It’s a dangerous world, attempting to tread water in the ocean of words, let alone swim in these times where “cultural appropriation” and “cultural insensitivity” may blow up in our faces, after a mere brush against the drifting mine.
This is true for writers and readers alike.
One of those avid readers, squarely in the camp of enjoying new and fascinating stories wherever I find them, I have a few words in defense of us readers and writers trying to navigate the “cultural appropriation and insensitivity” minefield.
Take any movie set in the early Middle Ages, or any book. As far as cultural accuracy goes, most of them could be accused of insensitivity because they have not been historically accurate or true to the culture throughout their work. Yet it does not necessarily follow that they are culturally insensitive, or seizing the culture for their own.
The producers, story writers and authors are trying to communicate a time and place filled with people that stir our imaginations to fire.
The great stories call us to adventure, to love, to fight for good and conquer bravely. They are trying to help us understand a different culture, a different person, at the level of heart and soul. To do this to the best of their ability, they must at times use words or customs that did not even exist in those times they are creating a story about, or they must adapt them to our contemporary understanding. If they were true in every detail, we would completely miss some important character motivations and scene meanings because we had no idea that what we saw or read had a specific meaning, and we would possibly understand less than three words in ten because of old style language.
This is true whether we are English, American, or any other culture going back in our own history. If we are going back in time and crossing cultures, say from the American to Korean Middle Ages, there is an even larger cultural gap. But that does not mean our minds and hearts cannot meet despite the obstacles. Story is made to bridge the ocean gulf between us: whoever we are, wherever we are, whenever we are. The purpose of story is to communicate.
But what does it communicate? That is key to discover, so we can disarm the mines planted by those who love discord and do not respect peoples’ created differences with grace, who do not see that the very differences between us may be the source of every individual culture’s beauty, riches, and usefulness to the wide world. Admiration, respect, and appreciation bring every word and gesture in all forms of communication to life. Without that motivation, every word and gesture is dead, or worse, an explosion waiting to happen.
I use my own work as an example here, since I know my own motives better than those of any other communicator. Like any writer of past times and historical fantasy, in Path of the Warrior, the first companion story in Falcon Dagger, I am swimming between cultures. But it is dangerous.
This was kindly brought to my attention by my friend Jenn Rogers and her daughter, who are fans of Kdramas and all things Korean. I have never seen a Kdrama, though I plan to remedy that. My love for Medieval Korean culture started with my introduction to Tae Kwon Do years ago, and the martial history of the Land of the Morning Calm.
The martial focus was what I especially respected and explored on behalf of my main character in Path of the Warrior, an honorable exile from Korea, named in his native land Ryu Tae-shin, though his name was changed in my other stories, which did not detract from his honor but added to it, since he bore an insult with graceful nobility, because of necessity. That necessity was bearing up under slavery, and not confusing those who he knew would read of him later. He kept his name Tae Chisun, because he made the name – the name did not make him.
Despite any inaccuracies, of which I am sure there are at least a few, since I am seeing across cultures and time to Ryu Tae-shin’s story, I am attempting to bring to life a noble man, one I admire, who cares about his people, his family, and others. I am trying to share, across cultures, my appreciation of one who defends the right. Any mistakes in the work are mine, of course.
But do inaccuracies of naming, (which I have attempted to fix to the best of my ability), or historical settings or mannerisms (sometimes subject to poetic license), or outright ignorance, mean that this story of a man who sacrificed everything for the lives of his people appropriates the Choson culture or is insensitive to it?
Does it communicate that Koreans are bad in some way, more than other cultures? Does it claim they think exactly like I do?
It is a story born of admiration for a strong people in a time of conflict.
That is my opinion, supported I think, by Hwarang Ryu Tae-shin himself. But you will have to discover for yourself if you can stand in Ryu Tae-shin’s boots and wrestle with the fierce conflicting loyalties between his sworn oath to his Kuksun overlord and his oath to save the love of his life and his people.
Would we put our lives on the line for right?
Some things, like our desire for justice, our love or hatred of truth, our depth of love tested by fire, our willingness to sacrifice for others, is the same in every culture. Mind you, I do not say we think down the same wave, or row the identical path to those values. The customs, mannerisms, and circumstances may, rather they will, differ. Completely leaving aside what we believe about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, or our religion.
But we are all human, and our hearts are fashioned from cuts of the same sail, each loosed on the sea of life from our individual islands and continents. We can sail together, all the brighter and more formidable in array for our different flags, painted sails, or pennons.
If we detonate the mines between us with well-aimed ordnance, disarm them with the truth of the story, or on the occasion when there is truth in the accusations of appropriation or insensitivity, if instead of cursing the dark we light a candle of communication, we can retain and grow mutual respect and admiration for the greatness of every people. We can swim without harm through the minefield, and our hearts and hands meet in understanding.
We can enjoy our intriguing idiosyncrasies, our various culture strengths, and help each other overcome our different weaknesses, for everyone has them.
Each person is made in the image of our Creator, the master of the waves, of every land, every heart. He made equality. Meeting another heart and mind in the sea of thought, across the waves of life, is an invaluable gift.
May we overcome every wave and mine between us. For the sake of us readers, who love brave adventure and goodness, and also to encourage those who communicate these human truths to lighten our darkness.
Or, as my Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster, Tae Hong Choi, and Grandmaster Vince Church, would say, Pil Sung! Certain victory through courage, strength, and indomitable spirit.
Crossover – Find the Eternal, the Adventure