Warning: This is going to be a lengthy post.
Cultural Appropriation: Real People, Real Pain
It’s been six months since I started this series about improving representation in literature. And if you had any doubts that these kinds of conversations are still needed, take a look at what happened in Canada last month.
Zulekha Nathoo, reporting for CBC, explains:
A column written by Hal Niedzviecki that appeared in the latest issue of Write magazine, a quarterly publication from the Writers’ Union of Canada, suggested “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and stated that the author didn’t “believe in cultural appropriation.”
It appeared near the beginning of an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing.
Niedzviecki, who has since resigned as editor, acknowledged that Canadian literary subject matter and writers are “exhaustingly white and middle class.” But rather than calling on minority voices to fill the void, he instead encouraged those same writers to “write what you don’t know” and “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”
He also called for an “Appropriation Prize” in literature, saying “there’s nothing preventing us from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends, oral histories and sacred practices into our own words.”
Read the whole article and see Niedzviecki’s original column here.
Niedzviecki stepped down and the Writer’s Union of Canada apologized. But then a group of white Canadian writers and executives, outraged by Niedzviecki’s resignation, decided to collected money for Niedzviecki’s proposed “Appropriation Prize.”
If you don’t understand why this is a problem, please listen to these responses from Indigenous writers and writers of color.
First, take a moment to listen to the very moving response of Jesse Wente, a columnist and Indigenous advocate. He says, “Cultural appropriation is institutionalized. It is the very foundation of what Canada is built on…To pretend…that somehow we’re now on equal footing and thus we can all share equitably is to fail in your responsibility as a storyteller…This absorbs so much energy. It causes so much pain in our communities to have to re-argue our value as human beings–on our own land, in a foreign language…one imposed on us.”
Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer whose work was included in the issue of Write in which Niedzviecki’s column appeared, says,
This is why cultural appropriation is an issue to begin with: because certain people want to ignore context. They want to pretend that marginalized communities have always been on equal footing in Canada, that we’ve always had control over the laws that have historically prevented us from telling our own stories and living our own lives. They want to believe that marginalized communities have always had access to this mysterious concept called “free speech.” They want to pretend that problems from the past have disappeared when all they’ve really done is change form. If any of that was actually the case, we wouldn’t have to keep having the same conversation about cultural appropriation over and over.
Scaachi Koul, who was one of the first to notice the prize talk on Twitter, writes,
No one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction. Frankly, we encourage it. But…promoting the work of white writers who use another culture for profit isn’t trying. It’s meeting the laziest kind of diversity metric, one that doesn’t actually shift power balances or change the status quo. Abstaining from cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop you from writing thoughtfully about people who aren’t white. It does, however, stop you from ripping off people of colour, or pretending like you understand their stories intimately. It does preclude you from taking a culture that was never yours to begin with — a culture that might have made the lives of the people born with it harder in white Canada, or might mean they don’t get the same opportunities and privileges — and turning a profit.
And Sarah Hagi writes,
In Niedzviecki’s piece he argues that in order to see non-white stories better represented in Canadian media, white Canadian authors need to go beyond “what they know” and write from the voices of those who aren’t like their white middle-class selves. What does it show us when the only solution these high-ranking journalists, executives and editors have is to create an award for white people who want to write stories that aren’t their own? The obvious solution would be to encourage the minorities they so deeply want to see in stories to, you know, write their own stories—but clearly that’s not their priority. Their response seemingly shows their real fear—people of colour speaking for themselves and white voices being relegated to the sidelines.
Appropriating another community’s culture for monetary gain, especially a culture that has been marginalized and oppressed by your culture, causes real pain. These are not abstract ideas for you to use however you’d like. These are real traditions and practices and beliefs, held by real people, who have been systematically silenced.
We absolutely do need non-white stories in our media, but we can’t get them by speaking for and over non-white writers.
Own Voices as Remedy (Plus a Nerdy Aside)
As Hagi notes above, the solution to improving representation in our media is to elevate the voice of minorities writing their own stories. This is precisely why the Own Voices movement was started.
