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Writing Characters From Different Cultures, by Ben Marshall

Here’s a hypothetical: you see a novel about a teenager set in the town you grew up in, but it’s written by a Japanese author.  Intrigued, you learn the author doesn’t speak your language, has only ever been to your country once, and never to your town.  More intriguing, or troubling, is the fact that the author is writing from the POV of an indigenous person from your area.

How would you feel about that author and about that book?

It’s not a trivial question to me because I’m basically doing what my imaginary Japanese author is doing.  I’m writing a novel set in 1939 on a remote island off the northwest coast of Hokkaido, featuring a Japanese family who keep the lighthouse there.  It’s written from the perspective of the seventeen year old son, and also features the first-person narratives of his ultranationalist war veteran father and an Ainu man who is washed ashore and precipitates a family crisis.

I’ve done, and am still doing, a great deal of research – much of it oral histories of Japanese and Ainu people.  I’ve also spent quite a few years working with and for Indigenous Australians.  Furthermore, as a scriptwriter, I’m constantly writing from the perspectives of people in vastly different circumstances to my own.

Does this give me the right to tell stories about Japanese and Ainu characters?  Is it ethically okay for me to take on the voice of an Ainu man, or a Japanese ultranationalist?

I write for a New Zealand soap opera in which Maori and Islander issues run through the storylines.  These issues and the portrayal of indigenous, culture-sensitive stories are taken seriously.  It’s easy to get into trouble if a story is thought to have been handled badly or if a cultural detail has been missed or misunderstood.  For that reason, in New Zealand and Australia, and probably in other colonised nations, television writers often shy away from telling those stories, even when they themselves are indigenous.

I put my hypothetical to a Maori colleague and her response was this:

About fifteen years ago, I would’ve said “Who the hell is [the foreign author] to do that? Then I would’ve complained to all my friends, who would’ve been more offended than me, and we’d have coffee at some swanky Wellington cafe to organise a campaign to bring this author to his/her knees.  By the end of the meeting, we’d go “Oh, f*** it” and get on with our own lives.
Now I’d go “Oh, that’s interesting, I wonder what take s/he has got on the whole thing.”  I’d wonder what they could see.  I’d wonder what intuition and the muse has shown them.  Why were they drawn to this country?  
So I think it’s okay to [write from another cultural perspective], BUT…there are consequences.  One little mistake would make my eyes roll… then it’d be a [novel] ripe for ridicule… 
Actually…this [hypothetical] writer has got balls, because I would never in a million years consider writing a story about a boy from [a specific Maori tribe].  Danger zone.  Red alert.  Man, you just don’t mess with [another] iwi (tribe) unless you’re prepared to deal with them.

I also put my hypothetical to an indigenous Australian author friend.  His response was warier:

I’d think [a foreign author writing from an indigenous POV] was peculiar. What does the [foreign] writer know about Aboriginal Australia that gives him [or her] the confidence to write about the Aboriginal mind?  If, on the other hand, it is purely an observational POV it would be a different matter, but as soon as the [foreign writer] began talking about motivation, or interior thoughts and feelings, I’d want to know the source of his [or her] information.
You’ve asked the trickiest question in the book.  Australians, black and white, have to come to terms with [writing indigenous perspectives] but it relies on writers being well researched and having Aboriginal friends who agree to share their thoughts… this is what Kate Grenville did not do. 

Aboriginal people are sometimes happy with the work of non-Aboriginal writer’s representations of Indigenous people but it assumes the writer has drawn from personal knowledge of Aboriginal people.  You can imagine most Aboriginal people are very sensitive in this area because the representations have been 90% woeful in the past.  People are gun-shy.

Many will think that, as writers and authors, writing from different perspectives is simply what we do.  No one would argue were I to write a historical novel set in, say, ancient Greece.  No one would argue if I set a novel in a car factory, or wrote a triangular love story that involved a lesbian, a pigeon-fancier and an architect, none of which I am.

What will happen when Japanese or Ainu readers stumble upon a novel telling a story of their own country and culture written by a gaijin author?

I hope that if it’s a good story, well told, I might just win their acceptance.

