(Updated June 2019 and February 2020 to include further links: this one is ongoing.)
A subject that comes up frequently in the world of writing is that of cultural appropriation: using other people’s voices, or taking stories that peoples claim as their own. People can be sensitive about cultural tourism, and rightly so, given the uneven balance of power through history.
But neither am I comfortable with limits on what we can or cannot write. Writers often bear witness to things they have observed, rather than things they have experienced directly, and the outsider account often has great value. And writers should be free to go beyond their immediate selves, anyway; the imagination is the greatest tool and purpose of writing – and reading.
There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas that come up, and some of the views expressed can feel righteous and needlessly divisive. I link below a number of thought-provoking pieces on the matter. I particularly recommend the essay by Alexander Chee as essential reading for any writer addressing otherness in their work. A few other reflections I’ve gathered or thought about with these selections: the need for humility (Hari Kunzru). ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand’ (Aminatta Forna). Don’t troll or goad (e.g., by wearing a Mexican hat to make a point).
For me, it comes up to balancing out the fact that ‘fiction doesn’t appropriate, it creates’ (A.L. Kennedy) against the challenge of achieving a fictional truth with ‘texture and substance’ (Laura Simeon).
I usually come down in favour of freedom of speech, but most of all I favour the freedom to do what your mother always told you: think before you speak. We live in times of quick reactions in the echo chambers and mirror pools of social media, and it’s good to make time for reflection. One of a writer’s primary duties is to listen.
For writers have to earn the right to write about something beyond their obvious reach. They have to do their homework: research, sounding out expert opinion, trying out work on readers, slowing down to hear the world they’re writing about.
Writers sometimes also have to accept that they don’t get things quite right first time, and take criticism on the chin, and try to do better next time (this applies in many instances). Good writing often asks that we are robust (as writers, as readers), and don’t make hasty responses.
It’s also worth thinking through the meaning of appropriation. Appropriating refers to the act of taking, and the idea of taking has unpleasant connotations – about colonialism, or theft, or stealing someone else’s identity. But most if not all writing is about taking. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian piece linked below: ‘In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight.’
Why not reconfigure this idea of taking, though, and think of writing as receiving something; it’s a subtly different gesture, a less aggressive exchange that has a greater sense of sharing.
Plus, perhaps anything that is taken can also be balanced out by the act of giving something back in return?
For Writing Experiment No. 62: Take – or rather receive – something from the outside world that’s very different from your own experience, and write about it in a way that not only makes it your own but also gives something back to the world in the process.
Write with authority during this exchange: as Rebecca Makkai says in the 2018 article linked below, ‘do the legwork’. Do the research, test the work on readers, and all the time scrutinise your intention clearly, proceeding respectfully with the purpose of being authentic. Maybe even write yourself a memo first, addressing with honesty some of the ethics of taking (receiving) content from the world and getting down some ideas about giving something back.
And most of all: listen. Listen to what others say, and listen to what you are able to say.
Many of these matters boil down to aspects of craft that help turn your writing into the best possible gift to the world: using a well-drawn point of view that (eventually) comes naturally, taking time really to think about a character’s yearnings, choosing the best verbs to power a sentence, pruning an excess of flowery adjectives that make writing feel stilted.
‘A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style,’ says Chris Cleave in that Guardian piece. Be a good receiver, too, and then be a good giver: pay attention to what you observe and receive, and then how you present it and give it back. It’s good to share.
* Rebecca Makkai on How To Write Across Difference – i.e., do your homework
* Whose Life Is It Anyway? – other writers responding to Lionel Shriver
* Marlon James on pandering – this needs to be said
* Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture – the New York Times has done quite a bit of coverage of this subject: it’s worth following some of the links in that piece, if you’re interested