Earlier this month I was chided on Twitter for saying this:
I’m 70% through A Bollywood Bride by @. I now feel bereft that I’ve never been to an Indian wedding. Or worn a sari.
The chider is a woman and author whose opinion I respect. She asked me why I would ever have had an occasion to wear a sari. This then generated a lengthy and interesting Twitter conversation about cultural appropriation. I’ve thought about the points she raised as well as those raised by those in my Twitter stream who felt strongly that anyone who wants to wear a sari or a kimono or lederhosen should do so if she wants to.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article entitled “To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation.” In it, the author Cathy Young asserts that those who criticize artists and writers who draw on cultures other than their own–whatever that means–are ignoring history, chilling artistic expression and hurting diversity. She writes,
These protests have an obvious potential to chill creativity and artistic expression. But they are equally bad for diversity, raising the troubling specter of cultural cleansing. When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.
I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page and asked how others saw this issue. The answers were varied. Here is a sample.
Sometimes I go to concerts and other events that are primarily for the Indian community. I am always careful about what I wear. Once, I was sitting next to a lovely lady in a sari who asked me why I was not wearing Indian clothes, and I told her I loved them, but didn’t think it was appropriate. She looked at me sharply and said,” I wear American clothes.” And I said, “You’re right.” She was clearly giving me permission to wear Indian clothes if I chose.
As a writer, this is concerning. I have written a book about a major event in Russian history, right now its tabled because of changes I want to make, but I had planned on querying down the road. Now I have to worry about cultural appropriation because, though my grandmother is from Russia, I was born and raised in the US.
If you want to be separate stay separate, do not share and do not teach about your culture. Do not be surprised if someone wants to emulate you. Remember, mimicry is the highest form of flattery.
Without cultural appropriation by others there would be no art.
What?!?! Appropriation is the first step to acceptance and assimilation which seem like the perfect antidote to racism and segregation.
I can see both sides of this debate. Cultural theft, a hallmark of Western imperialism, is morally suspect. Stealing the work of others is wrong. As Ms. Young points out in her article,
The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.
Some of this critique was rightly directed at literal cultural theft — the pilfering of art and artifacts by colonial powers — or glaring injustices, such as white entertainers in the pre-civil rights years profiting off black musical styles while black performers’ careers were hobbled by racism. Critics such as Edward Said offered valuable insight into Orientalism, the West’s tendency to fetishize Asians as exotic stereotypes.
But to me, there’s a significant difference between passing the work of others off as your own and imagining worlds other than the one you were born to.
In romance, we are comfortable–or at least less uncomfortable–when historical romance authors write about worlds and cultures other than their own. Many, however, see contemporary romance through a different lens. Those who write the experiences and/or voices of others–especially marginalized others–can expect their work to be scrutinized.
I’m inclined to be more forgiving.
Men have written first person narratives with female protagonists–I can recommend Brett Lott’s Jewel and Reynolds Price’s Kate Vaiden. Women have written men. Many of best-selling writers of children’s and young adult literature are themselves childless. I, like you, could come up with endless examples where writers have conjured realms beyond their ken. In general, I think this is a good thing.
What do you think? I’d like to know. I’m still trying to understand this issue.