Writing and Cultural Appropriation

I recently read a powerful essay by Australian writer Yassmin Abdul-Magied, who described walking out of Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Abdul-Magied did not like what Shriver had to say about cultural appropriation in writing: Shriver essentially rejected the idea that cultural appropriation is a problem in literature.

Abdul-Magied writes,

There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Shriver has the right to her opinion, but she apparently mocked minorities for being “so sensitive” about “kids wearing sombreros” at a party that recently made the news for being culturally insensitive. And it went on from there. Abdul-Magied reported feeling more and more uncomfortable, to the point that she walked out of the room. She summed it up with this sentence in her essay:

In demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”

Rather than accepting Shriver’s dismissal of cultural appropriation, we should consider why cultural appropriation in writing can be a problem – especially for those of us who are non-mainstream practitioners of the art.

There are white/American/European/British people who take on our cultures/stories/voices all the time, when they don’t belong to those cultures, haven’t grown up steeped in the stories, don’t live the lives to whom those voices belong.

(Yes, I’m a six-time novelist so you don’t have to tell me how fiction works. Anyone can write a story, and if it’s a good story, I’ll read it no matter who wrote it.)

What these people do is usurp us. They dominate the publishing industry as writers, as agents, as publishers and editors. So when we actually try to present our own stories to be published and read, we are told that there’s no space for us. We have to resort to stupid movements like “diversity” and “BAME” to have our voices heard. When we *want* to tell our stories, in our voices, of our cultures, we find there’s no interest because we’re black, we’re women, we’re Muslims, we’re Pakistanis or South Asians or what have you. We actually have to fight to be heard.

Meanwhile, the places and slots are all taken up, even those for the stories we are writing. Not because we’re better or they’re better, but because the industry is dominated by the voices and minds and connections of the majority group.

You may not believe me but as a female Muslim, Pakistani, South Asian writer, this is exactly what I’ve been up against for the 18 years I’ve been a writer. I am writing stories from this perspective, but getting published is Herculean because the publishers already have their one woman/Pakistani/South Asian/Muslim writer and they don’t need any more on their lists. It can come down to something as simple as “well the white guy’s name is easier to pronounce so readers will trust him more” — it’s insidious and psychologically crushing and yet we have to persevere.

The responses to Yasmin’s essay and my thoughts were predictable. A dozen people asking whether they couldn’t write about men because they were women, or women because they were men, or astronauts, or one-legged Sumo wrestlers.

I’m willing to bet money that these people haven’t written or published. They would not have to ask the question. They would already know the answer: you can write about anything, or from the viewpoint of anything, but your authenticity and your viewpoint will be challenged, unless you’ve really done what the best writers do, and lost yourself in that world physically, mentally, emotionally.

A case in point: Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow, a crime thriller set in Nordic Lapland. Truc, from France, moved to Sweden thirty years ago, has spent months and years up in Lapland, and conducted extensive research, interviews, and observation of the Sami people before he even got near writing his story. The Sami have been oppressed by Swedes, Norwegians and Finns, their indigenous culture in danger of vanishing. Truc took a risk writing about them, but he accomplished it because he wrote with respect. And this is what Abdul-Magied asks at the end of her essay:

Asking to be respected — is that asking for too much? Apparently, in the world of fiction, it is.

I had the same experience when I wrote Slum Child, about a Christian girl from a Karachi slum. “How dare you write about this when you are rich and Muslim” was the question I got.

It was a legitimate question. But I never presumed that I was telling my story, or that the story belonged to me. I tried to write with respect and research, with empathy and understanding. I did not write without thinking a thousand times over whether or not I was doing the right thing. That kind of fear, so totally necessary to writing, is absent from the type of writing Abdul-Magied criticizes. It is the same lack of fear that makes people think it’s legitimate to invade countries, crush cultures, establish colonies.

Responses also noted that publishing is hard for everyone, that if you don’t get published it means you’re a bad writer. Some of these people claimed to represent the publishing industry. Again, I doubt their expertise: the industry, at least the US and the UK, realizes they have a problem with diversity – shout-out to Nikesh Shukhla’s The Good Immigrant, which came out last week, a collection of essays that is an attempt to answer the question of diversity in writing.

The truth is that the publishing industry is overwhelmed by white guys wanting to be writers, and minority writers barely get a look in by comparison. As to the person who told me to write in my “own language” – Punjabi, Urdu, Pashto, whatever, they’re all the same, aren’t they? – literature in translation is an even harder prospect. And we, the inhabitants of the former colonies, use English partly (or mostly) because it was forced on us by our colonizers.

Is cultural appropriation a problem in literature? In short, yes. The white, European, Western gaze has a hard time disciplining itself, holding in its rapaciousness, restraining itself. To merely suggest that it does not have the automatic right to take — even in the name of art — is revolutionary, and dangerous. There will be pushback on the idea. You will be mocked and ridiculed for even suggesting it.

Writers have to know that every time they take on another persona, they’re potentially trespassing on stories that are sacred to the original people of that culture, country, gender, place. But the best writers know how to do it, with respect, reverence, and fear. The best writers do it after going through a ritual of asking, and being granted permission – not literal, but a soul act, in line with being truthful to the fact that they are essentially strangers, rather than trampling in without consideration for what it is they’re writing. Then they say a prayer, and write. And those are the books truly worth reading.

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