Of Monsters and Cultural Appropriation

For my latest work, Oasis, I drew heavily on Japanese mythology. My main character, a shape-shifter (female) warrior named Kiana, shifts into a fox, and by moonlight can take a hybrid fox/human form.

I don’t call her a kitsune, but that’s what she is.

A kitsune is a Japanese fox spirit, a trickster or a seductress often, as well as a great protector and a source of wisdom and power. They’re marvelous creatures, and I created a race of them in my fictional world.

A nine-tailed kitsune. Kiana only has one tail, but how many does a girl really need?

I peopled my world with other creatures from Japanese mythology, from eagle-human hybrids called karura to creepy disembodied heads called nekekubi. But I altered these creatures subtly, to make them creepier or more magical, or to endow them with powers that mythology may not have given them. I also changed their names, because I did not intend to lift Japanese mythological culture out of its historical context and paint it directly onto my new novel—plus, the spelling would’ve done me in.

But I felt kinda skeevy doing it.

We’re so used to a fairly small subset of mythological creatures that we don’t really think too much about where they came from. Vampires exist in many (if not most cultures) but there’s a fairly strong Western tradition of vampire mythology. Likewise, werewolves are generally thought to be a European invention. Every culture has its small folk or fairies, and even demons exist across a variety of lands with their respective hells. Most of our supernatural creatures are public domain, part of a worldwide cultural fear of and fascination with beings more powerful than we can comprehend.

So why did I feel skeevy about stealing from the Japanese?

The answer is pretty complicated.

One, I don’t know much about Japanese cultures, and I felt disrespectful, taking their stories and twisting them for my own ends. And two, the U.S. and the global “West” have a long history of stealing things from the East and passing them off as novelties.

And third, I’m just a glutton for punishment.

At any rate, I did my research and learned about the creatures I transplanted into my world, and I tried to give them at least a little bit of authentic flavor. The fact remains, though, that I took my inspiration from a mythos I have no legitimate claim to. I found a tradition I liked, and I corrupted it and had my way with it.

That’s not so simple, either, though. Loads of fantasy novels take on other existing cultures: Guy Gavriel Kay does it beautifully, and Ilona Andrews works creatures from many nations’ fairytales into her works. No one owns the stories of myth and magic passed down for generations.

In the end, what I created is something new entirely. It’s inspired by Japanese mythology, but it makes no claim to be authentic. The Japanese stories and creatures run like a golden thread through a tapestry that I wove: they’re a beautifying part of it, but they’re not the only feature.

And if we’re respectful, does it matter if we’re using magic that’s foreign to us?

I’m not sure.

I don’t actually have a good answer to this one, readers. What do you think of folklore in fantasy? Is it public domain? Have I joined a tradition of cultural abuse and callous repurposing? What works do you know that successfully blend cultures?

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4 thoughts on “Of Monsters and Cultural Appropriation

  1. I rather think that folklore is one of those things that builds our foundation for worldbuilding even before we know that’s what’s happening. I don’t think we could completely extract it from our writing if we tried.

    I think that as long as we’re not being rude, stereotypical, or nasty about the culture whose mythos we’re using for our projects, it’s probably fine. It can also be a nice window into some unknown parts of the world for readers who might really enjoy learning new things.

  2. I tend to agree with Emmie about treating the cultural symbols respectfully. I think giving them credit should also happen in some way–if not directly in the book, then maybe as an appendix after, so the reader can find out more about where your ideas came from. Overall, I think spreading information is the best way to teach people about cultural aspects they may otherwise never have been exposed to. 🙂 Your book sounds totally kick-arse, by the way!

  3. Shauna Granger

    Fully agree. In my most recent WIP I borrowed from Japanese mythos as well for a minor character, a Onibaba. It was so interesting. But I didn’t feel awkward about it. I just tried to stay true to the type of creature it is. Also, I think it’s cool if we can borrow from unfamiliar cultures than our own because, like Adriana said, it’ll help spread knowledge. After all, if it’s unfamiliar to you then it’s probably unfamiliar to plenty of other people.

  4. Pingback: The Frozen City of Fear (Part 3) | Excursions Into Imagination

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