Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Cultural Appropriation was a term I first encountered one day last week while participating in a writers’ group page on Facebook. Although I was not familiar with the term, I’ve had first-hand experience in wrestling with it in my own writing.

aaron-burden-123584
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A definition

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as

“the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

A raft of articles and video clips

As I started looking for a definition of cultural appropriation, I found a wealth of online references, which proves that I just haven’t been paying attention.

What I discovered is that non-Hispanic individuals were criticized for operating a burrito food cart in Portland, Stella McCartney was criticized for including Ankara prints in her spring fashion collection, a white man was criticized by Koreans for making a Kimchi-making tutorial, in March of this year Bruno Mars was accused of cultural appropriation in his music, and just last week Jamie Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation for calling a dish “punchy jerk rice.”

Author Morgan Jones’ opinion

Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, started a conversation about cultural appropriation on Facebook on August 20. She shared a link to an October 1, 2016 article in The Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver ) and in a follow-up comment she quoted author Morgan Jones. Here’s Ms. Kyle’s comment:

“The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position:  ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, it only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this is an invaluable, precious exercise.”

After you’ve finished reading my blog post today, I invite you to read The Guardian article referenced above. That article includes the following novelists’ views on cultural appropriation: Hari Kunzru, Kamila Shamsie, Aminatta Forna, Chris Cleave, AL Kennedy, Stella Duffy, Linda Grant, Naomi Alderman, Philip Hensher, Maggie Gee, and Nikesh Shukla. These are writers of various ethnic backgrounds, which makes their comments especially poignant.

The article’s introduction reads as follows:

“Jonathan Franzen claimed he won’t write about race because of limited ‘firsthand experience’, while Lionel Shriver hopes objection to ‘cultural appropriation is a passing fad’. So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?”

Another writer in the Facebook group

Another person in the writers’ group on Facebook shared that he had given up on publishing his historical novel based on the life of Etienne Annaotaha, a Canadian First Nations hero after seeing how much flack Joseph Boyden caught for his writing, even though Mr. Boyden is 26% Native American. Imagine how a 100% European ancestry writer would be treated for writing about Native Americans if someone like Mr. Boyden is not accepted?

A quote from Walter Mosley

The following quote from Walter Mosley appeared in an email I received from Writer’s Digest last week:

“Write without restraint. It’s important to not censor yourself. People will censor the sh*t out of you… and there’s more truth in fiction than there is in nonfiction. You have to be committed to that truth.” – Walter Mosley

My challenge

In the historical novel I’m writing, set in the Carolinas in the 1760s, I’m attempting to write from several points-of-view, including that of a male slave and that of a free woman of color. My challenge is to be true to history while writing about fictional characters. I might not get it right.

I found a truck-load of encouragement from the Morgan Jones quote highlighted above! I have typed it and taped it to the bottom of my computer screen so I can read it every time I sit down to work on my novel.

So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?

I say, “No, as long as the writer does her best research and uses her best writing skills to convey a story in a work of fiction.”

Cultural appropriation smacks of censorship, and I’m not for censorship in fiction. I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not read. Likewise, I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not write.

As a Southerner, I have not appreciated the disingenuous portrayal of Southerners in movies and television programs all my life; however, I uphold the creators’ right to produce that work under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Censorship is a slippery slope I don’t want to see us go down.

All that said, I will be mindful of my use of dialect in my novel. There are better ways to get across time, place, and social standing than hitting the reader over the head with dialect.

Since my last blog post

I’ve taken some courage from researching cultural appropriation. Although I was ignorant of the term itself, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject for the years I’ve been working on my own novel.

I was also inspired by a dream I had last Monday night. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I dreamed that I was writing. I was writing my novel, and the words were flowing faster than I could write them down. The odd part was that I was writing in cursive, although in real life I do all my writing on the computer.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m trying to finish reading A Gentleman in Moscow and I’ve started reading The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. I plan to get back to work on my historical novel (working title, The Spanish Coin) with a renewed since of dedication since recharging my batteries in the Blue Ridge Mountains a couple of weeks ago and since reading about cultural appropriation last week.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog. I appreciate it! I welcome your comments

I invite your comments below. What are your feelings about cultural appropriation? Have you read any good books lately? What have you been up to? What’s on your mind?

Let’s continue the conversation.

Janet

32 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation in Writing

  1. I think there’s a lot to be said, both for and against, political correctness. When it comes down to it you’re either writing from a place of respect or you’re not. As a writer, you need to be okay with looking yourself in the mirror when it’s all said and done. Or as George R.R. Martin said when asked about his well-drawn female characters: “You know. I’ve always considered women as people.”

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  2. Well said, Chris. Looking back on the piece, I wish I had emphasized the respect aspect more. Thank you for addressing respect in your comment. I love the George R.R. Martin quote!

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  3. Janet- I’ve got so much to say! First on the topic at hand, it amazes me that we are asked to “walk in another’s shoes” to try to understand them, to embrace diversity, and now they’ve coined a term that seems to suggest staying in your own corner. NO to censorship, especially of this small-minded kind. Second, you dreamed therefore you slept. Are you sleeping any better these days? And third, since you are “trying to finish Gentlemen from Moscow” you must not have loved it as I did. I’m grappling with my first encounter with Simone de Beauvoir and though I am enjoying it, it is requiring my utmost concentration. Happy reading and writing!

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  4. If authors treat the culture they’re writing about with authenticity, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to write about cultures other than one’s own. Lets face it, none of us have been a slave on a plantation or a sailor on one of Napoleon’s ships, so are we to stop having new books about them? I’ve never been anything other than Scottish and female, so that would leave a fairly limited number of stories to write!

