Random Thoughts and Bookish Ponderings: Cultural Appropriation or Exchange?


So I read this article, published by The New York Times Book Review a couple weeks back, and I’m still mulling it over. It discusses an extremely relevant (and touchy) subject: where do you draw the line between artistic license and cultural theft? The article is well-written and provides the opinions of two writers, Rivka Galchen and Anna Holmes. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Being an artist today is challenging. I am thankful to live in a society where artistic expression is widespread and encouraged, but that means truly original ideas are hard to come by. Characters, stories, plots, style, and truths are being constantly recycled in one way or another. Consequentially, there is an expectation that authors be especially transparent about their inspiration and sources. Give credit where credit is due.

Art is also becoming increasingly diverse. Authors are expected to accurately portray a sundry of people and experience. So it begs to question: can an author tell a story that’s not theirs? Here is where it becomes important to distinguish cultural appropriation from cultural exchange.

In the article, Galchen explores an interesting power dynamic between insiders and outsiders, or minorities and majorities in literature. She explains that “it’s most often the less powerful outsider who has insight into the more powerful insider”. Holmes attempts to uncover a clear distinction between appropriation and exchange, suggesting that appropriation is expressions of ignorance or aggression. To me, it seems like sidestepping accusations of cultural appropriation is a practiced dance; as Holmes says, “a sort of posturing and performance” in order to avoid any conflict. I find this subjectivity rather frustrating – the fact that on judgement day it all comes down to presentation, not content.

Galchen brings up another an interesting point: if we are unable to draw on cultures, people, and stories that are not our own, everything would become a memoir. As the pressure for diversity in literature rises (and for good reason), how are authors supposed to write stories of fictional characters different from themselves without having to get a little creative? It becomes an interesting contradiction of sorts. As a privileged upper-middle-class, straight, white female do I have the liberty to draw inspiration from experiences that are not my own? If I ever become a writer I want to make sure that my fictional stories reflect real, diverse feelings and experiences, but, if I want to write a story about a gay male living in a low income neighbourhood, do I even have the right or legitimacy to do so? Many people would say no. And to an extent, I think they are correct. A story about the intimate struggles of an individual are best told by that person.  But does that mean we should discredit stories like The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, or The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith? Definitely not. I think what the article is trying to convey is that with respect, research, transparency, and acknowledgement, cultural exchange is entirely possible.

I think that’s why I’m drawn to the fantasy genre, especially if I plan on being a writer. If it’s all made up, it’s not really appropriation, right? Perhaps I’m cowardly or ignorant to think so. But what’s wrong with playing it safe? I’m known for being averse to conflict.

All-in-all: a provocative article. I’d recommend a read-through. Take a peek at the comments if you get a chance – it’s always interesting to see what other people have to say about the subject.

Is there anyone out there?

Until next time,

Rebecca xx

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