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Tuesday, March 09, 2004  

Cultural appropriation: An opposing view

Not everyone agrees with my moderate stance in regard to cultural appropriation, which I blogged about recently. I said that though I have some reservations, I believe it is acceptable for a singer or writer to focus on material from a culture he or she was not born into.

Blogger Chris Kent believes artists are more likely to perform well when they are using material garnered from their own cultures instead of borrowed from those of other people. He believes cultural appropriation is "artistically wrong."

Appropriation is defined as "to make use of material without authority or right." In this case, I'm discussing an author writing about cultures or even races outside of their own personal experience. It takes a very brave, if not eccentric, author to attempt to produce a work of fiction away from the realm of his/her life's experience. One of the first lessons learned in creative writing is to "write what you know." Creative writing, by nature, is an extension of our own observations about the culture and life we live in. We call upon past events witnessed or experienced, forming a theme through dramatic conflict and hopefully reveal an emotional truth (emphasis on hopefully).

One of the examples I used in my second entry about about the topic was Charles de Lint, who is of mainly Dutch descent. I found his probing of Romany culture in his speculative fiction novel Mulengro convincing and well-executed. Kent believes de Lint might have performed better had he written about his own life experiences.

. . .In the unique case of Canadian writer Charles de Lint whose work Mulengro deals with a series of murders taking place within the Gypsy culture, he learned about the subject matter through research. De Lint is of Rom descent and did not grow up within the Gypsy culture. Granted, when writing an historical nonfiction novel, authors must rigorously research their material. But to take this route as an author of creative fiction would seem to be the clearest way to stack the odds against the novel's success. There's virture to such curiosity and research, but it could also leave an exhausted writer holding an emotionally bankrupt manuscript in calloused hands.

Another writer I might have offered as an example is Richard Powers, whose novel The Time of Our Singing, I reviewed not long ago. Powers, a MacArthur Foundation recognized genius, is a polymath adept in music, physics, writing and no telling what else. I described his latest novel, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers ' most recent addition to his oeuvre, is the kind of novel that comes so close to perfection that a reader asks 'How?' How does he know all the things he does? How was he able to incorporate them into the novelistic form? How does he manage to live in a society that hates very bright people like the Joker hates Batman and survive, not to mention achieve all he has?

The book is about the Strom family. The parents, Delia and David, meet at Marian Anderson 's historical performance in front of the Lincoln memorial in 1939. Anderson had been barred from performing in Constitution Hall because the Daughters of the American Revolution, its owners, did not want it soiled by a Negro's presence. Despite the fact Delia cannot even drop into a coffee shop with David in segregated Washington, D.C., the classically trained singer and the physicist from Germany fall in love.

Powers, a white American who has led a varied life, is, of course, protected by the priviliges accorded white people and men in our society. He has never been isolated because of the color of his skin, stopped by the police because he fit a racially baised profile or denied housing because his presence in a building or neighborhood is not wanted. His characters have. However, I don't believe being white disqualifies him from writing about a family in which most members are people of color.

Reviewer Margie Thomson explained how Powers looks his work.

. . .He wrote his first novel in the early 1980s and several more since then and is considered one of the most important writers of his generation. It is that "aerial view", that sense of the connectedness of all things, that is his dominant concern in his life and writing. The Time of Our Singing embodies this very thing.

Powers' aerial view allows him to look at society without the biases men and white people use to protect their sense of morality while profiting from an unfair society. Like John dos Passos, Powers is able to combine knowledge from several different disciplines to make his aerial view believable. The material in the book about physics and classical music is just as verisimilitudinous as that about race. What role doest experience play? I suspect Powers has spent some time around African-Americans, but I don't believe that alone is the key to his successful depiction of such characters. He may have researched the Philadelphia Negro phenomenon, but he went beyond that, looking at how such a person would fit, or fail to fit, into the greater white society. It is his ability to do so that helped him get it right. A third ingredient is his knowledge of human nature. If he had set that aside to depict 'the Negro' as 'other' as occurs in stereotypical works, The Time of Our Singing would be an embarrassment, not a soaring achievement.

I concluded:

With this novel, Powers has penned a major monument to that journey that transcends the boundary of race as few novels ever do. He knows racism intimately, without having had to experience it himself. And, he is able to express that knowledge clearly and convincingly.

Kent counters with examples of writers who he believes benefitted from writing about their own cultures.

Authors of fantasy/science fiction are obviously not writing about their childhood and life experience, so the argument, initially, does not hold true with this genre. Take for example (I'll go out on a limb here) Anne Rice, the prolific writer of Gothic supernatural horror that usually plays centuries before her own lifetime. I argue Interview With the Vampire and The Witching Hour were her two most profound novels because she tapped her own life experience. It's her works floating through other countries and centuries that feel forced and fabricated.

Interview With the Vampire is highlighted by the unforgettable character Claudia. A prepubescent child turned vampire, Claudia struggles with her immortality year by year, forever trapped within the body of a child. Rice's own daughter died at a very young age, and the grieving author tapped this pain to create an unforgettable character and one of her most compelling, intimate novels. With The Witching Hour she calls back on her childhood in New Orleans and her young romance with husband Stan in San Francisco. She eventually places the drama squarely within the historic Garden District home she lives in to this day. Rice wrote about what she knew, and passages in The Witching Hour ring with an emotional, human truth rarely seen within her other works.

Appropriation of other cultures may also rob the writer of a chance of creating the great artistic work. Ray Bradbury is a unique example of an author writing about what he knows. We marvel at his classic science fiction novels including Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles . But his most intimate artistic expression, and what I consider to be his finest novel, is Dandelion Wine . This beautiful tribute to a past way of life was is in many ways his own childhood in early 20th century America. It is a haunting masterpiece, and as emotionally truthful a novel one is most likely to read. Bradbury wrote about what he knew (a young boy growing up in 1928), touching what was within, the final result unforgettable art. Appropriation makes it practically impossible to achieve these heights.

I don't doubt that Rice and Bradbury benefitted from the maxim: Write what you know. However, I believe people can come to know more than their own experience of the world. Ann Rice may have a Southern novel that rivals Eudora Welty's works in her, but not have realized that yet. Bradbury, in a famous short story, ""Way in the Middle of the Air," explored being alien as being black in America instead of as being an extraterrestial or a robot. He might have produced a novel that continued that exploration. So, though both writers have not taken the route of borrowing from other cultures to the extent de Lint and Powers did, each could have.

It is mainly because of my belief that the best of artists can transcend the trappings of their own lives that I cannot condemn cultural appropriation.

11:00 PM