Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


In Defense of Fiction: Is It Appropriate to Appropriate?

typewriter-801921_1920During a radio interview with Kate Raphael of KPFA’s Women’s Magazine, she asked me if I worried about being accused of appropriation because I’m writing about cultures/characters that aren’t my own. We were discussing my novel, Curva Peligrosa. Curva is originally from Southern Mexico. Another character, Billie One Eye, is half Blackfoot and half Scottish. They feature prominently in this book.

My response? An emphatic no!

Years ago, I read James Baldwin’s powerful short story “Going To Meet the Man” that features Jesse, a white sheriff. Baldwin had no difficulty entering this character’s world and taking me as a reader with him. I never questioned for a minute Baldwin’s imaginative capacity to do so.

A more recent example? Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novella by Malcolm Campbell, features a cat as the narrator. The author has no trouble convincing me that I’m overhearing this animal’s take on his mistress and his surroundings. Of course, this is fiction, not the real world, but I’m able to enter into the illusion without any problem. Nor did Campbell, a white man, have difficulty constructing an elderly female black woman.

It’s true that not all fiction writers may be able to inhabit other genders or races. It takes an imaginative leap to do so and some knowledge of the world you’re entering. But then isn’t that the sign of a skilled fiction writer? Aren’t we constantly inventing characters and settings and cultures independent of our own? In my novel Fling!, I wrote about Mexico City, a place I hadn’t visited yet, though I had been to other parts of Mexico. When I did visit Mexico City, some time after I had completed the novel, I discovered that my rendition was accurate, based on the research I did of the period (the 1920s) and the culture.

I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore Mexico and Canadian aboriginals and Trinidadians through Curva and Billie One Eye and Kadeem, all characters I’ve created. They have allowed me to expand my experience of multiculturalism and to encourage others to become more aware of people and places they otherwise wouldn’t know. This would not have happened if I felt, as a writer, I could only write about my own limited perspective. Isn’t the American (and Canadian) melting pot about dissolving such limitations? Why then would we want to demand that our fiction writers adhere to such restrictions under the mistaken view that if white writers stopped writing about characters from minority backgrounds, they would open more opportunities for minority writers.

As Svetlana Mintcheva points out in her Salon article “Writer’s imagination vs. cultural appropriation: In search of common ground,” “…when dominant culture writers engage with other cultures in their books, rather than steal this opportunity away from minority writers, they actually help generate interest in marginalized cultures. They may, in turn, help open up a market for writers speaking from within such cultures.” Amen!

This nativism approach only supports the Trumps of the world and undermines our attempts at multiculturalism if we all have to be locked into our own limited perspective. I read and write to learn about others who are totally different from myself. Does it mean Faulkner should not have written his amazing books that feature black characters? Does it mean if I’m a female writer, I can’t create a male character even though we all are biologically bisexual? Does it mean I can’t imagine myself into other’s shoes? Isn’t that a fiction writer’s major trick, to engage her reader’s imagination?

I agree with Neil Gaiman in the New Statesman, “I suppose my essential position is that I’m against any kind of imagination police, whether they’re coming from marketing reasons or from class snobbery.” Let’s appropriate wisely and continue opening the doors to perception!

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Fiction: Is It Appropriate to Appropriate?

  1. Great discussion. I absolutely agree that it is appropriate to appropriate. Can it go wrong? Yes, of course, but it’s up to the writer to do the research, to listen to beta readers, to be aware. To write about the “other” be it gender or culture or race, one has to empathize. You have to be able to enter that other space and make it believable. Technology goes a long way to help us out with that. You gan Google any place on earth for a look at what’s there and there’s tons of YouTube stuff that will help out as well. And of course go old leg work is always possible. I have a long short story/novelette based on the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and I’m as white as they come. But I do have one advantage. I taught at an HBCU for thirty-seven years. It doesn’t make me black but it afforded me tons of African American friends and insights.
    So great post and great blog. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I’ve been curious about this topic! I love exploring cultures that are not my own, but I don’t want to offend. I love developing characters from other cultures as well, but perhaps that’s why I lean towards fantasy where there’s a bit more freedom. I can draw from various influences and be inspired.

  3. Anonymous

    This is a topic that comes up repeatedly with fiction writers. I agree with your perception of it. You express your take so clearly, I’m inspired to improve my writing to appropriate to the best of my ability. I’ll be thinking of your comments when I’m trying to develop a character from outside my experiences.

  4. This is a topic that interests me greatly. I can see both sides of the argument and can’t figure out which side i land on. I do, however, think sensitivity readers are a good idea. if one is going to develop a character that is outside their own whatever, let’s make sure it’s accurate.

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