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.
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.