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.

A writer’s experience with the dangers of cultural appropriation

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


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A writer’s experience

When I first began searching for representation for my novel “Cycles of Udapir” in 2015, I was told by one literary agent that “it is hard to sell a novel centering on Indian street boys and girls written by a Brit.” In the same sentence, he praised the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, written by Yorkshire-born Simon Beaufoy and directed by the English Danny Boyle.

What is a writer to do? In my last post I bemoaned the horrible device of writing a novel set in another country but with a white protagonist, which apparently skirts the issue of cultural appropriation but could land you in “white saviour” territory.

I have to ask, who are writers trying to kid with this? The white protagonist (by which I really mean “protagonist who matches the writer’s ethnicity etc.”, in my case white British) is meant to be a buffer, providing a legitimate filter through which the “other” is perceived – in the case of “Cycles”, my Indian characters. It would be offensive, we’re told, for me to write from the point of view of an Indian, so I must show my Indian characters through the lens of my privilaged white perspective: a white British protagonist.

It’s not good enough that I just want to write a story about Indians, which is my prerogative and which might be something that people want to read regardless of my ethnic background, as though that matters.

My latest novel, which is turning into something of an epic, deals with Tibetan Buddhism and the situation of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile following the occupation of Tibet by China. My young protagonist is Tibetan (plus a little Chinese) because the book is about Tibetans. Not only is it more interesting for me to try to get inside the head of someone with a different background and mindset to me, it is surely more interesting for the reader, too. Don’t we already have enough fiction with Western protagonists? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for more diversity in fiction?

Novelist Zoë Marriott said that writing rich, diverse characters was not the same as appropriating someone else’s culture. “People from marginalised groups are always being promised diversity and being delivered patronising, whitewashed and outright offensive portrayals instead,” she said.

This comes closer to my perspective, which is, crudely, “It’s fine if it’s done right.” But even this view is debated.


A writer’s dilemma

What is my specific problem? My book is about Tibetan monks and, unsurprisingly, not many Tibetan monks are novelists. Even if they were, they perhaps wouldn’t want to tell the story that I want to tell, which I believe could be meaningful and culturally significant. But of course, then I’m stepping in and being a “white saviour” myself, defending downtrodden minorities from my privilaged position. You only have to see how people react to famous actors providing relief abroad to know how that goes down.

I could write the book as I want to write it, be forced to self-publish, and have fairly reasonable accusations of cultural appropriation and possible racism levelled against me (assuming it ever gets finished and anyone ever hears about it).

Alternatively I could rewrite the entire novel from the perspective of a Heinrich Harrer-type character. Frankly this is boring, and will only serve to dilute the story. The book is about Tibetans, not what a white boy thinks about Tibetans. The reader already knows and accepts that these are a white person’s perceptions of another cultural group. Why must the writer go through the sham of creating a character to tell the reader what they already know? Frankly, it’s patronising and a waste of time.


Finding the root of the problem

In my my last post I wrote about the response to J. K. Rowling’s use of Native American folklore. The Rowling situation illustrated a point that has dogged the cultural appropriation debate for a long time: peope can’t remain focused. The issue at hand is not whether the words are offensive, or mis-representative, or reductive, but whether there is such as thing as appropriating another person’s culture in the context of fiction, and whether that is a bad thing. If “appropriation” means “using”, i.e. I wrote a book set in another country, then this debate shouldn’t even have started. Of course I’m permitted to set a story in another country. Of course I’m permitted to imagine what the life is like of somebody who isn’t me. Believe it or not, I’m capable of empathy and have rather a good imagination, and I’m capable of undertaking research.

If we can’t establish the foundation of the debate, then every other question is meaningless. If we can start at the bottom and build up, then we can begin to have constructive conversations on what is permissable and what isn’t. In reality, no-one will be able to agree on what is permissable, on both sides of the argument. Every person is unique even amongst their own people, and that is why art is possible and absolutely necessary in all its forms.

One viewpoint is that the diversity is supposed to come from those groups other than the dominant one. Anything else is arguably patronising. Regrettably for all the dominant group is (almost?) always Western white folk. It is no lie that the entertainment industry (to name just one) is geared towards whiteness and makes it extremely difficult for other voices to be heard. According to the argument, it’s not enough that there are very few novels about Tibet and that I’m in a position to try to write one (i.e. have the time and information and skill (?) available to me). It should be Tibetans writing about Tibet and it’s the industry (a reflection of societal bias) that’s stopping this from happening. By writing about Tibetans I am appropriating their culture (and probably getting it wrong in the process), whilst at the same time making a profit (ha ha!) from an industry that is, perhaps indirectly, blocking genuinly diverse voices.

This is one view, but it’s not one I wholly agree with. Isn’t it possible to represent another’s culture without appropriating it? That is the question for Part Three

I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this topic! Feel free to comment away.

— db

The Anthony Horowitz row – Why cultural appropriation isn’t straightforward

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Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

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.


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From Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, set in India. Photograph: PR company handout

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.

— db