Sunday, July 15, 2012

On Permission And White Writers

Because I have received this question for like the hundredth time, and thought I would dedicate an entire post answering the question, "does this mean we're not allowed to write outside our ethnicity?"


In order to do so, you need to file an application for a License to Multicultural Writing with your local Department of Multiculturalism. This department is either provincial or federal, depending on your country. Canada and the US, sharing very similar multicultural histories, share the same department which is on federal level, several branches across the two countries. 

You will need to first fill out the MC-01 form, which is a general license form. (The fee for this general license is USD$50.) Then you need to fill out MC-1837 (which is specifically the license for Steampunk: Multicultural). If you are creating a steampunk work specifically about non-white peoples, you will need MC-3100(BC). YOU MUST FILL OUT AND SUBMIT BOTH FORMS TOGETHER. Failure to do so will result in unnecessarily prolonged processing. 

Licensing for each multicultural work you aim to produce depends on the region you write about; check with your countries' department on the rate. As a general rule, rates will depend on how long your country has been involved with said country; the longer your country has colonized this particular culture, the cheaper the licenses will be. However, if you are of Western European descent, these rates can often be forgiven and you will get a 75% discount.

Processing will take at least 6 months, and it goes through several committees of People of Colour and Ethnic Representatives from the culture you are applying to write about. 90% of the time you will be asked to produce samples of the work you seek licensing for, especially if you are a new media creator. Approval is not guaranteed. It may be years before you are finally approved. Please be patient as there are many applicants to be processed--up to 100 million a year! 

In the United States, if your work is egregiously racist, you will be impounded for a fine of $50 - $50,000, to be determined by a Jury of Disapproving Negros. They may also involve representatives of NMNAs (Non-Mascot Native Americans). If your work features poverty porn of Africa, Side-Eyeing African Children will be allowed to take arbitrary votes on the extent of your fine. If your work features cultures of East Asian extract, Inscrutable Orientals, from Section YP-1882, will place final call on the result of your work.

These are only a few sections of the entire Department of Multiculturalism division that processes these applications. If a certain section is not available close to you, your application will be forwarded to another branch that has the relevant Ethnic Representatives. To save yourself time, research where the Ethnic Representatives relevant to your work are before applying, and submit your application to that particular branch.

You get the idea. Now go write. And don't quit your day job.

This question always crops up, and continues to crop up even more with discussions of race. I think it presents us with a false frame of how writing outside our experience happens, forcing us into a conversation on what “universal experience” is like, and eventually the conversation boils down to “a good story is a good story no matter who writes it.” Way back when, men would argue that women would never be able to write anything valuable or relevant, and women time and again disproved this. Colonizers convinced the colonized that there was a hierarchy of what was superior and more important, and for centuries we by and large swallowed this narrative, with some of our members proving otherwise. Being an outsider, outside the dominant narrative, has often produced revolutionary and incredible work.

But this question doesn’t always come from that frame; it usually comes from the frame of a historically dominant and oppressive group asking permission to do what it has always done to colonized groups: re-interpret the colonized’s experiences through the lens of the more powerful and privileged. So unless otherwise specified, I’m assuming this question refers to Western writers writing about non-Western cultures.

I’ll give this question a bone: when I was a child, I read Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee comics. Van Gulik was an Orientalist in the first sense of the word: he studied the Tang Dynasty of China extensively, and wrote and drew nuances of the Tang Dynasty into his stories and comics. (Judge Dee is based on a historical figure from much earlier, but let’s just roll with this.) To this day, Chinese audiences still continue to read his stories; Judge Dee is our Sherlock Holmes. I think this answers the first part of the question quite nicely.

I would like to counter this question with another one: to what end does a writer write? For ourselves? Or for our audience? Both intentions are noble. However, if you are a Western writer, trying to write about a non-Western culture, I would raise my eyebrow at any talk of writing as an “enriching experience”. Isn’t economic dominance and touristic neocolonialism enough to enrich your lives? As a writer, I write for myself, as a colonized body, and I write for other colonized bodies as well. My first concern is for myself, to write a story that satisfies me as a reader. but my immediate concern after is for the audiences who don’t see themselves reflected or participant in any process of publishing.

As an academic, I tend to think of X literature as coming from a member of group X, especially if X literature touches on concerns specific to group X (this does not foreclose the possibility of someone from group X writing some other kind of literature). But if X literature comes from a member of group Y, and group Y has often been positioned as more powerful to group X, we need to question what exactly group Y writer is bringing to X literature: something new that re-frames the discourse surrounding group X? Or the same ol’, same ol’ talking about group X as if group X has no opinion or voice of its own? It’s vainglorious to assume the former, and ignore concerns to the contrary.

