Was there ever any worse advice than write what you know? Who of the greats ever wrote what they knew? Did Charlotte Bronte live in a grand country house with a man called Edward Rochester who tried to commit bigamy with her before she wrote Jane Eyre? Was Gustave Flaubert a woman who committed adultery before he wrote Madame Bovary? And how many of us could write a good book if we only wrote what we know? I would have to write about a middle-aged woman who lives in a midlands town, visits Tesco and tends her garden. No story there. No bestseller. Because it's not interesting. As writers we have to make things up if we want to spin a good yarn. We have to have a murder or two, a broken heart, a bank robbery, a ride in a spaceship.
But what those writers, Flaubert and Bronte, had in common is that they made you feel they did know those lives, that they did have those experiences. They made us believe the lie. So we have men writing as women as in Thomas Hardy or Henry James, we have women writing as men – Donna Tartt and Iris Murdoch. We have people writing from the point of view of someone with learning difficulties, from the point of view of an alien, an animal and most common of all, people who write historical fiction from the middle ages to the second World War and beyond.
And thank goodness for those books that tell us something about other worlds and other lives. Without authors who cross the boundary from what they know to what they imagine, we would have a poor library. No Curious Incident Of The Dog in the Night Time, no Remains of the Day, no To Kill a Mockingbird, no Of Mice and Men, etc.
So what is the big problem when we come to writing about different cultures? What’s the problem when it comes to race, when it’s white people writing in the voice of a black person, of a Chinese person of an Indian? Isn’t this the same as crossing gender and ability? What is this thing called cultural appropriation and what should we do think about or do about it?
The dictionary definition is this: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.”
There’s a couple of words there that might give us a clue as to why it’s become a thing, a talking point not just in literature but in dance, in music, in dress, in film. Those words are minority, dominant and imbalance. So when one culture, the dominant one uses stuff that belongs to (I’ll come to that later) a minority culture, that minority culture can feel offended, a sense of loss or injustice.
For example, in an American university some white students dressed up in sombreros and ponchos and the Latino students took offence. The Washington Redskins, a football club in the US, is in court over their use of the tribal headdress of the First Nation people. Popstars and clothes designers have been vilified for using turbans, feathers, bindi in their designs and now there is a very public debate about one girl who wore a Chinese dress for her prom night.
In literature one of the most famous examples of white people crossing that line and writing as a black person is the case of Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help in 2009. That book spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is based on the lives of black, female, maids in America's southern states in the 1960s. The book is written in the voices of two black women and is set in Jackson, Mississippi during racial segregation and Klu Klux Klan lynchings; it is also written in the idiomatic "black" vernacular ("You is smart, you is kind, you is important").
In the afterword to her novel, Stockett admitted she was scared she was "crossing a terrible line writing in the voice of a black person", fears which have proved to be well founded. Despite initially being hailed as "the most important book since To Kill a Mockingbird", the book and subsequent film have been widely condemned by critics, academics and commentators alleging that the novel "trivialises, misrepresents and stereotypes black women, black men and the black community" and "presents black liberation and success being dependent on white intervention and goodness".
The American Association of Black Women Historians released an open statement which concludes that it is “unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment”.
When I gave a talk to the Association of Booksellers about cultural appropriation several agents came up to afterwards and said that they had authors abandoning novels left, right and centre because they were worried about writing in the voice of “the other”. They didn’t want the Stockett treatment.
As writers we do not want to give offence, no one wants to be called a racist yet we want the freedom to write the book we choose, to inhabit other lives and to explore the full range of our imagination and ability. How can we do that? How do we walk the line between cultural appropriation and artistic licence?
There are few people today who would think that the black and white minstrels were okay. Why? Because those white entertainers were pretending in the most crass way possible to be black by wearing pigment black make-up, huge white painted-on smiles, tight curly wigs and white gloves reducing black people to grotesque and negative stereotypes, singing and dancing for their betters, as the happy slave dancing hard after a day on the plantation. But how could we blackface as a writer? By stereotyping the other in our writing, by taking a few well worn and probably out dated stereotypes and adding them slapdash to whatever we are writing; the Asian cornershop, the black street hood, the sexy Latino mama, the Chinese woman in the takeaway. If we want to have black characters in our work, we need to ensure that they are fully rounded, viable, flawed, sometimes unlikable but believable and authentic people, not representative of a whole culture but representative of themselves.
