Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Cultural appropriation?

I may or may not have a problem with appropriation in my WIP—for context, the first quartet “Feathers with Benefits” originally started as a two-part short novella, which then turned into a trilogy, which turned into multiple trilogies, and now it’s a quartet of quartets. I’ve had to significantly expand my worldbuilding and justify some throw-it-in choices I’d made. It started with pulling names out of a hat: the male human protagonist is named Torio, which is Japanese for “bird’s tail” as it turns out. Another human character (Kaya) also has a Japanese name, and connections started forming. I am pretty sure most of the human characters (if not all) are nonwhite, with Torio having Asian features (geological upheaval in the world’s past, population migration, blah blah).

If you can’t tell already, I’m retroactively justifying unplanned thematic choices and adding a heap of “make shit up” to fill in the blanks. I’m not the most organized or systematic about it. The predominant human culture isn’t based on your usual fantasy pseudo-medieval-Judeo-Christian morality and values system, and I avoid “it’s exotic and different” as a reason to add things, but I still feel like I’m on thin ice.

So, at what point does “throwing together cultural concepts and making something unique” slide into cultural appropriation? The examples I’ve found are generally focused on white artists appropriating minority music, fashion, etc. or hipsters wearing Native American headdresses, so I’m curious how this translates to fantasy worldbuilding. Apologies if any of this is unclear!

This is something I’d not trouble my head about in the slightest, to be honest, and certainly not in your early works while you’re still learning the craft. Cultural appropriation, if I take your meaning correctly, gave us Rock and Roll and all its offshoots, heaven only knows how many cuisines, and even maybe the English language itself. The key is giving credit where credit is due, in my opinion. As an example, when musicians listened to Chuck Berry’s music, loved it, and began playing variations on what he did, well… That was perfectly fine. When they recorded his songs and failed to pay him, that was something else entirely. What you’re talking about here is if I follow you correctly the former, not the latter. (And, keep in mind, Chuck Berry “borrowed” heavily from the legion of bluesmen who came before him.)

Everything comes from somewhere; you don’t have to isolate yourself from a good idea or cultural feature just becasue you’re from a different ethnic group or culture. At a certain level, culture is the heritage of humanity as a whole. Or so I see it.

I have one word for you: Firefly aka Serenity :3

I think Rabbit’s right. For now, just have fun with it. Do what you need to in order to tell your story. It’s perfectly okay to borrow from other cultures and create hybrids, as long as said cultures aren’t treated as horrible things.

While I agree in spirit with Rabbit, in practice I’d be a little more cautious. Munchkin’s example of “Firefly” is good, yet at the same time the show’s use of Mandarin Chinese references and pidgin-words raised the question of just why there wasn’t a single Chinese main character–or indeed even any Asian side characters beyond extras. Was the show doing interesting world building with this reference, or was it just kind of thrown in because it “made things interesting?” (I’m willing to give Whedon benefit of the doubt here, given that we only got 13 episodes, but this question has definitely come up when people talk about the show.)

This is something I’ve grappled with in the novel I’m writing; it’s a future version of our real world, with the furry equivalents being humans who’ve changed themselves for various reasons – everything from philosophy/spirituality to mere aesthetics – to look like anthropomorphic animals – and they call themselves “totemics.” The chances are very high that the word “totemic” was not coined by a Native American in the setting, and that using that name is actually a kind of cultural appropriation. If I lampshade that in the story somewhere, does that make it okay? I don’t know. It might ameliorate things a little, but I’m still conscious of it. (There are also code names in the book named after (Asian) Indian divinities: Shaki, Kali and Dhanvantari. This also makes me self-conscious, although again it’s not at all impossible that the names are actually examples of entirely in-setting cultural appropriation. And people do that with project names all the time in the real world.)

There’s a past novel that I started about dragons that borrowed a lot from Asian/Indian culture and naming and tried to form something new from it, and I still think that’s an interesting avenue to explore–but I shelved what I had in part because I realized that I was treading on really thin ice. I can do that kind of re-contextualization with the culture I grew up in because I (theoretically) understand the history, tradition and symbolism behind what I’m playing with, but if most of what I know about a culture comes from spending a few afternoons with Wikipedia, I don’t have that.

If your characters have Asian names but the world isn’t Asian, that can certainly be justified in the story. I would consider this not in the “never do this” sense, but in the “understand why this works in this story” sense. If it makes sense, there’s not a problem. You just don’t want it to be window dressing.

