Is it inappropriate? Debbie Bennett

Serious and potentially controversial topic this month: Cultural appropriation. Hear me out.

I read somewhere in the news way back about a pretty, young middle-class white girl wearing a Chinese dress (specifically a cheongsam) to a party. There was outrage and the poor girl was vilified online for cultural appropriation. I’m sure she simply thought she was wearing a lovely dress and in many ways paying a compliment to any Chinese friends and the Chinese culture in general.

And what was wrong with that? I have no real idea. So Chinese women wear cheongsams too. But apparently she was insulting anybody Chinese, by daring to wear their (national?) dress while being white. Being middle-class probably didn’t help either as the cheongsam is allegedly a symbol of female empowerment. 

It’s a cultural minefield out there. We move into the literary sphere and suddenly we can no longer write about things of which we have no personal experience, in case we are taking away the voices of those that do, those that have struggled to be heard. Surely there is room for everybody? Surely writers from a minority background would like to think their achievements are due to talent and not to being a tick in a box. Brilliant Books Publishing: Have we published our quota of women/ethnic minority/LGBTQ+ writers this year? Yes? OK – well let’s go with white middle-class guys for the rest, then… I rarely complete the optional bit of surveys that asks me to identify my gender, religion or race – I don’t see how it is relevant to anything other than box-ticking.

Does that sound extreme? Maybe. It’s something I think about a lot. This article from 2012 talks about 1 drop of African blood identifying somebody as black at the start of the 20thcentury. Many Native Americans self-identify based on at least one grandparent. So culturally, I can probably claim mixed-race status as my paternal grandfather was Cantonese. But it’s not something I’ve ever done – I’m proud of my heritage (something which has caused ructions in my extended family in the past), but I’ve always identified as plain white. Does it qualify me to write about Chinese people any more than anybody else? Of course it doesn’t. And if I chose to, I’d like to think that anything I wrote would be taken on merit and not because of who I am or who my grandparents were.

It’s the same at work. I work in IT, in a team of which I am the only woman. In the department as a whole, the women make up a fair proportion of the admin and project manager roles, but the techy jobs are mostly men. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What does bother me is that I know for a fact that at other points in my career, I have ‘got the job’ because I am a woman. I’ve done panels at literary events and again, I’m pretty sure I was there to make up the numbers. Insulting to me – and all women – and just wrong on all counts.

So back to the article. White woman writes about Mexican migrants. And she’s committed the crime of not being Mexican. Or a migrant. I assume, since the book was published by Headline and got great reviews from Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King amongst others, that it was a well-written novel and she’d done her research. How then, does that penalise or otherwise harm Latinx writers? Surely there is room for all good books to rise to the top, whatever the nationality/ ethnicity/religion or life-experiences of the author? If they are good, if they have a market, if people buy/read/review - is that not the true test? The article claims some of her facts were wrong, which may be a factor. But then not all Mexican migrants want to write novels. I’ve read some amazing books by minority writers and I’m sure I will continue to do so. There is space for everyone.

When a publisher or agent reads a submission, do they consider the background of the writer at the start, if it’s not mentioned in any query letter? If the book is amazing, I get that they might want to find out more about the author, but at the beginning of the process? Would that not influence the way in which the submission is read or treated? Does it? Do you need to be qualified to write a novel these days? I genuinely don’t know these things as I'm not a minority writer. All points of view welcome and I certainly don’t want to do a disservice to any writers or offend anybody. Tell me it matters, if it does. Help me understand.

On a lighter note to close: If I’m stuck with the write-what-you-know, my stories are going to get really boring … and who on earth will write about the aliens? 


Susan Price said…
Difficult subject, Debbie. I agree with you about 70%. I'm not allowed to retell a Norwegian folk-tale because I'm English? I've got some Irish and Welsh ancestory, so am I allowed to retell Irish and Welsh stories? At this level it's ridiculous.

But if an Asian Islamic writer and a white English writer submitted equally good novels about a islamic child growing up in Sheffield, would the Asian writer have an equally good chance of getting published? - I'm not sure. Would the publisher's mind stray to promotion in this increasingly right-wing world where racism is being encouraged? Which books would get the bigger spreads in the Daily Mail and Telegraph? The one with the photo of a white writer with an English name, or the one of an Asian writer with an Islamic name? -- I feel there is a chance that the white writer's book would be chosen over the Asian writer's book.

Is the white writer's imagined, empathised account of an Islamic child's experience, however good and sympathetic, equal to the Islamic writer's account based on actual, lived experience?

I really don't know which argument is correct: this is just my twopennorth. I'd be really interested to read what others think.
Bill Kirton said…
Sensitive area indeed, Debbie. As a white male, I'm so doubly favoured by circumstances that I'm not even sure I should be allowed a voice in the debate. I'm with you in questioning the relevance of ethnicity in a literary 'contest', but the only personal experience I can offer (which possibly seems totally irrelevant to the argument) is that, as a kid brought up opposite the fish market in Plymouth with trawlermen as grandfathers and cousins, I watch the current series of TV documentaries on Cornish fishermen with visceral feelings of solidarity for their situation (and woes) which don't in any way belong with my comfortable, educated, middle-class, I'm-alright-Jack status ashore.
Enid Richemont said…
BBC Sound did a very thought-provoking and disurbing talk on this subject. Can't remember the title, but it used the word "purity", and also "knitting". You may think that knitting's irrelevant in this context, but, uncomfortably, it isn't. Do try to find it.