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  5. I agree with you. Authenticity is a good word for this issue. I”v e never been anything other than a white female in North Carolina, so that would limit the scope of my writing as well. I appreciate your comment.

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  6. I appreciate your comment. You’re welcome! I seem to find myself in the position of addressing some tough subject lately. One of the beauties of somewhat late middle age is to be able to speak one’s mind. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my blog post!

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  7. Alison – Thanks so much for your comments! First, yes, until last week I had no idea there was a term such as cultural appropriation. I’ve already been cautioned not to use dialect in my novel because it might upset someone. I’m learning that I can use it sparingly to give the story some flavor for the time and place, but everyone didn’t speak the king’s English in the Carolinas in the 1760s any more than we do today. I am fascinated by the evolution and regionalism of language. I speak Southern and I’m proud of it! I would hate to see the day come that all Americans sound alike. I’ve been taught that in writing fiction each character should have some idiosyncrasies in speech and mannerisms. Otherwise, how is the reader to imagine each character in his or her own mind? Second, I dreamed, so I did indeed sleep. I slept again last night, too! I don’t know whether to credit the new mattress (yay!) or the muscle relaxer I took for my backache. LOL! And third, the first time I tried to read A Gentleman in Moscow, I think I just didn’t have time to give it what it deserved. This time around I’m loving it! I think what I meant when I said “trying” to finish it, I just meant I’m trying to finish it this week so I can include it in my September 3 blog about the books I read in August. For this to have been one of the longer months of the year, I haven’t gotten much reading done. I’m also trying to finish The Death of Mrs. Westaway and The President is Missing. I feel like the guy who used to spin all those plates on poles on the Ed Sullivan Show! When I get through, I might think I read A President in Moscow, The Death of a Gentleman, and Mrs. Westaway is Missing! Thank you sooooo much for your comments! Oh – and you’re braver than I am to take on Simone de Beauvoir! Let me know how that turns out.

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  8. I’m interested to read about your concerns on cultural appropriation, and for the same reasons – I too am writing historical fiction set in the South and, to me, it seems it would be so much worse NOT to have a black character represented, it would be as if I ignored that they existed. I can only try to do my best to be historically accurate and respectful. BTW, I too read A Gentleman in Moscow with my book group – loved it!

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  9. I wish I could say it’s the various books keeping me awake, but I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Therefore, my circadian clock is out of kilter. I’ve been dealing with this for 31 years. It just seems to be getting worse, so I’m trying not to watch TV or look at a computer screen right before going to bed. Listening to relaxing music instead of doing those things. I’m seeing some improvement. Haven’t had a night in a couple of weeks when I didn’t go to sleep until 7 a.m. By the way, when I had to go back to the regular print copy of A Gentleman in Moscow today, I immediately remembered why it has taken me so long to read it. I almost exclusively read large print books now or get them on my Kindle where I can adjust the font size. I think my right cataract must be growing because things are getting cloudy-looking and it’s getting more difficult to read small print. Ugh! As of this evening, I have 130 more pages. I do love the story and the humor. I appreciate your comment, though. All those books are probably getting jumbled up in my brain and it’s having to work overtime at night to sort it all out!

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  10. Carolyn, it’s nice to know we’re in the same boat! A writing coach told me she thought I’d have trouble getting my book published if it contained African-American slave dialect. I think her comment has made me too aware of it. As others have commented on this blog post, I think writing with respect and with authenticity is the key. I agree with you that to not have a black character represented in a Southern historical novel would be an even bigger injustice. Thank you for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts. Keep me posted on your book in progress!

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  11. Yes, I remember. You and I traded notes on iMessage about sleeping “cures”. I’m mostly better with bad spells in between. I’m in a bad spell now, in fact. Haven’t slept well in several days. But I know why and how to fix it. I haven’t read an actual book in 5 years. iPad mini for me.

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  12. Alison, I’m smacking my forehead. It dawned on me this morning that I was repeating my tale of woe to you, and I apologize for that. Sorry you’re in a bad spell now with sleep. I hope you can fix that soon. I slept from 4:30 till 11:00 this morning. Sort of wrecked my plans for the day. LOL!

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  13. This is a very informative post. Honestly, this is the first time I realized that crossing the cultural line can create so much controversy. My daughter always told me about it. However, I do believe that you can write about someone else’s culture as long as it is properly researched and you have a good source where you gain your information. If it is not done properly then it will cause problem. I have recently watched a Facebook video where someone of European background cooked a dish and said it was Jamaican style. As a Jamaican, I cringed when I watched the video. And you wouldn’t want to read the comments below the video! I learned so much from your blog. You are a great writer. I will continue to support your blog and when possible your books. Thank you.

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  14. I appreciate your comments, Beverley. I’m sort of late finding out how serious cultural appropriation can be taken, too. I agree with you that with proper research and good sources, one can write about a culture other than their own. That’s interesting about the Jamaican cooking video and your reaction to it. I suppose we’re all protective of our culture, and that’s not altogether a bad thing. If we all had the same culture, foods, languages, etc. the world wouldn’t be as interesting as it is. Thank you for your kind comments about my writing! I appreciate your following my blog.

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  15. It is our difference that makes us interesting and we need to respect each other’s culture. Some people react stronger than others, but I personally will not degrade someone for incorrectly depicting my culture.

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  16. Thank you for your nice comment, Laleh. By the way — I was blown away by your book, Climbing Over Grit. I didn’t realize it was based on the experiences in your family. When I came to the part that said something like, “the second daughter was Laleh,” I gasped out loud. I stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to finish the book. I couldn’t put it down! I’ve left a review on Goodreads and will leave one on Amazon.

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