So I wrote an essay for a course I did while studying for Masters in Children’s Lit. Now disclaimer: the following is not meant as an attack on the author whose book I am analyzing. It is, simply, an academic analysis of his work.
A Cultural Conundrum: Exploring Cultural Appropriation in Children’s Literature
We exist in a time when distance is losing its significance. People exist in different mediums: physically and virtually. The spaces we occupy are multicultural and diverse where the experiences of one can be shared by many through the various modalities made available by technology. As a result, there is a formation of a “global culture” that is constructed not by lived experiences but by observed experiences. There are two different ways in which one can interpret this nascent global culture: one, it is inclusive and perpetuates diversity and two, it reinstates the colonialist agenda. The former can be justified by the fact that technology makes different cultures accessible to different people. The latter can be seen as a result of this accessibility which, arguably, can lead to the appropriation of cultures and voices by people who will commodify these cultures for their own benefits. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a slippery subject that has no definitive answers ascribed to it. This paper will deal exclusively with issues of cultural appropriation in a work of young adult literature. It will discuss existing research on the topic and consider questions regarding the responsibility of an author where writing from the perspective of a person from a culture different from the author’s own is concerned. It will ask whether research on the subject and the intent of the author has any bearing on cultural appropriation. This paper will engage in post-colonial theory to frame the cultural appropriation debate and use that to analyze Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.
To begin this discourse, cultural appropriation needs to be defined but as with every other aspect of this topic, the definition, too, is complicated and layered. Stephen Godfrey quotes Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, a First Nations writer, as defining appropriation as “‘taking something without permission and using it for profit.’” Keeshig-Tobias also adds that “[t]he issue of cultural appropriation has to be defined by racial minorities themselves, since [they] are the ones who suffer” (Godfrey). The Canada Council defines cultural appropriation as “the depiction of minorities or cultures other than one’s own, either in fiction or non-fiction” (Coombe 250). Clare Bradford specifies cultural appropriation in fiction as a “form of textual colonization in which the narratives of indigenous people are assimilated into a Western narrative schema” (200). There are those, however, who do not give credence to the idea that cultural appropriation can exist in literature. Neil Bissoondath proved this liberally when he said:
I reject the idea of cultural appropriation completely…I reject anything that limits the imagination. No one has the right to tell me who I should or should not write about, and telling me what or how I do that amounts to censorship. (Coombe 251)
While Bissoondath may not feel any compunction to limit himself in his creative work, certain minority groups, such as the First Nations people in Canada, are not hesitant about vocalizing their desire to retain their history, art and culture for themselves. Rosemary Coombe presents one way to understand the reluctance minorities have of having their stories retold by outsiders and their artifacts displayed (possibly out of context) in museums. According to Coombe, “modernism appropriates otherness, constitutes non-Western arts in its own image and thereby discovers universal ahistorical human capacities by denying particular histories, local contexts, indigenous meanings, and the very political conditions that enabled Western artists and authors to seize these goods for their own ends” (256). She also observes that “cultural manifestations that may signal creative life rather than death of societies are excluded as inauthentic, or, alternatively, denied cultural, social, or political specificity by becoming incorporated into the universalizing discourse of art” (258). Coombe’s observations are in the context of the First Nations debate about cultural appropriation but it can be applied to any minority group. Having tribal and cultural art displayed in museums does consign the people to whom these artifacts as belonging to the past – unable to represent themselves except through the art appropriated, and displayed, by the hegemonic group. Similarly, the appropriation of Native stories can be considered a theft of Native voices thus denying them their right to choose who they will share their art with and how much of it they want to make public.
Then, too, there may be divergent meanings attached to art and stories for a Native group of people compared to the hegemonic society, in this case, the Western world. Art (including stories) in the Western world is created by “individual geniuses” (Coombe 257) arguably, though not solely, for recreational (and sometimes didactic) purposes. Art, again in the Western world, may be inspired by religious or holy artifacts but are not themselves considered sacred. On the other hand, stories and art in the culture they originate from may be more intimately entwined with spirituality and religious expressions. For instance, Clare Bradford discusses the importance of stories to Australian Aboriginal people. She observes that:
Stories are crucial to [sacred events], because they are not merely means of instruction or entertainment but themselves produce transformative and regenerative effects, so that tellings of ritual stories, like the singing of song-cycles, the performance of dances and the production of various artwork, achieve ends which relate to the [sacred events]: for instance, the telling of a story may ensure that seasonal rain fills desert waterholes; or that the ancestors will be reassured that their descents fulfill obligations to country. (Bradford 203)
Essentially, certain stories are “sacred texts” (203) to the Aboriginal people, occupying the same space and afforded the same reverence as the Bible or the Quran. Considering this, appropriation of these stories and the consequent retelling and consumption of these tales by people who do not understand their sacred nature is problematic. Furthermore, the appropriation commodifies and as such trivializes not just the texts but also the religion and spirituality of the people from whom these stories are taken.
