Recently, I was telling a writer friend of mine about a new manuscript I started. The second world war continues to be a fascinating subject for readers and so many amazing stories emerged from those years. Also, I’d already done tons of research. So, when I heard an intriguing story of a unique confluence of Nazis, Jewish nationals and wealthy foreigners in one place during the war, I was instantly captivated.
Trouble was the story takes place in Switzerland. I’m not Swiss. I’m not of Swiss heritage, and in fact, have never even been to Switzerland. (Although I’d really love to go!)
During the conversation with my friend I expressed my worry over what is now a hot topic: cultural appropriation.
What constitutes CA? When does writing about something you haven’t experienced begin to tread the line between the imaginary world of creative fiction, and the messy business of stealing someone’s story?
On the one hand, historical fiction is all about creating a world you haven’t lived in. Characters may or may not be based on real people, but many of the details can only be surmised or imagined. Writers of this genre do a lot of research into their book’s place and time, but at some point, they must build a world they’ve never experienced. Readers may expect a fair degree of historical accuracy as to the facts of the period but they usually give writers creative license to enrich the story.
Contemporary fiction is another story.
Most recently the book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has been widely criticized for depicting a Mexican migrant’s experience. The writer, as recently as 2016, identified as “white”. (In the lead-up to the book’s release, Cummins disclosed she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. She has also stated that she wished “someone browner” had written it.)
Controversy raged in Canada a few years ago when it became evident that Joseph Boyden, who has written several award-winning novels, misled - some would say misused - his heritage. Many in the indigenous community say they knew Boyden was falsely claiming to be First Nations or Metis. They came forward to state he didn’t have the right to speak on their behalf or write through their lens.
However, well intentioned these writers may have been, they lit up the literary world about who can tell what stories.
Understandably, there needs to be better representation for authors to tell their own stories, especially indigenous peoples and those of marginalized cultures. Claims that these books do not reflect the people they portray, that they have no right to tell stories that are not their own, are emotionally charged. But necessary. The question of who is allowed to tell whose stories has become fundamental to the way we talk about storytelling today.
But, I wonder, how far does this extend? Is it only a question of race? Or does the issue go beyond that?
Writers have been putting themselves in the heads of other genders for centuries. How narrow it would be if women could only include male characters. Or vice versa.
What about socio-economic distinctions? Has every writer who wrote about poverty truly lived it? Conversely, great wealth is not necessarily known to those who base a work of fiction in the upper echlons of power and privilege.
Circling back to my conversation, am I guilty of cultural appropriation if I base a historical novel in Switzerland, a place I’ve never lived? Can my characters be accurately portrayed when I’m not Swiss?
I wouldn’t dream of writing about a transgender person, a person of colour, or someone of a different sexual orientation than mine. Somehow writing about a country with values similar to my own seems less harmful. And my characters are as white as me. Does this make it alright or am I still trespassing on another culture?
I struggle with these are questions. In so many ways, it’s far easier to write about what you know. I’m tempted to turn away from this great story. But should I?
When is writing about something you haven’t lived going beyond the bounds of literary allowances? And when, in the interest of telling a compelling story, are writers allowed creative license to explore such stories? What’s your take? Would love to know your thoughts.
Cultural appropriation is only one aspect of a long-overdue conversation that needs to take place about race. As a white woman living in a first-world country (that is by no means innocent, despite sneering about our southern neighbours), I know that I am extremely privileged. I know also I have sometimes fallen into the trap of silence or even participation in racist thoughts and words. Recent events demand we can no longer sweep this under the carpet. I will be better.
Until next time, happy reading!