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.
My 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.
And 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.