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.