The #OwnVoices hashtag was created by Corinne Duyvis, author of Otherbound. In an interview on The Olive Fox, she explains,
Of course authors write about things they haven’t experienced. That’s part of what being an author is about…There is a danger in promoting certain books more than others, though, which many marginalized authors have experienced. A book about a Japanese character by a white author may get more attention and marketing push than a book about a Japanese character by a Japanese author. That’s a real problem, and something we need to address…If we support diverse books because we realize the extent of institutional oppression and the need for readers to see diverse characters, we can’t possibly justify leaving out the actual authors struggling to gain a foothold in the publishing industry.
Be sure to read the full interview here.
Of course, we shouldn’t use Own Voices as an excuse to pressure marginalized authors to write only from their experiences as people of color. Just because a writer is Korean, for example, doesn’t mean she has to write a Korean story. Cultures are not a monolith, and this type of policing can lead to critiques about “purity” (i.e. is an author X “enough” to write this kind of story?).
While we need to be careful not to demand certain types of books from minority authors, we do, as Duyvis says, “need to center the people who have historically not been centered, and prioritize their voices in the conversation.” Healing can only come if we acknowledge the hurt caused by appropriation and systemic oppression and take steps to end it.
By the way, this absolutely applies to disability (our topic this month–see my posts here and here). Duyvis argues, “Think of the way many disability organizations are led by and/or aimed at non-disabled people. It’s not right to lock people out of the conversations that are about them, and this kind of co-opting has happened in the publishing world just as much. Many people’s perceptions—say, of autistic people—are formed by media portrayals created by outsiders. This has far-reaching, damaging consequences.” We need to prioritize disabled voices, and indeed all marginalized communities, in our literature if we’re going to counteract that damage.
Now, if you’ll allow me a nerdy aside…
My doctoral dissertation explored how medieval poets viewed writing as a means of therapy. The appropriation debacle in Canada and other recent events have given me cause to think about that lately–how words can be a type of medicine and, when deployed wrongfully, a type of poison.
My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Rebecca Krug, recently published a book called Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader. As the title suggests, the book is about Margery Kempe, whose Book (written in the 1430s) is one of the first long prose works in English and one of the first surviving English-language texts written by a woman(!).
Dr. Krug argues that Kempe wrote her autobiography partly as a means of personal consolation and therapy. Unable to find a reflection of herself in the books that she was reading, she decided to write her own. (Keep in mind this is a woman living in fourteenth-century England. Pretty cool, right?) Krug explains, “Writing makes her ‘heal and hoole’–vocabulary that draws attention to its ability to heal and restore. In this passage, Kempe’s earlier uneasiness about the imperfect ability of reading to reflect her own experience is supplanted by the efficacy of composition: solace comes from recounting her feelings in writing” (26).
Instead of allowing books written by men to speak for her, Kempe wrote her own story. And then she encouraged her readers to do the same.
As Kempe’s Book demonstrates, words have the power to hurt or heal: the written word can be a source of pain, as it was for Kempe when she failed to identify with the books she was reading, but writing can also serve as a powerful remedy–both for writers and their readers–when a writer shares her own experience with others. This is why we need to champion (but not dictate to) Own Voices.
Do No Harm
To continue my therapeutic conceit, I believe a lot of our problems would be solved if writers simply took their own version of the Hippocratic oath–or at least took to heart the apocryphal first line to “First, do no harm.” (Or, as Justina Ireland put it, don’t be an a**hole.)
Imagine how different things would be if we made “doing no harm” the focus of our work. If we put love and healing at the forefront.
How do we do no harm? First, ask yourself whether a story is yours to tell. Then do your research. Put in the time. Hire sensitivity readers. Be open to criticism and suggestions. Do everything you can to make sure that your book isn’t going to hurt someone with harmful rep or take away the spotlight from an Own Voices author.
To clarify, I don’t think that art shouldn’t be challenging or controversial. That’s one of the reasons art exists! But if you are writing about something difficult, consider including a content warning so that your readers can be mentally prepared to encounter or skip over moments that might be painful for them to read, such as assault or rape. (Painful is not the same as challenging. There are many ways to ask your readers to step outside their comfort zones without forcing them to relive previous trauma.)
As I hope I’ve demonstrated in this series, we can tell compelling and interesting stories without co-opting marginalized voices and experiences. But we have to be willing to recognize the gaps in our knowledge and yield the floor to more authoritative voices. That’s the only way we’re going to create an equal playing field for writers of all backgrounds and identities.
Do no harm. Facilitate healing.
That’s all I’ve got for now.