I’ve been on a planned blog hiatus for the holidays, but it has extended into 2018 because, well, I am making a baby. And by “baby” I don’t mean a work in progress, I mean an actual child. 🙂 I’m due in just a couple weeks now, and hope to be back to regular posting by this summer, but in the meantime, here is one writing update and a brief reflection.
I took a two week online Writing Intensive with Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford. An excellent class. I highly recommend it for anyone who is hoping to better learn about how to write the “other”, a perspective not your own, with an increased awareness of the social paradigms and identity markers that we tend to ignore or gloss over in our writing because it feels too different. We often hear the phrase “write what you know” and lean into this as an excuse at times to not include diverse characters who don’t fit the dominant paradigms. But I believe writers should not get so comfortable writing only what we know. Not if they want to succeed in writing challenging material. Instead of “write what you know” try “If you don’t know, challenge yourself to learn.”
I woke up this morning reflecting on cultural appropriation and the confusion surrounding the term. I’d read an article where a writer questioned a reference made in a movie, wondering whether the reference was appropriation or not. It’s always a question worth wrestling with. My reflections from this morning reminded me of a time last year when I attended a writing conference and was chatting with a prominent author. The question of cultural appropriation in my own writing came up. She said something that has given me a lot of guidance and direction.
Cultural appropriation, the way she described it, is when a dominant culture uses references, fashion, music, art, etc of a nondominant culture in an exploitative way. An example of this is a story my sister tells about a woman who owned a shop selling indigenous art. She would travel to a different location, buy the art from an artist for pennies, and then return and sell for a significant profit. She didn’t credit the artist for the work. She didn’t tell the artist what she planned to do with the art she bought. Worse, she would dress in indigenous attire to present herself to customers as though she were a part of that culture, or an advocate at least, making it seem like she was “authentic” in some way, a lover of this culture. Purely for sales purposes. That is exploitative. She could have contracted with the artist for fair wholesale pricing. She could have included information about the artist on her website or blog, business cards at the store. There were so many other ways she could have made it a positive experience for both her and the artist, promoting meaningful change in the artist’s community.
This works the same for writing. Borrowing material from nondominant cultures so your writing feels exotic, with the ultimate goal of monetary profit, is cultural appropriation. At the conference I attended, the author I chatted with was clear that whenever she researched a culture for her books, she always included the names of the people who helped her with the research/provided her with the cultural context in the acknowledgments. On the cover, if an outfit for the model was made in another country, she would try to find the dressmaker to credit their work. Because how you borrow from a nondominant culture actually matters. If it is meant to educate, draw attention to social issues, point to resources readers can turn to, point to writers and artists in that nondominant culture to provide an even richer experience for readers and positive change for those in that community…that is all valuable and there is space for that.
Something else this author explained to me was that a nondominant culture really can’t appropriate from the dominant culture. This is because the dominant culture generally makes great efforts to force assimilation and sameness (to maintain dominance), and leaves nondominant cultures permanently changed. It’s why we still have Latin on our court buildings and money, why we use Roman Numerals, why certain English words are spelled in peculiarly nonEnglish ways. These are the residual stamps of dominant cultures, and it isn’t cultural appropriation that we continue to use them.
So, when a nondominant culture uses the stamps of a dominant culture, it isn’t about exotifying or exploiting. It’s a marker of the changed state of the nondominant culture, the impressions or stamps left behind by the dominating culture. It’s not, as friends I’ve known have lamented, that people are no longer allowed to celebrate or enjoy other cultures. The writing intensive I took was certainly liberating in that regard–it encouraged experimentation and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in your writing! But appropriation happens when people do not take the time to ask themselves this simple question: why do I want to incorporate this other culture in my writing? If the answer is, “I think it is cool!” that is problematic and exotifying. If the answer is “It’s different. Different sells” just don’t, unless you are thinking of selflessly lifting up someone from that culture so they are then able to lift up others from their own culture. Sadly most don’t think that selfless way when it comes to making money.
Lastly, if your answer is: “I find the culture meaningful, and I want to learn more and point others to the values of this culture” that is great! But it DOES mean you then have the burden of responsibility. It means being HUMBLE. It means research. It means traveling. It means taking courses like the Writing the Other intensives and meeting people from that culture and CREDITING them when they help you get it right. It means hiring a sensitivity reader from that culture. More than one, if you can. It means you are no longer JUST a writer, you are a scholar. A sponge for new information. An advocate for the ones who are still voiceless.
If that sounds like too much work, maybe just stick to “write what you know.” There are other ways you can promote and support authors who are writing from different perspectives. But we’re living in a world where that might not cut it anymore because the internet and social media have given voice to people who didn’t have a voice at all before. It means people are becoming more aware of inclusivity and also of exclusivity. Challenging, fresh, meaningful representation is welcome. Appropriation is not.