September 30, 2016

FECKLESS AND FRECKLED | Cultural Appropriation in Fiction: A Liberal Hoax?

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“You liberals get off my lawn!” commands Lionel Shriver in her recent New York Times Op-Ed. Shriver, who might be more well known for her bellicose opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this month than any of the 13 books she’s published, has more than several bones to pick with the “left,” or anyone who is not a blatant homophobe, sexist, racist or otherwise elitist. The author was asked to speak on the topic of “community and belonging.” She chose instead to focus on identity politics.

 A valid substitution, given all the discourse about campus activism and trigger warnings. Personal identities have never truly been personal; they’ve always affected our communal spaces. We are our backgrounds, the culture(s) we’re born into, the resources we had growing up. The focus of Shriver’s speech was substantive, but her execution was unsound.

Her thesis was straightforward: “we should not let concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, only memoir.”  Shriver worried that what she perceived to be a “self-evident” thesis would make for a “bland” speech, but she shouldn’t have. Her speech inspired a “Right of Reply” session at the festival — an opportunity for writers to further discuss her provocative monologue — as well as a litany of liberal think pieces and social media commentary from the global literary community, incensed that Shriver donned a sombrero to show solidarity with the student government leaders at Bowdoin College who got in trouble for attending a party with a “Tequila” theme.

This is not another one of those liberal think pieces, even though I too find it galling that Shrivner believes “Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived” and hopes that what she perceives to be an exaggerated “concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad.” We’re talking about the lives of actual people, people who have struggled for no reason other than circumstance, people who have been emotionally, verbally and physically attacked for their cultures, only to watch aspects of them suddenly transformed into the latest fashion trend or Halloween costume: to make light of that adversity is the paragon of privilege.

We may never have enough liberal think pieces. Even if a hundred of them were published daily, they may never be understood by or adequately address the needs of people who’ve felt the consequences of cultural appropriation. You don’t need me to ram some moralistic diatribe down your throats about how we all need to respect one another and one another’s identities though. Most of us at this “elite Ivy League institution” — with the exception of the football coach Roy Istvan — have some understanding of cultural respect. Clearly we still have a lot of work to do, as episodes of campus cultural insensitivity abound, but many of us would, at the very least, take issue with the concept of cultural appropriation, especially in our art. We understand that it was wrong for Emma Stone to be cast as a Chinese American in the movie “Aloha,” and that she took the role away from an underrepresented Asian actress. We understand that Elle magazine’s attempt to rebrand cornrows and afros, traditional African-American hairstyles, as Caucasian was preposterous, given the number of black girls kicked out of school for their natural hair. We understand that Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet who published in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology under a Chinese pseudonym, was exploiting a minority culture for his own career gains.

The conversation almost seems stalled at this point. Cultural appropriation is wrong. Don’t do it. Don’t be Rachel Dolezal.

I wonder, however, if the rush to label all cultural appropriation as detrimental may be as harmful as the cultural appropriation itself. In other words, if we look past the culturally insensitive crux of her speech, does Lionel Shriver’s pull for cultural appropriate in fiction have substance? If writers only wrote about their own experiences, we wouldn’t have a portion of the books we have today. Franz Kafka wrote a novel about America, entitled Amerika, having never once been to America. James Joyce wrote from the perspective of a Jewish man in Ulysses, when he had been born and raised a Catholic in what was once one of the most Catholic areas of the world: Ireland.

Fiction is not solely about authenticity; it is an art form built on lies (or on imagination, depending how idealistic you are). That said, authors should still aim for the truth in their writing, especially when it comes to the portrayal of cultures that are different from their own. But as long as cross-cultural writing is thoughtful, respectful and well-researched, does the wordsmith’s identity matter?

Moreover, could cultural appropriation among authors alleviate some of the burdens of the publishing industry for minority writers?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the critically acclaimed author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists finds it “particularly curious that here in the United States, there’s such thing as a black bookstore – that it’s really about what you look like. If I wrote a book about Poland, for example, I would still end up in the black section of the bookstores. There are still categories.” When she sent her first novel Purple Hibiscus around to publishers, she received a response from a woman instructing her that while she had enjoyed Adichie’s book, she wouldn’t know how to sell her. She told Adichie, “You’re black, but you’re not African American, so I can’t sell you as African American, and I can’t sell you as ethnic, because right now in the United States, ethnic is Indian.” (Wait, aren’t all ethnicities “ethnic”?)

Percival Everett tackled the same issue of being pigeonholed as a minority writer in his 2011 novel Erasure. The protagonist, Theolonius “Monk” Ellison is an English professor who has a difficult time finding readership for his intellectually challenging novels. He is consistently told by his editors that his books aren’t “black enough,” yet anytime he enters a bookstore, he finds his books about Classical and Greek Mythology hidden away in the African-American section. Frustrated with the success of cliché urban race novels, like his contemporary Juanita Jenkin’s book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, he writes a satirical, stereotypical race novel entitled merely “Fuck.” Fuck, of course, wins him every literary award ever conceived and the prestige he always dreamed of, the moral of the story being that you can’t extricate a minority writer from his minority status.

But what if minority writers weren’t the only people writing about minority status? This suggestion will understandably be met with groans and grunts. Can’t we at least allow the marginalized to claim their own marginalization? No one is saying otherwise, but maybe if writing about different cultures was fair game, the practice would become less exoticized and readers and writers alike could focus less on whether a text fits a marketable cultural niche and more about its quality.

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie seems to agree and welcomes authors of all backgrounds to engage with her country in their writing. In an essay published in the magazine Guernica, Shamsie says, “The moment you say a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying: As an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

Of course, there are guidelines to follow. If culture is a literary device for you akin to alliteration, simile or repetition, a peripheral detail you throw in there to flex your artistic muscles, then stick to writing about the people you were born into. Culture is not a trope, a foreign element to exploit and attract readers. If, however, writing about other cultures can lift the constant onus off minority writers to educate others about their oppression while also creating empathy among those who have no experience of a specific civilization, it may be worth deconstructing our one-dimensional liberal perspective of cultural appropriation.