The commodification of culture is one of the more turgid arguments against cultural appropriation. When artists, specifically authors in the context of this paper, assume voices that do not belong to them, they, intention notwithstanding, are claiming the experiences and culture of the native people for their own and implying that they have the right to speak for them. This is always problematic but becomes more so when the author is descended from the very people responsible for the colonization and oppression of the native group. Gayatri Spivak’s “critique of the Subaltern Studies Group” (Childs and Williams 162) can be applied to the protests against cultural appropriation. According to Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, “the Subaltern Studies Group focuses on an historical agency located in the Indian peasantry (the subalterns) who were…instrumental, but have been under-represented, in India’s history” (161). Spivak cautions critics to “resist the desire to retrieve the voices silenced by imperialism … because they are irretrievable” (163) and, because the subaltern is essentially voiceless, attempts to “return” the voice (represent) to the subaltern is another form of imperialism where the critic is projecting his/her opinions onto the subaltern. Linda Alcoff furthers this view in the conclusion of her article, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” by stressing that:
…[T]he practice of speaking for others is often born of a desire for mastery, to privilege oneself as the one who more correctly understands the truth about another’s situation or as one who can champion a just cause and thus achieve glory and praise. And the effect of the practice of speaking for others is often, though not always, erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national and other kinds of hierarchies. (29)
Coombe points out that “[i]n North American commercial culture, imagery of Indians and the aura of “Indianness” is pervasive, but living human peoples with Native ancestry are treated as dead, dying, vanished, and in need of others to speak on their behalf” (272).
For Bissoondath, cultural appropriation may be mythic but for many minority groups, the fight against cultural appropriation is also a fight for the right to construct their own identities. Michael F. Brown quotes Hawaiian nationalist, Haunani-Kay, as characterizing anthropologists and historians as “part of a colonizing horde because they seek to take away from us who and what we are, and how we should behave politically and culturally” (204). Though his views are pointed toward anthropologists and historians, they can be applied to fiction authors who, by trying to represent minorities, are, arguably, attempting to do the same. I would also argue that groups who have a history of being colonized and oppressed are far more sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation than those who have not. This sentiment is echoed by the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas who have undergone the “experience of having Native cultural identity extinguished, denied, suppressed, and/or classified, named, and designated by others” (Coombe 273). Their “decision to defend [their] culture, education, and religion as fundamental to [their] identity as Peoples” (272) is not an attempt to censor authors, as Bissoondath claims, but to reclaim the right to their heritage and identity that was long denied to them.
The other side of the cultural appropriation debate brings into question the evolving nature of culture and the impossibility of appropriating something that is constantly changing. Michael F. Brown argues that in the context of “globalization, transnational flows, and the creative mixing (“creolization”) or invention of traditions…culture is not a bounded, static entity but a dynamic, constantly renegotiated process” (196). Brown discusses whether it is possible to copyright culture, arguing that the implementation of severe intellectual property laws will come attached with issues that will serve to further complicate the matter. He asserts that allowing “native minorities” (199) to retain complete control over the reproduction and distribution of their culture will “[sequester] public-domain information” (199). Also worthy of consideration, in Brown’s opinion, is the reciprocity of potential laws against cultural appropriation; he asks whether, in a North American context, “Indigenous peoples would be subject to reciprocal fine or arrest if they manipulated Christian imagery for their own purposes” (199).
On the other hand, Coombe maintains that “[t]he West has created categories of property – intellectual property, cultural property, and real property – that divide peoples and things according to the same colonizing discourses of possessive individualism that historically disentitled and disenfranchised Native peoples in North America” (249). She argues that art is defined in European colonialist terms, adding that though copyright laws protect the rights of the individual creators, intellectual property laws that ideally would protect Native culture and art fail because these laws “rip asunder what First Nations people view as integrally related, freezing into categories what Native peoples find flowing in relationships” (269). Art, in a European context, is separated from the everyday; it occupies an often rarified space distinct from the normal and the domestic. For Native peoples, on the other hand, art is irrevocably woven into their daily lifestyles and landscapes, and therefore, protecting their culture is protecting their art.