As such, this question is a self-centered one; it places all the attention on the writer’s intention and skill. I really have to question why any one writer would ask such a question, and am hard-pressed to come up with any other answer besides “seeking validation.” (This happens; it is normal. I do it too.) Western writers can and have written stories set in non-Western cultures. These stories have even been published. They have even *gasp* won awards! Bad stories that rely on racist stereotypes to carry them through and insult the people of that culture, they, too can win awards! Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, Night Shade Press, I’m still looking at you. Why would a Westerner, with so much historically-granted permission and leeway, ask such a question? Why does no one ask, what kind of obstacles do writers from postcolonial groups face?

Recall Chimamanda Adichie’s story of a publisher who questioned her depiction of Nigeria; it felt inauthentic, because Adichie’s story didn’t fit any African narrative of poverty and ruin that the publisher recognized. Why, when a non-Westerner can be questioned on her writing of her own culture, must we focus on Western writers who have historically gotten away with racist, inaccurate writing, and give them the OK to write stories about us? Why now, when we non-Westerners have finally begun voicing our concerns of how we are depicted? And why we do keep having this particular conversation, in this particular frame, over and over again?

Now, writing as a non-Westerner, about another non-Western culture… the same rules and questions apply. For whom do we write? To what end do we write? What are the ramifications of our writing, and do we embed unconscious narratives that harm the groups we write about? As a Malaysian-Chinese writer, it would be easy for me to write something Islamophobic while writing about Malaysian-Malays, or something incredibly anti-black about African peoples. My status as a non-Westerner does not excuse me from these actions, no matter how well-intentioned I am. Would it be enriching for me to write about other groups that I know less of than the ones I identify with? Perhaps, but in my experience, it has been far more educational to actually just listen to them and support their voices than write about them, without their input.

So what, really, is this question asking? I think anybody asking this question really needs to interrogate themselves further on their reason for asking it.


  1. this may be the best thing ever.

  2. I've heard Memoirs of a Geisha bounced around as an example of a white male successfully writing "outside his ethnicity" and gender, but I don't know whether that's successful in terms of accuracy and capturing the experience, or just successful in terms of selling lots of copies and movie rights. (With lots of Chinese actresses portraying Japanese characters in the movie!)

    1. After Memoirs came out, the geisha that Arthur Golden interviewed (and agreed to protect the identity of, which he didn't do) came forward with her own autobiography that showed a VERY different picture from what Memoirs depicted. Seeing as it also pushed forward a fascination with geisha in North America, furthering the stereotype of Asian women as sexually available and submissive, I'd count it a giant honking failure as far as multiculturalism goes.

    2. In his acknowledgments, Golden thanks American anthropologist Liza Dalby, author of the book Geisha. This is an account of her experiences working as a geisha in Japan for two years. As someone who read Dalby before Golden, it was obvious to me how deeply indebted he was her work when it came to getting the details right.

      So at least he took the trouble to crib from a reliable source, right? Except I find myself left with the question, What did his novel really do to expand on the source material? Dalby's account is already fascinating without some wish-fulfillment fantasy grafted onto it.

      And that's all in addition to the controversy Jha talks about above.

  3. Did Ursula K. Le Guin use a different form when applying to write intersex aliens, or non-white male humans?

    1. Ah, because the non-white male human was interacting on an intergalactic scale, Le Guin used MC-201(Incog), and she had to ALSO apply to the Department of Gender to fill out Form I-100. HOWEVER, standards have changed since then and were she to fill them out now, she'd be processed through several more committees and a whole branch dealing with intersex fluidity. I for one think she would find her application rejected on the grounds of Rigid Binarism.

  4. When the writer intends to use a language, dialect (topolect, sociolect, or whatever), language register, not their own, what documentation do you require to determine/review/evaluate the writer's competence in that language, dialect, and or register, and the relevance of using it to the characters, plot elements, setting, etc. of the story?

    Same question for rendering features of another language's grammar or structure into the writer's language, or conversely (eg to depict a non-native speaker of the language under consideration)

    1. Those fall under the Linguistics section of the Department of Multiculturalism. You will need the SL forms, coded according to geography and dialectal region. There are different forms! Some can get quite complicated: for example, you need SL-CHI *AND* SL-D-SHANGHAI, if you intend to use the Shanghainese dialect in your work. (There are further codes too, compartmentalized according to social standing or time period or what-have-you.) If your work is milti-lingual, add forms as necessary. There is, fortunately, no limit to the amount of languages.

      However, there is a $15 fee for each form you submit.

  5. Great (and hilarious) post, but one little niggle: while there may have been Judge Dee comics, van Gulik wrote short stories and novels about the character.

    But really, I liked this post a lot. I know this is going to be my link of choice when these discussions come up elsewhere.

    1. I know, and anybody who knows the Judge Dee works knows they are mostly shorts and novels. I, however, knew nothing about the shorts and novels until I grew up; someone in my family, my father or grandfather, maybe an uncle, had collated newspaper clippings of the Judge Dee comics into a scrapbook. And that is what I grew up with. So I've always had a visual reference of Judge Dee.