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