Even though the cultural appropriation debate continues heatedly among writers of adult literature, children’s literature remains strangely silent on the topic. According to Clare Bradford, rather than provoking an awareness of cultural appropriation (in a post-colonial context), “critical discourses in children’s literature generally mobilize humanist principals that emphasize what humans have in common across time and space; and Jungian frameworks which interpret religious beliefs, ritual practices and narratives in terms of ‘the primordial images’ of the collective unconscious” (200). Bradford goes on further to suggest that rather than attention on the accuracy of what she terms “indigenous retellings,” more pertinent questions, such as the functions of narratives in indigenous cultures; how they relate to religious beliefs and rituals; the extent to which narratives refer to and depend on particular sites and kinship groups and how one narrative is connected to another, are obfuscated. The following analysis of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff will consider these questions when evaluating the problematic aspects of the novel.
Jay Kristoff, according to his biography on Goodreads, is a white Australian male. His debut novel, Stormdancer, released in 2012 by St. Martin’s Press in North America, is set on a “Japan-inspired” island called “Shima” and tells the story of Yukiko and her friendship with a griffin she calls “Buruu” (Blue) in a world populated by power hungry feudal overlords, demons and a dying land. The average rating for this book on Goodreads is 3.93 stars with 45% of all ratings being 5 stars and 4% being 1 star. The next section will go into detail about the author’s intent, research and justification of his work. Following that, the paper will consider the arguments made against the novel by readers who, though not professional reviewers, are familiar with Japanese language and customs.
In an interview on The Swashbuckler, a book blog, Jay Kristoff, in response to a question asking why he had set his novel in Japan, replies that “European-based steampunk seemed like it had been done a lot” and he wanted to write something novel. When asked about the research he did “with regards to authenticity,” Kristoff, rather flippantly, answers that though he has had people ask him if he has a degree in Japanese studies, his research consisted of Wikipedia, six volumes of Manga, and a “friend who lives in Japan.” In another interview, this time on a blog called Book Probe, Kristoff opines that “the cool thing about writing a setting that’s inspired by Japan, but not actually Japan, is that you can take what you want from history and mythology and leave the rest.” Perhaps the most polemic of all his words and opinions, however, is the defense he makes (on his website) against accusations of misappropriation:
I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible with my use of Japanese terminology and honorifics, and recruited a dirty posse of badass Japanese speaking folks to help me with my translations. But I did co-opt a few terms for my own nefarious reasons, and I am gaijin at the end of the day. Hopefully no offense is caused. If you’re the kind of person who thinks George R. R. Martin was doing it wrong when he spelled “sir” as “ser”, you might be in for an aneurism because I do a lot worse than that.
But this is fantasy folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.
A fierce rebuttal from Renay, a feminist blogger on Lady Business, states that “another culture is not a box of tricks for white people to reach into for the entertainment of white masses who swallow it without any critical commentary.”
A recurring criticism leveled against Stormdancer is that the Japanese employed in it by Kristoff is incorrect, especially where the use of “-sama” (a suffix attached to a noun to denote respect) and “hai” (which has a variety of meanings according to the context in which it is used) is concerned. One example of the incorrect usage of both words in the book is: “Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai” (Kristoff 14)? While a lack of research was initially attributed as the reason behind the incorrect usage, Kristoff’s defense of his prose reveals that it was, in fact, intentional. Kristoff manipulated existing Japanese words and, regardless of their meaning, used them as substitutes for, one can argue, the words “sir” and “yes.” Additionally, as Syahira Sharif, a reviewer on Goodreads, explains, Kristoff’s use of “Shima” is problematic as the word “Shima is 島 [which itself means island]” so when Kristoff writes “The Isles of Shima” (Kristoff 1), he is in actuality saying, “The Isles of Island.” Kristoff does not just appropriate the language of the Japanese people; he denies the language the meaning inherent to it and gives it new meanings to further his expressions. In essence, he is, as Bradford theorized, “textually colonizing” (200) the Japanese people.
