11.46: Colonialism, with Steven Barnes, Tempest Bradford, DongWon Song, and Shveta Thakrar

Our listeners have been asking for an in-depth, “crunchy” episode on colonialism, and related issues like cultural appropriation, for a couple of years now. Our voices, however, are not the ones our listeners should be hearing on the subject. Finding the right voices has not been easy, but it has been worth it.

This episode runs for over 25 minutes. Steven Barnes, K. Tempest Bradford, DongWon Song, and Shveta Thakrar discuss colonialism with Mary Robinette Kowal.

Brandon, Dan, and Howard simply listened, and learned.

We encourage you to do the same.

Liner notes: Here’s the recommended reference reading — “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses“, Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Daphna Oyserman, and Joseph M. Stone

Discussion Note: The topics of colonialism and cultural appropriation are controversial in some circles. Our discussion here focuses on how to thoughtfully and sensitively address these matters in our work. We’re taking it as a given, then, that this sensitivity is important. In order to best foster that discussion, and out of respect for our guests, comments are being moderated.

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Take a character who is not yours, but who you know all about. Write a character sketch of them. Then change that character to be “the other” from you, and re-write the character sketch.

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl, narrated by Allyson Johnson

23 thoughts on “11.46: Colonialism, with Steven Barnes, Tempest Bradford, DongWon Song, and Shveta Thakrar”

  1. Thanks for that episode.

    Do you have any suggestions of places online where we could find people to give us insight on cultural/colonial biases in our writing?

    1. If you like podcasts, Code Switch is a fantastic entry point into a lot of issues various groups are dealing with. You’ll also get a strong sense or how each community is dealing with different issues and how they interplay.

      1. Thank you for sharing this great resource, and for the timely and interesting episode / discussion. As part of a University of Iowa class How Writers Write Fiction 2016: Storied Women, I read a transcript of Lionel Shriver’s speech and a number of interesting articles about fiction and identity politics.

  2. With great respect for the regular hosts, who consistently deliver a great podcast, this is one of the best Writing Excuses I’ve heard. I would gladly have listened to a much longer discussion of the topic, and how even genre writers must consider the problems of colonialism and culture for their work to remain meaningful in a current context. Please have some of these speakers back for more!

    1. I wish this could have run longer. It’s wonderful to be able to let subject matter experts explain complex concepts in detail, and the amount of expertise on that panel could easily fill an entire season with information on a wide variety of subjects.

      Good news! we’ll hear from Steven Barnes and DongWon Song again before the end of November.

  3. Overall an excellent episode, except for the ending. I was with you right up to the point where Steven Barnes undercut his own message with The Green Mile.

    I would submit that Stephen King was the one trying to assuage white man’s guilt by making Paul Edgecombe a paragon of noblesse oblige who is caring and considerate and a decent man. In the movie all of that nonsense is removed and Edgecombe, as played by the universally-beloved everyman Tom Hanks, is merely a pleasant face of institutional racism.

    The movie is a commentary on, and condemnation of, the white-dominated system’s rush to judgement in accusing, imprisoning and executing an innocent black man merely because he’s black. It is Black Lives Matter a full 15 years before that movement gained national attention.

    There is a reason why this movie is hated by white supremacists, and that’s because even the putative “good guy” of the story is culpable in the collective racism of society, doing nothing to change it and only seeking to benefit himself.

    Other than that, very good points.

  4. This was an excellent episode, and an important one – especially as the lack of diversity in sci-fi is frequently commented upon in some circles.

    One thing I would like the panel to have commented upon is the fact that some people of other cultures view any writing of their other by (usually) white folks as cultural appropriation. For me at any rate this has the effect of making me feel like I have to walk on eggshells when creating a character from another culture or ethnicity. As an example, I am attempting to write a novel set in a relatively distant future in which one of the major characters is aboriginal (what we might call First nations here in Canada). I have done my research, I am dong my best to avoid stories or perspectives that could be deemed proprietary, and have spoken to my aboriginal friends. But I still feel like there could be pitfalls….

