Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cultural Appropriation - Is It Appropriate?

A heated discussion recently erupted on a writer's listserve that I belong to. The topic - cultural appropriation. Specifically, should authors be allowed to write from the point of view, or about, people from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds from their own?

I was surprised to see that several of the listserve's contributors questioned an author's "right" to produce works on any topic, and from any point of view they choose. After all, isn't that precisely a writer's  job description, to get into the head of another person, no matter who they are, and render them so accurately and believeably that no one knows nor cares who created them? Great characters live and breathe on their own.

Who gets to decide who has the "right" to publish anyway? Some thought we should self-censor, which is bad enough on its own. But it also made me wonder where the slippery slope begins. How quickly do we move from self-censorship to political correctness to fascism and book burning? (For more on self-censorship, see my post on science publishing at http://sci-why.blogspot.com/2011/09/call-to-arms-and-flippers-too-science.html).

I, clearly, come down in the "Yes" camp - that any of us, all of us, can write about whatever we darn please. And we should be judged by the output of our efforts, not by the color of our skin, our gender or our age. If I was restricted from writing from the point of view of a boy, I'd never have been able to write either The Looney Bay All-Stars series, or my current YA adventure novel, Trouble in the Hills.

If I'd been judged by my skin color, I couldn't have written Juba This, Juba That, my hot-off-the-press picture book from Tundra Books, either. It's based on an African American slave chant. I'm not African-American, but I knew a good subject when I saw one. And I also knew no one else had ever written a picture book using this theme. For me, bringing the Juba chant alive for a new generation of kids of all colors trumped my own ethnicity. What a crime it would be if publishers had refused to publish this book, citing "cultural appropriation"  and my white skin as the reason!

I find the concept of cultural appropriation abhorrent. I understand that certain groups have been marginalized in history, and should be encouraged and assisted in telling their own stories. But that doesn't mean we should continue the crime of judging people by their race or gender, and preventing them from developing opportunities to create or to work because of those or any other personal characteristics. 

When people do that, they cease to be positioned on the left, where many fans of this philosophy seem to be situated. Instead they show themselves to be more in tune with the repressive philosophies of the totalitarianists and fascists on the far right.

Please read Juba This, Juba That  and judge it on its own merits - the calibre of the writing, the beauty of the art (expertly created by Ron Lightburn), and not on the color of my or Ron's skin. That would be what I call culturally appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. HEAR, HEAR! I completely agree. It is a slippery slope indeed, and the farther down we slide the closer we get to a place where "write what you know" is taken literally. And that's not a very good place.

    ReplyDelete

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