Fantastic History #27: Cultural Sensitivity Beyond the Novel Itself–The Devil is in the Details by K. Bird Lincoln

A plethora of good definitions for cultural appropriation, primers for those wanting an understandable framework, a time when a big author pulled a project due to sensitivity issues, and lists of ways to avoid cultural appropriation in the context of fantasy and science fiction can be found with a quick Google.

Let me be transparent about my bias before we get started. I’m a white, middle-class woman from the USA who has spent significant time on the West Coast and in Japan.

I’m also a writer who often uses Japanese and Chinese myths and culture in her historical and urban fantasy. I like to think I mostly portray myths and legends with complex characters who do not perpetuate stereotypes and present East Asian cultural motifs within an atmosphere of respect.

It’s an ongoing struggle not to fall into the trap of willy-nilly plucking katana, ninja, or hari-kari from Japanese culture as if it were a buffet and it didn’t matter what I shoved into my story. Not that I’m at risk for white savior faux pas like shoehorning Tom Cruise into a samurai movie, but all those cute kitsune in manga and anime sometimes tempt me towards the dark side of stereotypes.

Fantasy writers have a license to be imaginative and creative, but need to temper creativity with sensitivity when writing the fantastic based on real life cultures that are not our own voice. Whether that borrowing be obvious roots to Edo period Japan in Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor or the fantastical parade of Chinese mythical creatures in M.H. Boroson’s Girl with the Ghost Eyes, or the subtle changes in WWII history resulting in Japanese supremacy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth—the trick is to twist it far enough for the fantastic without losing nuance.

Writing whole books provides a large canvas on which to present nuanced and sensitive portrayals. Recently a couple of potential issues related to other author activities—especially indie published authors—have come to my attention.

I am in an author Facebook group where a long discussion about a cover for a historical fantasy set in Hong Kong revolved around the model’s face: too white. There is a lack of good stock photography of a variety of types of East Asian and mixed East Asian ancestry to use on book covers. My cover for Dream Eater, where the heroine is bicultural Japanese-Caucasian, had this problem. Use a Caucasian model and risk white-washing her? Use a full on East Asian looking model that doesn’t signal to the reader the complicated truth of the cultural area my heroine occupies? This gets harder when going for historical models. No wonder so many fantasy authors spring for original artwork, like JC Kang’s Master of Deception or Nicolette Andrews’ Dragon Saga. Where are the resources?

The second issue is author names. I’ll admit, I approach books like Jade City by Fonda Lee differently than I approach Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein. Both books base themselves in thoroughly researched East Asian history. But what if, as a yet unpublished author I came across recently, someone decides to use a pseudonym that confuses the reader’s ability to judge whether this is an #ownvoice or not? The author in question used a pseudonym with a Japanese-sounding first name and an English-sounding last name. His argument was that not only was this first name a nickname he’d used for most of his adult life because he lived in Japan, but that he felt strongly it shouldn’t matter if readers picked up his book without knowing first what background he came from. Those arguments unsettled my stomach—not because I think only Asians can write Asian fantasy, but because as a rabid reader myself, I want authors to be up front about the lens through which they view the world. I have the right to consume stories based on true knowledge of the author’s background. Taking the stance that it’s okay to present yourself as possibly Asian when you’re not seems oddly stubborn. Authors and readers should be able to trust each other.
Finally, we come to yet another touchy issue: reviews. Last year I read and reviewed 115 books. Whether authors should review other authors is a whole basket of thorny issues for another time. Let’s say, though, that you’re reading along in a historical fantasy and suddenly you come across descriptions of the alpha hero where his skin color is compared to a food item. There is an acknowledged understanding out there that not only is this cliché, but can also be fetishizing. But it’s historical! And it’s fantasy! As a reviewer, do you call out the author on her World War II Hong Kong heroine gazing at her own almond eyes in the mirror if that was an oft-used phrase from that time period? What if it’s in an alternate fantasy world? How do you balance warning other readers about problematic themes without crossing the line into politically correct police territory?

Outside the actual book itself, writing the other can bring up a lot of other issues. Staying sensitive to other points of view and presenting your own self in as transparent a way possible might keep authors from massive blunders—but it still doesn’t fix the dearth of good stock photo models!

Someone could make good money from that niche.


The stunning conclusion to K. Bird Lincoln’s Urban Fantasy Portland Hafu trilogy drops March 19th! Check out the first in her series, Dream Eater or pre-order the conclusion, Last Dream of Her Mortal Soul. K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative fiction reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Check her out on Facebook, join her newsletter for chocolate and free stories, or stalk her online.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.