Cultural appropriation (part 3): when authors get it right

The High Arctic. Temperatures of below forty. Snow blizzards and crashing icebergs. Polar bears. And a series of islets known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands. 

Some years ago, I decided to write a historical crime novel set in this austere and remote location, a story at the heart of which lay a small community of island-dwellers known as Inuit. Once upon a time they had been called Eskimo – or Esquimaux, from the French, meaning ‘those who use snowshoes’ – a term now considered offensive. 

By the time the book was ready for submission, the publishing world had been overtaken by a storm of soul-searching, manifested in a (laudable) desire to implement greater diversity and a less clear-cut mission to ensure that authors had the ‘requisite authority’ to write about a particular subject. In other words, cultural appropriation was now a buzzword, something that might set off silent tripwires, torpedoing book projects and annihilating careers. A new, slippery dimension had been added to the evaluation process applied to a work before deciding whether to publish. 

I decided, in the end, not to submit the novel. I am not Inuit, and have never lived on the Queen Elizabeth Islands. The majority of my (painstaking) research was done the old-fashioned way – toiling through textbooks, browsing Internet documents and travelogues, and speaking to those who’d experienced life in the High Arctic.

In this, the third of three pieces on the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, I want to focus on cultural appropriation in literature that, in my opinion, has been done well – or, at the least, has achieved widespread acceptance. My previous two articles were Cultural Appropriation: why people need to get a grip and Cultural Appropriation: when authors crash and burn. In these, I made the argument that authors should not be bounded by arbitrary cultural fences – as long as they are willing to approach their task with humility.

Today authors are routinely vilified for writing characters hailing from backgrounds other than their own, with some accusing them of taking the spotlight away from authentic voices. In some cases, this is justified, particularly where authors have been lazy in their research, indulging in stereotypes and otherwise being disrespectful to the truth of the community they are portraying. In other cases, I find it troubling that authorial intent is being either assessed as automatically malevolent (without any evidence for such a judgment) or drowned out by the clamour of those who simply don’t want anyone to write outside of their cultural sandbox. 

To be clear, this isn’t a phenomenon that affects just white writers. As I have demonstrated above, minority authors can also feel trapped by this insidious form of vetting-by-public-approval. 

For me the troubling nature of this problem isn’t just that it stops authors from practising their creed – to imagine, to invent, to create fictional plots using whatever raw material happens to inspire them; the problem is also in the arbitrary nature of the yardsticks being applied.

After all, who decides whether a particular writer is authentic enough to write about a particular topic?

I shall illustrate this by means of some famous cases where I think the nature of the cultural appropriation debate becomes fuzzy. 

One of my favourite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved to the UK aged five. He did not return to Japan for thirty years. Yet his first two novels were set in Japan. However, his most famous work, Remains of the Day, is possibly the most quintessential English novel I have ever read. Ishiguro’s work has been critically acclaimed and he is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The fact that he has written both English and Japanese-set works – without raising anyone’s hackles – speaks volumes. It indicates that as long as someone has lived in a particular country or can claim a particular heritage, it should entitle them to write about that culture. Right?

But just how long do you have to live somewhere to give you that entitlement? How much of your heritage must be of that culture and how recent must it be? After all, according to modern genetic research, if we go back far enough we’re all related to each other. I could, technically-speaking, claim to be a distant relative of the Inuit I wrote about, though I doubt such a facetious argument would go down well with the howling backbenchers. 

Another of my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zuet, was set in eighteenth-century Japan. Mitchell is English, but lived in Japan for eight years while working as a teacher. The book was nominated for numerous awards; again, few questions were raised around his right to pen such a work. While Mitchell had no Japanese ancestors that he could trot out to prove his bone fides, his affinity for Japan, his dedication to researching the novel (he spent four years working out the tiniest details) became legend. 

Eight years. But what if he’d spent only a year in Japan? Or three months? Would he still be ‘allowed’ to write that novel? 

Do you see how problematical this idea can become? The notion that there are invisible gatekeepers out there judging who can and cannot tell certain stories, gatekeepers with no commonly agreed methodology as to how they are arriving at their verdict?

