Cultural Appropriation, A Writer’s Perspective
As I embark on my newest book, I’m thinking about how I portray some of the characters who live a lifestyle I don’t live. There has been a lot of media lately about “cultural appropriation” and I’m trying to determine how a novelist looks at the politically correct concept in a practical way.
The definition for “cultural appropriation” seems to require that the appropriator intends to mock the culture they’re borrowing from, or that they somehow dilute the natural message of that culture. But is that narrow definition the one the media and general public is using currently? It’s hard to say. It appears to depend on your position in society. If you’re a prominent person, nearly anything you do that involves another culture can be called cultural appropriation. Recently, artworks by Monet came under fire. In paintings, he depicted his wife wearing kimonos. There was a hue and cry from protestors, claiming that it was cultural appropriation to show a white woman wearing Japanese traditional costumes. When I look at the same paintings, do I see a culture being mocked or diluted? No. I see a culture being venerated. So, clearly, I am not with the pack on the meaning or form of cultural appropriation.
Where does that leave me in terms of writing? Well, if you look around, there are a lot of hetero women writers writing about gay relationships, in male/male romances. Is that cultural appropriation, or is it a celebration of that lifestyle? And, what if a writer writes about a doctor, without being a doctor herself? Is that appropriating the medical profession’s culture? Where does it stop? Are white, hetero writers now required to only write white, hetero books? I thought we were bring criticized for lack of diversity! Literature throughout history has traditionally touched on people we find unfamiliar, cultures which fascinate us, and situations which define others. Readers are looking for the exotic and unusual, and, so long as an author does her homework, should she be given the black mark for describing these cultures? Imagine if James Michener was limited that way! So many great works would have to be “burned” in the public square.
Now, I’m no Michener or Monet; I’m a lowly mid-list romance writer. I’m hardly going to be a target for protestors, but I still could get into a little trouble by depicting a culture I don’t live in. So, I’m doing what I can to interview people in the lifestyle I’m trying to portray. I figure, if I get their input and at least get my facts right, I’ll be avoiding the “cultural appropriation” label. At least I hope so.
I’d love to know what you think is cultural appropriation, what crosses the line, and what doesn’t. How does the term apply to the books you read or write? Please comment with your opinion.