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If I use certain elements of a culture or language, how different should they be compared to the original? How different should the language used to reference those elements be?

Examples:

  • Can I use a culture specific dish like sushi and call it sushi to describe the cuisine of my fictional culture?

  • In the Swedish language there are no gender specific words for professions. if I use that tidbit to create a culture and use the same words as in Swedish, Will I savaged by critics? Will I be accused of cultural appropriation?

  • What do you mean by "can I"? It is obviously possible. Are you asking if you will get sued? If your work will be unsalable? If it will be savaged by critics? If you will be accused of cultural appropriation. – user16226 Mar 13 '17 at 22:57
  • Of course i can... And i truly do not believe i'll get sued for using sushi in a book. maybe better example: In the Swedish language there are no gender specific words for professions. if I use that tidbit to create a culture and use the same words as in Swedish, Will I savaged by critics? Will I be accused of cultural appropriation? – HvG Mar 14 '17 at 6:27
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Can I use a culture specific dish like sushi and call it sushi to describe the cuisine of my fictional culture?

Yes, because you are framing it in terms the reader will understand and respond to. This, in turn, helps the reader (s?) immerse themselves in the story.

Nothing can prevent you from doing that. You are the author, and the paper (or the computer screen) will tolerate anything you scribble on it. The reaction to your choice of words, however, really depends on the reader.

If I would stumble upon something like that I would be tempted to put the book down. For me, it stabs the suspension of disbelief right in the gut.

If your story depends on calling a piece of raw fish, wrapped in steamed rice and seaweed leaf, nothing else, but sushi, it should be set in our world. Then your characters, dressed in burkas and ushankas can drink tequila and vodka and eat pizza and curry while hunting buffalos, wielding machetes, firing Kalashnikovs, and drive Camaros and Corvettes.

If you a relating it back to something familiar for the reader/protagonist then you can always describe it initially as "sushi-like"

Oh, this is even a better way to kill all joy of immersing oneself into a secondary world. Not only you confess (in writing) that you are unable to describe the food in focus of your story (ahem, a piece of raw fish, wrapped in steamed rice and seaweed leaf?) which is apparently very important for your settings, you also immediately introduce yourself as a narrator from the modern Earth.

But, once again, this is your story.

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    But by the same logic should we not be repelled by all fantasy novels in which long sharp weapons are called swords? What makes one piece of real world stuff acceptable and another one not? – user16226 Mar 14 '17 at 22:56
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    @MarkBaker a sword, much like a robe, a cloak, a sandal is much more generic word. A katana, a scimitar, and a gladius are all swords. I am not claiming an ultimate authority on a subject, I am just saying that I as a reader, I would have a big problem with a knight in a sombrero. – Lew Mar 14 '17 at 23:10
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    there are many kinds of swords. There are many kinds of sushi. I don't think generic is the issue. I suspect the issue may be what feels congruous. A knight in a sombrero seems incongruous because we are not used to seeing those things together. Yet if you invent new worlds you would seem to have to choose between inventing every blessed things or combining things that are incongruous in our world. And maybe that make it a worldbuilding question. How do you combine incongruous elements from our world and make them congruous in an invented world? The writing question is, why bother? – user16226 Mar 15 '17 at 5:00
  • @MarkBaker You are right, it is a question of balance and where to draw the line, and personal preferences. If for you the word sushi does not invoke even the faintest reminder of Japan, for me it certainly does (there are many kinds of sushi indeed, for instance, California Roll :-). Just as it is clear overkill to invent a new word for everything in a developed world (let's just start with creating the whole language, shall we? J. R. R. Tolkien did...), using the culture-specific terms which are not indigenous to your artificial environment can successfully destroy the immersion. – Lew Mar 16 '17 at 13:16
  • @MarkBaker On the knights in sombreros: Matt from The Wheel of Time, wears a hat, which looks, judging by the way Jordan described it, very similar to what we, English-speakers, call sombrero (in Spanish every hat is called el sombrero--it is a generic noun), but he never breaks the immersion by calling it a sombrero-like kinda hat. – Lew Mar 16 '17 at 13:22
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Yes, because you are framing it in terms the reader will understand and respond to. This, in turn, helps the reader immerse themselves in the story.

