I recently returned from the 2018 American Academy of Religion Conference, held this year in Denver, Colorado, where I indulged in the reverie of scholarly friendships and meet and greets and conference paper panels and receptions in the mile high city. My agenda revolved around attending the Buddhism in the West Unit sessions, which made a big impact on me this year. In particular, the co-sponsored Buddhism in the West Unit and Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Unit sessional theme “From Rape Texts to Bro Buddhism: Critical Canonical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Sexual Abuse Scandals in Western Buddhism” made me aware of the role and strength of identity politics in the formation of Buddhist identities in the West.
I took many notes from the AAR sessions I attended and when I got home, I began to research. As I went down the internet rabbit-hole in an attempt to understand the contemporary concept of meaningful consent, I came across an article by staff writer Barbara who wrote the article “Meaningful Consent and the Meaning of Consent in Game of Thrones” (21 April 2016) for the Fandomentals website (https://www.thefandomentals.com/meaningful-consent-and-the-meaning-of-consent-in-game-of-thrones/). While discussing meaningful consent, cultural contexts and fiction, Barbara writes:
Just as I believe reading good fiction makes us better at empathy (and not just me, a bunch of scientists think so too), I also believe it can make it easier for us to understand a different cultural setting, a different set of values. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or accept those values, but learning to understand where another person comes from is, I think, the necessary basis for any kind of intercultural or interreligious dialogue.
I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But then I began to think about cultural appropriation. There is another side to this sentiment about intercultural or interreligious dialogue in fiction, a side that critiques.
Recently many authors whose intent it was to understand and/or give voice to minority groups have been accused of cultural appropriation. According to Katherine Cowdrey in her 2017 article “Authors fear accusations of cultural appropriation, forum hears“, authors of English language fiction everywhere are being cautious, or not publishing works at all, for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation, especially after novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), which spent 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was knocked off its pedestal with accusations of cultural appropriation by very respected minority groups. So what do we make of non-Asian writers, and/or non-Buddhist writers, who write at the intersection of Buddhism and fiction, many of whom write Asian protagonists or minority secondary characters? Even though I am sure their intentions are only good, how do authors voice experiences of the other without offending? Should they even try? How do we as readers know when fiction has crossed the line into cultural appropriation? Is Buddhist fiction inherently misrepresentation if it is written by a Caucasian non-Buddhist? Or does it create a space for and present an opportunity for dialogue about cultural appropriation and cultural sharing?
I don’t have any clear answers at this time. If you do, I’d really like to hear from you.