Appropriation and fiction

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately: appropriation. It’s become a bad word (along with privilege). Racial appropriation, cultural appropriation. The taking of ideas and identities. And I think we can all agree that in an overarching way, it’s a bad thing. White bands not only appropriating the blues, but getting rich on music made by black artists who were never recognized for their work. White kids wearing headdresses to indie-rock shows. (White folks do a lot of appropriating.)

1appropriation_0Recognizing it is good and necessary. Having the conversation is important. But there’s also the issue of art being, to an extent, a byproduct of appropriation. Usually we call it inspiration or influence. It’s cool to be influenced — in fact, it’s pretty lame to huddle down in one’s safe space and only create art from that small corner of knowledge. There’s a criticism directed toward those artists who don’t take enough risks, don’t venture outside of their comfort zones, don’t explore other cultures or bring a diversity of viewpoints in their work.

And, though we writers have all heard the “write what you know” maxim, we all only know so much. Eventually experience has to give way to the unknown — especially in fiction — and that’s when the rich, deep, imaginative work begins.

But how do we explore new worlds without stealing from them? Kathryn Stockett was accused of appropriation in regard to her novel, The Help. There was anger that a white writer chose to portray black housekeepers. Stockett was sued by Ablene Cooper, the longtime nanny of her brother, who claimed the writer based the book’s character, Aibileen Clark, on her. (The suit was thrown out.)

The Guardian reported in March, “JK Rowling has been accused of appropriating the ‘living tradition of a marginalized people’ by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new story.”

I’m currently working on a novel with a transgender character and, in my efforts to best represent him, I’ve had to ask myself a lot of hard questions. Transwashing is a cisgender perspective on what’s intended as a transgender point of view — such as the hotly contested casting of Eddie Redmayne in the role of transgender artist Lili Elbe in the film version of The Danish Girl (“the cisnormative gaze of the transgender community,” according to IndieWire). The again, that book, a fictionalized account of Elbe’s life (I loved it, by the way), was written by David Ebershoff, a cisman.

So was Ebershoff wrong to write about Lili Elbe in the first place? Was Stockett wrong to write about Abilene Clark? I suppose there’s the question of intention: Did the writer see the creation of those characters and stories as a vehicle toward recognition and reward? Because cultural appropriate for personal gain is a pretty easily identifiable no. But storytelling is what writers do, and delving into characters from under-represented groups is part of that process. We can’t plump our personal and family histories forever. We have to visit other closets and bone yards. And very few writers, I suspect, are able to write a book simply because it’s topical or is likely to sell well. We all wish we could. We might even do — devil sitting on our shoulder — it if we knew how. But that’s the whole lightning in a bottle thing.

Ultimately, if we shy away from everything that could be pointed to as appropriation by someone who is closer to it, more knowledgeable of it, perhaps more qualified to write about it, we’ll never get any work done. At the same time, if we wait for those who are most qualified to do the work, it’ll likely never get done. Lots of people know stuff. Few people write books about said stuff. So the stories have to belong, at least in part, to those who go in search of them.

And those who go in search have to be the stewards of those stories. Part of caretaking is asking the questions and remaining in the discussion. Appropriation should be a topic of conversation, but it shouldn’t be the final statement.

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