Thursday, 6 June 2019

Cultural appropriation - some thoughts

Hitherto I have been dismissive of the censorship that the criticism 'cultural appropriation' demands of writers. After all one should be free to write whatever one likes. And if I want to use my imagination to write in the voice of, or from the point of view of, someone from another culture, ethnicity, sex etc. to my own, who is to say that I cannot?

The logical result otherwise would be that I am left only to write autobiographically - literally what I know from my milieu. That might make for rather dull reading, and the degree of introspection required does not necessarily interest me that much as a constant way of working. I live in a world full of any number of people and things. I have travelled to any number of places. Why can I not write about and from them? Must I be forced only to use the literal first person, me, in such work?

The obvious answer is, no.

But then, I was brought up short recently by what seems like the tiniest of things. The current Places of Poetry project from the Poetry Society invites poets to pin place-specific poems onto a digital map of England and Wales. It was introduced to me by a poet friend and was something I was interested in being part of. She mentioned her contribution was about the Welsh mines. My immediate reaction was - what? that's not your subject? I speak as a Welsh person and the granddaughter of a collier. Very quickly I chastised myself. I don't own this subject at all, and certainly not any more than my English friend. I have no more rights over it than she or anyone else has. I am interested in and sympathetic to the subject given my family background, of course, but I have no unique insights. What a foolish response, I told myself.

Yet I started thinking - you know how you only begin to really understand something when it happens to you? In this small, but quickly and roundly dismissed way, I had an inkling of what others might be getting at when they object so vehemently to a writer's work as having appropriated someone else's culture. Not that I will ever agree that the said writer does not have the right to do so. Never.

The question then is, with an increased sensitivity in mind, how does the writer proceed. I think the answers here start with respect for the subject, involve research; book, place and talking to people; trying to be as authentic as possible to it, but always bearing in mind that writers make fictions; and growing a tough hide. There will always be someone ready to throw a brick bat - how can you set a story in a country you've never visited? how can you speak in man's voice? etc. Easy, I have an imagination. What is really meant is: how dare you? Answer again, easy - because I am a writer in a free country. But what I will try to do is be more consciously aware of the way I am proceeding and try not tread too hard or unnecessarily on other people's toes.

Lionel Shriver's lecture on this subject is well worth your time. She gives a number of examples of writing that would not exist if writers had indulged in over-zealous self-censorship. And I am with her when she says: "I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life."

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