Cultural Appropriation in Fiction

So I happened upon this transcript of a speech given by Lionel Shriver (Author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” amongst others).  While initially invited to discuss the theme of “community and belonging”, Shriver instead decided to discuss cultural appropriation and identity politics as they relate to fiction.

To bring it down to one over-generalized sentence, it seems we’re all just too sensitive.


So, here I am reading this article as not only a person of incredibly diverse backgrounds but also as a person who works in the field of diversity.  Diversity is my profession.  And while I agree with a lot of Shriver’s points, there are several that get my back up.

Shriver states that without so-called “cultural appropriation” that there would be no fiction at all because the author would be restrained to their own lived experience.  “The ultimate endpoint of keeping out [sic] mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.”

And she certainly has a point.  Fiction is about telling a story that isn’t true.  It uses characters who (usually!) aren’t real people.  If every white person never told a story from a black POV, yes, we would definitely be worse off in the end. But that is not what people who talk about “Cultural Appropriation” mean.  Ok, it’s at least not what I mean when I talk about the phrase.

Shriver says that cultural appropriation says “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

No one says you can’t try on other people’s hats.  But it’s about doing so with the proper respect those hats deserve.  Because sometimes a hat isn’t just a hat, it’s a symbol, a tradition, a memory or a gift. Yes, fiction writers are paid to try on other people’s hats.  Try on all the hats you choose to. I am not saying writers shouldn’t or can’t write about another cultural or identity.

But have we ever thought about the fact that maybe it’s time to let the people with those identities do some of the writing too?  Or even first? For years white, privileged authors wrote about the Other with good will and good intentions.  Hurray.  But I must question why there weren’t more authors discussing their own identities? Maybe because writing and publishing is still such a game for the privileged.  It’s only fairly recently (from a historical POV) that women started writing under their own female names, for crying out loud.

“Membership of a larger group is not an identity. 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” (Shriver).

I couldn’t disagree more with this passage.  Being Asian IS an identity.  It may not be the only aspect of a person’s identity, but it is still a valid one. I am disabled.  That is one of my identities.  And to have Shriver attempt to take that away is insulting.  I have pride in my identities, don’t try to diminish them because they aren’t “enough” for you.  It’s not our job to make sure our identity is interesting or “enough”.

Shriver’s perspective is thus: “both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us.”

That is easily said by someone who appears to be of a white, privileged background (yes, I could very easily be wrong).  It’s easy to say “Don’t let your disability, race, etc. define you!” when you haven’t actually worn that hat.  You may have tried it on, but you haven’t worn it for decades like many of us have.  Any hat can get heavy.  And besides, I prefer this perspective:

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

Cynical? Perhaps.  But also true to my lived experience.

All that to say, no one is stopping you from writing about the Other.  But maybe those of us in these marginalized groups want to hear and see our own voices out there, to see more diversity in the publishing and writing world. Is that so wrong?

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