One foreign correspondent offers her view of the ethics of writing about other cultures.
Pallavi Aiyar argues that for writers to describe other cultures and countries and inhabit the minds of those who live in them, we need a variety of perspectives and subjects telling these kinds of stories.
Much as my natural inclination is to side with the liberal left, I find myself alienated by some of the discourse emanating from my side of the fence as the culture wars bubble on – especially when it comes to cultural appropriation.
My whole life has been an act of cultural appropriation. I’ve written books about Chinese cats and Indonesian clerics. I have prayed in churches even though I’m an atheist Hindu. I wear kimonos, qipaos and aozais more often than I do sarees. Over the years, I’ve learned Argentinian tango, Japanese drumming and Spanish flamenco. I can only really cook two things: Chinese steamed dumplings and Japanese miso-marinated salmon. I’ve never made daal or a single roti.
I’m the sort of person who gets pictures taken wearing exotic costumes when I’m on holiday. I have one of my father and I dressed up as an Ottoman pasha and his companion, which was snapped in Istanbul.
The problem arises when a dominant group assumes the voice of someone from a minority group that has historically been exploited or oppressed. It’s the upper-class, older, English male travel writer striding across the world, pointing out the quirky habits of the natives in a plummy voice: “By Jove, I’ve never seen anything quite like it!”
It’s true that the world has learned about itself through the lenses of writers who have had the cultural capital and economic resources that have allowed them to become the explainers in chief. People like me muddy the picture. I’m brown, Indian and a woman. The kind of person whose voice is needed on the world stage as a corrective to the cultural appropriation that is historical fact in the context of “global” knowledge creation and distribution. But I do not write about myself. My writings on India, or about women, are a minority of my output. My first language is English, not an Indian vernacular. I have the advantages of the “global north”, having studied in the elite universities of the West. I’m hardly a subaltern.
of my output. My first language is English, not an Indian vernacular. I have the advantages of the “global north”, having studied in the elite universities of the West. I’m hardly a subaltern.
So how do I justify doing what I do? To begin with I’ve always made sure that I’ve really inhabited the cultures I write about. I don’t helicopter into a country, interview a few taxi drivers and then write an “authoritative” book about a destination.
I spend years in the places I write about. I try to learn the language and attempt to make readers aware that my version is only one version of the “truth”. My writings are a subjective snapshot, informed as much by me the observer as what I am observing.
If it is OK for me to write about, say, an Indian woman from a backward caste, forced into an abusive marriage with an alcoholic village elder, an Oxford don is fine to write about an elite Indian woman writer.
We might write bad books or good books but these eventualities cannot be judged a priority based purely on our lived realities. Do I believe that dalit (“untouchable”) writers should also be telling their own stories, rather than Anglophone city slickers, like me, having a monopoly on their narratives? Of course. But the way to have dalit be heard is not to claim that non-dalit lack the legitimacy to write about them, but to multiply the opportunities for these voices.
A dalit author might want to write about a city slicker, just as an Indian woman might want to write about a Chinese cat. If, as Indians, we don’t all want to be stuck forever describing the scent of mangoes and the taste of pickles, we must fight for our rights to appropriate other cultures.
There are structural inequalities in this world and consciously providing more opportunities to historically marginalised groups is necessary to redress these. We need Indonesians telling us about Afghanistan, Brazilians about Spain, and Indians about the Ukraine (as Rana Dasgupta does in his novel, Solo). We need to hear about many truths from many perspectives, some lived, others imagined. We need immigrants writing books from the point of view of unsettled host populations, and liberals writing books inhabiting the world of Trumpists. This is the only way out of the culture wars.
About the writer: Aiyar is a foreign correspondent and author. Her latest book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She writes a weekly newsletter on global culture called The Global Jigsaw
Illustrator: Clo’e Floirat