From Publishers Weekly:
When I met author Colson Whitehead at a 2011 event, I was starstruck. Meeting incredibly talented writers does that to me, because they represent what I want to be when I grow up. Since I’m 50-something, most would assume I’ve missed out on that, but most also don’t know how many decades I’ve invested in my dream—or how much of that time I’ve spent coming to terms with cultural appropriation in fiction, a topic Whitehead recently addressed as keynote speaker at the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference.
I first became aware of this issue at the Southern Festival of Books, which I attended in the early 1990s. I had just started writing my first novel, which explores issues faced by people of multiracial heritage, when I attended a session featuring a young white male writer whose stories featured black characters. When a person of color in the audience challenged the author’s right to write such stories, the author responded with great care. The gist of his argument, as I remember it, was this: Writers seek out and write stories that are compelling. I don’t find the white suburban culture I grew up in very compelling, but I’m fascinated by how people of color deal with the challenges they face, so I write stories about characters of color who face such challenges. I’m sorry if that bothers you.
The audience member who’d raised the issue was indeed bothered by this, making me realize that I had a lot to learn about the fact that people of color had not only suffered through centuries of abuse at the hands of white people but had also seen their cultures and stories and histories misrepresented and often mocked through the lens of white cultures. Eventually I would learn that people of color are sick of the fact that many white people continue to put their own spins on the stories of people who are not white.
So should authors write only about people whom they resemble? I doubted that back then, and I’m glad I didn’t let this question stop me from writing my first novel. Now, though, with the issue of cultural appropriation in fiction a hot topic, I fear that some writers might let the negative pushback that they may experience if they write outside their lives stop them from writing. Instead, I hope that they read the many articles now available on the topic and apply the lessons they learn to their writing.
Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly
PG believes the concept of cultural appropriation is one that any Fascist or Stalinist dictator would love.
“We will make the rules that govern what you are permitted to write. You must not express your thoughts and ideas about a topic we determine may only be discussed by others, people who are different than you, people who we have approved to write books.”
The whole concept of the possibility of appropriating a story implies that when one book is written about a topic, no more books can be written about the same topic. That first book has occupied the available space for that story, exhausted the possibilities for anyone else to ever write about the same topic.
Black oppression by whites in the American South during the 1950’s? There’s already been a book written about that by a black person.
Harper Lee? Forget about it. She’s not the correct race. She’s the oppressor, not the oppressed. How can she write about the oppressed?
Besides, if Harper writes a book on that topic, a black person will be precluded from writing a book about black oppression because Harper has stolen that story.
PG says let every person tell the stories they want to tell, stories they are passionate about.
There is no end to stories about the topic of human nature, human frailties, human mistakes, human evil, human nobility, human triumph over oppression, etc., etc., etc.
For those who are concerned about appropriation, you write your story and I’ll write mine.
They’ll be different. They won’t be the same story.