By SJ Sindu
Recently, a well-intentioned friend of mine sent me a link to The Legend of Bold Riley, a graphic novel about a queer female warrior who travels the world and has adventures in the styles of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. The cover features a brown-skinned woman with a giant red dot on her head.
My first reaction was visceral, but I forced myself to relax and methodically research everything I could about the author, Leia Weathington, and the various artists involved. As far as I could tell, none of them were South Asian. I read review after glowing review about the absolute need for such a kick-ass queer character of color. Yes, I thought, we do need queer, female characters of color who don’t fit the tropes outlined for us in conventional narratives. But, still, something felt wrong.
The protagonist’s name, Rilavashana SanParite, a mishmash of something that’s supposed to sound Indian and “Spanish,” is shortened to Riley by a white character. Her home kingdom, Prakkalore, clearly made up by someone who doesn’t know the history or makeup of India’s languages, rings painfully false.
This is the product of a long history of cultural pillage. I felt it as a kid when I first watched The Jungle Book, as a young adult when I read my way through Kipling’s other works. I feel it whenever someone mentions yoga, when bindis cycle back into popular fashion, when hipsters trade curry recipes, when my friends post pictures of their color runs. Coming from a colonized people who have had their history and culture stolen for centuries, I have seen this entirely too many times.
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It’s beyond important to have stories of kickass queer women and of kickass women of color, and Northwest Press does some amazing work to support queer artists of all identities. But (and it’s a big but), we must be aware of how power and privilege works in situations when a white-privileged writer pens a romanticized, exotified story about a faux South Asian princess. When a queer writer of color, who knows what it is to live in a racialized body, writes a fantasy about a non-racial, non-homophobic world, that writer is providing escape from the harsh realities of experiencing intersectional racism and homophobia. When a white writer writes a fantasy about a non-racial, non-homophobic world, that writer is providing escape for white readers from white guilt.
Too many of the stories about South Asian people and culture that become popular in the Western world are told by white people (The Jungle Book, Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.). Shouldn’t we ask ourselves why white audiences seem to only want to read about brown people when, like Riley’s name, the stories themselves have been twisted and made palatable for them? Why is the consumption of brown stories still, at its core, about white people and their needs?
In the article with the Examiner, Leia Weathington discusses being inspired by the Indian epic Ramayana, her own travels, South American architecture and Indian movies. Travel, as experienced by most today, is a pastime of the privileged, has inextricable ties to imperialism and colonial history, and indicates the power imbalances in political and financial relationships between America and the places Weathington used for inspiration. American, and other “first world”travelers, often profit from the relative poverty of the nations to which they travel because the hosting nations often depend on the money from tourism—further blurring the line between hospitality and coercion. It is this financial power imbalance that helps shift cultural exchange into pillage. Travel allows for the privileged, in this case Weathington, to skim the surface glamour of a place and use it for her own while ignoring the depth and complexity of the actual culture.
In Bold Riley, the protagonist’s gender and sexuality are of no matter to her culture and family. While it’s important to have these types of models, this particular one feeds into a rose-tinted Westernized view of Indian culture as one that worships female goddesses and has such beautiful sarees. Bold Riley erases the real struggles faced by South Asian queer people, now and in the past. We know that Indian history is fraught for people of alternative sexualities. If we take off our Kama Sutra glasses, we can see that queer sexuality, especially female queer sexuality, has been silenced in South Asian history and culture for a long, long time, stretching far back before any colonizing, invading forces. Stories like Bold Riley allow white Western queer audiences to escape into a Bollywood-esque fantasy of a queer-happy ancient India, while the bleak reality of past and present South Asian queer struggles remain silent.
Who is benefiting from these faux brown tales? And whose struggle is being ignored? Why are we more interested in the glamour of brown culture (the bindhis, the jewelry, the blue-skinned gods) than the realities of brown experience? This is the kind of discussion I want to see in reviews of Bold Riley, but it’s conspicuously absent.
Cultural assimilation, cultural exchange, and cultural appropriation are not the same thing. Western European culture has demanded, forced, and coerced cultural assimilation for thousands of years, especially from the indigenous people of its colonies. Cultural exchange is organic and mutually beneficial, the kind of melting-pot culture that takes place because of trade and peaceful contact between cultures. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, is parasitic—it is the use of one culture by another, and usually only the taking culture benefits. It isn’t just about inspiration. It’s about feeling as if you’re entitled to take whatever you feel like from a culture without paying respect to its history or present context.
The thing that’s most troubling to me is that these glamourized depictions of South Asian culture are not made for, or even intelligible to, South Asian people. They’re made for white consumption. As Vijay Prashad says in “yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes cool,”all cultures are being commodified in this global capitalist economy, but the amount of power that a group holds influences how they react to the commodification. For people with large amount of global capitalist power (i.e. white people), they can “become devourers of culture, of everybody’s culture.”For the people whose cultures are devoured, there are usually no improvements in our quality of life. We’re left with the oppression we’ve always had, while someone who’s never experienced that oppression is profiting off our stories.
I want so badly to identify with Bold Riley, to see myself in her. But I can’t shake the feeling that she was created for someone else to devour. She’s not a mirror to me. She’s the painting of a white person in ethnic drag.
Maybe Bold Riley will find herself into some young brown queer kid’s life at just the right moment when she needs the story most. As for me, I don’t need or want to be fed my own story penned in a white hand. I say you can keep your Mowgli, your Pi, and your Bold Riley. I’m waiting for a story that was written for me by people like me.
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SJ Sindu is a Sri Lankan Tamil writer who focuses on traditionally silenced voices—the immigrant, the poor, the queer, the female-bodied, the non-Christian, the non-white. Sindu is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University, and has published in Brevity, Water~Stone Review, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Sinister Wisdom, and elsewhere. Find out more at sjsindu.com.