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?
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.
I currently have a children's fantasy text gathering dust, because it's set in Jamaica and I'm not Jamaican.
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.
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.