Writing while white: Embracing diversity or appropriating culture?

By Sandra Hutchison

In interesting timing for me, the white author Lionel Shriver just caused an uproar at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival for rebuking the liberal left for sometimes condemning the “cultural appropriation” of other ethnic groups in fiction. As she puts it:

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

She mentions, for example, criticism of Chris Cleave for writing from the point of view of young Nigerian immigrant girl in LITTLE BEE (which I loved). The full text of her speech is available at that link above and it’s well worth reading.

497finalbaskervilleversionMy ears pricked up because my next novel, BARDWELL’S FOLLY, gets into that discussion. It obviously commits the offense in question, too, since it includes African American characters. Protagonist Dori’s white father wrote a bestselling novel about slavery years ago, but Dori and a black character, Maya, travel into his past and uncover something unexpected about what inspired him.

It really angers Maya, and I think her frustration is entirely reasonable. As she puts it:

Maybe I’d like to see some other beautiful books about the human condition get a little more air. Some that aren’t written by white people. Some that might actually be about an authentic black experience.

On the other hand, as Shriver points out, if condemnation of cultural appropriation is taken to its extreme, no one could ever write a character of another race, another gender, another economic class, another location, another era. Basically, all we’d be left with is memoir. Careful, inoffensive memoir.

Which would mean we never got HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,  THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. Most of Faulkner, racially problematic as it may be. Lots of novels, poof. Gone.

Do we really want to go there?

Aren’t white people who’ve read those books more likely to pick up AMERICANAH, or THE COLOR PURPLE, or THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, or THE INVISIBLE MAN, or BELOVED, and so many others? Aren’t they more likely to consider issues of fairness and justice and the history behind today’s debates? (Which, frankly, is alarmingly reminiscent of the George Wallace era I grew up in.)

Also, why should it be politically incorrect for me to wrestle in good faith with something that’s been a significant part of my existence on this planet, just because I’m the wrong color?

I was born in Florida in 1960. I remember watching the Rev. Martin Luther King’s funeral on TV. I remember my white parents expressing regret that they hadn’t thought twice about segregation before the Civil Rights movement. I remember the arguments in our neighborhood about desegregation in Hillsborough County, and the first day of school in August of 1971 when some angry whites threw rocks at our court-ordered bus as it made its way from the white suburbs to a black neighborhood in Tampa. I remember my best friend suddenly disappearing into private school. I remember having a nervous stomach-ache every morning before leaving for the bus stop.

I also remember that year as a great blessing. That’s also how I remember every year after that when I was privileged to attend integrated schools or live in integrated areas or attend integrated churches or teach in integrated classrooms. (It didn’t always happen. I’ve also lived in some very white places. And I won’t claim that marrying a white Puerto Rican counts as integration, either.)

The thing is, it’s much harder to hate or fear or hold idiotic beliefs about a whole group once you know enough individuals in it as friends and neighbors and students and colleagues and fellow parishioners and perhaps even members of your family.

A lot of Americans never really have that opportunity. They may actively avoid it, out of fear, or they don’t seek it out because they don’t know how illuminating it can be. Or they live in a very white area. And even in people of good will, that lack of personal knowledge creates enormous potential for racist stereotypes to take root.

Surely the empathy that arises from reading good fiction with diverse characters can help avoid that? No matter what color the author may be?

In BARDWELL’S FOLLY, Dori has grown up largely cut off from the diversity of the larger world. She’s not intentionally racist. Her Southern-born parents weren’t intentionally racist. Her father wrote that Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about slavery – not that she’s impressed. She’s burdened with her own resentments, and she also suffers from youth and ignorance. As the daughter of a famous author, she also has just enough name recognition to get herself in trouble for it.

This is a novel about family secrets and lies, about public shaming, about cultural appropriation and authenticity, and about the ties that bind us or break us apart. Ultimately, I hope, it’s about the redemption that can come when we seek out the truth about each other, even if we can never really know all of it.

Without any African-American characters, this novel couldn’t exist. I suppose it could have been slimmed down to basic small town women’s fiction. I’ve always written in that category. But I’ve always wanted more chew on than just a bunch of relationships. I’m thinking about faith and gay rights in THE AWFUL MESS. I’m thinking about sexual politics and how we treat rape victims in THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE. And I’m thinking about cultural appropriation and race and poverty in BARDWELL’S FOLLY.