We have to ask ourselves who we are and what we are trying to say in speaking as “the other”. What are we trying to accomplish in our writing that needs that perspective? Are we the best person to say it? Have we examined our privilege and our attitudes sufficiently to give us the necessary perspective to be authentic, sympathetic and true? Are we sure that we are not dabbling in exotica, in that fascination with the other that prevents us portraying a rounded, rich culture with all its nuances, diversity and reality? By writing our story are we taking the place of someone better placed to tell it? Our aim should be not only to write well but to do no harm along the way.
Research is not as easy as it sounds. If we are researching a particular culture or language or religion we must remember that no one person can speak for a nation. There is no one person that can speak for the whole of Ireland. Nobody can give the definitive answer to how a culture behaves or what they believe or why. There are as many diverse ways to be a Muslim, or an Indian or a Jamaican as there to be an Irish person, a Catholic or an American. So whilst research is important we have to make sure we listen carefully and respectfully, analysing and deconstructing what we are told or what we discover. Read widely, interrogate what we learn, talk to people, to elders, to the young generation, watch You Tube (the font of knowledge), go places, open your ears and eyes and listen with your heart. Don’t be lazy and assume we know because we have a black friend or a Sikh neighbour. Ensure that we are accurate as possible, as sensitive as possible and that when we come to writing, that we are confident we aren’t trampling on anything particularly holy or precious.
Sometimes we won’t know the sensitivities around certain things that to us may not seem important. The tribal feathers of Native American people are routinely worn for stag parties yet in some tribes, those feathers are worn only by the oldest, holy men and only on important holy days. Some myths and stories, rituals and rites of other cultures have particular significance, are imbued with history and identity, and are not easily shared or understood.
When a child enters the care system at five, say, you have with you a big bag of your stuff, a photograph of your mum and your sister, a letter, your favourite toys, a Lego model, a jumper that smells of your bedroom, a silver chain, a pair of shoes. Then you move and you move again, and you move again and by the time you are 16 you have moved six or seven times and your big bag of stuff has been reduced to one piece of plastic from the broken toy, one piece of Lego, a corner of a photograph that’s faded and been folded in half too many times, the envelope of the letter, the letter has gone, one of the laces from the pair of shoes your dad bought you. You’ve also lost the smell. The smell has completely gone. When your social worker or your new foster carer looks at your little pile of stuff it looks like rubbish. It looks like rubbish to everyone else too. But to you it is the whole world, it is your mother and father, your brother and your bedroom, your favourite food and your childhood and what they called you and how your sister smiled.
When you have lost everything as a nation or a tribe or a culture, like the Native Americans who have lost their land and have been reduced to the role of savages in cowboy films, or you are treated like shit and addressed by the president of the US as thieves and rapists like it is for the Mexicans in the US, what remains – things like language or food or the sombrero or the headdress – becomes doubly important and maybe to some people disproportionately important. But those things mean more than those things are. They mean a whole culture, they mean everything because they represent what was lost.
So when people who have lost nothing, people from the dominant culture that has colonised half of the world, reigned over an empire, raped, butchered, enslaved, taken language, lands and people as cargo, when those people say there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and insist that we can do what we want, we need to think again of the impact of taking another’s story and using it as we want.
One writer put it this way. Do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood.
As writers we have to be the other – without it we would have no literature, no great stories, no murder mysteries, no great romances, no historical novels, no science fiction, no fantasy – but when we become the other we need always to act with respect and recognise the value of what we discover, show by our attitudes and our acknowledgements that we aren’t just appropriating but are seeking to understand.
Kit de Waal delivered this manifesto as part of Words Ireland ’s National Day for Writers event at International Literature Festival Dublin last month