I currently have a children's fantasy text gathering dust, because it's set in Jamaica and I'm not Jamaican.
Debbie Bennett said…
Such a shame, Enid. Why should your novel not be worthy, just because you are not Jamaican?
Debbie, thanks for this thought-provoking and timely post. I am with Susan on this; i think that the problem is multilayered and not quite as simple as don't write about daffodils unless you are one. I slam into the door of colour and representation and all sorts of irrational issues which often gets my work read in a particular way -- with Shambala Junction, I had to insist, even before the book was published, that the publisher wouldn't try and slap a svelte sari-clad-barely-covered-beauty-sucking-on-a-mango on the cover of my literary fiction just to make it sell (I don't think a man even thinks of body placements on covers in the same way).
Debbie Bennett said…
I'm so glad you commented, Dipika - I was really curious to get the perspective from somebody directly affected by these issues. It's fascinating (though frustrating) that your publishers try to pigeonhole you and your work - yet another hurdle to overcome. I don't want to offend anybody, but I do find the whole thing horribly confusing - surely not-being-male is as hard for white men to understand and empathise with than not-being-white, and yet men write women's POV as often as women write mens'. And that never seems to be an issue. Or am I just showing my naivete here?
Umberto Tosi said…
I commend your courage in raising these sensitive racial and cultural issues so clearly from the viewpoint of a writer. We need to discuss such issues openly among ourselves to sort out the nuances, be sensitive to the real cultural issues while disarming the philistinism that can creep in and stifle creativity as well. As you said, Dipika, it is layered. I grew up and spent my formative years in a mixed cultural and mixed racial environment. Those blended issues have been barely touched amid the prevalent, mostly binary dialogs so far. My father was from South America, my mother from Italy, my children are of mixed heritage - including with Mexican, and Native American grandparents. My parents spoke Italian, Spanish and English. One of my daughters is transgender. I am Jewish as well as "Italian America" etc... I can't help writing about California multi-ethnic characters, ergo... Including women protagonists, though I am male. Cultural experiences are precious and those writers who illuminate their enthic experiences do us huge favors... It's all evoloving, we hope - towards a better world, or no world at all (for humanity) unless we learn to cooperate and adapt...
Rosalie Warren said…
This is all very interesting and relevant to me as I am currently writing a novel with a transgender protagonist, while I have no direct experience to draw on. I feel a deep desire to write this book, whether or not it will ever be published. I think this stems from a desire to understand. Also, I am perennially drawn to write about people who feel like outsiders; mismatched with their environment and with others' expectations. As I research and write, however, I am plagued by guilt that I'm encroaching on someone else's territory and venturing into matters I can never fully understand. I like to tell myself that, at the very least, my work is broadening my outlook on the variety of human experience and life. I hope I'm right.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh! I've recently started my February blog about being asked if my characters are BAME, LGBT or disabled, never mind myself. I was tying myself in knots, trying to express the dilemma you've put so well and succinctly. I might go on with it if I can find anything intelligent to say, even though I'm white and English/Cornish as far back as ever. It's such an important issue. Thank you for flagging it.
misha said…
Whoops! I'm about to publish a novel about a girl in Jamaica. Thing is it's a fantasy set in an alternative world and I might just get away with it as I lived in Jamaica for a few years and I'm not writing from a native Jamaican person's point of view. To be serious, I'm not really worried because as I said it's a fantasy so unless we can no longer write fantasy, unless we've experienced it, I reckon I'll get away with it.
julia jones said…
Glad you wrote this Debbie. maybe we're underestimating the intelligence of readers to tell the difference between imagined and lived experience?
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Debbie,

Thanks for the thoughtful post. It's something I've researched for my own writing as my stories cross boundaries of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. As a visible minority (Chinese Canadian), I don't feel this makes it easier for me to do, but as you say, “Write what you know” is a tired maxim.

The whole point of fiction is that we make up stuff, but we can do it from a place of humility for what we don't know. Minority groups have had to live with erroneous, insulting portrayals of themselves all their lives, so understandably, it's a sensitive subject. That goes for all the arts, including film, paintings, theatre, and TV.

The viewpoint of the oppressed is always different than that of the oppressor. What we need to do is bridge the gap.

I believe every writer is free to write what they want, but it doesn't mean the work cannot be critiqued. It doesn't mean we can't do better.

I want to write stories that are as diverse as the world around me, and to do so in a way that does not perpetuate stereotypes. I may not always get it right, but it doesn’t mean I won't try.


I've been meaning to post a comment here and have just got round to it. Actually I had a disagreement with someone on the NaNoWriMo forums about this very thing in November, because I argued that one of the main tasks of a fiction writer is to put themselves and the readers in someone else's shoes. At that time I was writing a novel set around 200 years ago, partly from the point of view of a male who spent a lot of time sailing (something I don't do!). In principle I don't think writing about someone who lived in a different era and/or is of a different gender from oneself is actually that different from writing about someone of a different race or religion or social background. I don't generally write from the point of view of someone very different from me (with my largely Scottish DNA, only a tiny bit of Norwegian!), especially in my mysteries which are set in a small town in Scotland, but I really feel as if I should try and do so more often.
On the other hand I don't think writing should be the preserve of middle class white heterosexuals but that's a problem of the education system more than anything else.
I'm a straight white male of 80 who writes nautical fantasy. Why should I not write a story in which the main character is a woman? Which I did. Twice. Surely one of the justifications of writing fiction is that it involves empathy, first on the part of the author and then the reader. Now if you read fiction solely to identify with someone "like me," and feel cheated if you discover that the writer behind that character who is "just like me" isn't at all like you, then I submit you're empathy deficient. If we are serious about living in an inclusive, accepting, tolerant society, then it is necessary that we empathize with those who are NOT like us, both in life and in literature.
Debbie Bennett said…
Exactly, Seymour. I write better men than I do women, I think! But the gender/race/ethnicity of the writer shouldn't be relevant to the story at all.

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