The Dilemma of *Cultural Appropriation

*Cultural Appropriation: Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.

Its not often that I editorialize, but this is a topic that has been on my mind and apparently also on the mind of Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin.In a speech given by Ms. Shriver at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival Sept. 8, 2016, she said  she hoped the current obsession with cultural appropriation was a passing fad. What follows is the short version of that speech as edited by me.

…’Who is the appropriator par excellence?Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the heads of strangers, who has the courage to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes takes notes to better understand? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?The fiction writer, that’s who.

‘This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. That is the nature of the form, to write about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honors reality; it’s all about how much your reader empathizes with your make-believe characters and fairy tale story.

‘A certain literary reviewer said: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft? When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”

‘But of course he’s using them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to. This same reviewer recapitulated the obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” But of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. Yet the reviewer chides that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell” and worries that “The author pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go.”

‘So what stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

‘But in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be of a race or nationality other than themselves, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralyzing.

‘Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that it’s a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head. Use different races, ethnicity, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.

”The spirit of good fiction, however, is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion. Writing during the day and reading when I go to bed at night, I find it an enormous relief to escape the confines of my own head. Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people. Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying…’

Okay. Call me pandering, call me a cultural ventriloquist, but I, Kristine Simelda, couldn’t agree more. My first published short story was “Brother,” a piece of fiction modeled after a half-naked man who lives under a blue tarp on the mountain ridge above my home.Then there was Johnny in Nobody Owns the Rainbow, a young Rasta man who struggled with the dichotomy between traditional island ways and contemporary temptations until he found true love. And lately there’s Mercy in Rise Up Sister, a Jamaican reggae artist with a heart as big as the whole wide world.

As a person who has lived in and written from a culture that I wasn’t born into for the past twenty-five years, I believe that there are three ways to borrow identity on the page—sympathetically, ignorantly, or, God forbid, with disdain. Long live the former.