For me, writing is a series of synapses: firing, sparking, veering off into places unknown. I connect a newspaper article with a podcast with drinks last night with an incident in the park this morning. Writing is both an act and a release. The deliberate use of my imagination in order to drive the train off the rails. So this is what happened when I read Kenan Malik‘s essay in the New York Times in defense of cultural appropriation.
a newspaper article
First, the lawyer in me comes to the fore. Give me a definition of cultural appropriation and then we’ll talk. Malik obliges by quoting Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi. She defines cultural appropriation as:
taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission [including] the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.
Taking without permission. Unauthorized use. My legal eagle mind tries to apply this definition to the real world. Let’s say I want to write an elegaic piece about an Native American woman the way Sherman Alexie commemorated his mother in You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. Who exactly should I contact for permission to describe this woman and her world?
Or, to put it in the more elegant words of Kenan Malik:
Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Isn’t that what art is all about: creating a deep emotional connection with a stranger?
the appropriation prize
Last month, Canadian author and editor Hal Niedzviecki wrote an opinion piece for Write, the in-house magazine for the national writers’ union. According to The Guardian, that piece contained the following quote.
In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.
I heartily agree. Let the imagination go outside and play. Don’t sit inside and stare at your own navel. When Dan Brown was on tour in Amsterdam a few years ago, his advice to aspiring writers was:
Don’t write what you know. Write about what you want to know.
So why not delve into the world of Indian tuk-tuk drivers or Japanese pearl divers? Of course, you have to do your homework. Give the reader flesh-and-blood characters and speak to a larger human truth. I like to think that’s what Niedzviecki was thinking right before he crashed and burned.
I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.
Why is an author’s age, gender, ethnicity, religion and/or sexual orientation relevant to the quality of the writing?
When I was at Georgetown Law, I met a fellow Angeleno. He was from upscale Brentwood on the west side whereas I came from the barrio in the east. He complimented me on having gotten this far. You must have really struggled, he said.
That attitude was as condescending to me then as it is now. Don’t measure my achievement by the number of inches I’ve managed to crawl from home. The idea of an appropriation prize unleashed a social media firestorm and ultimately cost Niedzviecki his job.
a week in Napa
Last summer, I heard one member of a writing workshop accuse a fellow member of cultural appropriation. The perpetrator had written a short story set in Africa, drawing on personal experiences while in the Peace Corps.
The way I heard it: the writer wasn’t perpetuating stereotypes or drawing one dimensional characters or leaning on tropes. The writer was white and the subjects were black. Ipso facto cultural appropriation.
We weren’t the only class to have this debate. The bug infected all the workshops. At a lecture by Camille Dungy, poet and workshop leader, a student stood up. She wanted to write a poem about Ferguson. But as a Latina, she worried about cultural appropriation. Camille said,
If you write with honesty and empathy, you can write anything.
And yet. Pureness of heart did not insulate Dana Schutz from outrage over her painting Open Casket. This work depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a black teenager murdered by two white men in Mississippi 1955. One critic, the British painter Hannah Black, not only demanded that Open Casket be removed from the Whitney Biennial but that it be destroyed as well. She wrote:
It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.
Oh, the irony of this complaint. Malik describes how Schutz went about creating Open Casket.
In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.
Aren’t I lucky to be writing novels set in Shanghai? Not only can I claim ancestral ties through my paternal and material blood lines. I also happen to be of the correct ethnic extraction to write about the Chinese. Woo hoo!
Now the rest of you better back off. This is my territory. This is land watered with the blood of my ancestors that only I can walk and map and interpret. Unless you’re one of my kind, in which case, don’t get in my way.
I have to think about the scene from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. After a harrowing journey battling sharks and jellies, Marlin and Dory finally surface in the port of Sydney. There, a flock of seagulls is ready to pounce. All of them squawking: mine, mine, mine.
in the ghetto
By fighting against cultural appropriation, the aim is:
To protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
The effect, however, is the very opposite. I must stay well inside the bounds of my marginalized culture and speak only of those who look like me. Forget about experiences I have had that might fall outside this little subset of the universe. Don’t even try, through the dedicated application of the imagination, to stand in someone else’s shoes.
As Malik notes:
Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.
Now picture the Shanghai Ghetto. The Japanese crowded 18,000 Jews into a square mile already occupied by 100,000 Chinese. It was the first step toward a Final Solution. Yet the Meisinger Plan was never implemented. The Shanghai Ghetto had neither walls nor electrified fences. It was a ghetto more of the mind than the body.
I’m not going there. My right as an artist is to let my mind roam wherever it damn well pleases.