Do you know the term “appropriation”? In the context of art or literature, appropriation “refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.” (https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cultural-appropriation-5070458)
hackneyed but valid example of cultural appropriation would be to
create a Jewish character who’s miserly and obsessed with money.
would be appropriation if every
in your story spoke
in ghetto dialect, regardless of his or her history. I imagine you get the idea.
Real cultural appropriation deserves to be criticized. It’s hurtful, unjust, and tends to perpetuate the social power imbalance. As minority groups claim a voice for themselves, though, they sometimes label any use of their cultural identity by outsiders as “appropriation”. Only a Native American, they claim, is qualified to write about First Nations society. Only a dyke can write about the lesbian experience. And so on.
If you’re an author, appropriation tends to be something other people accuse you of doing. And frankly, most of the time those accusations ring hollow, at least to me.
I’m sorry, but I don’t intend to apologize for writing stories that feature black characters, even though I’m white. Nor do I feel any sort of reticence in imagining and capturing the experiences of men, either gay or straight, despite the fact that I don’t have a penis. Or creating a character who’s a Catholic nun, when I was brought up Jewish.
Sure, it’s quite possible that I will not get everything “right” (although I’d argue that human beings are so diverse and multifaceted that the concept of accuracy might not make a lot of sense). If someone objects to the way I’ve portrayed a gay man, an Asian woman, a Native American, a Catholic, a transgender woman, or whatever, because I’ve made some factual errors, I welcome the correction. However, I categorically reject the suggestion that I’m not qualified to write about groups to which I don’t belong, or that my doing so somehow inflicts damage on the members of that group.
Remember Black Lace, the groundbreaking erotica imprint that would not accept submissions from male writers? Of course they were free to make their own rules, and I suppose that in some sense “erotica for women by women” was their marketing gimmick. Still, I found it annoying, and I know many male colleagues who felt the same way. I would be willing to bet there are quite a few male authors out there who could convince an editor they were female.
Part of the magic of writing is spinning truth out of the imagination. Experience may be important, but our stories transcend experience.
The concept of appropriation is closely tied, for me, to the notion of political correctness. Please believe me when I say that I try to respect every human being on the planet. Compassion, civility, human rights for all —these are among my most cherished values. Paradoxically, political correctness often erodes these values. Wars about the appropriate terminology for a marginalized group don’t help build trust and cooperation, they tear it down.
I’m an author. I’d never claim that words are not important. However, actions still speak much louder, for me at least.
Immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., I wrote a story (Divided We Fall) about a possible dystopia I saw arising from the outcomes. The two young protagonists, one black, one Vietnamese, live in adjoining ghettos in Los Angeles. They’ve been taught to hate and distrust one another, because the powers that be understand that a divided resistance will never be effective.
The story includes some harsh language, including racial slurs. When I asked my fellow authors to help share my blurb and excerpt, some of them objected because of the language. I found this deeply frustrating. The language was the whole point, after all. It’s a deliberate attempt on my part to show how they have dehumanized one another. If I were to remove the references to “nigger” and “gook”, the story would lose some of its impact.
Finally, I just have to shrug. You’ve got to have a thick skin and a philosophical attitude, because you’re always going to piss someone off.
Meanwhile, here’s a politically incorrect excerpt from Divided We Fall. If you want more—well, all sales benefit Planned Parenthood.
I’m expecting the challenge, but still, my stomach does a queasy flip. I remain motionless, as instructed, keeping both hands visible. A tall, lean figure steps out from behind some pollution-rusted shrubbery in front of a ruined apartment building. He carries his Kalashnikov like it’s another limb, one which he points directly at me. Funny how there’s never enough food, but no problem getting guns.
“What you doin’ here? This ain’t your territory. You get your gook ass back ‘cross the street before I kick it back!”
Though the guard talks tough, I can see he’s young, maybe younger than I am. He fixes me with a belligerent glare and brandishes his weapon like he’d just as soon shoot me as not, but there’s a softness to his mouth that lets me imagine him smiling. Using his left hand to draw an ugly blade from his belt, he strides in my direction.
He wears threadbare jeans and a faded camouflage shirt, open to the waist. The inky skin on his bare chest gleams with sweat, despite the brisk wind. The paler flesh of a scar slashes across his chest, just above his left nipple. That must have been a dire wound, close to fatal. He might be young, but he’s no stranger to battle. None of us is, these days.
“You hear me, bitch?” he growls and jabs at me with his knife.
Instinct taking over, I shrink backward, then recover. He mustn’t think I’m afraid. Straightening my spine, I raise my flag a bit higher.
“I claim the right of truce.” I make my voice low, even, and respectful. But not subservient. “I’m looking for my three-year old brother. He wandered out of our territory earlier today. Someone said he might be in Niggertown.”
“You better hope he’s not.” The guard gives me an evil grin. “Me and my boys just love a bit of barbecue.”
I ignore his jibe. He’s just trying to pull my chain. I hope. “Can I have a look around? Please?”
“Any gooks enterin’ Niggertown got to pay the toll.” His leer widens, his white teeth a shocking contrast to his soot-dark complexion.
“Of course.” I’d expected something like this. I jerk my thumb toward my backpack. “May I...? I’ve got veggies, from my mother’s garden. Cucumbers, green beans and kale. Chilies, too.”
Money wasn’t much use in the barrios. Fresh vegetables, though—they were hard to come by, and I’d heard the soil in Niggertown was even more contaminated than ours.
He steps closer, until he’s looming over me. The point of his knife grazes my throat. Unflinching, I meet his eyes, brown as the muddy water of the Mekong in Mother’s old photos. His blade travels down my chest, pausing between my breasts. “I want something hot,” he murmurs. “But it ain’t chilies.”
“You think you’ll rape me?” Amazed at my own daring, I grasp his wrist and drag it to one side, until the blade’s a safe distance from my flesh. He doesn’t resist. Dropping his hand, I give the little kick I’ve practiced so many times and flip the switchblade into my hand, already open. “I’ll kill you first, boy.”
“Don’t you call me that, bitch!” I’m ready for him to hit me—I expect the toll to include some blood—but he holds back. “Anyway, I wouldn’t rape your skinny yellow ass. Nah, I’m gonna wait till you beg for it!”
I burst into laughter. I just can’t help it. “Right. That’ll happen the same day the pigs lay off the barrios and the Tower collapses.”
He tries to look fierce, but he can’t quite pull it off. “Just you wait,” he warns. “You gonna be on your knees. Beggin’ for me to put my big thing between your legs. An’ me, I’m just gonna leave you there!”