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Write What You Know: Should Authors Be Allowed To Try On Different Identities?

The author Lionel Shriver, pictured here in 2010, caused a stir at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September when she delivered a keynote speech about cultural appropriation. (David Azia/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
The author Lionel Shriver, pictured here in 2010, caused a stir at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September when she delivered a keynote speech about cultural appropriation. (David Azia/AP)

Recently, and with much trepidation, I’ve been trying to write a novel chapter about a Cree woman from Alberta. Irene, as I’ve called her, was inspired by a real, unnamed woman who appeared with her newborn child in a 30 second segment of a 1967 television documentary.

In some respects, this is a ludicrous attempt. I was 13-years-old in 1967. I’ve been to Alberta once in my life, for all of three days, and have never, to my knowledge, even met someone from the Cree Nation. I am, in short, violating the rule that was until recently beaten into the heads of aspiring writers, which is to “write what you know.”

But it’s a rule I feel compelled to break. In that 1960s television show, the Cree woman who had given birth that day served as a subject, but primarily as a symbol. Driven by a mix of good intentions, paternalism, and expedience, the show’s producers featured her to represent the downtrodden victim whose child would face a better life thanks to modern medicine, new technology, and their own enlightened liberalism.

... taking on Irene is scary. What if I portray her as a stereotype borne of my own ignorance?

Though I’d intended her to be a minor character, Irene’s becoming more important to the story. And I can’t — or don’t wish to — relegate her to the same symbolic role that she served in that broadcast. I want to make her as dimensional as the other characters – mostly the white male producers of the broadcast — in this embryonic book of mine. Although I’ve never been male or a producer, I feel I know these guys, or at least people like them. Indeed, much of the book will focus on the inherent tension they face between privilege and empathy, idealism and self-interest, that is oh-so-familiar to white progressives like me.

But taking on Irene is scary. What if I portray her as a stereotype borne of my own ignorance?

This internal struggle has been raging against a backdrop of a larger one in the literary and academic community. Novelist Lionel Shriver’s recent address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival has fanned a smoldering debate about what she describes as the fiction writer’s obligation to “Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats,” but others describe as “cultural appropriation.”

“Those who embrace a vast range of 'identities' — ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability — are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience,” Shriver declared, “and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”

Is that really what’s going on when writers of color take umbrage at whites telling their stories or transgender people protest their depiction by cisgender actors? Or, is the real issue not one of theft but rather one of access?

I admire and agree with Shriver’s assertion that, “trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job” (though I think her jabs at political correctness are a tad disingenuous and more than a tad inflammatory in these Trumpian times). But critics like memoirist Yassmen Abdel-Magied (who walked out of Shriver’s speech in protest) and Dale Peck legitimately argue that the real question today is not so much who has the right as who has the opportunity to profit from the lives (and often, the suffering) of others.

They’re all right.

These two arguments are not logically opposed. What novelists write and who publishers print should not be two sides of the same coin. But empirically, they are, because as author Kaitlyn Greenidge writes in her thoughtful essay on this dispute, “… writing from the perspectives of those who have traditionally been silenced in ‘great literature’ — the queer, the colored, the poor, the stateless — is being bought, being sold, and most important to writers obsessed with status (and we are all obsessed with status), winning awards and acclaim.”

I’m not just afraid of perpetrating the bias I deplore. I’m afraid of embarrassing myself in the process.

Acclaim probably isn’t in the cards for me; I’d settle for getting a damn book published. Nonetheless, I struggle with this issue. Should I only present Irene through the imagined eyes of another character and avoid any effort to adopt her perspective? Should I omit her entirely?

“A writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases …” Greenidge argues. “The complaint seems to be less that some people ask writers to think about cultural appropriation, and more that a writer wishes her work not to be critiqued for doing so, that instead she get a gold star for trying.”

She nailed it. I’m not just afraid of perpetrating the bias I deplore. I’m afraid of embarrassing myself in the process.

But Irene’s not leaving; she’s found a place in this still developing novel and hasn’t relinquished her hold. So it’s up to me to do my research and invite scrutiny. And I’d better stop worrying about what readers think of me, Cree or not, because until I’m ready to uncouple my self-image from Irene’s story, I will fail her.

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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