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