Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cultural appropriation in fiction

* I recently came across writing advice from A L Kennedy (I'm sorry, I can't find it on the web just now to provide a link) in which she insisted on that maxim, 'Write what you know', which often puzzles people: how does that not leave writers with only their own usually boring, humdrum lives at the desk to write about? Kennedy went on to clarify. You don't have to stick to your own life - how boring that would be, if writers only ever did that! - but what you have to do is immerse yourself so thoroughly in whatever you want to write about, that you do know it, emotionally and psychologically as well as merely factually, and it becomes thus part of you. It is only this way that you will write something honest, and humble, which for A L Kennedy are the two essentials in writing, and over which I strongly agree with her.

This is relevant of course to the recent debate about cultural appropriation. Two years ago, Lionel Shriver was castigated for bemoaning identity politics in her keynote address to the Brisbane Literature Festival, objecting to the notion that BAME people's stories are theirs alone to tell and that white writers writing them are guilty of 'cultural appropriation'. BAME writers responded in dismay and anger to what they saw as Shriver's expression of annoyance at the threat to the historical privilege of white people to speak for all. One of the writers critical of Shriver was Kit de Waal, but her response was more nuanced than that of others. For me one of the great political virtues of fiction is the ability to create empathy, and one essential, in the service of that, is an ability in the writer to wear other people's shoes', to 'become the other'. However, de Waal warned in a speech to the International Writers' Festival in Dublin, 'When we become the other we need always to act with respect and recognise the value of what we discover, show by our attitudes and our acknowledgements that we aren't just appropriating but are seeking to understand.'

This is the crux. I feel very strongly about the experiences of people who are discriminated against, and have a strong urge to write about it. This is mainly, I think, because I have suffered discriminations of my own - for being female and, when I was younger, for being perceived either or both as working class and Welsh. In fact I never felt entirely any of these things; things were much more complicated than they seemed. Later I would suffer reverse prejudice - for not being female (or feminine) enough; by the time I went to university I had moved with my parents to England and had lost my Welsh accent, and at my Welsh university I felt resentment from Welsh-speaking students for being 'Saes' (English) (and once a Welsh publisher turned me down because she had no proof, until I gave it, that I was Welsh, a condition of her publishing house); later, my working-class in-laws and the children I taught in a Glasgow comprehensive would mock and resent me as 'middle class'. But I also want to write about discrimination because of its history in the various branches of my family, which has seen the 'passing' of pogrom-exiled Jews as Roman Catholic, the vain attempt of my father, arriving from Ireland to wartime anti-Irish prejudice, to hide his Irishness, the gradual 'whitening' of generations originating from ancestors in a southern port who from old Victorian photos were clearly to me partly black (I must do some family history research when I get time!), and the exiling of members for interracial marriage, along with their mixed-race children.

For these reasons I do react almost with horror to the notion of fixed identity - it's just not my experience that identity is fixed in any way, and probably the fundamental reason I write fiction is to explore this. And I do have an almost somatic sense - like a crawling on my skin - of the feeling of being judged for who you are by people who don't actually know who you are.

Yet I have often hesitated to try to write my way into the heads of BAME characters, since I haven't personally suffered that particular direct discrimination: for the colour of my skin. I'm always aware that there is something in that direct and specific experience that I could miss. I have even hesitated to include BAME characters at all, afraid that I would give them inauthentic things to say and actions to make. Yet not to include them would often mean seriously misrepresenting the society I'm trying to write about - and indeed render BAME people invisible. When I came to write a comedy series for Radio 4 about a baby-sitting circle, the chief interest of which was that it provided a cross-section of an inner city suburb, it would have been almost criminal to leave out BAME characters, and at least in drama you don't have to tackle the interiority as you do in a novel, you can rely on your (empathic) observation. (And not only that, here was a chance to create roles for BAME actors.) Yet there was one really awkward moment during recording, when the black actor playing the young lad, about to read his one-word greeting ''Spect!' turned to me and asked me if I knew what that meant. 'Respect,' I replied, and he nodded and carried on, but I was left with the feeling that I had been suspected of simply parroting a stereotypical notion of black idiom I didn't even understand (in fact it was a word I was hearing young people, black and white, using to greet each other all the time), indeed of failing to show racial respect. Or maybe he simply saw me as an adult woman appropriating the speech of the young - or maybe he meant neither of these things, and I was just being fearful: in any case, I did feel the chill of identity politics in that moment, and that fear of treading on other people's toes rather than standing in their shoes.

In her Guardian response to Shriver, Yassmin Abdel Magied says:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?
This is the same argument that was employed by feminists in the eighties objecting to men writing about women's experience. Basically, it's an argument that sees fiction simply as expression (the expression of an author's experience), rather than the exploration that Kit de Waal mentions, or the (political) exercise of empathy I have always held so important. It is not the right, this argument goes, of the group with power - the men, the white middle-class writers like Shriver - to speak for those whose experiences they do not share: it should be left to those with the experience to change the minds of others through testimony. You could counter that what matters is the text, not the author (as I have so often argued in my objection to the cult of personality in our literary culture): does it feel truthful, honest and authentic to the reader most likely to identify with the situation portrayed? But I suspect that in arguments like those of Abdul Magied there is an underlying assumption that no writer of privilege could ever portray the experience of the underprivileged as well as an underprivileged writer could. I'm not sure about this notion (I've read plenty of stories by women published as part of projects to 'create women's space' that fail to represent my experience as well as does some writing by some men). But as I say, it's what sometimes makes me nervous about writing black characters. And I do think we should seriously consider the possibility that in a white-dominated publishing world, in a publishing choice between a well-written fiction about black experience written by a white writer and a similar well-written fiction by a black writer, the fiction by the white writer is likely to win. Perhaps the key is in Abdel Magied's last words, in the provision of the opportunity. Perhaps it's not a question of making authors, black or white, stay for their writing in the categories to which society has designated them personally, but of creating better equality in society, and, in particular, greater diversity in the publishing industry, so that those with authentic stories to tell can indeed be heard.

Well, I started out this post intending to talk about a story I've been writing and for which I've had to do a lot of research rather than simply rely on what I already know, but as you can see I've been sidetracked, and that will have to be for another day...

*This post has been edited as I have developed my thoughts, tentative and exploratory as they are!
Post a Comment