Writing About Other Cultures: A Viral Response

I am copying and pasting a response from a new friend of mine, Sunil Patel. I met sunil in a writing class taught by Cat Rambo.  The following is his response to an author’s panel on Writing about Other Cultures at the recent Nebulas Awards Weekend. What he had to say is worth sharing and supporting, I think.

Here is a link to where Sunil originally posted on his Facebook Page:


The Writing About Other Cultures panel was half a trainwreck. The half that was not a trainwreck was interesting, when the panelists spoke about the many things to think about when writing about a real culture or creating a new one: food, economics, geography, religion, etc. They pointed out that culture is not a monolith; you can’t write about “Native American culture” because their experiences and circumstances are so varied. They expressed excitement at all the new diverse voices being highlighted, and they agreed that it’s necessary to write about other cultures than your own, but you must do the research and treat them with respect.

The half that was a trainwreck began when Nancy Kress introduced herself with “I was writing about other cultures when it was politically safer to do so.”

When it came back around to her, she pointed out that the panel was all white, with no representatives from other cultures (although Chaz Brenchley noted that being English was another culture, true enough). And then she launched into a spiel about how today the “uber-PC” people would create a “shitstorm” if she wrote a half-Arab woman who was a terrorist because they require any non-white characters to be “saintly,” they are not allowed to be “not nice.” I have no earthly idea where she got that notion.

Chaz Brenchley and Tad Williams chimed in with the idea that they were only responsible for their own writing, not everyone else’s, even if they were criticized by a member of a marginalized group for falling into an overused trope like the “gay psychopath.” Yes, you’re only responsible for what you write, but you don’t write in a vacuum, and when someone tells you that you’re contributing to a harmful stereotype, you should check your privilege and listen.

I sat there for twenty minutes listening to white people be INCREDIBLY DEFENSIVE about writing other cultures and I wanted to cry. I have never wanted to cry at a panel before. I had come to the panel to learn about how one writes about other cultures well, not how annoying it is when people from other cultures tell you you’re writing about their cultures wrong.

I don’t think they realized they were being so hurtful with their reactions, and I didn’t realize how hurtful someone’s reactions could be until that moment.

Kyle Aisteach has my eternal gratitude for starting off the Q&A by asking the all-white panel about the dangers of people writing about marginalized voices overpowering the marginalized voices themselves, but I confess I don’t remember how the panel answered because I was busy melting down on Twitter.

To put a nice little awkward bow on things, Nancy Kress pointed out to the moderator that an Asian man next to me had had his hand up for a long time but hadn’t been called on. And so the moderator called on him, saying that they hadn’t heard from a non-white person the entire panel, so, aha, here we go.

The first non-white person to have a voice stood up and looked at the mostly white crowd. “Now I feel a lot of pressure,” he said.

It was such a perfect encapsulation of what it’s like to be a non-white writer.


Here also is a link Juliette Wade’s response. Juliette was one of the Author’s on the panel.




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