Part 1 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
What’s it all about?
If you haven’t heard, Anthony Horowitz, writer of the Alex Rider series and the latest James Bond novel, recently claimed that he was ‘warned off’ creating a black protagonist because he is a white writer. Allegedly, an editor said that it would be inappropriate, ‘artificial and possibly patronising’, to do so.
This has reignited the old debate about cultural appropriation in literature, with several writers putting forward their points of view.
Ben Aaronovich, writer of the ‘Rivers of London’ series, tweeted of Horowitz: “If you don’t feel confident or just don’t want to write black characters, just say so. Don’t pretend it’s political correctness gone mad.”
What is Aaronovich actually claiming – that Horowitz made it up? I don’t believe that to be true, especially since no-one’s previously come out to say, “Oi, Horowitz, where are all your black characters?” Hororwitz wasn’t responding to an allegation. Therefore Aaronovich can go away if he’s not going to add anything constructive to the argument.
More helpful is the view of Patrice Lawrence, author of the best-selling ‘Orangeboy’ (2016, Hachette), who said that “[t]he whole issue of equality and diversity has been hijacked by white writers.” It seems that we have appropriated appropriation. The Guardian article goes on to say to how some people claim that working class white people don’t have equality either, so perhaps this is what Lawrence means. Anyone who thinks that manual labourers in Sheffield’s Manor Top have it as bad as, say, African slaves worked to death in the bellies of British galleons, could do with a wake-up call.
Can “appropriation” be done right?
An aggressive article by the Guardian’s Rashmee Kumar last year referred to the “colonial representation” of India by “ignorant white people everywhere”, in response to a Coldplay music video:
Director Ben Mor sprayed the “essence of incredible India” onto his video, a diluted perfume invented by white, western creatives whenever they want some Indian inspiration. Under the western gaze, India is a lush, exotic land filled with dingy slums inhabited by pious, levitating holy men and lanky brown-skinned children who are always throwing colored powders at each other. This idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony.
Forget the nonsensical implication that a 3-minute music video could ever capture the entirety of a country’s complex culture; Kumar seems to believe that all Western interpretations of India are as “myopic” as Mor’s video and that no-one but an Indian could possibly get it right. The article suggests that it’s wrong to portray only the exotic and positive elements of a culture (but strangely tosses slums into this category), calling it “reductive”.
In all art forms an interpretation is reductive, simply because it’s not possible to describe the whole of a culture’s history in one painting of a ship, or relevant to write out the whole of a culture’s economical situation in a film that is meant to be a romantic comedy. As always, an artist will take the elements that are relevant to the story being told. Later, Kumar suggests that the mere act of “invoking” India is something offensive. The message: stay away unless you’re Indian, or at least know what you’re talking about. The latter I agree with whole-heartedly; the former is offensive and divisive.
There are many excellent points in Kumar’s article, especially about representation, and it’s well worth reading in full.
The “fine if it’s done right” perspective doesn’t always apply. J. K. Rowling took heat for writing a fictional account of wizards in historical America, which linked her stories to true beliefs held by some Native Americans. The result was an accusation of cultural appropriation:
“You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” said campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”
Was Rowling “claiming” Native American spiritual beliefs? I don’t believe so, any more than I’m “claiming” the beliefs of Catholics when I write about 16th Century Britain, the people of which are just as much “other” to me as a Native American. Referring to something is not the same as claiming it, and forbidding a writer to write about something other than which they are personally ethnically connected is firmly against what art is about: creating in order to bring people together. Saying “keep away from our stuff” does not help anyone to build a true understanding of another’s culture.
Some complaints were along the lines of “my beliefs are not fantasy”, despite the consensus of almost the entire planet believing that they are (every believer in any god but yours thinks you’re wrong). This complaint is not the same as “you didn’t write about it respectfully”, which should be the point. Others quite rightly took umbrage at Rowling referring to a “Native American community”, when actually “Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another”.
Rowling was quiet after the accusations, despite receiving thousands of comments. I don’t blame her: even talking about the issue is an invitation to be pulled apart (I expect I shall be saved by lack of readership). In the second part of this series of posts I will talk about some of my own experiences and take a look at what could be the root of the problem. In the meantime, I sincerely invite comments and discussion.