Cultural Appropriation and Fiction Writing

Author Lionel Shriver recently gave a speech wherein she complained about criticisms of “cultural appropriation.” Was she on to something, or just making lazy arguments in defense of privilege and entitlement?

It’s a good idea to start with her actual speech. This post may be construed as a direct response to her points. I’ll speak to what Shriver said. I will ignore breathless speculation about our inevitable PC dystopia, and go with the specific examples she gave:
Let’s start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.
When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
This looks very much like a defense of racial stereotyping. And it wasn’t the students’ first offense.
The school newspaper editorialized about attendees’ lack of “basic empathy” and placed the event in the context of two other controversially themed parties from the past two years: a “gangster party” (at which some students showed up with cornrows and gold chains) and a racially insensitive Thanksgiving party(where some dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans).
Those incidents don’t sound particularly defensible, either.
Next quote:
Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros – if perhaps not for long. At the UK’s University of East Anglia, the student union has banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros, deemed once more an act of “cultural appropriation” that was also racist.
I see nothing wrong with Mexican restaurants owned and run by Mexicans using Mexican sombreros, obviously. The University of East Anglia story is interesting because, at a minimum, the student union is apparently hypocritical on this issue, condoning some forms of appropriation while condemning others.
In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.
We wouldn’t have Maria McCann’s erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt – in which a straight woman writes about gay men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
I will freely admit that Scafidi’s widely-cited definition is troublesome because it includes an impossible component: obtaining permission. How do you get permission from the black community to use elements of black culture? Well, you can’t. That’s impossible. I suspect this definition was well-intended but, unfortunately, misses the mark.
The Wikipedia definition offers this more nuanced take, which strikes me as much more accurate:
Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, which means that these uses may be viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration. Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture can be reduced to “exotic” fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, critics of cultural appropriation say that the imitator, “who does not experience that oppression is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.”
Ultimately, it is the use of the elements of another culture without understanding or respecting them that represents the heart of anti-appropriation criticism. There is nothing wrong, per se, with a white writer creating and using non-white characters–so long as they have made an earnest effort to understand and represent the kind of experience such a character might have, and avoid clueless stereotyping and offensive caricature.
So far, the majority of these farcical cases of “appropriation” have concentrated on fashion, dance, and music: At the American Music Awards 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for dressing like a geisha. According to the Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is “white appropriation of Eastern dance,” while according to the Daily Beast Iggy Azalea committed “cultural crimes” by imitating African rap and speaking in a “blaccent.”
Let’s examine what all of these examples have in common: a person of relative privilege adopting cultural elements in a superficial manner, divorced from their original context and with no understanding of or respect for the elements themselves, nor their original culture. In other words, Shriver is defending laziness.
The felony of cultural sticky fingers even extends to exercise: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga teacher was shamed into suspending her class, “because yoga originally comes from India.” She offered to re-title the course, “Mindful Stretching.” And get this: the purism has also reached the world of food. Supported by no less than Lena Dunham, students at Oberlin College in Ohio have protested “culturally appropriated food” like sushi in their dining hall (lucky cusses— in my day, we never had sushi in our dining hall), whose inauthenticity is “insensitive” to the Japanese.
I’m fairly indifferent to the yoga issue, though it’s perfectly reasonable to describe the way it’s used in the US and Canada as highly appropriative: normally promoted by white people trying to make a buck without possessing any real understanding of the practice, its history, and its religious/philosophical underpinnings. Why even call it “yoga” if the only parts you want are the physical positions and stretching? Because “yoga” makes it sound exotic and cool. Again, laziness.
What about the Oberlin College issue? Give this a read:
The core student grievance, as reported by Clover Lihn Tran at The Oberlin Review: Bon Appétit, the food service vendor, “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”
There’s that pattern again: lazy white people ripping off other cultures because they think it’s cool (and sometimes to make a buck).
Seriously, we have people questioning whether it’s appropriate for white people to eat pad Thai. Turnabout, then: I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue. (I bet they’d swap.)
I don’t see anything wrong with people “questioning” things like that. Examining one’s own actions is a good thing. For what it’s worth, there is no real consensus on whether eating food from other cultures is inherently appropriative. It has a lot to do with one’s motivations in doing so, and is a thornier issue than, say, a white person with no real connection to Japan or Japanese culture opening a sushi restaurant full of Americanized sushi recipes.
The latter part is the sort of false equivalence that’s typical of privileged individuals who fail to understand the central issues. One might as well say “black people are the real racists” for all the understanding of the issues it demonstrates.
This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? 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 very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
And here we get to the core of her grievance: people might complain about what I write. To which I can only say: too bad. Get used to criticism. If you put some thought into what you write and make an earnest effort to understand and respect the cultures whose artifacts you may employ in your writing, you probably won’t run into much trouble. Sure, some people might yell “appropriation” anyway, but you’ll always have that–there will always be people complaining about something.