Another way in which Stormdancer is problematic is the way it amalgamates various Asian cultures under one umbrella thus denying them their individual histories and stories. There are “missing pandas,” (Kristoff 51) in the novel, a species indigenous to China and not Japan, and the usage of “aiya” as an expression of distress etc. Alexis Lee, a Malaysian Goodreads reviewer, notes that “aiya” (Kristoff 135 and 136) is “not a Japanese exclamation.” She goes on to say that the incorrect usage annoys her as “[it’s] what…Malaysians use…Singaporeans do, too – but [she] has never ever heard a Japanese say anything the least bit similar to ‘aiya!’” Alexis also comments on the disparity of the relationships represented in the novel compared to Japanese family dynamics in real life. Yukiko, the protagonist of the novel, is “outright rude and whiny to her father in public” without any consequence; this is, according to Alexis, culturally inaccurate. Not that this is the only instance of inaccuracy occurring in the novel. One of the more critical Goodreads reviewers, Nessa, observes that Yukiko, the protagonist, is dressed in a “junihitoe” (Kristoff 228) which is a “twelve-layered kimono that only ladies of the court wore.” There is also reference to a “thin kimono” (244) when “there is no such thing;” the correct name for such article of clothing could be “yukata.”
By far though, the most incendiary of all the problematic details found in Stormdancer is the inclusion of a green-eyed samurai.
Yukiko rose on trembling legs beneath the Iron Samurai’s gaze. She met his stare as he unclasped his oni mask and swung the faceplate aside. He was terribly young for a samurai; barely seventeen, if she had to guess. High cheekbones and a strong jaw, tipped with a small pointed goatee, smooth skin the colour of polished bronze. His eyes were a dazzling green, deep and sparkling like paintings of the great northern sea. (Kristoff 41)
It is obvious from this passage that the samurai in question is native to the land of Shima, in other words, he is Japanese. Thea, a book reviewer, takes umbrage at “taking a diverse character, who is made [all the more special beautiful] [sic] because s/he has blue/green/violet eyes…aka [sic] [taking a character of colour and giving them a Caucasian trait/symbol of beauty that makes them more beautiful than anyone else around them].” Linda, a reviewer of Taiwanese descent, wonders “why it is [okay] to take away this awesome opportunity to present Asian features as desirable and beautiful and turn it into an ode to green or light-coloured eyes that we already see all the time.” Kristoff’s choice to give green eyes to the much desired love interest may not have had the express intention of furthering Western ideals of beauty but there is no denying that it does exactly that. Green eyes are, predominantly, a European trait and its presence in a desired character (and the reiteration of the beauty of the green eyes throughout the narrative) restates European superiority and propagates neo-colonialism.
The analysis presented above focuses on elements of cultural appropriation and neo-colonialism. There are issues of male gaze and gender constructions also present in Stormdancer but it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully investigate and analyze them. Though the articles reviewed in the first section of this paper considered cultural appropriation from a First Nations perspective, it is possible to apply the theories discussed to the cultural appropriation present in Stormdancer. Spivak’s caution about speaking for the “subaltern” was completely ignored in this novel as Kristoff constructs his protagonist in the shape of a young Japanese girl who would ostensibly have the qualities that growing up in Japan would give her. Kristoff, however, imbues her with the qualities (rebellious, irreverent and brash) more indigenous to a society in which women are far more liberated than they would be in a feudal society. Japanese history and myth are appropriated carelessly; traditions and mythical creatures are taken out of context and used without regard to their significance in the originating culture. Japanese people and their history are appropriated and reconstructed to suit the needs of the author. Japanese culture is commodified for the sake of entertainment and personal gain.
The global culture mentioned in the beginning of this paper may have shortened distances between people who speak different languages and live in different parts of the world but it has also exposed many cultures to exploitation by those who have the power to do so. Not all instances of authors using voices not belonging to them are called cultural appropriation (see Zoe Marriott’s Shadows on the Moon) but there certainly needs to be more of an awareness of cultural appropriation in children’s literature. As Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale verbalize it, “[c]hildren’s books are not merely ‘frivolous’ entertainment’ – [t]hey are part of the society’s general culture… [that] reflect our society” (Thompson 368). As such, it is very important that there is more critical engagement with texts meant for children. Critical engagement, not just from targeted readers but also from adult readers, will lead to critical discourse and awareness about pertinent issues such as appropriation.
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