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If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Cultural Appropriation" and Fiction Writing

I've been hearing about his issue from younger writers in the trenches of college writing programs, and in their encounters with "progressive" editors and agents.  But personally I've been ignoring it in hopes that it will go away.  I've been ignoring the issue of "cultural appropriation" for same way reason I try not to use the name D***** T*****: talking about him gives him credence.  Legitimacy.  Hey, if we fiction writers can't use our imaginations to cross boundaries and create characters unlike ourselves, we're doomed as a species.  But the issue doesn't seem to going away away. A recent New York  Times op-ed piece by Lionel Shriver (9/23/16) has generated a lot of buzz.  Here's her piece:   

And below is part of two letters to the NYT in reply:

"No one is saying Ms. Shriver should be put in jail or that it should be illegal to publish a book she writes from the perspective of an oppressed person of color or some other position about which she can have little personal experience. In the same vein, it shouldn’t be illegal for me to post an article about how that reflects on her, and suggesting that other people join me in not reading it...."  Uma  B. Gaffney

 "If the great evolutionary triumph of our species is the capacity to reason and understand, then for millennials to define themselves strictly in terms of their race, age, gender or ethnicity is to be forever stranded on a smaller planet. When we allow anyone of any age to police our imaginations, to condemn us to writing plays, poems and novels only about people like ourselves, then we’re doomed as artists and humanists. The best thing about our capacity for abstract thinking is that it allows us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else (saint or sinner), and might help us become more empathetic...."  Fengar Gael

My take?  (Sorry, can't shed the highlight).  The first letter is dripping with assumptions and "correctness" if not literary fascism. The second is quite a nice counter. All the writers I know personally are quite sensitive to the issue cultural appropriation.  We're simply not going to do it if it's a bridge too far, that is, if we don't have deep personal experience and knowledge about the subject at hand.  We have to earn the right to write the character very different than ourselves.  And if we've done our work–deep, sincere, empathetic immersion in which we imagine the inner and out life of the character–then we should have at it.  After all, in the business of fiction writing the rules are made to be broken.

Postscript:  here's breaking news/response to the issue of cultural appropriation:

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