Chipotle-- Are Native Americans the only culture ever to use totemic animals? I think not-- in fact I bet in prehistory a large percentage have. While the word is North American in origin-- I checked and was surprised to find that this was true-- I rather doubt the concept is. After all, Odin was closely associated with the wolf, the last I heard the people of Albania refer to themselves as “Sons of Eagles” (or at least a professor who used to be one of Winston Churchill’s Eastern European translators told me that once) and, well…

The concept looks pretty universal to me.

Going off of Rabbit’s comment, should we even touch on ancient Egypt? >.>

Admittedly, living in the North American continent makes it hard not to be a bit biased. America’s most ancient history, essentially, comes from the Native Americans, who span back many centuries.

Native Americans weren’t the first to use the notion, certainly, Rabbit. I’m just looking at it this way: it’s hard not to notice that if you Google the phrase “totem animals,” most of the sites that come up cheerfully informing you what your spirit animal is and what that means are sites that sound an awful lot like they’re from New Age stores in Sedona, not from people who grew up in cultures where totems were an important part of religious life. When I look at the totemics from my story, I don’t think I’d be doing complete world-building if I didn’t consider how Native Americans will look at the name. (And I’d probably be a bit naive if I didn’t consider how that might come up in discussion about the book if it ever gets a wide audience.)

I’m not suggesting “never write about cultures you’re not part of”; that’s a road to nowhere, particularly if you’re writing about cultures that, y’know, don’t actually exist. But we hear and read things about authors Getting Things Wrong in non-cultural contexts all the time, right? If you’re writing about computer programming and you get stuff wrong, you will hear about it from the computer nerds. And compared to the gun nerds, the computer nerds are relaxed and easy going. When you’re writing about other (real) cultures, you’re touching on stuff that’s got a lot more potential friction than whether you can really hack into the Pentagon with a MacBook Air and a cell phone.* Do the research; if it’s a non-trivial part of the story, see if you can get other informed eyes on it for a beta read; just generally be respectful of the culture/group you’re writing about.


It makes me glad Spirit got his totem noted by an actual Native American. Wish I could remember the tribe >.< But it was a long walk/discussion, and was the first time Spirit Wolf was ever mentioned for him.

Anywho, I’m finding the Getting Things Wrong problem with my current polo story. I’m trying to get it to take place in ancient Manipur, but to be honest I don’t know jack or shizzle about the area. It’s a whole lot of research to do in what feels like very little time >.<

To be perfectly honest, I would not worry about this AT ALL.

That’s called “world-building”. :smiley:

Seriously, it’s good when you discover a theme or idea you hadn’t consciously planned. I find that rewarding. It’s also nice to have an interest in other cultures. The recent movie “Big Hero 6” for instance did some fun things with a mix of cultures (in a city called “San Fransokyo”) without delving into anything deep like Buddhism. The thing I’d be wary of is treating another culture as “exotic”, latching onto some detail you’ve seen someplace and building a whole fictional group around it. An example would be to have Noble Savages who all wear giant feather headdresses and loincloths and scalp people with their tomahawks – which has some connection to reality but in a shallow, distorted, offensive way.

I’ve been trying to avoid that problem in a story recently, where I’ve got a “native culture” and want them to not just be weird-looking primitives. In your case if you’re just using names it’s fine, but doing basic research will help you if you want to get into the culture you’re referencing.

This idea bothers me a bit, though. Does being an Indian make you automatically qualified to talk about traditional Indian spirit animal beliefs? How do you know he’s even from the Plains Indian tribes most associated with that stuff as opposed to, say, the Olmecs in the south or the Iroquois in the northeast? (Or that his family hasn’t been Christian for generations and he never learned any of the shamanic stuff?) It’s like asking me for advice on lederhosen and tuba music, or even asking me about details of Italian Catholic doctrine because “you’re from one of those European tribes”. :slight_smile:

I’m currently reading your “totemics” story in “The Furry Future” by the way, and what I’ve read of it makes clear that the “totemic” people have some variety of opinion and belief instead of being some monolithic furry tribe. That’s good.

The story with the totemics is mine, a prequel to the novel I’ve just finished the draft of. And, thanks – they’re certainly not a tribe, and there’s all sorts of beliefs that people who’ve become totemics might have. It occurred to me a while ago that the word “totemic” is in itself a bit of cultural appropriation that might be criticized in the setting for being so. Since that’s not really the point of the novel it’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down too deeply, but I’d like to lampshade it in passing.