Using Cultural Influences in Your Writing


As writers we are inspired by the world around us. This includes places we go and experiences we have there. As I’ve been thinking through NightWind, my new project, I’m aware of the other cultures that influence the story and my writing. Cultural appropriation is such a buzzword lately and because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation in my own work. My main concern is refraining from committing it!

Here’s the thing, my next project has some Japanese elements in it and I’m not Japanese.  Granted, we’re not dealing with the real world in this story. So there is no “Japan.” The thing about cultural appropriation, though, is when does “borrowing” go too far and step into the realm of exploitation?

I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules to this and that’s part of the problem. I’m a pretty generic white American myself, so I’m sure I lack the sensitivities towards people adopting symbols of my “culture” or dress or way of life. But, I do know that others are quite sensitive about this and I absolutely want to be respectful of that fact and not give the impression that I’m simply stealing from their heritage to write my story.

And yet, at the same time, Japan is a major inspiration for my story. I traveled to Japan in 2016 with a friend who grew up there and immediately fell in love with it. I dream of going back again some day and also found some beautiful scenery and other things that served as a jumping off point for my new story.

My main character, for example, is meant to be representative of a Japanese woman. She is also inspired by a real person who I met while in Japan. The woman’s name is Rion. Rion in the real world is a little girl I met while traveling through Tokyo with my friend and guide who grew up in Shinjuku. The little girl is the daughter of her friend.

The reason why I chose the name Rion is simple. I just loved the origin story behind the name. When I met the little girl, I expressed my fascination with the name and my friend explained that the girl’s parents had wanted to name her “Lion” but that there is no “L” in Japanese. So they replaced it with an “R.” I loved the idea of a little lion girl (or woman as is the case in my new project) and asked them if they would be okay with me using the name in a future project. They, of course, said yes.

My spectacular trip to Japan led to further inspiration and finally, Rion’s story started to take shape. I eventually came up with an idea that has some Japanese elements in it.

In the hyper sensitive world that we live in, people are quick to judge and quick to criticize. I have made distinctive efforts in my story preparations to come up with a lot of my own ideas and mix in other cultural influences. I have also incorporated elements simply from my own imagination. And yet, I am aware of appropriation and will likely remain so as I continue forward.

Other ways my project differs is that there are distinctive Japanese elements which are absent from this story and have no part in this world. These include tea service, geisha, kimono, Katana, Japanese words, samurai, bowing and other such hallmarks. So, I think I’m probably okay.

I’m also dealing with a world outside of our own, one that was of my own making and includes city-states fashioned after the ancient Greeks, steampunk elements, and American style military rankings. But, I did want to give it a bit of a Japanese flair. I found a really fascinating list of Japanese colors which I want to use to inspire my descriptions and give them a bit of that flavor.

Cultural appropriation is an important thing to keep in mind as you are story building and writing. I hope that readers will see that I am approaching NightWind with the utmost respect for other cultures and that my writing is out of love and admiration for the culture I experienced while I was traveling.

How do you handle utilizing cultural influences in your writing? Do you ever think about or get concerned about cultural appropriation? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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