I would also suggest paying attention to such critiques just in case they are on to something. Did you responsibly employ elements of another culture, or did you engage in lazy stereotyping? Did you say something meaningful about the culture you portrayed, or did you merely reinforce bigotry and oppression? If you aren’t thinking about these things when you write about other cultures, you’re doing a poor job as a writer.
As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.
Except it’s not about “authenticity.” Mexican food isn’t best when made by Mexicans because it’s “authentic,” but because they’re inherently going to grasp their own culture and its elements better than outsiders will, and they have a right to attempt to profit from their culture.
A central issue in all this is not just that privileged folks just borrow whatever they want, but that that borrowing perpetuates an ongoing and harmful disrespect to the source culture. Before something is appropriated, it’s “weird,” or it’s “wrong,” or otherwise demeaned and marginalized. For instance, minorities who eat their traditional cuisine in view of others get mocked and shamed for it. Then some white chef gets the brilliant idea to rip off that cuisine and turn it into a hot new trend–now it’s perfectly acceptable and fine for everyone to enjoy! Except the original food–the real deal–is still stigmatized, and the people belonging to the culture from which it was appropriated don’t really get any benefit from it.
Idealistically, it’s viewed as a cultural exchange that easily works in both directions. In practice, it doesn’t work that way at all. The privileged majority take what they want while going on to stigmatize and marginalize the very minorities they are content to “borrow” from whenever they feel like it.
In his 2009 novel Little Bee, Chris Cleave, who as it happens is participating in this festival, dared to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, though he is male, white, and British. I’ll remain neutral on whether he “got away with it” in literary terms, because I haven’t read the book yet.
But in principle, I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “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.”
Hold it. OK, he’s necessarily “representing” his characters, by portraying them on the page. 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 Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” Again, a false dichotomy.
Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm. Yet the reviewer chides that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell” and worries that “Cleave pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go.”
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 canmake 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.
I haven’t read Cleave’s book, either, but from what I can tell it’s been very well-received, so again–what’s Shriver blowing up about? I looked for a while and couldn’t find any charges that Cleave’s book was in any way considered appropriative or offensive, perhaps because he treated the subject matter (refugee detention) in a sensitive, humanizing way and portrayed his characters–including the non-white ones–in a respectful, knowledgeable manner.
My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.
Note that this drama is about one review.
I would argue that if one has a book set in the US and it’s about Americans, if all or almost all the characters are white it might be worth asking why. But tokenism isn’t the point–you shouldn’t include black or Hispanic people or anyone else under the mistaken belief that there’s some kind of ethnic quota to fulfill. Rather, it’s about self-examination and self-criticism. If all your characters are white while living in a culture that’s quite diverse, why are non-white characters missing? Why have they escaped your notice, as a writer? Isn’t that a worthy question to ask oneself?
Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?
Here, Shriver moves on from a concern trolling strawman and follows up with a false dichotomy. For a talented writer, she seems to fall into lazy argumentation far too easily.
For it can be dangerous these days to go the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the notion that San Francisco reviewer put forward that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.”
Is she suggesting special care shouldn’t be taken? Again, this looks like another endorsement of lazy writing.
In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.
Behold, the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused this book of being “racist” because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook, described the scene thus: “The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”
First of all, again, we’re talking about a single review. Secondly, if the only black character in your book is a mentally-disabled woman who must be kept on a leash, yes, you are probably engaging in some ugly stereotypes. The irony is supposed to be that Douglas married a black woman to have her as a trophy, as a way to confirm to his friends his liberal bona fides. But the joke’s on him: she’s losing her mind and will soon literally be on a leash.
How does this situation humanize Luella? It sounds more like she’s a plot device designed to give Douglas some well-deserve comeuppance. So the white characters get a full portrayal while the (only) black one gets treated quite literally as an inhuman creature. One wonders if that critic wasn’t on to something.
Thus 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 black, 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 paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t useany black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.
“Paralysing” strikes me as more than a little hyperbolic.
A writer can, in fact, decide to be lazy and write whatever they want–but don’t be shocked when the critics are unkind.
In fact, I’m reminded of a letter I received in relation to my seventh novel from an Armenian-American who objected – why did I have to make the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin Armenian? He didn’t like my narrator, and felt that her ethnicity disparaged his community. I took pains to explain that I knew something about Armenian heritage, because my best friend in the States was Armenian, and I also thought there was something dark and aggrieved in the culture of the Armenian diaspora that was atmospherically germane to that book. Besides, I despaired, everyone in the US has an ethnic background of some sort, and she had to be something!