I knew I was living a little dangerously. I sure as hell sought the feedback of African-American friends in the hope of avoiding any terrible missteps.

hot-new-release-in-african-american-literature-2And yes, I know there’s an element of irony here: White author publishes novel in which white appropriation of a black experience is one of the themes, tags it “African American,” and the pre-order promptly shows up in the “Hot and Trending New Releases” list of African-American literature, quite possibly bumping an African-American author off the list.

I know. I get it. Sorry.

Not completely sorry, though, because I’d still really like you to read my book.

The old standbys — books I will recommend to anyone

Choosing books for people can be a lot like choosing art for people. It’s fairly hit-or-miss trying to find something that is exactly to their taste.

But I get asked for book recommendations fairly often, and I have a few standbys that I’ll mention to just about anyone because I am almost certain they will be enjoyed.

I’m sure you have some, too, including some I’ll miss here, so feel free to share them in a comment! (For example, I still haven’t yet read Lonesome Dove or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both are on my shelf, waiting in my loooooong queue of Books Not Read Yet.)

But the books I have read — and recommend even to people I don’t know well — are these:

Cover of I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle 

Young Cassandra wants to be a writer and thus can see the romance of living in a derelict castle because her father’s writing block is impoverishing them all. Then new neighbors move in, and life gets even more romantically interesting.

The summary may not sound like much, but this is simply one of the most charming books I’ve ever read. It will make you smile and it will make you laugh, and you will just hate to get to the end of it and have to let these characters go.

GuernseyCoverThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The only problem with always wanting to recommend this book is that I can never remember the title correctly. It’s an epistolary novel (i.e. told in letters) that gives us a peek at a close-knit community on the island of Guernsey (off the coast of the UK) during German occupation in World War II.

There’s slow-building romance, hunger, danger, comedy, and lots and lots of charm. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t enjoy this book.

Cover of The Monk DownstairsThe Monk Downstairs

Okay, I’ll admit that this one may annoy people who are committed atheists OR people who are really piously Christian, but most others should enjoy the slow romance of tired single mom Rebecca, working hard to keep her life together, and runaway monk Michael, who’s flipping burgers at a McDonalds and living in her downstairs apartment.

I include it because if you’re here I assume you found some enjoyment in The Awful Mess, and because I just love this combination of romance, theology, and comedy.

And that’s it for this week. It’s actually harder to pick out books I’d expect everyone to love than I thought. Of course, there are many others I might recommend to someone who enjoys romance and can cope with science fiction elements (The Time Traveler’s Wife) or can handle a sad ending (Little Bee) or doesn’t mind literary prose (Housekeeping), or is already familiar enough with British classics to appreciate a spoof (Cold Comfort Farm).

In fact, as I wrote this, I kept coming up with subcategories:

  • Books for people who love Jane Austen
  • Books for Episcopalians, or at least progressive Christians
  • Books for people who appreciate literary prose
  • Books for people who appreciate a tragic ending
  • Wonderful memoirs
  • Books about writers and writing
  • Books for people who enjoy British comedy
  • Books for people who enjoy American comedy
  • Books that will introduce you to Southern literature

So, I have plenty to write about in the future, if I go in that direction. Feel free to let me know what categories you’d be most interested in. (And if nobody’s interested, I guess that’s good to know, too. Ha!)

I’m also opening this spot to occasional guest posts from other writers who would like to write a “Showing some love to ____________” blog post about a favorite (preferably not already incredibly popular) writer’s work, or something else you love that would be of interest to the kind of readers and writers who are likely to be found here. (And yes, of course, you can plug your own book at the same time.) So if you’d like to take part in that, just let me know through the contact form or below.

Happy reading!

P.S. I’d still love your vote for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire for 2015 Readers’ Choice Award in contemporary/literary/general fiction at BigAl’s Books and Pals. Voting closes March 28, US Mountain Time. While you’re there, check out the fine nominated indie fiction and nonfiction across a whole bunch of categories.