Fiction and Appropriation

A good writer should be able to write about anything. Cultural appropriation is something we talk about a fair bit around Paganism, but not so much around fiction. When is a story an act of appropriation? Are there things authors shouldn’t be writing about unless they have experienced them? Write what you know is common advice, and highly applicable in this case. At the same time, why should any subject, place, person or time be off-limits to any author based on the accident of their birth?

On one hand, there’s an important case to be made for including people who are often excluded, by putting them into stories. Authors are less likely to be disadvantaged people, and can champion those who are. Writing about the people who have no voices – both the living and the dead is important. Writing about people who are unable to speak for themselves. On the other hand, there’s theft, misrepresentation, and exploitation. How do you tell, as an author or as a reader what it is that you’ve got? What should we be celebrating in terms of good diversity in writing, and what should we be discouraging?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought of late, and I don’t think I have anything like all the answers, but I may have a place to start.

Who does the story serve? If the author is writing beyond their experience, is that because they think it makes them seem cooler, more exotic? Is it to capitalise on a timely story? Is it to express their own assumptions and beliefs about the people they’re (mis)representing? If so, then I think there’s every reason to call it exploitation.

Imagining what you think it would be like to be trans, or disabled, or from another culture, and so forth, is not the same as knowing. Sure, imagining is a good thing, but its easy to cough up prejudice and assumptions. If an author wants to write outside their experience well, they have to do the research. Find out. Most essentially, listen to the people they want to write about, or those close to them. Find out how things really are for them. If we want to give a voice to someone else, we need to know what their authentic voice sounds like. Or could sound like. And of course people are individuals, and one voice is not a social grouping, and we should not be ok with one character being made to speak for a whole group of people, especially when the writer doesn’t have that background.

If the point of the story is to reveal something true, to support, to empathise, then its probably acceptable. It’s not acceptable to make a fetish item of the ‘other’. It’s also important to avoid indulgent redemption narratives that show people like the author saving people who are not like the author – all too often with ridiculously little effort. Rescue narratives often perpetrate myths, and power imbalances.

Respect for your subject matter is key. The author who respects what they’re writing about handles it very differently from the author who sees a cheap thrill to exploit for cash. Work based on genuine insight tends to have a lot more integrity. Imagination rooted in research tends to be a lot more engaging than people making inaccurate guesses based on assumptions.

Anyone who wants to argue with appropriation as a ‘PC’ issue, had better be prepared to defend their work on the basis of its inherent quality. It has to be said, people talking out of their arses seldom write good books.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Fiction and Appropriation

  • Ryan C.

    Reminds me of the ire JK Rowling raised when she (probably innocently but misguidedly) wrote a bit of revisionist history about Native American magic for the Pottermore site. Your advice of actually talking to people from minority groups before writing about them is salient there.

  • Sheila North

    I write quite frequently from a male point of view. I have never been a bloke (to my knowledge) with the possible exception of past life. Should I not write from that POV? I have been told by another writer that I write quite well about damaged men. Not sure if that’s a compliment or not.

    More recently, I’ve been writing about talking cats, badgers, elderly unicorns who live in care homes, a talking hound, etc. I have no idea how I would do research on those beings/POVs which would not involve illegal plants &/or chemicals.

    I’m not sure how seriously you are saying that a “good writer should be able to write about anything”. What, including things that hold no interest for them?

    • AutumnWolfe

      Where I agree with your attitude. An idea you might not have thought about was interviewing human elderly in care homes. Would the animals in your stories have slimier issues? As far as ageing and care provided, I would thing you could find attitudes and characters in these places. I hope I was able to give you an idea.

    • Nimue Brown

      You’ve never been a bloke, but I’m prepared to bet you’ve spent loads of time around blokes, talking to blokes, listening to blokes, and that you write blokes from a basis of having a pretty good idea what might make for a fair representation. I’ve read your badgers,and fantastical creatures and while they’re obviously imaginary beings, they’re also rooted in understandings of human psychology that enable them to suggest all kinds of things really effectively. Ryan’s comment about JK Rowling and Native American magic is the kind of thing I wanted to raise, had I know about this I would have pointed at it, because the power imbalance, and the scope for JKR to seriously influence how people see Native Americans are all part of the mix. Memoirs of a Geisha came up elsewhere as another possible case in point.

  • Scott Tizzard

    Nimue.. this is not directed to you, but to the concept of cultural appropriation.

    aaaarggh!!!! What the hell does cultural appropriation mean in a globalized and corporatized world! In fact, instead of putting up walls and saying one can’t take my culture, it’s mine, we should be completely sharing and opening ourselves and culture to the experience of the other. That is not to say, we should not have our own culture, but we must recognize that all human culture is nothing more than a petri dish of shared ideas from many many sources over a very loong period of time. The whole sociopolitical concept of “cultural appropriation” is a thin veneer of fascist ideology. Talk about taking the piss!

    We write because we imagine ourselves outside of ourselves. Of course it is subjective. Of course it is biased. Of course it is entirely within a human cultural context. What else could it possibly be?

    • Nimue Brown

      Hello, I do understand where you’re coming from on this Scott, and am really troubled too by the way the language of appropriation is being used by fascists to exclude people – it happens in Paganism. It’s part of what lead me to the conclusion that the easier way in, for me, is to talk about the quality of the work. Unresearched, ill-considered, self indulgent fantasy based on prejudice does not make for great writing, and I feel easy about calling out shit writing! Misrepresentation that adds to prejudice against groups of people is shit, and making a quick buck by selling cheap, dodgy replicas of other people’s cultures is shit. A less nuanced language perhaps, but one I find it easier to use well.

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