic of cultural appropriation. In this context, that’s when a writer decides to set a character or society in an historical culture different to their own, and then gets it egregiously wrong in a manner that is compounded by their own wilful ignorance and implicit claim of the superiority of their own culture.
I can see why it hurts and offends. I’m a public school educated science fiction writing Christian believing scion of the military – that’s four quite key components of my persona that people who don’t get just Do Not Get, and I’m invariably irritated when people get them wrong. (I suppose you can add other categories to that list: English, male, quite tall.) It’s mild stuff compared to the compounded grievances of entire cultures that have been mis-represented or persecuted for centuries. Yes, I can see why cultural appropriation – or maybe that should be mis-appropriation – upsets.
I utterly fail to live in fear of fatwas by Mayan fundamentalists who are offended by my heinous and quite upfront misrepresentation of their culture in The Vampire Plagues. I did however stop and think about what I was doing/had done in Phoenicia’s Worlds …
Phoenicia’s Worlds begins on a colony world settled by a multitude of ethnic and societal groups from Earth, all of whom arrived on the starship Phoenicia before the story begins. The most dominant are a group calling themselves Los Hijos de Castilla, the Sons of Castille, a group who were dedicated to reviving the mores and culture of old Spain 1000 years hence. They woke up first from hibernation, they took over and named the planet (La Nueva Temporada), and they’re in charge despite being, by the time the story starts, very much in the minority.
How is this not cultural mis-appropriation? Their Spanish extends to their names and a few words or phrases that I gleaned from Spanish-speaking friends and Google Translate. They are nothing like the real Spanish.
Well, first, this is the future 1000 years hence, and any similarities between the present Spanish and my lot will already be pretty thin. Events of a 1000 years ago can still have an effect in the present day, but the societies at either end of that millennium are probably going to be quite different. (Queen Elizabeth II can trace her descent to William the Conqueror: the similarities between the two individuals are quite minimal.)
Second, even if the Hijos were present-day Spanish, the book isn’t about them. It’s about the society of their children and grandchildren on their new world. Any immigrant society in a new place immediately becomes its own thing. My people aren’t Spanish, they aren’t Castilian, they’re Nuevan – a society I created and can do what I like with.
And third, even the Hijos (at least the more honest ones) accept that they’re completely faux. At least, faux as genuine Earth-based Castilian Spaniards go. Completely bona for Nuevans, of course. Maybe a few founders of the movement could legitimately claim Spanish descent, but it’s all a bit silly and, deep down, they know it. I would give the same treatment to, say, any political group trying to revive the values and culture of Saxon England. The more they admitted that they were giving it their best shot but weren’t actually, you know, Saxon, the more I would respect them for it. I will generally accept anyone’s self-identification at face value because who am I to say otherwise about what is going on in their hearts? But the more serious and po-faced they were about it, the harder I would find it to take them seriously.
I chose the Spanish because part of the plot revolves around the fact that La Nueva Temporada is stuck in the grip of a fierce Ice Age and badly needs terraforming to be habitable. Okay, maybe there was a bit of good old English xenophobia at work here. Who would it be funny to stick on a freezing cold ice world? Why not the Spanish? Ho ho, hee hee.
In a future post, how the plot of Phoenicia’s Worlds was also affected by the shenanigans of the British Intelligence services during World War 2.