Two things about this bit: there’s literally an “I can’t be anti-Armenian, my best friend is Armenian!” here. Then it ends with yet another exasperated plea appealing to lazy thoughtlessness. “She had to be something! Gosh, why do I have to think about my choices? You just can’t please anybody!” More strawmanning, essentially.
In describing a second-generation Mexican American who’s married to one of my main characters in The Mandibles, I took care to write his dialogue in standard American English, to specify that he spoke without an accent, and to explain that he only dropped Spanish expressions tongue-in-cheek. I would certainly think twice – more than twice – about ever writing a whole novel, or even a goodly chunk of one, from the perspective of a character whose race is different from my own – because I may sell myself as an iconoclast, but I’m as anxious as the next person about attracting vitriol. But I think that’s a loss. I think that indicates a contraction of my fictional universe that is not good for the books, and not good for my soul.
Here, we establish that Shriver doesn’t grasp how accents work, because it’s not “everyone who speaks differently from me has an accent,” it’s “everybody has an accent.” When you write one person’s dialogue in vernacular English but another character’s English is presented in a phonetically idiosyncratic manner to indicate an accent, you are emphasizing their “otherness.” It’s a way of saying, “This character is not like the others.” This is not inherently bad if you are doing it for a purpose, but again, doing it thoughtlessly and in a stereotypical manner perpetuates bad attitudes and negative views of other cultures.
Writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser on Vox, the author of the essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Scare Me” describes higher education’s “current climate of fear” and its “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity” – and I am concerned that this touchy ethos, in which offendedness is used as a weapon, has spread far beyond academia, in part thanks to social media.
I will temper my surprise at her citation of that now-infamous screed and simply link to this excellent rebuttal.
Why, it’s largely in order to keep from losing my fictional mojo that I stay off Facebook and Twitter, which could surely install an instinctive self-censorship out of fear of attack. Ten years ago, I gave the opening address of this same festival, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others – because if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane we’ve been losing.
Despite being fiercely muzzled by out-of-control SJWs, she managed to escape censorship long enough to give this speech. No doubt it’s been straight back to the gulag since.
But in my events to promote Big Brother, I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us, or you’re the enemy. I verified this when I had a long email correspondence with a “Healthy at Any Size” activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadn’t even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a book that was terribly pained by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged, could overcome the scrawny author’s photo on the flap.
She and her colleagues in the fat rights movement did not want my advocacy. I could not weigh in on this material because I did not belong to the club. I found this an artistic, political, and even commercial disappointment – because in the US and the UK, if only skinny-minnies will buy your book, you’ve evaporated the pool of prospective consumers to a puddle.
Privileged people display this characteristic a lot: an expectation that our advocacy is both desired and necessary. Those being advocated for get to make the final determination, though, and to be a good advocate or ally at all is to respect that. If people don’t want your help, you have no right to force it on them.
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
This is a vicious and reductive rebuke that erases the identities of countless people. “Your identity isn’t real” because some white woman said so. It’s impossible to imagine she had any good intentions at all with this speech when it includes sentiments like that.
The last thing we fiction writers need is restrictions on what belongs to us. In a recent interview, our colleague Chris Cleave conceded, “Do I as an Englishman have any right to write a story of a Nigerian woman? … I completely sympathise with the people who say I have no right to do this. My only excuse is that I do it well.”
I would argue instead that the last thing fiction writers need is encouragement to be lazy, thoughtless, disrespectful, bigoted, stereotyping, insensitive, ignorant, xenophobic, colonialist, and appropriative. Take some responsibility for what you write and understand that, whether you intend it to be or not, all art is inherently political and has political content which should be considered seriously by the artist. You can’t control how everyone will interpret your work, but you are certainly responsible for whether or not you are perpetuating stereotypes or portraying other cultures from a privileged perspective that demeans, denigrates, and marginalizes them.
Which brings us to my final point. We do not all do it well. So it’s more than possible that we write from the perspective of a one-legged lesbian from Afghanistan and fall flat on our arses. We don’t get the dialogue right, and for insertions of expressions in Pashto we depend on Google Translate.
Halfway through the novel, suddenly the protagonist has lost the right leg instead of the left one. Our idea of lesbian sex is drawn from wooden internet porn. 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. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.
The answer is that modern cliché: to keep trying to fail better. Anything but be obliged to designate my every character an ageing five-foot-two smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina.
Frankly, that’s all that’s being asked: do better. Think about what you’re doing and try to be better at it. You’ll never be able to please everyone, but dismissing critiques of cultural appropriation out of hand shows an unwillingness to self-examine or improve.
In other words, I don’t find Shriver’s exhortation at the end here very compelling, given that the speech that preceded it was not calling for writers to do better, but lamenting pitchfork-toting SJWs who are somehow silencing people left and right in an environment where literal Nazis engage in open dialogue with their preferred Presidential candidate and there’s little mainstream comment about it.
Political correctness run amok, indeed!

Photo by Terry Madeley

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Cultural Appropriation and Fiction Writing

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