Self-Publishing Renders Worries about ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Obsolete

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Reused under CC from this user

Her question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

This was the the talk that Lionel Shriver should have given, according to Yassmin Abdel-Magied. She writes that she walked out of Ms. Shriver’s talk entitled Fiction and Identity Politics in Australia last month.

She was opposed to the argument adopted by the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin -which was that she hoped ‘the concept of “cultural appropriation” [was] a passing fad‘.

You don’t need to seek permission

The short answer is that fiction writers have always been – and should always be – ‘allowed’ to create characters in whichever guises we wish.

My book, Dust to Dust, features a young American woman, Melissa, and a Middle Eastern man, Hadi. I can’t pretend I have any direct experience of what it would be like to be either Hadi or Melissa, in Britain or anywhere else, but that didn’t stop me inventing those characters and weaving them into my story. I didn’t have to seek permission from those groups of people before writing my book.

It’s fine to acknowledge and respect the fact that people with direct, or ‘lived’ experience of something will bring a perspective to that situation that an outsider can’t. But it’s wrong to assume that the opinion of someone with ‘lived experience’ of something is inherently more valid and valuable than those around them. It’s quite possible, likely even, that it will be, but it isn’t automatically. So it’s wrong to tell people that they should ‘stay in their lane‘ and not write about people different from them. We are capable of imagination and empathy. Our minds are capable of imagining something of what it must be like to live in the Sahara Desert without requiring our bodies to burn in its heat.

Cultural appropriation

The buzzword for this topic is ‘cultural appropriation’. According to the definition quoted by Ms. Shriver, this is when people of one particular ‘culture’ borrow from another ‘without permission’, with the implication that they shouldn’t.

The doctrine of ‘cultural appropriation’ assumes that ‘culture’ is immutable when it isn’t. It ignores the fact that societies have been borrowing and adapting stories, legends and practices from each other for as long as they have existed. It assumes that somebody, somewhere, can be the arbiter of which cultures exist and who belongs to which one.

Cultural appropriation also overstates its own importance. It falls into a trap that has swallowed much of anthropology: focusing on human difference. In fact, at the most basic level, human societies around the world are actually very similar. Emotions such as joy, loss, disappointment, surprise and fear are universal, run far more deeply than culture and form the core of stories the world over.

Access to publishing

A more valid criticism could come from an access argument. I was lucky enough to have a relatively privileged, middle-class upbringing. That brings with it inbuilt advantages. Those advantages make it a lot easier for me to write about, say, life in Nigeria and for people to read it than it would for a Nigerian to write about life as a Briton. The cultural appropriation logic goes that if I wanted to do that I should ‘step aside’ and let a Nigerian write it himself or herself.

Self-publishing levels the playing field

I don’t think any writer should feel they have to step aside for anyone else. If they want to make way for someone else then fine, but there’s no obligation for anyone to do so. But self-publishing has changed the game. It used to be that publishing houses were the gatekeepers. They controlled what was published, who got to see their names in print and which stories were told.

The best argument against anything goes was that some voices would likely be excluded from a conversation, and that room should therefore be made for them. That’s no longer the case. So long as you have access to the internet and a word processor, your story can be told. The already flaky arguments about ‘cultural appropriation’ are now obsolete.

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You Don’t Need A Kindle To Read My Book

You don't necessarily need on of these. Credit: Intel Free Press, using Creative Commons
You don’t necessarily need one of these. Credit: Intel Free Press, using Creative Commons

As the 1st October release date gets closer I’ve had more questions than usual about in which formats Dust to Dust will be available.

It’s only going to be available on Kindle. But you don’t actually need a Kindle to read ebooks through Amazon. You can download the Kindle app free from the App Store (iPhones and iPads) or Google Play (Android phones and tablets. There is also a desktop app for PCs.

In short, if you are reading this, you have a device that can read my book.

The 3 Big Mistakes I Made When Writing My Book

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I made three big mistakes when I was writing my book, Dust to Dust. I thought I’d share them with you in case you ever want to do it yourself. They are:

  1. Only writing one book
  2. Failing to plan properly
  3. Not researching the title

Let’s look at each of them in turn:

  • Only writing one book

I wish I’d read this post by Mike Cernovich earlier in the process. A best-selling author himself (whose book on mindset I am applying to my own life), he suggests writing two books at the same time, and give one away via your blog. That way, you’re already adding value to people’s lives without sticking your hand out asking for money. It also tests the water for your book idea. If it’s solid, you are already on the way to building an audience via your blog posts.

  • Failing to plan properly

I’ve already written about this before. Essentially, a book is a big commitment. You are investing a lot of time to write thousands of words before you ask for any money from anyone, which you may or may not get. You don’t want it to take any longer than it otherwise will.

  • Not researching the title

I put this one last because I think it’s the least important of these three. That doesn’t make it unimportant however. Google your title and search Amazon, iBooks or whichever platforms on which you want to sell eventually. If you can get a unique or nearly original title, it will help your SEO (search engine optimization) immensely. As you can see, there are a lot of Dust to Dusts.

If I could do it all again, and I might some day, I will be sure to avoid making these mistakes again.

Dust to Dust Is Available For Pre-order


I’m very happy to be able to share the Amazon link to my book, Dust to Dust. It’s currently available for pre-order ahead of its 1st October release date.

Once again I’d like to thank my colleague Dmitri Thompson for his cover design. If you have any design work you need done, you can reach Dmitri here.

Here’s a reminder of the blurb:

Dan Wallace is working on Dust, an app that enables secure communication in a Britain in which privacy comes at a premium. When the right-wing Olof party comes into power, law and order begin to break down. The government trains its sights on Dan, their charismatic leader Hadi Ghazzali and the beautiful new arrival Laura Taylor. In the face of this instability and hostility, it falls to Dan to carve out a future for their creation.