Cultural Appropriation (part 2): when authors crash and burn

As a follow-up to my recent piece Cultural Appropriation: why people need to get a grip, I thought I would focus specifically on cultural appropriation in literature, a subject close to my heart. In my first article, I argued that authors should have the license to write as they wish, unrestricted by artificial boundaries imposed upon them by their cultural heritage, as long as they were willing to do the necessary homework and treat their subject with due respect. 

This argument now needs to be examined more closely. Because, of course, there are clearly instances where authors have incited great angst by writing about cultures outside of their own.

In 1967, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron, was published to great fanfare. The book was based on the real Nat Turner, a black preacher and slave from the American South, and focused on the 1831 slave revolt that he inspired in Virginia. The book met with unprecedented acclaim, ultimately winning the Pulitzer Prize. Styron basked in the glow of success. 

There was only one problem. 

He was a white male being lauded for writing a first-person narrative of the black slave experience. 

The tide soon turned against Styron with various black scholars and activists condemning the work, much to the author’s own bemusement – Styron himself felt that his portrayal was well-researched and had examined, with empathy, the trauma of slavehood in the America of that period. On the other side, there was outrage that a privileged white man could dare to inhabit so intimately the life of a black man, and be amply rewarded for so doing. (Ultimately, the controversy didn’t hurt Styron. Ten years later, he wrote Sophie’s Choice. Again, hugely successful, and controversial – Styron was accused of revisionism, of recasting the Jewish experience of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. As he was not Jewish himself, this again appeared to be an instance of cultural appropriation that hadn’t quite gone to plan.)

The same arguments were raised more recently when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was published in 2009. Like Styron’s novel, the book went on to huge commercial success, but was later hit by a deluge of criticism. Stockett, a white middle-class American, had written a story about African American maids working in white households in Mississippi in the 1960s, filtering her portrayal through a ‘white saviour’ trope. The book was accused by many in the African American community of the shallowest portrayal of black people’s experiences in that setting and era. Stockett was even sued by Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper who once worked for Stockett’s brother, and who claimed that the author had stolen her likeness and life story. (A Mississippi judge dismissed the case, citing the statute of limitations.) 

Hollywood soon turned the book into a (very successful) movie – written and directed by a white man. One of its stars, black actor, Viola Davis, later said in a 2018 Vanity Fair interview that she regretted doing the film. “I just felt that at the end of the day it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”

            Other critics similarly suggested that Stockett had painted lazy, superficial stereotypes, not just failing to deliver the truth of the lives of her black protagonists, but actively harming any ‘history lesson’ other communities – especially white Americans – might take from the piece.The book – and film – offered only occasional glimpses of the cruelty inflicted on African Americans during that period. (I have read The Help. Even though I am not African American, I found it guilty of some of the above, though I’m happy for others to disagree.)

A third case.

In 2019, the novel American Dirt attracted huge publicity – for all the wrong reasons. The fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family, the book has been panned on the basis of clichéd writing, and for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” appropriating the stories of Mexican immigrants to America. Until the book’s release, the author, Jeanine Cummins, had identified as white (something she publically stated), only revealing in the lead-up to publication– and once the negative scrutiny began to take off – that she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. Cummins’ subsequent book tour was cancelled due to the level of vitriol she received and concerns for her safety.

These three novels represent a spectrum of poor to reasonably well-written portraits of cultures beyond those of their authors. Each has met with overwhelming financial success, and an avalanche of criticism, particularly from the communities they are purporting to empathise with. For some, the mere fact that they were written by people outside of those communities was bad enough. 

For others, this wasn’t an issue. 

Instead, the problem was that they were written either very badly, tritely, or without carrying out the due diligence expected of an author embarking on such a hazardous mission. In a certain sense, these authors were accused of not showing enough respect for the material, or relying on ‘white privilege’, and then being rewarded for doing so, the implication being that authentic voices from these communities are rarely given the same opportunity, platform, or rewards when they pen such stories. Effectively, the publishing industry stands accused of aiding and abetting the problem.

Many authors – including many from minority communities, myself included – have publically stated that we have no problem with authors writing beyond their own culture. To prevent authors from so doing would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a writer of fiction. If I want the freedom to write about different types of people then I must be willing to give that same freedom to other writers. After all, if we think of it rationally, every novel includes some elements of experiences beyond the author’s own cultural upbringing; if we took the ‘write only what you know’ brigade at their word, then pretty much all fiction would come to a grinding halt. (I’m a crime author. I haven’t murdered anyone lately, but have been culturally appropriating the experiences of the minority group known as ‘murderers’ for years.)

For me, the problem arises only when authors are lazy, disrespectful, insensitive, or merely using someone else’s lived experience to create a titillating story that distorts the cultural experience of the community they have chosen to portray.

The novelist Hari Kunzru has stated: “Should the artist go forth boldly, without fear? Of course, but he or she should also tread with humility.”

I agree. Humility – for the subject matter – is the key criteria here.

And what of readers, rarely considered in all this hoopla? 

The publishing industry has a habit of treating readers as a single mass that must be spoon fed. Hence, the industry’s fear of change, the habit of continuing to publish the exact same kind of book by the exact same kind of author, the pathological fear of publishing writers with ‘funny names’, or presenting readers with ‘challenging’ settings and protagonists – unless written by ‘mainstream’ authors. 

This is not a criticism of ‘mainstream’ authors. There are clearly some who make sterling efforts to include diverse characters and do a good job of it. One argument is that when popular authors do this, they aid in the process of normalising readers to seeing new cultures in fiction, thus making it easier for writers from those cultures to portray their own experiences. Again, this view is criticised by some who feel it is ‘taking voice away’ from such writers in the first place. 

Personally, I am willing to give merit to both sides of this debate. Not every white author who writes a character with subcontinental heritage is trying to steal my spot on the bus, just as when I write a white character I’m not trying to take anything away from a white author. 

In my own experience, readers can be the real catalyst for change. They are far more astute than the industry gives them credit for. If given more choice, I am certain most readers would happily embrace a good story, no matter how diverse the characters or the author’s cultural background. In other words, they can make up their own damned minds!

In the third and final piece in this series, Cultural Appropriation: when authors get it right, I examine instances where I think cultural appropriation in literature has been done right.

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My latest novel is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation (part 2): when authors crash and burn

  1. Pingback: Cultural appropriation: why people need to get a grip | Vaseem Khan

  2. Pingback: Cultural appropriation (part 3): when authors get it right | Vaseem Khan

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