Tricia Sullivan, author of Shadowboxer, on the complexities and challenges of writing about a culture that is not her own.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a harrowing novel set before and during the Biafran war in 1960s Nigeria. It has a character called Richard, an Englishman who goes to Nigeria to learn about its art and ends up involved in the struggle and suffering of the Igbo people. Richard is a nice guy, but he can’t make himself into an African no matter how he tries. He tries to understand the postcolonial horror that Nigeria is going through. At any time he could get on a plane and go, but he stays. He loves an Igbo woman, learns the language, and tries earnestly to be an advocate for the Igbo people. And in all sympathy and earnestness, he begins to write about the war, draft after misguided draft. Richard’s book is a white man’s version of an Igbo story, but Richard can’t see how his Igbo friends feel about this. They have a range of opinions from mildly amused tolerance to real anger. At one point Richard’s lover burns the book.
In the end, broken by the horror he has witnessed, Richard comes to understand that the war is not his story to tell. The person who ends up writing a book about Biafra is a young man who has lived through the war first as a houseboy, then a schoolteacher, and finally a conscript.
The implication here is clear: marginalized people need opportunities to tell their own stories. Mainstream writers need to stop crowding the airwaves. We need to make room for the voices from within the cultures themselves. Because invariably we appropriate, even when we don’t mean to.
In the last few years I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been trying to work out how to write about the small world we live in where cultures frequently collide and where understanding of strangers can be hard to come by. I have done a lot of soul-searching.
My novel Shadowboxer features a Dominican-American teenager who goes to Thailand to train in Muay Thai fighting. I was able to research this and get feedback from a Latina-American reader, two Thai readers (who didn’t agree with one another on all points) and from people from the West who, like Jade, had trained in Thailand. The novel also includes Mya, a young Burmese refugee, as one of the protagonists. I could not find a Burmese reader. It has been asked of me — and I have asked of myself — what right have I got to take the point of view of a Burmese refugee child and tell a story that I have made up? I, whose understanding of reality comes from growing up in the US suburbs watching Bowling For Dollars on TV?
It’s a problem. I see this. Yet I wrote the character Mya. I used some of Thailand’s mythos knowing these things are problematic. I don’t feel one tiny bit easy or certain about the approach I’ve taken. I can’t justify the decision by ideology. For those who hold themselves to the highest standards of correctness, my decision to publish is an obvious fail.
But. If as a group we demand perfection, then we are into the business of choosing “correct” books and “incorrect” books. That’s a bit of a slippery slope. Who gets to decide? How do we divide the world? Whose opinion is privileged? Who represents a culture? Who gives permission? Messy things are messy. They can’t be made simple and easy just because we wish they could.
Writing is how I try to understand the world. Trying to imagine myself in someone else’s mind is what I do. I turn on my imagination, I go down into that murky subconscious place where somehow we all have some common human ground, and I try to bring up whatever I can find. Sometimes I come up with treasure and sometimes I come up with crap, and the judgement as to which is which is largely down to readers who bring their own thinking to the enterprise. So depending on who you are you may love my work, you may want to kill it with fire, you may go “meh” — and all responses are valid. But for me as a writer, the bottom line is this: if I can’t engage in that process of trying to empathize, then I can’t write. It’s simple.
Writers don’t always choose their stories. Sometimes a story chooses a writer. If a story leads me into terra incognita, I do the best I can and I rely on the judgment of other professionals and trusted readers to let me know if I’ve gone off-course. If they tell me there are problems with what I’ve written, I listen and I do whatever I can to ameliorate the problems. Ultimately, though, my work is my own and I’ve got to make the final decisions about what I sign my name to. This process doesn’t feel safe or easy to me, and I have come to recognize that one of the risks I take is the risk of having to be the bad guy, the offender, the jerk, the one who harms. Some people enjoy being the bad guy; I don’t. I mean, I really, really don’t. But if that ends up being my part, I accept it.
When it comes to diversity issues, it’s much easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. The latter is difficult and uncertain, and there is no ultimate authority to tell you whether you are doing it well or badly. For myself I walk the walk by putting my best efforts on the page, including the imperfections. I walk the walk of someone who opens herself and lets the world have at what she’s written. There isn’t any other walk I need to be walking.
Some people believe that the problem of cultural appropriation is best handled by white writers stepping back and getting out of the way. This comes from the idea that marginalized writers — specifically writers from outside the white Anglo world — would get more notice if their efforts weren’t being drowned out by the culturally amplified voices of people like me. I’m wary of this rationale. I agree that writers from outside the West are badly marginalized, but I think the way to fix that is to actively seek out and nurture and promote and read and talk about those marginalized writers. Bringing more of the world into literature will reinvigorate the reading landscape, and it will increase understanding between cultures.
There’s also this: sometimes even a flawed book can offer a way in. For many readers, Shadowboxer may be the first they’ve heard of Muay Thai or Thailand. It may be the first they’ve heard of Burma. My book may be an opening into finding out more. I think it’s preferable to offer readers a culturally imperfect book like Shadowboxer than no books involving Burma or Thailand at all — and right now, Anglophone culture is still very short of writers from those cultures. I would love to be able to point people to novelists from Burma and Thailand whose work they should read. At the moment I can’t do that, but I hope it won’t be too much longer before I can.
Tricia Sullivan is an Arthur C. Clarke Award winning author of science fiction novels for adults. Shadowboxer is her first YA. She lives in Shropshire, UK with her partner, MMA trainer Steve Morris, and their three children. She has a six foot Muay Thai bag in her shed. On a bad day she can hit it pretty hard.
Shadowboxer is now available.