The Internet has a wonderful way of raising its collective voice on issues of social justice, and cultural appropriation in particular. It also has a way of yelling through the computer screen, so googling appropriation is a little bit scary to me. I am certain that I have done wrong, (mis)appropriated culture(s) unconsciously or semi-consciously, and caused someone else harm. And I am certain that somewhere in the World Wide Web someone has written an appropriate response - a scolding grounded in perspective, perhaps - to the approximate wrong I've done.
I am equally certain that there is more noise than nuance on the internet, and that much of the noise is too mean to engage with (or best considered as catharsis). But don't be fooled! I love The Internet because I love conversation. I do not trust my opinion to grow and inform itself in a vacuum. I don't fully trust my immediate surroundings to educate me, so I seek out alternate sources (and a lot of them). The following pieces are contemplations that have helped me sort through and develop my own thoughts. I have done some editing and brought to you The Internet, at it's best.
I suggest that you read the pieces below in order. The first is a short, sophisticated primer on cultural appropriation, complete with its own links to related source material. The second is the entirety of author Lionel Shriver's controversial speech at The Brisbane Writer's Conference, which I present as context, and the third is a compilation of peer reactions to Shriver's speech. After the jump, I share a few excerpts and thoughts of my own.
The Cultural Appropriation Primer by K. Tempest Bradford
Fiction and Identity Politics by Lionel Shriver
Whose life is it anyway? Novelists Have Their Say On Cultural Appropriation by Assorted Writers of Fiction
"Honesty and precision are one sort of currency."
"Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency. For those who have never experienced the luxury of normativity, the warm and fuzzy feeling of being the world’s default setting, humility in the face of otherness seems like a minimal demand."
"The solution is simple, my fearful friends. Give up. Accept that some things are not for you, and others are not about you. You will find you have lost nothing."
"Readers are mostly ignored in this debate, but the worldly and widely read reader has a hinterland, is quick to spot an agenda and is willing to call out fakes. Readers are more heterogeneous than writers will ever be, and in their multiplicity a book finds its measure of truth."
In many ways, I agree with Chris Cleave's call (above) to use the temperature of a work's readership (i.e. public opinion) as a guide. The objectionable-ness of a work could well be measured by the quality and number of objections to it, no? Readers know honesty. They are not fools. They can be the judges.
Somewhat relatedly, one common refrain in authorial responses to the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction is that good novels or "good writing" cannot appropriate cultures in a problematic way. A lot of (mostly, and probably not coincidentally, white) authors bring up "good" as opposed to "bad" writing, and I think (or hope) that they stand so fervently behind the assertion that "good writing and good writers can do what they want" is because they use "good writing" not only as a shortcut for well-researched, cogent, coherent and thoughtful writing, but also for something a bit more "mystical," if you will.
Authors (and I) like to think that writing can ask and sometimes answer, albeit obliquely, our most fundamental questions. "Good writing" should be so precisely observed that it could only come from a place of genuine curiosity. It should have no agenda, and that combination of specificity and guilelessness makes it something like accurate or true. Truths are something like emotional, as opposed to historical, facts. When sitting in the realm of honesty and compassion and connection, cultural appropriation is an afterthought because we, as readers and writers (and people) are right on the brink of what connects us to every other reader and writer.