Aliette de Bodard shares some thoughts on writing diverse cultures into fiction.
There are tons of great points here, some I want to highlight:
Read your sources; read primary if possible. Reading primary sources written by people from inside the actual culture is very important, because there’s a boatload of really fairly outsider books out there that are still held up as examples of accuracy. Not saying you shouldn’t read books by outsiders (it’s also important to have reference points you can use if you’re not from the culture, because some things are so obvious that insider books won’t stop to mention them at all), but you have to be very careful and very critical of what’s inside them.
Be aware that you’ll never write insider narrative, because you’re not an insider. That in itself is not necessarily bad, but be aware of two things. The first and most important point is that outsider narratives have a tendency to string together bloody offensive clichés (generally the perception of the dominant culture you grew up in) and are totally oblivious to that fact. I have lost count of how many narratives on China* featured any combination of the following: over-formality between members of the same family (because everyone knows that Chinese is a formal language! Guess what. Most communications within the family are brutally simple, because the respect is already implicit in the relationship itself); use of broken English (because all immigrants/foreigners speak bad English!); reference to women being tiny and fragile and exotic, or a combination of all three (a cliché that might not be a problem; but if you’re in a Chinese-dominant universe, where—guess what—everyone is equally small and “exotic,” it is most certainly totally unjustified); everybody or nearly everybody being experts at martial arts (not to say martial arts didn’t exist, but you have to be aware that they certainly weren’t mainstream, and that a Confucian court official is unlikely to be an expert in them—more like really suspicious of those dubious sporty techniques since Confucians hated sport). And the list goes on…
*I’m using China as an example because there aren’t so many Vietnamese narratives lying around. If any Chinese people are around and would like to correct me, feel free!
If you get past the stage of clichés (and a vast majority of outsider narratives don’t, so do take some time to think on what it is that you’re writing and how you’re presenting the culture), the most frequent and insidious problem of outsider narratives is tone-deafness, aka putting the emphasis on what seems shiny to you (and totally commonplace to insiders), and/or casually using important, traumatic details with no idea of their importance. For instance, referring to people or features of the Vietnamese/American War as an easy way to set the background for your story? Those are NOT casual mentions; they’re linked to events that took place barely a generation ago; and they’d be pretty traumatic for most Vietnamese. Similarly, if you geek out on durian in your food descriptions, that’s a bit like your French characters geeking out on strawberries—sure, if you’re a foodie (and even then, they’re unlikely to describe strawberries in loving detail, but will rather focus on what makes those strawberries so extraordinary compared to the standard ones). That’s just the small stuff—there’s also the big stuff such as cultures simply not having the same emphasis and the same values as the one you come from (being a scholar in Ancient Vietnam? The most prestigious and famed occupation, the dream of all mothers for their sons. Being an academic in 21st-Century France? Opinions will vary, but there’s certainly not 90% of the population for whom this is a dream job).
Drowning out: apropos of outsider and insider writing, if you’re not from the culture (and especially if you’re from a more dominant majority), be aware that your narration will be that of the privileged (whether you’re the most privileged strata of your society or not), and that as such it has a strong likelihood of being taken *more* seriously than actual work by people from the actual culture. This is problematic on two levels: one is that, as said above, outsider narratives can give a more or less false image of a given culture (and thus promote problematic representations, again on a more or less serious level, reinforcing the majority perception of that culture); and, second, because, for good or evil, works set in an “exotic” culture are perceived as part of a limited market (ie, if your work features, say, Aztecs, the perception is that there aren’t many slots for Aztec novels, because those “are all the same”. I know no one says that of works set in the US and featuring straight white men, and that this is an unfair perception, but it doesn’t change that it exists). And because the market is limited, that means that publishing that kind of work removes space for insider narratives to exist (again, in the actual state of publishing. Change is coming on that front, but like all changes it takes time). Again, not discouraging you from writing what you want to write (I’d be the last one in a position to do so!); but it’s good to ask yourself why you’re writing what you’re writing; to be aware of the consequences; and to promote writings by people from the actual culture in addition to your own—because they have voices of their own, but more trouble getting heard.
But the whole article is pure gold. Go read it!