    On another point from the same theme, my First nations character is unusually observant of nature and may have special empathy with certain aspects of the natural world, not through anything magical as such, but just through having particular acuity of his five senses. How far down this road can you go without falling into the stereotype of the “Magical Native American” see http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNativeAmerican.

    And finally, what about writing the other when “the other” is a gender other than one’s own?

    Questions, questions. Please bring your panellists back for another go round.

    1. The thing to remember about cultural appropriation is that it’s all about colonialism. Appropriation is one of the main weapons of the colonizer. Mary’s example of the Christmas tree is a good one.

      So when it comes to appropriation, always interrogate the choices that underly presenting this character a certain way. And the answer is always to make sure your character has agency and feels like a real human. What drives them? Why? Are all of those motivations aligned to a single vector? If they are you probably have a problem.

    2. Note I said do be afraid. :) Because yes, there will be pitfalls. That’s just the way it is in the world we live in (with our power and cultural imbalance). Do your research, write with empathy, get your work vetted by sensitivity readers from the background/experience you’re writing about, write the best story you can, and be ready to fail with grace and do better next time.

      Tempest mentioned Debbie Reese, whose blog I’m linking here as a resource on First Nations–related literature. https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/. This is a fine place to start reading to avoid the stereotype you mentioned.

    3. Andrew, it sounds as though you could really benefit from taking Debbie Reese’ class on this subject. It’s available as a downloadable seminar: http://writingtheother.com/public-writing-native-american-characters/

      She covers all the questions you’re asking, including the one about being afraid to get things wrong. (Her answer is the same as Shveta’s! Mysterious, that :)

      As to this:

      “…some people of other cultures view any writing of their other by (usually) white folks as cultural appropriation. For me at any rate this has the effect of making me feel like I have to walk on eggshells when creating a character from another culture or ethnicity.”

      It doesn’t surprise me that you’ve come across this or at least this is your understanding of what folks are saying, especially if you’re writing about First Nations people. Some marginalized and oppressed groups are more sensitive to this than others because they have been victimized by it badly. Watch this short excerpt from Debbie Reese’s class for a discussion of this issue: https://youtu.be/ctOJtK-ONgo

      The thing to realize is that sometimes the answer is that you shouldn’t be writing certain things if your goal is to reduce harm. There’s no hard line, though. Whether you’re on the harm or harm reduction side will depend on a bunch of factors and be different for each group.

      Finally: “what about writing the other when “the other” is a gender other than one’s own?”

      Two resources for you. First is this collection of links: http://writingtheother.com/writing-characters-of-different-genders/

      Second, in Samuel R. Delany’s “About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews” there’s a section in the first part of the book on Characters that I give all my students to read. It is about characterization broadly, but as Delany breaks down what writers need to do to make characters fully three dimensional, he also hits on why some men have a hard time creating women characters. I think you’ll find that very helpful.

  5. Okay, so what do you say to someone who did all that; did the research, was sensitive in creating the character, made all the characters unique beyond culture, ethnicity, religion etc., but when presenting it to people of those cultures, ethnicities, religions etc. was then simply told to trash it because I have no business writing those people? You guys have said in other episodes that just because a beta reader doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. So how do I know when to take the advice and when to seek advice elsewhere? Or do I really have no business writing about minorities?

    1. There’s no perfect answer here. If you feel like this really is your story to tell, then perhaps you forge ahead with the understanding that you may offend and lose the very audience you’re reaching out to. Or maybe you acknowledge that you asked a question in willingness to accept an answer you did not want.

      I once had a beta reader tell me that my story was terrible, and would destroy my career. I passed that feedback along to the editor, who told me that he loved the story, and wanted to publish it. In this case the issue wasn’t one of cultural appropriation, so publishing was perhaps less fraught, but I was still pretty nervous. Getting more opinions was helpful, and ultimately I decided I trusted the editor more than my beta reader.

      I have friends who’ve had very similar experiences, and who have taken the more painful route, shelving the stories their beta readers took issue with. They went on to write other things, because that’s what working writers do: continue writing.

    2. It’s hard to answer this one because I don’t know you personally. There is a range of possible reasons that you got that reaction.

