Should Writers Write What They Don’t Know?

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.


16 thoughts on “Should Writers Write What They Don’t Know?”

    • I doubt that Martians, Dwarves of Elves will complain but you need to watch out for the copyright trolls. Barsoom is safer, the 70 years after the Edgar Rice Burroughs death is up next year but the Tolkien estate are fierce and have another 25 years or so to get you.

      • ERB, inc has a slew of active trademarks.
        Also, they have copyrights on more recent derivative works. It’s as much a minefield as Buck Rogers.

        • I still have a naive hope that the courts will stamp firmly on attempts to use trade marks as a substitute for perpetual copyright. It does depend on someone being rich enough to fight it out to a legal conclusion so maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up. My impression is that later derivative works are not stopping writers monetizing their Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, despite the Conan Doyle estate’s every effort.

          • The trick to using trademarks is to keep a regular flow of licensed content referencing the original material.

            With Buck Rogers there are regular sequels/reboots/reinterpretations in a variety of media every decade or so. Theoretically, anybody could update or adapt the original story but most of the more memorable elements and characters in the lore come from the newspaper strip, not the story. Including the very Buck Rogers name. all under recent copyright and trademarks. Not many people would be interested in the adventures of Anthony Rogers in the 25th century. Especially with a yellow peril isolationist backstory.

            ERB, Inc has done the same with Tarzan, which is why few even dream of messing with the Greystokes. Barsoom is a bit less well protected but it would be hard to do a story that doesn’t use characters and elements from stories/adaptations under copyright.

    • You can write about Barsoom/Mars all you want. You just have to point out that Burroughs got the story wrong, and embellished what happened. Remember, the story starts with Burroughs getting a manuscript from somebody else. He didn’t write it. The nonsense of Green Martians with four arms, was added by Burroughs.

      Plus, John Carter was not the guy’s name, it was Jonathan Cartoski, he was a polish soldier before he ended up in Virginia. Everything else, was more or less correct.

      I have those stories in my production schedule for five years from now, and I don’t expect any trouble when they are published. HA!

  1. Ah, the tired people ‘whom they resemble’ vs ‘what they know’ thing again …

    The OP and the person ‘upset’ about their writing must have lived very sheltered lives for there are many exceptions to each and every of their ‘cultural appropriation’ rules. No matter the color/sex/race/religion you will find the better off and the downtrodden, the rich the poor. Yes, I know it isn’t currently PC to say such things, but what’s PC will change as time goes by as well.

    Write what you like, you’ll be hard pressed not to accidentally write about someone that actually existed either now or in the past. (I myself have a crazy man that is balancing many smaller ventures with the fuel/money of a couple large ones. A couple of my readers took a while to figure out just ‘who’ I based that side of him on … 😉 )

  2. I regard the very concept of so-called cultural appropriation as an abomination. It is racism, pure and simple.

    • When people steal land or physical objects it is straight forward theft, but it is not unreasonable to call it “cultural appropriation” if the place or the object has very particular – normally spiritual – associations for a culture. Equally, it’s not a bad term for someone trying to patent or copyright traditional knowledge or designs; you may not really be able to identify anyone owning the intellectual property but there is no problem in identifying those trying to monopolise it for their financial gain.

      Where it becomes the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’ the result is logical and philosophical nonsense. The idea of a “culture” is far too amorphous for it to be meaningful to assign ownership to it and anyway in its current form this is not really about ownership at all. We simply have a bunch of self appointed gatekeepers trying to appropriate to themselves the right to police cultural borrowing, in the name of course of identity politics.

      What puzzles me is why they care – other than self importance as an arbiter of course. A confident culture has no worries about being appropriated and will happily incorporate anything it thinks of value without any need to reject the foreign.

      • No need to go any further: you nailed it with “self importance as an arbiter” of culture.

  3. Let people write what they want; then let the judgment of history be on the merits of the work.

    That which is good and true will survive, that which is a misappropriation and an abomination should get consigned to the dust heap – by readers.

    The internet has gotten very good at letting readers express their approval – but it should be of the work, not the writer.

    And writers of the ‘correct’ color should not get a pass except on merit.

    After seeing some of the praise piled high on ‘historical’ fiction which hasn’t a clue about the history part, I’m hoping time will tell.

  4. I’m not a vampire, yet I wrote about them.

    I’m not an angel, yet I wrote about them.

    I’m not an alien, yet I wrote about them.

    If sticking to the Orwellian world of “cultural appropriation,” one wonders how anything ever gets published. From JK Rowling writing about a boy when she’s a woman to Harper Lee writing about both a white man and a black man(she was neither), we would’ve missed out on so many great works. If someone doesn’t like such a thing, then I humbly suggest that person not read the book and stay ignorant rather than try to shame another for daring to have an imagination.

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