Cultural Appropriation in Literature and Beyond

Knowing my boyfriend is from the Netherlands, my dad recently sent me an article that discusses modern glorification of the Dutch slavery history. This sparked a conversation between us regarding the perspectives of outsiders versus insiders. In my boyfriend’s opinion, some of the article is written by someone that is slightly overreacting in trying to be politically correct. He said, “I feel like this general focus on political correctness is kind of frustrating because if you get scalded for every small mistake that might be offending to someone, you get into this deadlock where no one says or does anything anymore out of fear for making a mistake.” For this reason, he thinks the article should be read with some skepticism and that it’s very obvious that the writer is not Dutch.

While this particular instance may not be directly related to cultural appropriation in literature, I found myself—the English major and bookworm—immediately thinking of Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane writer’s festival. Many articles have come of this “controversy,” some agreeing with Shriver’s point and some disagreeing. In short, her speech addresses the question that comes from a Scafidi book titled Who Owns Culture?

The question of cultural appropriation—what falls into this category and what does not—has been around for decades upon decades. It’s only been relatively recent, however, that this thread is being tied to fiction and a writer’s responsibilities. As Shriver states, “…the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” This statement certainly brings up a lot to think about. What kind of fiction is “allowed” to be written? And perhaps more importantly, who is allowed to write these various stories? Can a white woman accurately, and respectfully, portray and express a black man’s voice? Can a young, Chinese man write the true voice of an elderly, white lady? The questions go on and on, and yet the answers seem to be few and far between—at least any solid answers we all agree on. But then again, does such a thing exist?

Shriver speaks about the notion that “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.” If this is true, however, doesn’t that take away some of the gifts literature is supposed to provide? Not only does this plague writers, but it also affects readers, too. This means that writers can only write from the perspective of themselves: a white woman who is fifty-six years old and from Canada can only write using that specific voice or about that particular world. Similarly, does this mean readers can only read things that address them? Should a twelve-year-old black boy only pick up a novel if it’s written by someone who has grown up also as a twelve-year-old black boy?

Many use writing as a way of spreading creativity, of telling stories, of reaching wide audiences. Does this then mean that writers can only write from one, singular perspective? Similarly, readers often utilize reading as a means of escaping from reality or entering a new, fictionist world. But if they are encouraged to only read books and novels that come from their own culture, their own age group, their own experiences, aren’t we—by definition—limiting the books they can read, and as a result, robbing them of the expansive, creative world of fiction?

All of that being said, when one writer enters another person’s world, there are complexities and difficulties raised. Writers cannot be disrespectful, nor can they have a lack of understanding. There must be a reason for including each and every character (as is true with all books), and there must be a sensitivity used in this approach. We cannot go around “stealing” other people’s voices only for our own entertainment, for no reason, or to make fun of them. We can’t use these perspectives to inaccurately portray the realities as they exist within the novel.

What are writers and readers alike to do then? Who can write what? Who can read what? These questions raise even more questions, questions surrounding boundaries, limitations, and purposes.

I’m not sure I have a steadfast answer to any of the questions posed above, nor do I know how to solve the problems of cultural appropriation. Of course, I’m not sure any of us do on our own. So rather than aggressively debate this topic, rather than hurt one another, rather than shut our minds and ears to the opinions of others, I encourage us all to proceed with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to listen and learn. This is the only way—after all—that we can come together and face these issues as they arise.



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