It's like describing colours or hats. You can describe someone wearing a blue tunic, even though it's a fictional culture and the word for blue might be "Spangleglott". Or someone wearing a fedora.

If you a relating it back to something familiar for the reader/protagonist then you can always describe it initially as "sushi-like"

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Golden Rule: You can do whatever you like so long as it can stand on its own for your target audience.


If your story is constructed to be a plausible future where the swedes and japanese have taken over, then both of those things could realistically happen. But if you have to spend a lot of time with exposition explaining it, then your execution may have problems. And if your use is not justified by the story and people are drawn to these details, then it's like a cell phone showing up in a lord of the rings battle.

Don't overthink this. If it doesn't check out with your target audience or it stands out in a bad way, find a better way to do whatever you're trying to do.

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Long Answer: I think when taking cultural inspiration for a work of fiction, you have to ask yourself: will this piece of a single culture fit the context of what is this universe's realistic. Example: Tolkien drew from Norse legends for his Dwarves and Elves, but how fitting would it have been for either of them to be depicted as owning slaves, even though early Scandinavian culture was (like many of the time) very slave-centric?

Short Answer: My favorite pieces of fiction have had parallels against historical or currently existing cultures only so far as cherry picked parts that could reasonably exist in that fictional world.

  • +10 My thoughts exactly. I am currently finishing Desert Spear by P. V. Brett, and, while quite taken by the story, really struggling with his depiction of one of the regions of his world, which is to me a carbon copy of any orthodox Islamic state with all key terms replaced by Arabic-sounding made-up words. Even with some magic thrown in, it feels cheap. – Lew Mar 20 '17 at 14:57
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Well, if you garner enough attention to get any critics interested in savaging you, you will already be doing well. But critics qua critics are unlikely to savage you for it unless you do it clumsily.

The accusation of cultural appropriation is a relatively new weapon in the culture wars. Indeed, adopting the culture or dress of a group or culture was regarded as a mark of appreciation or solidarity not so long ago. So it is much trickier to say what is going to provoke such a charge, and even if you should take such a charge seriously if it is leveled.

How you use elements of a culture could be as much a factor as what elements you use. Using such elements for purposes of mockery or derision is obviously going to provoke a different reaction from using them respectfully or out of utility. But then again, it depends on who you are mocking. Some groups can be mocked with impunity (Catholics, cowboys, Brits, for example). Some cannot be mocked at all on peril of intense vitriol and social exclusion.

But it is very hard to say exactly what will provoke such a charge. I have not heard of anyone accusing Tony Hillerman of cultural appropriation for writing a mystery series featuring two Navajo policemen. (Not saying they haven't, mind you.) But such accusations can suddenly develop as a tool for promoting the agenda of a particular group.

But few cultures or groups worry about this sort of thing and I cannot imagine the Swedes or the Japanese (who have a very fine traditions of performing western classical music, for instance) ever leveling such an accusation. Most cultures borrow from each other and always have done throughout history. Modern society is largely a product of such borrowings and the innovations that arise from the intersection of ideas and practices. The modern West is inconceivable without the mixing of Indian mathematics, Arabic numerals, Roman law, Greek thought, Jewish spirituality, Christian theology, Norse seafaring, Celtic art, Germanic language, etc. etc. It is not merely the presence of these elements that matters, but how they affect each other and the new things that develop as a result.

Objections come from the margins, from groups struggling with the paradoxes of inclusion and distinctiveness, who may feel that their distinctiveness is being eroded as much by the wider culture's adoption of elements of their culture as by their own people adopting elements of the wider culture. Be aware of these sensitivities, whether you decide that they are well merited or not. No point in picking a fight you don't want by mere inadvertence.

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