In Defense of Fiction: Is It Appropriate to Appropriate?

During a recent radio interview with Kate Raphael of KPFA’s Women’s Magazine, she asked me if I worried about being accused of appropriation because I’m writing about cultures/characters that aren’t my own. We were discussing my latest novel, Curva Peligrosa. Curva is originally from Southern Mexico. Another character, Billie One Eye, is half Blackfoot and half Scottish. They feature prominently in this book.

My response? An emphatic no!

Years ago, I read James Baldwin’s powerful short story “Going To Meet the Man” that features Jesse, a white sheriff. Baldwin had no difficulty entering this character’s world and taking me as a reader with him. I never questioned for a minute Baldwin’s imaginative capacity to do so.

A more recent example? Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novella by Malcolm Campbell, features a cat as the narrator. The author has no trouble convincing me that I’m overhearing this animal’s take on his mistress and his surroundings. Of course, this is fiction, not the real world, but I’m able to enter into the illusion without any problem. Nor did Campbell, a white man, have difficulty constructing an elderly female black woman.

typewriter-801921_1920It’s true that not all fiction writers may be able to inhabit other genders or races. It takes an imaginative leap to do so and some knowledge of that world you’re entering. But then isn’t that the sign of a skilled fiction writer? Aren’t we constantly inventing characters and settings and cultures independent of our own? In my novel Fling!, I wrote about Mexico City, a place I hadn’t visited yet, though I had been to other parts of Mexico. When I did visit Mexico City, some time after I had completed the novel, I discovered that my rendition was accurate, based on the research I did of the period (the 1920s) and the culture.

I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore Mexico and Canadian aboriginals and Trinidadians through Curva and Billie One Eye and Kadeem, all characters I’ve created. They have allowed me to expand my experience of multiculturalism and to encourage others to become more aware of people and places they otherwise wouldn’t know. This would not have happened if I felt, as a writer, I could only write about my own limited perspective. Isn’t the American (and Canadian) melting pot about dissolving such limitations? Why then would we want to demand that our fiction writers adhere to such restrictions under the mistaken view that if white writers stopped writing about characters from minority backgrounds, they would open more opportunities for minority writers.

As Svetlana Mintcheva points out in her Salon article “Writer’s imagination vs. cultural appropriation: In search of common ground,” “…when dominant culture writers engage with other cultures in their books, rather than steal this opportunity away from minority writers, they actually help generate interest in marginalized cultures. They may, in turn, help open up a market for writers speaking from within such cultures.” Amen!

This nativism approach only supports the Trumps of the world and undermines our attempts at multiculturalism if we all have to be locked into our own limited perspective. I read and write to learn about others who are totally different from myself. Does it mean Faulkner should not have written his amazing books that feature black characters? Does it mean if I’m a female writer, I can’t create a male character even though we all are biologically bisexual? Does it mean I can’t imagine myself into other’s shoes? Isn’t that a fiction writer’s major trick, to engage her reader’s imagination?

I agree with Neil Gaiman in the New Statesman, “I suppose my essential position is that I’m against any kind of imagination police, whether they’re coming from marketing reasons or from class snobbery.” Let’s appropriate wisely and continue opening the doors to perception!

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of Fiction: Is It Appropriate to Appropriate?

  1. Hear, hear.

    Cultural appropriation is an incoherent label slapped on several cultural dynamics, most of which are benign and shouldn’t be condemned.

    That said, I did hear a good argument for why, sometimes, cultural appropriation is not a good thing. That argument is analogous to gentrification.

    Let’s say you have a community occupying a place/cultural space, and they express themselves and give that place a particular character that other people find “cool”. Then at some point the original community gets priced out by strangers.

    You can’t quite price someone out of their own culture, but what could happen is, places that were supposed to be in-tribe become shared between tribes; this is not an unalloyed good. To give an outrageous but illustrative example, suppose Muslims grew fond of Catholic pageantry and started showing up for Mass but worshipping Allah. Catholics would be rather pissed off at that– “Mass is where Catholics go on Sunday! The other folks I can meet at the pub, where they’re drinking tea of course.”

    People need communities; we’re just healthier that way. Communities however need spaces they can claim as theirs, places where the members can mingle while being members of that community. If there is no place to be, say, Catholic among Catholics, then there is no difference between being a Catholic and being in no community at all, but adrift alone in the wide world. You might as well, in that case, join a community that took care of its in-tribe places.

    The situation isn’t quite so dire; a community whose in-tribe places get invaded will respond by delineating other ones. But this is a defensive reaction to the threat of dissolution.

    I find the above argument convincing, but even then I must stress its limits. Most of the things that get condemned as cultural appropriation don’t come anywhere near the kind of existential threat to a group identity as described above. And group cultures are fairly robust– the ones worth keeping anyway. The thing is, life is push-pull, give and take. There is an ongoing negotiation between groups as to what is shared, and what is in-group. ’twas ever thus, thus it shall remain. Expecting that one can reach a fixed state of perfect equilibrium is against life. Only death is static.

    Cheers.

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