When taken to extremes ‘cultural vetting’ is a form of literary censorship, enabled by an age of hypersensitivity and fear. Ultimately, it means writers – and the publishing industry – will evolve to take less risks.

None of this, of course, is intended to suggest that writers have carte blanche to insult or misrepresent another culture in fiction, or to exploit someone else’s lived history just to ‘make a quick buck’. Of course not. Any writer indulging in such shallow, self-serving behaviour deserves to be called out. But the argument against cultural appropriation, if taken to its logical extreme, results in absurdism. No writer could write anything outside of their lived experience – i.e. as was pointed out in another article on this topic, we’d be awash in boring memoirs and not a word of fiction. 

Perhaps this is the right moment to mention a book that for me, at any rate, is an exemplar of cultural appropriation ‘done right’.

In 1980, an Australian writer named Thomas Keneally walked into the Beverly Hills shop of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and purveyor of briefcases. Learning that Keneally was a writer, Pfefferberg insisted on showing him his extensive files on a man named Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member who he claimed had helped save the lives of a thousand Jews – including Pfefferberg – during the war. 

This then was the seed that led to Keneally’s Booker-winning novel Schindler’s Ark, later turned into the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Keneally was not Jewish nor had he any direct experience of the Holocaust to call upon. He wrote a book completely outside of his cultural identity. What he did do was put in the work: he pored over documents, conducted interviews, and even went to Poland, with Pfefferberg as his guide, to visit Kraków and the sites associated with the Schindler story. He did his homework. 

I have read the book. It is magnificent, told with brutal honesty, but using the skills of a seasoned writer to bring to life the terrible circumstances described in the novel. Keneally’s empathy is there for all to see.

Ultimately, the debate over cultural appropriation will rage on for years to come. Not just the matter of who can tell other people’s stories, but how it should be done. 

Increasingly, writers are being accused of literary appropriation whenever they represent a minority group, no matter how they do so. This has the knock-on effect of scaring away agents, editors, and publishing executives from even considering such work. The circle narrows until we choke off a good chunk of literary endeavour.

Again, it should be said that there is nothing wrong with attempting to address many of the imbalances prevalent within the industry, an industry dominated by white writers. I completely understand that, without checks and balances, publishing will regress to the easiest option, which means paying mainstream white writers to pen stories about people of colour – or people from other minority groups – simply because they will have an easier time of selling the well-known, mainstream writer – often to audiences that themselves are predominantly white. 

What I would really like to see is the industry being challenged to champion writers from different backgrounds – but to then not restrict them by saying, we will back you, but only so long as you write in your own little cultural playpen.

A level playing field means everyone has the ‘right to write’, as long as they follow the golden rules. Do your research. Don’t indulge in stereotypes. Write with empathy and humility. Present verifiable facts, particularly when tackling matters of identity and cultural history. If possible, use a sensitivity proof reader, someone familiar with that culture.

Put simply, writers should write in a way that reflects cultural appreciation, not cultural misappropriation.

Novelist Stella Duffy has previously stated that it is “vital” that people from different backgrounds write beyond their own experiences to help shatter stereotypes and develop empathy.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. 

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

6 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation (part 3): when authors get it right

  1. I would say there is a subtlety to this debate that is being missed here. Your examples are of people writing about Japan and the Jewish community, both of which have already got a long history of writers being published en masse and read by a wide audience. I think the problem comes when authors choose to write about communities where there are very few people from that community being published, then the work doesn’t help to add to an already existing library of books but becomes an authority on the subject. That I think is the real difference between a book about an Inuit community and one about a Japanese community.


    • Thanks, Catherine. You make an interesting point, and I’m glad to have my thinking on this topic extended. No one person has the answers here, and I certainly don’t claim to – my main opposition is to those who simply want to shut down any form of debate on this clearly sensitive topic. I’m afraid I stand strongly against that sort of censorship.


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

  3. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation (part 2): when authors crash and burn | Vaseem Khan

  4. Hi Vaseem,

    This is a very good article! And I think we should not accept that “invisible gatekeepers” run the show and restrict freedom. Moreover, what you describe as the proper way to write such books, can be summarised under the term quality. Of course, this involves hard work.


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