The topic of cultural appropriation is never an easy one, particularly when it comes to writing. When Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, launched her jeremiad at the Brisbane Writers Festival, she steadfastly stood on the side of writers being free to write about whatever and whomever they damn well pleased, regardless of their race or background.
It was the speech that launched a thousand op-eds. Many leaped to Shriver’s defense, seeing a long-overdue pushback against the forces of political correctness, trigger warnings, and so on. Others saw it as just another example of white cultural dominance and arrogance.
There was more than a little of the provocateur in what Shriver did, of course—wearing a sombrero to make some point, and blasting any critique of her work from cultural grounds as censorship.
Into this white-hot mess waded Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the excellent novel The Sympathizers. In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, he valiantly carves a demilitarized zone out of the culture-war battlefield:
…engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves, both in terms of demographics and ideas. When I say careful, I mean that it is possible to use one’s free speech and yet also be respectful and ethical. It is advisable not to insult people, as in the case of a white author wearing a sombrero to make her point about cultural oversensitivity. When I say curious, I mean that too many of us are not interested in the lives of others, if my experience with my airplane seatmates is any indication.
Solid advice for any writer, under any circumstances.
Also, note novelist Kaitlyn Greenridge’s response to the Shriver dustup, in which she considers whether Asian writer Bill Cheng had the right to write a lynching scene:
…I felt so strongly that Bill had a right to write that scene because he wrote it well. Because he was a good writer, a thoughtful writer, and that scene had a reason to exist besides morbid curiosity or a petulant delight in shrugging on and off another’s pain — the fact that a reader couldn’t see that shook my core about what fiction could and couldn’t do.
So, a few things to consider when writing about events, places, or people outside your immediate experience; or even well within it:
- Be careful
- Do the work
- Do it well
- Don’t be a jerk