      First possibility is that when someone said “you have no business writing these people” they meant that you’re not a skilled enough writer to do so sensitively. Perhaps they felt that, for all your research and sensitivity, you still got it wrong, and they saw no way forward for you (or at least no way forward they could lead you through).

      Another possibility is that they feel that by you writing about the marginalized identity though you’re not from it, you may be taking away a publishing opportunity from someone who is from that identity writing about their own community or ethnic group. That happens quite a bit and it’s a problem.

      With the first possibility, the way forward may be finding a reader or critiquer who reads specifically to help you make the work better. A sensitivity reader, or someone leading a workshop. Someone you pay! Some folks are lucky in that they are in a writing group or have beta readers who are willing to help guide you through fixing stuff, but if you don’t have that then taking a class, joining a workshop, or hiring a sensitivity reader are your safest bets.

      In the latter case, the answer is sometimes for you to step back. Recognize that your privilege may give you an unfair advantage, and take steps to reduce that advantage. perhaps by helping authors from that identity group get published by introducing them to editors, agents, writing groups, etc. Or, if they’re already published, boosting their voices.

      In the end, I don’t feel that the answer is ever a blanket “you have no business writing minorities.” The answer is complex, depends on context, and depends on what you’re willing to understand and take action on.

    3. That’s tough. In a similar place, I made the decision to pull the project because I went to those readers for a reason. It was hard. I won’t lie. But if I’ve done all the work and the story isn’t working for the very people that I’m writing it for, then pushing forward and publishing it anyway is kind of a red flag that I wasn’t writing it for them.

      But look… we write fiction all the time that doesn’t get published. Put it aside, come back to it in a couple of years and look at it again. A couple of things might have happened in the meantime.
      1. You may look at the story and understand the problem.
      2. The literary conversation might have changed so the nerve it was hitting isn’t as inflamed.
      3. You might look at the story and decide that you still like it and are willing to accept the anger that might come from publishing it.

      When that news is fresh, it’s very, very hard to make a dispassionate decision, so give yourself some time and work on something else instead.

  6. Really great episode. While I adore the regular cast, it was really fresh to have a well chosen set of guests for this topic. I really liked that the topic wasn’t a broad “writing the other”, but instead was a much more specific one. Because the episode didn’t have to deal with representation of gender, sexual orientation, etc, it went really deep into colonialism, and I learnt a ton. It was a topic I had never thought about much, and I’m ethnically Indian, born in Malaysia, raised in Singapore, and living now in Hong Kong (all former British colonies). Definitely an episode I’ll be listening to again periodically.

    Some suggestions:
    – It would be useful to have delved into craft as well. The episode was packed as it was of course, and very useful. But I would love to hear a discussion of this topic applied more directly to crafting your own stories/characters.
    – Despite the length I felt like it was too short. I wouldn’t mind longer episodes for such specialized topics at all, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Maybe extended discussion could be spun off into bonus episodes like you’ve done recently, keeping each individual episode <20min.
    – Would love to see more of these specialized topic episodes, with a relevant group of guests.

    1. We talked about this in advance of recording. We decided to explore the issue as deeply as possible, and trust (for now, at least) that our listeners will be able to apply what they’ve learned to their craft. I agree, though, that this felt too short.

      We’re sticking to the format of the show (15 minutes long, with a bit of wiggle room) because we don’t want to fill your writing time with talking each week. With issues like this one which are simply too broad, and too deep, for one episode, we’ll definitely be revisiting them.

  7. Going back much further than ‘manifest destiny’ is the story of the Promised Land, and how to deal with the people who are inconveniently in the way.
    The ancient Romans weren’t that interested in forcing their religion on others. (In fact, they pretty much adopted the Greek pantheon wholesale, and gods of other lands like Isis, Anubis, and Bes.) But they were concerned about foreign magic being used against them, so magic was punishable by death in some of the areas they invaded.

    1. If you have the time, give a listen to the “Kings of Kings” episodes of Dan Carlin’s HARDCORE HISTORY. The cultural clashes during the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia were complicated, and kind of amazing to learn about in detail.

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