Mine, mine, mine | Karen Kao

For me, writing is a series of synapses: firing, sparking, veering off into places unknown. I connect a newspaper article with a podcast with drinks last night with an incident in the park this morning. Writing is both an act and a release. The deliberate use of my imagination in order to drive the train off the rails. So this is what happened in June 2017 when I read Kenan Malik's essay in the New York Times in defense of cultural appropriation.

A newspaper article

First, the lawyer in me comes to the fore. Give me a definition of cultural appropriation and then we'll talk. Malik obliges by quoting Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi. She defines cultural appropriation as:
taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission [including] the unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.
Taking without permission. Unauthorized use. My legal eagle mind tries to apply this definition to the real world. Let's say I want to write an elegaic piece about an Native American woman the way Sherman Alexie commemorated his mother in You Don't Have To Say You Love Me. Who exactly should I contact for permission to describe this woman and her world?

Or, to put it in the more elegant words of Kenan Malik:
Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Isn't that what art is all about: creating a deep emotional connection with a stranger?

The appropriation prize

In May 2017, Canadian author and editor Hal Niedzviecki wrote an opinion piece for Write, the in-house magazine for the national writers' union. According to The Guardian, that piece contained the following quote.
In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.
I heartily agree. Let the imagination go outside and play. Don't sit inside and stare at your own navel. When Dan Brown was on tour in Amsterdam a few years ago, his advice to aspiring writers was:
Don't write what you know. Write about what you want to know.
So why not delve into the world of Indian tuk-tuk drivers or Japanese pearl divers? Of course, you have to do your homework. Give the reader flesh-and-blood characters and speak to a larger human truth. I like to think that's what Niedzviecki was thinking right before he crashed and burned.
I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.

 

Measuring sticks

Why is an author's age, gender, ethnicity, religion and/or sexual orientation relevant to the quality of the writing?

When I was at Georgetown Law, I met a fellow Angeleno. He was from upscale Brentwood on the west side whereas I came from the barrio in the east. He complimented me on having gotten this far. You must have really struggled, he said.

That attitude was as condescending to me then as it is now. Don't measure my achievement by the number of inches I've managed to crawl from home. The idea of an appropriation prize unleashed a social media firestorm and ultimately cost Niedzviecki his job.

A week in Napa

In the summer of 2016, I attended a week-long writing workshop in Napa, California. There, one member of our writing workshop accused a fellow member of cultural appropriation. The perpetrator had written a short story set in Africa, drawing on personal experiences while in the Peace Corps.

African-American poet
Camille T. Dungy. Image source: camilledungy.com
The way I heard it: the writer wasn't perpetuating stereotypes or drawing one dimensional characters or leaning on tropes. The writer was white and the subjects were black. Ipso facto cultural appropriation.

We weren't the only class to have this debate. The bug infected all the workshops. At a lecture by Camille Dungy, poet and workshop leader, a student stood up. She wanted to write a poem about Ferguson. But as  a Latina, she worried about cultural appropriation. Camille said,
If you write with honesty and empathy, you can write anything.

 

Open casket

And yet. Pureness of heart did not insulate Dana Schutz from outrage over her painting Open Casket. This work depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a black teenager murdered by two white men in Mississippi 1955. One critic, the British painter Hannah Black, not only demanded that Open Casket be removed from the Whitney Biennial but that it be destroyed as well. She wrote:
It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.

Scutz appropriation
Dana Scutz Open Casket. Image source: https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com
Oh, the irony of this complaint. Malik describes how Schutz went about creating Open Casket.
In 1955, Emmett Till's mother urged the publication of photographs of her son's mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. Till's murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

 

Seagulls

Aren't I lucky to be writing novels set in Shanghai? Not only can I claim ancestral ties through my paternal and material blood lines. I also happen to be of the correct ethnic extraction to write about the Chinese. Woo hoo!

Now the rest of you better back off. This is my territory. This is land watered with the blood of my ancestors that only I can walk and map and interpret. Unless you're one of my kind, in which case, don't get in my way.

Finding Nemo movie poster. Image source: https://www.thinglink.com
I have to think about the scene from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. After a harrowing journey battling sharks and jellies, Marlin and Dory finally surface in the port of Sydney.  There, a flock of seagulls is ready to pounce. All of them squawking: mine, mine, mine.

 

In the Shanghai Ghetto

By fighting against cultural appropriation, the aim is:
To protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
The effect, however, is the very opposite. I must stay well inside the bounds of my marginalized culture and speak only of those who look like me. Forget about experiences I have had that might fall outside this little subset of the universe. Don't even try, through the dedicated application of the imagination, to stand in someone else's shoes.

As Malik notes:
Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.
Now picture the Shanghai Ghetto. The Japanese crowded 18,000 Jews into a square mile already occupied by 100,000 Chinese. It was the first step toward a Final Solution. Yet the Meisinger Plan was never implemented. The Shanghai Ghetto had neither walls nor electrified fences. It was a ghetto more of the mind than the body.

I'm not going there. My right as an artist is to let my mind roam wherever it damn well pleases.


Note: Mine, mine, mine was originally published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.

Comments

Susan Price said…
Karen, I agree completely with what you say. How are different communities to understand each other if people are forbidden from imagining themselves as part of those communities?

At the moment, many people seem hell-bent on dividing us into smaller and smaller segregated groups and, with you, I think this is dangerous.
I couldn't agree more with this post, Karen. I had a bit of an argument with someone on the NaNoWriMo forum in November along very similar lines. I was writing a historical novel at the time and found it tricky but rewarding to put myself in the minds of characters who would (if they hadn't been fictional!) have lived 200 years ago, and yet this other writer was trying to tell people they shouldn't write about people who were different from themselves. I just said to him, that's essentially what writers do and what their purpose is.
Bob Newman said…
Let me add my voice to the chorus of agreement, even though I'm only a hobby writer. If I ever made so bold as to publish the book I am currently working on (and anybody noticed) I know that the characters I would be most likely to be criticised about are those from ethic communities, and the gay ones. The Dutch lesbian ghost assassin could be particularly controversial. But none of the other characters are any more well-rounded, and I don't know any more about life as a City derivatives trader or a furniture salesman than I do about the afterlife as a lesbian hitwoman.
IMHO Koreans, Dutch, city gents, ghosts etc should all be glad that I have been moved to write about them, and learn a bit about them in the process.
Recommendation: "Okla Hannali" by R A Lafferty, a historical novel about the Choctaw written by an Irish American. This has been both widely praised and - absurdly, in my view - criticised in some quarters for "cultural appropriation".
Peter Leyland said…
An interesting post Karen. I recently had to deal with an issue over Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The student was responding to Achebe’s criticism that the novel represented the worst side of colonialism. I tried to defend Conrad through his use of the narrator and I had just read King Leopold’s Ghost which refers positively to Conrad. Have you any opinion on the novel if you know of it?
Umberto Tosi said…
It's one of those fine-line things - between exploiting and exploring - and one usually can sense it. Self-conscious labeling is just lazy thinking in an area that requires awareness, sensibility, and empathy, all of which is hard work. My mother, who was an opera singer in the 1940s-50s, had a coach who used to opine that only Italians could faithfully sing Italian opera, Germans, German opera, jazz only be played by black artists- obviously jingoistic nonsense.Anyway, I'm with you. Write your truth and take your chances.

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