I fear, however, that if I make the slightest cultural mistake, I could be in a whole lot of trouble.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. janet lee #

    Thought provoking info Ben. I’ve (unintentionally) started writing a novel, I think. Sounds strange, I know, I have so much written already, enough outlines that I think there would be 2 follow ons. What I’m wondering, is if I’m writing a story which included several influences of an indigenous people, is there a line where you can write purely from imagination but beyond that line it starts to have cultural, or even legal, implications? I’ve always been a reader of novels based, at least to some extent, on historical/cultural fact although mostly from the author’s imagination and creativity. I want my story to be at least partly truthful, and believable but I also have so much story line that is purely imaginative and of my own creation.

    August 8, 2013
    • Hi Janet. Boy, you’re really committing to it, huh. “I’ve unintentionally started writing a novel, I think.” What can I say but ‘go for it.’

      As for indigenous POVs, you’re a little light on specifics here, but in general, if you’re talking about indigenous characters, get the research done and find indigenous readers who can critically assess relevant passages – and perhaps even help with deeper insights that will enrich your work. You definitely want to get it culturally as right as you can.

      Legally, well, again I’m not sure where you’re going with that, but if you’re using real historical figures, the further back in time you write, the safer you are. If those people are still in living memory, then you’d be very wise to think again, and perhaps substitute them for fictional characters.

      bonne chance!

      September 5, 2013
      • janet lee #

        Thanks for your reply Ben, you’ve given me enough encouragement to get a little deeper with my story ideas. I’m not using any real historical figures, they are all fictional, although the story line is probably based on historical events. Thanks for the tip about going further back in time, that’s a good idea, that will exempt the need to work modern technology etc. into it (phew). The story is completely fictional but I’ll definitely be doing lots of research to base it on. My problem at the moment is that the words of different story ideas are racing into my head faster than I can get them down on paper, or pc (and I’m a speed typist!!).
        Every now and then, I’ll read back through parts and I get very excited and can’t wait to read what happens next lol; as if I’m reading someone else’s book! Thanks again for your tips and encouragement 🙂 janet lee

        September 7, 2013
  2. swillets-davies #

    Hi there! This is a belated reply for Ben Marshall. I do not believe what I have read. So now a writer is not supposed to write about other cultures unless they make it all sweet! Just so as you know, I am a Maori from the Ngati Rukawa tribe, a descendant of the Chief Te Rauparaha. I am 71 years of age. My generation of Maori does not go along with all this sensitivity, not to the degree my great nephews and nieces do. Suppose for instance I were to write fiction (as did Kate Grenville) about say, the Bosnian War? Supposing I had a fictional family who were Muslims and I wanted to depict the cruelty of the Croats and the Serbs towards them? But I am neither Serb nor Croat-would the Croats and Serbs jump up and down? They are all Slavs, and they have had a bloody tough time from oppressors for centuries. And how dare anybody , Aboriginal, Maori or Calathumpian tell us that this wouldn’t have been so, or an Aboriginal wouldn’t thought that, or a maori wouldn’t have done that, for God’s sake, when it’s a made up character! So is Ben Marshall using a composite, perhaps, of the people who once kept the lighthouse? As for Maori people, was it OK for Allen Duff to write all those scathing, damaging novels, just because he was a Maori? But if a Pakeha wrote the same it would not be OK? Good Luck Ben!!

    August 26, 2013
    • Hi, thanks for your comments. I subscribe to pretty much everything you argue here. My Maori colleague, referred to in the post, also agrees there is more latitude politically for exploration of indigenous POVs and less sensitivity – but she is quite definite it’s still a touchy range of issues.

      The characters in the historical novel I’m writing now include a sixteen year old Japanese boy, his forty year old father, and a thirty-two year old Ainu man. If I examine their characters – as people rather than their race or culture – yes, they are composites of people I’ve known. They have good and bad aspects to their character and behaviour but as long as I make those aspects plausibly and fully motivated, I’m hoping I’ll get away with the risk I take writing from another cultural perspective.

      Many thanks for your insights. I really appreciate it.

      Kia pai ngaa raa okioki – have a great weekend,



      September 5, 2013

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