Last month, award-winning author Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Convention about cultural appropriation in fiction. The speech was a response to a negative review of her latest novel accusing her of racism. In her speech she claimed that cultural appropriation is not an important issue. According to her, a white German American woman living in London, it’s a fiction writer’s job to “try on other people’s hats.” (Note: she said this while wearing a sombrero.)
But she’s wrong. Exploring other places, people, and cultures is an important part of fiction, but cultural appropriation is something all fiction writers should be aware of.
No matter how many “hats” fiction writers try on, they can always take them off at the end of the day. In her speech, Shriver brought up John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book Black Like Me, in which the author darkens his skin to find out what it’s like to be a black man, as an example of a beloved classic that would not have existed in today’s politically correct climate. However, she doesn’t take into account that Griffin would never understand what it was like to be black in America, no matter how much he darkened his skin. Despite his good intentions, he was not born with the burden of systemic racism. After his book was finished, he could be white again.
Being unable to fully understand the experiences of marginalized groups often results in writers misrepresenting other cultures. While yes, a fiction writer’s job is ultimately to make stuff up, inaccurately representing the lived experiences of real people is a disservice to readers and the communities they’re writing about.
Indigenous people and allies, for example, have been criticizing J.K. Rowling for grossly misrepresenting Indigenous cultures in the promotional backstory for the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In these essays detailing North American wizardry, Rowling disregards American geography and history while creating a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of Native traditions and cultures.
This lack of understanding also means writers sometimes share with the world information that they have no right to. Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha was meticulously researched, yet much of his information was inaccurate. Additionally, being a white man (i.e. not a geisha) he failed to grasp the importance of discretion. The massive popularity of the novel, as well as its presentation as a memoir, has led many readers to accept it as an authority on geishas and geisha culture. This spread of misinformation has directly affected practicing geishas. In 2001, one of the geishas Golden interviewed for his book sued him for releasing her name, as well as portraying geishas as sex workers and slaves.
If a writer is particularly out-of-touch, their privilege makes it harder for them to see what could be offensive. In Shriver’s most recent novel The Mandibles, the only African American character develops early onset dementia and her white husband’s family is forced to keep her on a leash so she doesn’t wander off. When a reviewer called her out for her racism, she tried to justify it in her speech by reasoning that this depiction of a black character was better than having no black characters at all. White, male, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, and/or otherwise privileged writers do not get to decide what is or is not offensive to the communities whose narratives they are adopting. If black readers find the image of a disoriented black woman on a leash offensive, then Shriver has two options: change it, or don’t complain about the inevitable bad reviews.
Similarly, Rowling, when confronted with criticism over her inaccurate and offensive portrayal of Indigenous people, blocked her critics on Twitter. In response to his mistakes, Golden said, “The kinds of things I got wrong don’t trouble me.” When writers deny or ignore accusations of racism, it shows they aren’t trying to represent those communities with any sort of accuracy or respect. It’s one thing to create stories about people whose experiences are different from the writer’s own; it’s another to bastardize other cultures, then reject criticism.
Even if a writer has good intentions, they often end up speaking over the people they are trying to ally themselves with. To use Shriver as an example again, her 2013 novel Big Brother expressed frustration with “the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged.” Shriver claims fat acceptance activists refused to buy or read her book. Evidence of this boycott is suspiciously nonexistent online, but if there is one, it is probably because she doesn’t really get fat acceptance, despite thinking of herself as an ally.
Shriver, by inserting herself as an advocate, is carrying on a long tradition of allies inadvertently speaking over the people they are trying to advocate for. It’s a pretty distinguished list, with novels from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in which the white author writes about black slaves to advocate for abolition) to The Left Hand of Darkness (in which a cis author creates a world where everyone is gender fluid to criticize rigid gender roles). While those are both critically acclaimed novels—in fact the last one is one of my favorites—and the authors had good intentions, Uncle Tom’s Cabin still perpetuated some anti-black stereotypes and The Left Hand was largely androcentric.
The result of all this is, in effect, colonization. Instead of military force, fiction writers use language and influence to claim the narratives of less privileged groups for profit, exchanging other people’s cultures for a place on the New York Times bestseller list.
Yet there are a few authors who are able to capture the narrative of someone of a less privileged race, gender, or sexual orientation. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, for example, is a sci-fi novel by a white man that thoughtfully and chillingly depicts an alternate reality through the narration of a black man in which slavery still exists, while paying homage to Octavia Butler (though it attracted some problematic reviews).
Fiction often relies on authors breaking out of their own bubbles and exploring other narratives and stories. But because those narratives and stories belong to real people, they have to be treated with sensitivity and respect for the truth.