Auntie SparkNotes: Is It Wrong to Write Cross-Culturally?
I am an aspiring author who has been writing for forever. I am also a half-white, half-Hispanic girl (who passes as white) who loves world history and international cultures, and I want to travel the world someday. Thus, some of my stories take place in other countries and have multicultural characters.
A friend and I have been having a disagreement because of one story I've been writing lately. Long story short, it's a Romeo and Juliet-type story that takes place at the Indian/Pakistani border where a Muslim Pakistani man falls for a Hindu Indian woman. Also, one of the main characters is an LGBT character that struggles with being LGBT in India. I've been researching the histories behind the two countries and the cultural divides that they have, and I've been working on this story for two months.
My friend told me that it's not my place as me, a person who passes as white, to be writing a story that is so judgmental of two cultures (pointing out the xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny in both cultures) that have been oppressed for decades by the British and are now dealing with high levels of poverty. She told me that even though I was doing heavy research on both cultures and wasn't just making caricatures of both, it isn't my place to tell a story about a culture I have never lived in or experienced—I would personally have no idea what it's like to be brought up in that culture, and I would be telling the story from the inherent perspective of a Westerner.
So I wanted to ask your opinion, Auntie. Would my inherent Western upbringing not make an accurate portrayal of the feelings and thoughts of an Indian or Pakistani person? I've always been so curious and enthralled by these two countries' cultures yet were repulsed by how they view each other, their women, and their LGBT community. I don't want to be racist, but I also want to give a voice to the people who don't have one in those cultures. Is it not my place to write a story involving cultures that I have not personally experienced myself?
Well, there's a fun thought experiment. So hey, let's try it! Let's just imagine for a moment what the literary landscape would look like if the answer to that question were that no, it's not your place—or any writer's, for that matter—to imagine the inner lives of characters who aren't exactly like us.
... Pretty bleak, right? After all, a world in which writers aren't allowed to step outside the bounds of their own lived experience is a world in which Pride & Prejudice doesn't exist (because Jane Austen was a lifelong spinster), and The Fault in Our Stars never gets published (because John Green isn't a sixteen year-old girl with cancer), and John Irving isn't allowed to write The Hotel New Hampshire. (That is, unless he has personally had sex with his own sister while wearing a bear suit. Sorry, John.) It means that you can say goodbye to the award-winning Holocaust novel Number the Stars, because Lois Lowry isn't Jewish, and William Shakespeare's entire canon is pretty much obliterated, seeing as he couldn't possibly understand what it was like to be an Italian teenager, or a Danish prince, or a sexually active forest fairy. Oh, and Hamilton? Yeah, that's not happening—as if some Broadway baby named Lin-Manuel Miranda is in any position to write a groundbreaking rap musical about an American icon who died two centuries before he was born. Pffffft.
All of which is to say, the claim that authors cannot write accurately or authentically about anything they haven't personally experienced is belied by basically the entire human history of storytelling. People have been pushing those boundaries for as long as fiction has existed, relying upon a combination of imagination, empathy, and research to fill in the blanks—and the belief espoused by your friend that writers should practice what amounts to artistic segregation (by race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on) is a comparatively recent trend.
And since you asked: It is also, in my personal opinion, not an especially great one—for storytelling in particular, but also for the world at large. One of the incredible things about art, whether it's literature or sculpture or music, is that it that doesn't live inside boxes that only certain people can open; it's uncontainable, and it illuminates our common humanity even with people who don't look or live or worship the same we do. Slapping writers on the wrist for attempting to see beyond the limits of their own experience runs counter to all of that… and to be honest, it also has a little too much in common, for my taste, with the "stick to your own kind" rhetoric you hear from white nationalists advocating for cultural purity.
That said, there is a salient point buried under your friend's assertion that it's "not your place" to write cross-culturally: namely, your Western upbringing means that you'll have to work harder to write accurately and and in an informed way about the lives of characters who live in another country, and it will make your story different in some ways from the story an Indian or Pakistani writer might tell, in the same way that an author from the Middle East might write a story set in the U.S. that takes a different, more critical view of American culture than we're necessarily used to. But that doesn't mean that there's no value in telling it; sometimes, a perspective can even be interesting and valuable precisely because it isn't coming from inside the house.
Of course, there is no guarantee that you'll accomplish that with this project. Like any artist trying to do something ambitious and unfamiliar, you'll either pull it off, or you won't, the worst-case outcome being that you end up with a real stinker of a story that feels preachy, shallow, shoddily crafted, and inauthentic… which is not a crime, though it might teach you some harsh lessons about your limits as a writer.
But even if you write the greatest star-crossed Indian-Pakistani love story of all time, it—and you—will still be subject to criticism by people who think you shouldn't have, which is why it's important that you come to your own conclusions about where your ethical boundaries lie. You asked for my opinion, and you've got it, but the real question is, what do you think? Is it immoral to write from an outsider's perspective about another culture? Is it possible for human beings on opposite sides of the world—or the political spectrum—to find common ground that transcends cultural barriers? Is it a writer's responsibility to be well-researched, accurate, respectful, and inoffensive—or some combination thereof? Is it permissible to write critically about communities, or ideologies, to which we ourselves don't belong? Why or why not?
Your answers to these questions can be anything; what matters is that you know what they are, and that you've come by them thoughtfully and genuinely. Having a well-thought-through position on issues like this won't insulate you from ever feeling conflicted about it, but it will make you more confident as a writer and more comfortable with criticism, including the kind of criticism you can simply disregard, because it stems from a worldview you fundamentally disagree with. Happy thinking, and happy writing.
Got something to say? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
Want more info about how this column works? Check out the Auntie SparkNotes FAQ.