Cultural appropriation OR Are writers free to write about anything?

Should writers be entitled to write about anything they choose? Should male writers be entitled to tell stories featuring a female protagonist, straight writers featuring a gay protagonist, able-bodied writers featuring a protagonist with a disability, white Anglo-Saxon writers featuring a Chinese, Italian or black protagonist? When these questions were put into the spotlight following Lionel Shriver’s opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, I have to confess, my initial gut reaction was, What? Why ever not? But then I actually read the speech, the protests and the backlash which followed it, primarily with regard to what I consider to be the most crucial issue: Should white writers be entitled to tell stories featuring a black protagonist?

Proving her status as self-described renowned iconoclast, Lionel Shriver ditched the topic of “community and belonging” festival organisers had given her and spoke about “fiction and identity politics” instead, or, as she might also have called it, “cultural appropriation”.

This is how the author of We need to talk about Kevin framed the issue: [The] kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with, she said. In the latest ethos, … any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. 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 and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin, she said a bit later. Indeed, her choice of phrase and tone throughout the speech, which I strongly recommend you read for yourself, gave the impression that she feels under siege and chose this down-under place far away from the US and the UK, where she resides for equal parts of the year, to vent, to go on a counter-attack of disdain and vitriol, perhaps not realising – I’m as anxious as the next person about attracting vitriol – that her speech and its detractors’ responses would go viral.

Towards the end of her speech, she said, The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience. The spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion. Has she got a point, here, at least?

The furore following Shriver’s speech focused on race as the main issue: Should white writers be able to tell stories featuring a black character?

There are many white writers who have done so, in Australia and beyond. The influence some of their books had on me when I was a young adult was profound in making me who I am: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird educated me about the oppression of black people, the scourge of racism, and the deep injustice inherent in both as much as Roots did, written by African American Alex Haley. In Australia, novels which educated me as a migrant on similar issues with regard to the treatment of indigenous people, written by authors whose work I love and admire, include Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller, Serpent Dust by Debra Adelaide, The Secret River by Kate Grenville as well as True Country and That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, Home and Legacy by Larissa Behrendt, and The Boundary by Nicole Watson. Alex Miller, Debra Adelaide, and Kate Grenville are white, Kim Scott, Larissa Behrendt, and Nicole Watson are Aboriginal.

Rather than dismissing the argument that white writers should not tell stories featuring a black protagonist with ridicule and outrage, as some white commentators have done, it pays to reflect on the effect of Lionel Shriver’s speech on black people and to consider the issue from their perspective. When I read the responses by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian born in Sudan, and by Maxine Beneba-Clarke, an Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent, I witnessed their rage and I felt the pain at the root of that rage.

In her excellent article for The Guardian Australia Yassmin Abdel-Magied characterised Shriver’s attitude as [dripping] of racial supremacy and the speech as infused with disrespect for others and said, It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide. If you read Shriver’s speech in full, you’ll see her point.

In a column for The Saturday Paper Maxine Beneba-Clarke described her reaction to Shriver as physical, her stomach a seething bundle of rage, and classified Shriver as a racist. This needs to be understood in context with her personal experience, which she reports on in her memoir The Hate Race. In the book, she details the crushing effect of persistent racist bullying and describes the cumulative effect of racist remarks as like a poison, which eats away the very essence of your being.

I can feel that. I can relate to that. And you know what? Reading Lionel Shriver’s speech and the articles of her supporters made me sick in their shrillness, their ridicule, their vitriol. These articles are filled with the contemporary culture of entitlement and it made me sick. Sick because, when someone’s ‘entitlement’ to do what they feel like causes pain or rekindles old pain, it is not okay.

So let us consider the reasons Yassmin Abdel-Magied identified in her article for The Guardian Australia why there is a problem regarding white writers telling stories featuring black characters. And let us attempt to consider these reasons from her perspective as an Australian born in Sudan – with the empathy that writers should have.

  1. The first reason is the comparative lack of opportunity black people have to tell their stories themselves and have them published.
  2. Second, she said, It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.
  3. Third, she said, consider [t]he history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?

