Cultural appropriation or cultural representation?

Part 3 of a 3-part post about cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


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Appropriation or representation?

Following on from last week, I’m going to jump straight in with a snippet from this article from the Guardian, which first quotes author Courttia Newland, then author Ahdaf Soueif:

“The issue isn’t whether or not [white writers] are given the right to create characters of colour. Rather, it is whether they do it well and the privilege that comes with being enabled to tell stories that writers of colour are routinely marginalised for.”

Newland said white writers must recognise the privileged position from which they write, and understand the basis of accusations of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation is about power, or the lack of acknowledgment thereof, and respect,” he added. “There’s a reason Eminem largely escapes that type of criticism and Miley Cyrus doesn’t. It’s mainly to do with their actions.”

Booker-shortlisted author Ahdaf Soueif said: “In the end, what it comes down to is: are you going to write well or not? I think a novelist should be able to write about anything or anybody they like.”

“People and countries like Egypt and Palestine are used by writers as if they were simply stage sets, backdrops on which they can write their fantasies,” Soueif continued. “It is problematic, but it is not a problem to be solved by some kind of edict that says you can only write white male characters if you are a white male. The problem is far more subtle than that.”

A subtle problem indeed. If we approach the issue with a hammer and say “it’s wrong to write outside of your own ethnicity and experience” then we may as well stop writing. As with Tibetan monks (see my last post), chunks of humanity will fail to be represented simply because there are far fewer talented writers willing to represent their groups. I’m not suggesting that they need a privilaged white saviour to step in for them. I’m suggesting that a hammer approach will harm diversity, not help it.

A hard approach in the writer’s favour would be like that of Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2003, Serpent’s Tail). Shriver caused her own furore last year when she essentially said that writers should be able to write about anything they want to. “That’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes,” she said.

Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately wrote a rawly honest rebuttal, in which she said that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.

Although Abdel-Magied made the fine point that those with actual experience should be given the opportunities to tell their own stories, she fails to offer any solutions, or explain why exactly the writer stepping in is so terrible. I wrote earlier in this series of posts about the bias that comes from filtering another’s experience through our own. Again, we have lost focus of the argument: Is it bad that marginalised groups don’t have the same opportunities? Undoubtedly. But that is not the question. The question is: Is it wrong for me to at least try?

There seems to be the assumption that writers don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, many don’t. But how about if I spent a week interviewing a gay Aboriginee about his or her experiences and wrote a story about those? Is that still wrong? I’m still picking which bits that I want to write about, and it will be naturally be as a narrative rather than verbatim, i.e., my own words. This is an extreme example, but this is not that far from penning a fully-researched novel. It’s worth remembering, when discussing this, that writers look shit up. Some spend years reading every book to hand – including first-hand accounts and verbal histories – conducting interviews, watching documentaries, travelling to the countries/people in question, and generally working their damndest to achieve authenticity. This will not eliminate bias, but writers who care about a gay Aborinee’s story enough to dedicate a year or two to writing about it are probably already aware of their biases, prejudices, and the ever-present threat of accusation.

“But the writer is taking their identity,” Abdel-Magied and others might say. I’m reminded of a story told to me by an old girlfriend. She had a falling out with the girlfriend of her brother. Apparently they dressed alike, and one dramatically complained that the other was “stealing her identity”. Racial identity is a serious matter, but the idea of its theft is weak. Like the girls, one is not diminished by another’s admiration or duplication. A person’s race is not a Ming vase that is more valuable if there are no others. However, that is a long-running argument in the arts in its own right.

Abdel-Magied makes a startling leap in logic: “The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…” Perhaps this follows in the heat of the moment, but I don’t believe that even belittling or attacking another person directly qualifies as considering them “less than human”. And a writer is not (usually) belittling their subject: they are, according to the traditions of drama and, yes, entertainment, sympathising with them. How else could the reader care about our protagonists? Novelists are not usually writers of disguised hate speech. It’s surely established that most creative types are funamentally liberal.

Omar Musa, the Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, told the Guardian that he finds the issue difficult; the suggestion that writers shouldn’t move outside the boundaries of their own experiences comes into direct conflict with what he sees as the purpose of fiction: to empathise with and understand other people’s lives.

This is the point that I find myself going out on: that writers are not, generally speaking, horrible people. There is, of course, a great risk that even the best-natured writers will unwittingly draw upon stereotypes or be reductive, but I believe that this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only in this way can we assess and learn from what is genuinely offensive or unfaithful and truly engender diversity. The bottom line: authentic cultural representation.

— db


Further reading:

This personal article from the Huffington Post also poigniantly disscussed the complex issue of cultural appropriation, partly in favour of Shriver’s strongly-worded speech.

Of interest to writers may be this collection of thoughts from published authors.

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