Silk Betrayal: India as inspiration (or cultural appropriation?)

This has felt like a big question hanging over the setting of The Silk Betrayal since the beginning. How does a (mostly) European-descended person from the US end up writing India-influenced fantasy? Have I visited the country? Am I an expert on its history?

No. I don’t claim that level of expertise.

It isn’t a question to brush off, though. The problem of cultural appropriation is real, and requires a nuanced exploration. So how did I end up writing a fantasy novel inspired by India’s history and culture? Was it appropriative? I’ll tell the story, and leave it to others to judge, but I will say up front that it was done with respect and a wish to be conscientious about how I approached it.

To begin with, I want to reference an idea Ursula LeGuin insisted on in an essay that was used as the introduction to a re-issue of The Left Hand of Darkness. She said the idea that SF writers are writing about the future is mistaken. All they can tell you about is themselves, the world they see and are a part of. The same (I’m sure she’d have agreed, though it wasn’t the focus of that essay) with fantasy. Fantasy writers are not telling you about the past—real of imaginary, of their own culture or any other—they are writing about themselves and the world around them.

So with that in mind, when I began dreaming up the story of The Silk Betrayal (now some 11 or 12 years ago), first of all, I knew that I didn’t want to just go back into that dried-out well that’s pseudo-medieval Europe (McEurope, as some writers have referred to it—I wish I could recall where I first saw that phrase used and credit the writer), the idea of that era as filtered through countless games and stories until it loses much of its power to surprise, amaze, and horrify us. I didn’t initially plan to draw on any specific culture, but of course that very idea—no specific culture—often ends up sending writers back to the assumptions they’ve absorbed through other cultural touchstones. So I wanted to be open to drawing from other historic societies. I had an idea for a volcanically warmed valley, completely isolated from any wider world, but beyond that...nothing.

And then, for whatever reason (and I’ll leave it to my biographers some day to explore why thinking about my own life and the world around me led to that...), I found myself drawn to the idea of a caste-bound society. Of telling the story of a group of people within such a society who are dreaming of a different social order.

So then what? I could have grafted a caste system onto the standard pseudo-medieval world, but that didn’t feel right. I could have just grabbed the first images and assumptions that came to mind when I thought of a strict caste system, but that would have no doubt been full of stereotypes and unconscious insults. Instead I began a fairly long exploration of the history of the various peoples of India. Talking to people, reading books, researching both online and in libraries. I did my best to put aside my own assumptions about the castes and how they affect those who grow up in them.

I studied Hinduism and how it’s been practiced at different times and in different regions. I looked at the broad sweep of history in the subcontinent and also looked in more depth at particular groups and how those big themes played out. I studied the Parsis and their religion and how it set them apart their neighbors. I looked into various discussions about the pre-writing history of the region, about the arrival of the Indo-European-speaking people from the north and the effects that might have had, about the early Dravidian speakers in the south.

Most of all I tried to absorb all this without preconceptions and without judging, not trying to force it into ideas I already had but letting each part speak for itself.

In the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (which I highly recommend—the website as well), the writers identify three broad attitudes when you approach another culture’s traditions for inspiration. A writer might come in as a conqueror, a colonizer, blindly grabbing here and there for whatever strikes their fancy. That’s...wrong. Don’t do that. Somewhat better is the tourist who comes with a more open mind and a sense of appreciation for what they see in this other culture. Somewhat better, but it still tends to view the other culture through cultural blinders, as exotic and exciting...and distinctly other, which ends up less than respectful.

Much better is to write of other cultures besides your own as a guest, as someone who is aware of their own lack of knowledge, aware that they are there because someone of that culture has invited them in, and humble in accepting that culture as an inspiration for their writing.

I had not yet read that book when I was immersing myself in the history and societies of India, so I wasn’t aware of that three-fold distinction. (It was shortly after writing the initial draft that I must have discovered the book through the recommendations of other writers.) But it’s a good framework from which to view the question of cultural appropriation. Even without knowing the specific suggestions within Writing the Other, I entered into my preparations for writing the novel as a guest, humbly inspired by a rich tradition of which I was only starting to learn. If at any time in the process I made a mistake, the fault is my own and not my sources, and for that I apologize. I will always strive to improve my own approaches and my understanding of other ideas and people.

I hope that when you read The Silk Betrayal that sense of being a guest in another culture comes through.