There is some improvement, at least for Aboriginal authors, on Abdel-Magied’s first point about the lack of opportunity to get published. This is thanks to initiatives such as the annual David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript by an indigenous author and the introduction of literary awards for published books by indigenous authors, such as the new NSW Premier’s Literary Indigenous Writer’s Prize, which will foster sales. But this does still not mean equal opportunity to get published for Aboriginal authors compared to white writers.

Abdel-Magied’s second point about the potential for bias and negative stereotype is a real danger when white authors write the stories of black people.

But it is her third point that is the most crucial because it is the one that rekindles the pain of black people: The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well? 

Recently I read the blog post Cry for my Heart, Dance for my Soul by award-winning Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe for Southerly Magazine. One passage seethes with that rage and pain: There is only one enemy. Colonialism. If the imperial period was at an end we would not have Interventions, Deaths in Custody, white hood detentions of black juveniles, imprisonment for black people guulty of not being able to afford a barrister and we would not boo Adam Goodes because he was a black man named Australian of the Year.

In my interviews with them, I questioned Alex Miller and Debra Adelaide about their choices of making Aboriginal people protagonists in their novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell, and Serpent Dust respectively. In lengthy discussions, both authors showed a deep awareness of the sensitivities involved. Alex Miller based the Aboriginal people in these novels on friends he loved and admired, and regarding Journey to the Stone Country those friends asked him to write their story. Debra Adelaide sought the advice of the then Director of Education at Tranby Aboriginal Education College in Sydney, Jack Beetson. She also expressed enormous respect for an indigenous person’s position … who might believe that white people have no right to write about indigenous characters.

In her blog post Writing across cultural boundaries in the contemporary era, Angela Savage wrote about her practice in setting her novels in South-East Asia and populating them with local characters: I’m aware of the need to step with care and humility. I feel a strong sense of responsibility when I write across boundaries of identity. I’m compelled to be meticulous in my research, and scrupulous about including representatives from the communities I write about among my early readers. I’m aware of fiction’s capacity to cause pain, and I’m far more fearful of this than of public scrutiny and criticism.

Aboriginal writers – whom we might regard as the custodians of Aboriginal culture – vary in their responses to the issue. One of the most reluctant is Kim Scott, who said in an interview for The Guardian Australia: Stories are offerings; they’re about opening up interior worlds in the interests of expanding the shared world and the shared sense of community. So if there’s many voices saying we need more of ‘us’ speaking ‘our’ stories, from wherever they’re saying that, then that needs to be listened to.
In my interview with Larissa Behrendt, while allowing white authors to write about Aboriginal people, she expressed a preference for writers, such as Kate Grenville in The Secret River, who through non-indigenous characters who show their ignorance, their violence, their sense of entitlement … tell a very strong story about Aboriginal experience over writers who use Aboriginal protagonists. She also pointed to the danger of uninformed white authors to write myths or prejudices rather than truth – Abdel-Magied’s second point – which Aboriginal people find offensive.

In a piece for the Wheeler Centre, Jo Case reports Anita Heiss’s opinion on the issue. Anita Heiss said that the “Great Australian Novel” will only be written when it is inclusive of Aboriginal characters, themes, and our contributions to Australian society at every level. Importantly, like Larissa Behrendt, she emphasises the need for white writers to be informed, which means developing appropriate methodologies in order to research and write stories with believable, meaningful and (hopefully) empowering Indigenous characters. As part of that she recommends reading, not only non-fiction, but also fiction, by Aboriginal writers such as Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe, and Larissa Behrendt, and among white writers she highlights the two novels by Alex Miller which I mentioned earlier. Amongst non-fiction, a very informative read is Not Just Black and White by Lesley and Tammy Williams, which I reviewed for Rochford Street Review.

This means that white writers should reflect deeply before writing Aboriginal stories. Rather than approaching such a project by insisting on entitlement, they should recognise the need for extensive research, and approach their project with a strong sense of responsibility, respect and humility. Aboriginal society deserves nothing less.



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Angela Savage Reply

A thoughtful piece, Annette. I really like Larissa Behrendt’s idea of writing ‘non-indigenous characters who show their ignorance, their violence, their sense of entitlement’ to ