Cultural appropriation in literature: whose voice is it anyway?

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Cinema 3Culture wars

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Once, if a writer was accused of stealing, it meant that they didn’t have enough imagination to produce original work. Today, it means they have too much of the wrong sort of imagination, and have carelessly – even cruelly – pilfered from others’ cultural heritage to create an insensitive work. The term for this new kind of intellectual theft is cultural appropriation.

In the past year, a supposedly white and elitist publishing establishment has found itself accused of producing literature that hacks into others’ cultures, perpetuates stereotypes and buries the true voice of diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Famous authors have been caught up in such cultural-appropriation controversies. JK Rowling was criticised for writing about Native American wizards in ‘History of Magic in North America’, and Lionel Shriver was called a bigot for saying she hoped the concept of cultural appropriation was a ‘passing fad’.

As a result, some publishing houses are now employing sensitivity readers to check for inappropriate appropriation and potential cultural offence in manuscripts. Even authors themselves are posting adverts on Twitter for readers from specific identity groups to pre-approve their texts and suggest adjustments to ensure a more authentic and sensitive portrayal of race, gender, disability or other identity group.

But not everyone is in agreement about the wrongs of cultural appropriation. Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada, defended cultural appropriation by arguing that writers should ‘relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you’. He even suggested that there be a prize for ‘the best book by an author who writes a book about people who aren’t even remotely like him or her’. A storm of protest followed, resulting in Niedzviecki resigning as Write’s editor and apologising for ‘failing to acknowledge the profound and lasting adverse impact of cultural appropriation on indigenous peoples’.

Is cultural appropriation bad for literature? Will this focus on diversity mean richer voices and expanded horizons in publishing houses and on book pages? Is the war on cultural appropriation a necessary correction to unexamined prejudices that have perpetuated stereotypes in literature? Or are we constricting imagination, the very lifeblood of fiction? Do we no longer believe in a writer’s ability to think themselves into the skin of a character? Is the concept of cultural appropriation simply censorship disguised as cultural concern or does it represent a new sensitivity to the authentic portrayal of diverse characters?