When there’s nothing left to burn

… you have to set yourself on fire.*

This was so not the post I wanted to start off with. XD

So the annual discussion about cultural appropriation and “When Is It Okay to Pillage Other People’s Cultures for Literature and Profit?” has erupted. It’s times like this that makes me both angry and sad. It also makes me despair at my lack of proper words to adequately convey the agitation and despair it ignites inside myself, but that’s the beauty of quoting people. So here goes:

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination…. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.

Deepa D.

Powerful words. And it has some resonance when we try and look at crime and mystery stories with the colonialist experience as our lens:

More than heroes and heroines, however, the empire produces villains. Nearly half of the first 25 Sherlock Holmes stories feature colonial villains of one sort or another. Some come back from the colonies with their ill-gotten gains to settle into respectability, and others follow them to England to wreak a terrible revenge for the way they had been treated earlier on… The other stock ex-colonial villain in the Holmes stories is the cruel older man who has obviously had his morality buds excised through his years abroad dealing with colonials…

Whodunit Lecture Series 2008

Crime fiction, especially its infancy, was inexorably tied to Empire and the easy (for the dominant culture) distinction of race. It isn’t a coincidence that the rise of this genre came at the heyday of Pax Brittanica and those who we consider as the writers of the Golden Age (Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes) are British. New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, while a writer born away from London, nonetheless wrote like she was part of the club, with Scotland Yard Inspector Roderick Alleyn as his protagonist. So did a number of writers who were “colonials” but mostly wrote with the point of view of the colonizers.

The reason behind this: the central theme inherent in detective fiction (justice and order triumph against crime) goes hand in hand with the rationale for colonization (civilization and order triumph against savagery). It may seem a bit of a stretch to put crime fiction into this kind of framework but I’m not the first one to have pointed this out, nor will I be the last.

This is the legacy I have to live with, as a mystery fan who has read Peter Wimsey stories and cringed a little at the mention of the “usurious Jew” and “inscrutable Oriental” in Dorothy L. Sayers’ pages. More often than not, crime fiction takes the things we fear in the privacy of our own minds and makes them into reality magnified. And readers are not even provided with the buffer of the “improbable,” as with the case of Science Fiction and Fantasy. The menace in the narrative aren’t the Uruk-hai or the invading aliens. Because the foreigner is perpetually the Other, their very existence sow the seeds of fear and distrust.

Racism, prejudice and xenophobia latent within the genre aren’t going away anywhere soon. The “Yellow Peril” is a stereotype alive and well in television shows, movies, and books. Instead of the the Fu Manchu-type villains of old, however, we get Asian triads, yakuza, and Big Scary Financially Empowered China. For the Philippines, we are only ever mentioned as the connoiseurs of snuff movies as in Nicholas Cage’s movie 8 mm or as part of the Islamic militant hotbed that is South East Asia. As long as the dominant culture is still the one writing about us, we will always be one of the usual suspects.

(“But 24 helped combat racism!!!! It’s postively post-racial. Look, they placed a black man in the White House before anyone has even heard of Obama. Never mind how the plot arcs in most of the seasons feed off the inherent paranoia the Western world feels about Arabs and Muslims. Emancipation!!!!

This comment comes from a person was watched all but the last season of 24. Even things I love has faults, and I accept that.)

Which bears the question, why did I write about this aspect of crime fiction (which is admittedly unflattering) instead of celebrating the good things first before going into the critique? I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps it’s me thinking that we should get the fucked up stuff out of the way so we could get on and focus on the good things. And that as Deepa D. had asked in another post: This will probably be painful because it reveals feet of clay in dearly beloved books and authors. Is the cost worth the result for you?

My answer is yes, always.

*reference to a Stars song.


One thought on “When there’s nothing left to burn

  1. Hi Kristel,

    I’ve a question: what do you think of the crime fiction stories that have non-Western protagonists like John Burdett’s Bangkok novels? For that matter (to tie it up to the cultural appropriation issue), what do you think of Western writers who use non-Western protagonists like Burdett again?

    (I ask because I’m curious about his books but– and here’s where the CA kicks in– I’m a bit wary of Westerners writing the non-Western novel unless the non-Western reader feels it’s “culturally appropriate”. For example, what would Thais think of the said novels.)



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