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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A long time ago – 12 April last year, to be precise – I showed you the beginnings of a new project to create a fair-isle jacket using authentic Shetland Island techniques and wool. Progress has been slow because it could only be knitted with full concentration on the task; not the kind of easy creativity to accompany reading or watching TV.

Well, it’s now finished.

And I’m very conscious that, as at the beginning, it has continued to be a kind of allegory for my writing. All the colours (in this case 15 different shades) have to be in the right place at the right time, just as plot threads do.

Any loose ends must be tucked in neatly so there are no stray strands anywhere – that task alone took weeks of painstaking work.

The patterns must align and form a cohesive whole. No one must be able to see the workings.

And the end result stands or falls on the overall effect.

Interestingly the book has taken rather longer than the knitting, and certainly far more hours, but, whilst I’m confident the jacket will attract lots of comments about the time, effort, skill involved, I’m equally sure that few, if any, will appreciate the same aspects behind Killing me Gently! And yet … I’m simply following instructions for the jacket; the novel is entirely my own design and creation. But, hey, nobody ever told us life would be fair!

I’m pleased to report that the fifth draft of Killing me Gently is shorter, tighter and more tense than version four. Both the beginning and ending have been completely re-written. All the helpful comments from my raft of critics and experts have been taken seriously and have paid dividends. The book is now within a whisker of being ready for the last (I hope!) round of critical comments, inching inexorably towards that day when I say it’s mature enough to leave the nest for good. Maybe the day for wearing that Shetland jacket, huh?!

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Somewhere in the deep recesses

Cross It keeps cropping up, year after year, doesn’t it? – the banning of objects or activities or statements, lest certain people take offence.

‘Offensive’ includes, not just way-out books and films, but long-standing statues of the Virgin Mary/Jesus Christ/nativity scene, classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird/The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hallowe’en, scarves, crosses, prayers, peaceable religious folk who refuse to compromise on their principles … the list goes on.

I’ve seen the hurtful effects of narrow, rigid intolerance up close, and it’s not a pretty sight. Nor is it edifying to anyone. For me it boils down to arrogance: I’m right; full stop. Ergo, everyone else who holds a different opinion is wrong. Hello? By whose divine decree? Never mind ‘your’ rights, what about those whose rights you’re denying?

There’s far too much talk of rights nowadays, in my opinion. Wow! Only last week we heard that frozen embryos are suing their mother, actress Sofia Vergara, (who?) for the right to life! They’ve even been given names – Emma and Isabella … don’t get me started!

But seriously, in the humdrum everyday world, with rights come responsibilities. And our planet would be a kinder place if everyone tried to put themselves into other people’s shoes, esteeming them as better than themselves. And adopted the ‘Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins‘ principle.

Why am I writing about this on a blog about ethics and books? Well, of course, kindness and justice and rights and interests and conscience all play a part in deciding what’s good and right. But something more specifically triggered these ruminations. Let me explain.

Isolation in a wheelchair I spend a lot of time listening. And over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of older people confiding that they’ve secretly had doubts about many things they were once sure about, but they haven’t liked to voice them for fear of being reprimanded/corrected or of upsetting others. And as the day of death approaches, they can be much exercised by the consequences of their wavering beliefs. What a damning indictment of the rest of us. How have we managed to create a society that means these vulnerable fellow-citizens must worry alone and afraid? And let’s not lose sight of the fact that, when you live alone, largely inactive, with few distractions, such misgivings can assume quite overwhelming dimensions.

Supportive handsAnyway, a couple of weeks ago I had an absolutely amazing conversation with a wonderful elderly lady with advancing dementia. Quite how we got onto the subject I can’t now remember – we roam from topic to topic as the mood takes us – but suddenly she was talking about assisted dying. She had a personal and an intellectual stake in the subject, but had never before talked about it (or so she alleged). Why? Because most people ‘wouldn’t be interested’ in her views, and those who would ‘might not approve’ of her position. We had a brilliant hour and a half together and I’ve seldom left a discussion on this subject more exhilarated. Deep inside this ageing brain, parts of which are definitely scrambling, was a coherent and thoughtful mind that could still argue a logical case and hold a defensible personal viewpoint. My respect and admiration for her is immense. And how sad that a beautiful intellect like that is being slowly but inexorably diminished by this disease. I am doubly resolved to keep her sparking on as many cylinders as possible for as long as it’s feasible.

Oh, and speaking of approaching death … did you know that researchers have found evidence that creative people worry less about mortality because their artistic works will live on after their demise – a kind of existential security. Well, that’s the conclusion drawn from the findings of the people at the University of Kent, reporting in the Journal of Creative Behavior, anyway. Hmmm. We’ve lost a large number of iconic figures this year, haven’t we? Were David Bowie or Leonard Cohen or Victoria Wood or Carla Lane or Ronnie Corbett comforted by the lasting cultural legacy they were going to leave behind? Did it motivate them to keep creating? Rumours abound of highly creative people being riddled with angst, frequently depressed, constantly worrying whether their next work will be a success, whether they are still up to snuff. But, hang on a minute … the Kent study wasn’t done with celebrity figures; it tested psychology students more or less inclined to creativity. So, is it a matter of degree then? OK, I’ll need to think on it. Maybe I’ll talk to my clever friend about it while I still can.


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