Cultural Appropriation of Books and Movies

Recently in my English Literature class, we were having a discussion about a very interesting topic which was cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when elements of a culture are incorporated by a person of another culture. Personally, I think that cultural appropriation in some ways could be seen as offensive. It could be seen as a person trying to be racist and perhaps formulating the culture to be something that it isn’t. In some ways, it could show the person to be very insensitive, especially if they have never been in the country or experienced actual cultural activities. In my opinion, I think that an author or a director shouldn’t be restricted by a cultural boundary. However, they should realize that there will always be a chance of their work backfiring and of criticism. Examples for authors and directors being scrutinised for their work would be Life of Pi (Yann Martel and Ang Lee), The Glass Palace: A Novel (Amitav Ghosh) and Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden and Rob Marshall). 


Book and movie, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (directed by Rob Marshall) received a lot of criticism from the Japanese community. The reason for the backlash was because the book was primarily written by a foreign author. The Japanese audience felt as though the geishas have been portrayed as simply glorified prostitutes. The movie was also criticized for its casting of non-Japanese actors for the three main lead roles which were played by Chinese actors. In China, on the other hand, the lead actresses have drawn disapproval from those who still resent Japan’s occupation of Chinese regions before and during the Second World War. There was also resentment from the Japanese towards the West as they had incorporated mainly their perception of Japanese culture rather than representing the actual art of seduction. Additionally, the Japanese youth have very little connection with the world of the Geisha, so the older generations fear that they will see the culture similar to the way foreigners do: as something exotic. Personally, I agree with the critics who have scrutinised the movie as well as the book because the art of being a Geisha is much more than simply being a prostitute, it is about being respected and learning different forms of arts such as music or dance. In such examples of appropriated culture, the element of culture is often overruled and is replaced with drama rather than historical fiction. 


A book which I personally really enjoyed and that I think is culturally appropriate is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. The author spent almost 5 years researching about Myanmar, India and Malaya (the countries that are mentioned in the book). The Glass Palace is actually one of my favourite books and it has received really positive reviews even though the book mentions parts of the Burmese culture. Although the book beings in Myanmar and mentions King Thibaw and Supayalat, it doesn’t focus on their specific story but on Rajkumar and Dolly, the main protagonists of the novel. The book begins in Myanmar and portrays the lives of characters who are Indian born in Myanmar, but slowly transitions towards India (where the characters later move to). By moving the characters to India Amitav Ghosh brought the novel towards his comfort zone. This, in turn, gave most readers (from the reviews) a better understanding of the cultural connections between India, Myanmar and Malaya and how the characters were tied together because of their background. Most of the characters in the story which are Indian represent the Indians who had lived in Burma for many centuries, most of their ancestors of the current Burmese Indian community emigrated to Burma from the start of British rule in the mid-19th century to the separation of British Burma from British India in 1937. This is the link that Ghosh explores in his novel and because of the closeness of the two cultures of Bengal and Burma, it is again a comfort zone for the Bengali Amitav Ghosh, there in not much of a cultural gap to bridge. Additionally, it would be wise to remember that throughout Amitav Ghosh’s childhood, (as a Bengali) he would be exposed to Burmese culture as authors like Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterji made references to Burma and the Indian community of Yangon in many of their novels.


Another book that I personally love and that fits into the genre of an author representing a culture different from his own is Life of Pi by Yann Martel which is about a boy who is struggling to survive through a series of unfortunate events. Similar to The Glass Palace, the reviews were very positive. However, Yann Martel is a Canadian author and is focusing on an Indian boy who is practising Islam, Christianity and Hinduism all in unison. This leads to a sense of discomfort for a practising Indian Hindu like me who finds it strange that a Hindu believer can actually be carrying out the rituals of two other religions. For example at the beginning of Chapter 5, Pi claims “I practised religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances-solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for prasad, acts of devotion to Allah not knowing where Mecca was and getting my Arabic wrong.” This is cultural appropriation of the worst kind as this could be seen as an offence to people who follow these rituals and to whom these rituals are extremely meaningful and need to be undertaken in the correct way. As a Hindu, it feels strange that despite Pi being a devotee of Vishnu, vegetarians by traditions offering turtle meat as prasad (sweets) during a ritual. In Hindu mythology, one of Vishnu’s avatars were in the form of a turtle. Thus, for Pi to be killing a turtle and offering it to Vishu is all the more incongruous. He almost seems to be mocking all three religions by adapting them to fit his situation of being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In Life of Pi, rather than focusing on the cultural significance of his story, Yann Martel begins to gloss over the aspect of religion by dramatising the unfortunate incidents in Pi’s life. 


Not only is Martel being insensitive to the religions mentioned in the book, but he is also being insensitive to the situation he has placed his character in. Martel does this by using sardonic humour throughout the book. An example is Chapter 74 when Pi tries to elevate himself from depression and the feeling of helplessness by claiming that he has at least been provided with the basic rudimentary comforts of life by God only to say, “But God’s hat was always unravelling. God’s pants were falling apart. God’s cat was a constant danger. God’s ark was a jail. God’s wide acres were slowly killing me. God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening”. Thus, even while trying to sustain his character’s hope, Martel strips Pi’s hope away and leaves him with the harsh realization that he is slowly dying.  


In conclusion, in my opinion, I feel that foreign authors writing about cultures and religions different from their own is a challenging task and doesn’t always work. However, if authors do prefer to write about a different culture, they would have to undertake extensive research and back it up with an empathetic sensitivity that will help them cross cultural boundaries. 


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