Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer

Over on Bibliobibuli
a couple of days back, Sharon blogged about Monica Ali and her book “Brick Lane” and how Monica has been criticized by a lead writer in the Guardian newspaper as follows:

… she was a mixed-race Oxford graduate whose main characters were not from Sylhet (the original home of nearly all Brick Lane residents) but a completely different region: Mymensingh. This is a bit like a story about geordies being treated as if it were about cockneys.

This then elicited a vitriolic reply from Hari Kunzru:

I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being “authentically” none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms “real people” living in “real communities”. My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone – white, black or brown, let alone any “community” – to represent them in any particular way. … I’m sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on “minority” writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn’t about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It’s about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That’s called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.

I actually take issue with Kunzru about this “duty” being imposed only on minority writers. Believe me, WASP writers* are also brought to book (‘scuse pun) if they dare to “plunder” or “appropriate” cultures which are not their own in their writing. White Australians have to tread very carefully if they dare to dabble in the indigenous Australian’s culture, and so on.

Now, I would be the first to deplore writing about another culture as if you knew all about its reality, and then depicting it in an inaccurate way. In other words, representing your work as a truthful – if fictional – depiction of how that culture lives, when you haven’t bothered to do your homework.

But does a writer have a right to “plunder” where they will? Do I have the right to write a fantasy about a Malay warrior returning to a modern Malay community in order to, say, save a descendant of his, larding it with magicial keris’s**, and other elements of Malay culture and Malay magic, writing it all from a Malay perspective – or would this be cultural appropriation to be deplored as a further example of colonial robbery and rapine?

Is it a writer paying respect homage to another culture, or is it a white woman plundering their heritage as if it was her own?

Believe me, cultural appropriation, in the eyes of some minorities, is a huge issue, and they have good reason. Try googling those two words if you don’t believe me. There is an interesting discussion here, on Hal Duncan’s blog, which touches more on many of the subtleties which I have not mentioned here.

What do you think?

*White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant;
** Malay dagger


Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer — 3 Comments

  1. Yes, well, you KNOW what I think. I wrote two novels for which the basis was the history and culture of CHina; there may yet be a third,I don’t know. I wrote a fantasy where some of the people were culturally and linguistically tied in to what we might consider to be a North Africa/Arabian perspective (although it was wrapped six deep into fantasy skins and it might have been hard to get a clear glimpse – but the root was there…)

    In the YA books, the “Worldweavers” trilogy, I have taken the mythos, the archetypes and the world-creation stories of Native American provenance – Grandmother Spider, Coyote the Trickster, things like that.

    I am not Chinese. I am not Arab. I am not Hopi.

    I am *human*. And so are all these other peoples. We share our world; we share our stories. SO long as I am not disrespectful, or deliberately hurtful, or completely and wilfully ignorant of the things whereof I write… I think, as a human being, I am allowed to write about other human beings. My work may or may not convince – but I take pains in my research, and I freely admit that any errors that creep in are my own and I”ll take responsibility for them, but if I were to be stuffed into the box of “upper middle class white female” I would never have written at all, or at the Least I would never have written a story that would have been of interest to anyone at all. Are the cultural “misappropriation”
    crowd really suggesting that a writer may only write for those exactly like him or herself – and that attempting to colour outside this box is a punishable offense?

    I don’t think so.

    I think the kwy ingredients are knowledge, respect, and a willingness to compromise if something inessential to your story is standing in the way of communication with another human being. But other than that… we are human. We are *human*. So is every story that has ever been told.

  2. I see nothing wrong with setting a st0ry in any culture provided the writer does his or her research thoroughly and treats the material with repsect. What I really hate is fantasy that’s obviously supposed to be based in some earth culture but takes enormous liberties with it, and the the writer seems to think it’s OK because “it’s an invented world and I can do what I like with it”.

  3. I think you have both put your finger on a key matter when you use the word “respect”.

    I know it is hard for us white “European” westerners to appreciate what minorities have faced and are still facing (even though most of my adult life I have lived as a minority white alien woman in brown/Muslim/Asian/Arabic/male-dominated societies, so I have more of an idea than most – and believe me there have been many times when I was breathing fire), but I don’t think the answer is to jump up and down and shout “plunder!”. Rather it is to jump up and down and demand respect for our minority/culture/norms etc.

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