Hazel McHaffie

Cultural appropriation

Indulge me this week … a bit of a rant coming up!

I confess to being mightily perplexed by the ongoing movement, OwnVoices, which is denying authors the right to publish books about cultures or people outside their own, or criticising them for apparently stereotyping characters from minority communities. But it’s gaining such traction that massive runs of books that are seen to infringe the rules are being pulped; writers are pulling their own titles faced with being called out publicly, and maligned online. Even where the author has had personal experience of the topic they’re writing about, or is a recognised authority on the subject, they can still be forced to withdraw their work if someone objects to the depiction or activity of the marginalised character; if they feel their culture or identity is being appropriated. I also know of some budding, as well as established, authors who’re veering away from traditional publishing because they have things to say, but fear no publisher will dare put their heads about the parapet on their behalf.

Why am I perplexed? Well, I thought creative writing was about imagining if … putting oneself sympathetically into the shoes of another … exploring the huge diversity of life … adopting characteristics in the protagonists which spark reactions, make a point.
If one of my characters happens to be a black gay cleric who campaigns against the death penalty, say, that doesn’t mean I think all black gay clerics are opposed to it. Does it?
If I write about a transgender man who’s fighting to have frozen embryos (which include his genetic material) unfrozen and incubated to full term in a surrogate womb, it doesn’t imply I think all transgender men want their own biological children. Does it?
Must all crime fiction be written by fully paid up criminals?
Must all YA literature be from the pen of an adolescent in the exact same community/family/circumstances?
Must I have the precise same disability myself to include a character with an impairment of some kind in my novel?

That’s not to say, anything goes. Of course not. Seems to me that there are certain key elements which should characterise the depiction of life outside one’s own specific lived experience:
Humility – being alive to the limitations of one’s own experience and understanding, and receptive to the guidance of those who may know more.
Respect – having a healthy regard for the subject matter under review, portraying it sensitively and fairly.
Research – thoroughly exploring the lived reality of those about whom one wishes to write; immersing oneself in the world they inhabit, how they think, what matters to them.
Modest claims – ensuring there’s no suggestion of extrapolating beyond the confines of the story being written.

This topic isn’t new. I loved the generous spirit behind this discussion of cultural appropriation written in 2018. And a number of well-known writers made their own views known in this article, way back in 2016. But the prohibitions do seem to have gained momentum over the years. The fall out feels more significant.

Am I being naive? Maybe. But I’ve encountered my own share of incomprehensible overreaction to characters in my books. I’ve been made to feel I’m unsympathetic and unfeeling even after spending absurd amounts of time with representatives of the community in question. Promises of endorsement within minority groups came to nothing. So I really can understand why some people are unwilling to face the wrath of the marginalised or the militant activists.

Big sigh. There are so many important causes which need the big campaigns behind them – witness the massive response following the hideous abduction and murder of Sarah Everard this past week. Is putting tighter and tighter restrictions around creative writers who want to share with us a bigger world than our own, help us to understand how other people tick, widen empathy, really the way to go?


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