Where Do Cultural Appropriation and Identity Politics Intersect?

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Last weekend I was a good little student and started a report due for my current writing course. Step one involved finding a TED Talk to write about and coming up with our main idea. That was hard, because there are so many fabulous TED Talks, but I immediately went to the writers because I know I can explore that subject to exhaustion.

I don’t know what finally pushed me towards it, but I chose a Talk by Elif Shafak, who I hadn’t heard of before, called “The politics of fiction”. It’s a longer listen, but it is an excellent presentation.

If you don’t get the chance to listen, here’s the gist: Shafak is a Turkish writer raised by a westernized, educated, single-mother who worked as a diplomat and an old-fashioned, highly superstitious, witch-doctor grandmother in Ankara. Growing up abroad in posh schools, Shafak lived the negative side of diversity: her cosmopolitan classrooms turned each individual student into representatives of their cultures. When bad things happened in Turkey, she was tormented.

Throughout her life, Shafak was pigeonholed into a stereotypical Turkish identity that was not hers. When she started writing novels in English, critics said the same things to her: I liked your book, but I was looking for you in it. Throughout her career she has been placed on writing panels with other authors simply because they provided the diversity -their writing was in no way similar, the writers just differed culturally from the majority in attendance.

A poignant point she makes in her speech, one I actually do not agree with, is that she does not believe the language of fiction is the language of politics. She argues that fiction is stories and a means of exploring. She would love for creative writers to move beyond writing what they know.

Right after listening to her, and doing some basic research for my topic, the whole Write magazine and Hal Niedzviecki debacle occurred. I read an excellent CBC article on it and they published a scan of the editorial Niedzviecki wrote. In it, he says the exact same thing: go against the proscribed axiom and write what you don’t know.

Now, he has so obviously missed the mark on issues of cultural appropriation that it is painful to witness his self-destruction. That just goes to show you how isolated and out of touch insulated literary institutions can be. Cultural appropriation is real. It exists. And this white man got what he deserved in the fallout.

What I am so fascinated by here, is seeing the same argument from both sides –though presented in vastly different ways. Shafak doesn’t want her identity to limit her ability to be a creative writer. She wants to be able to explore the elements of fiction freely. Obviously, writing as the other for a western audience means she is pretty much absolved of any kind of appropriation. Niedzviecki doesn’t even realize he is a cog in an endlessly oppressive machine and it is not ok to steal from cultures and then belittle them.

As someone who writes diverse characters and has listened to many panels related to writing the other, I maintain that it is ok to write the other as long as you do it responsibly. What does that mean? For starters, do your research. Don’t rely on offensive tropes or what you believe embodies a person from a different background than yourself.

Next, you cannot write the experience of being the other when you are not the other. One of the most succinct tidbits I heard at an LGBTQ panel last year was, paraphrased here, “Write gay characters. But don’t, as a straight person, write the experience of being gay. Because you can’t do it right. No amount of research can let you understand the layers.”

I’ve written from the POV of native characters but I have never tackled their experience of being native. That would be idiotic of me. No amount of sympathy or understanding or fury will ever allow me to do that justice. Besides, native people should be allowed to write the stories of their own experiences. If these two items don’t jive for you and you are writing diverse characters, you are likely appropriating. Making mistakes is fine, that’s how people learn, but don’t get offended when someone from whatever background you’ve written corrects you or gets offended. Learn. Move on.

Getting back to my report –I do have a reason for bringing all of this up, aside from the fact that cultural appropriation and identity politics are important things to know if you’re a writer. I have questions I want to pose.

Looking at these two examples, and even the Lionel Shriver explosion last year, here’s what I want to know: Do you think that the author of a piece is able to remove themselves from it? Is the writer always going to be where cultural appropriation and identity politics intersect in fiction? Can readers ever really separate authors from their stories?

I know my answers to these questions and my research is helping but I would love to hear from the writing community we have here. Thanks in advance for you thoughts!

 

Here’s the Write scan if you want to read it:

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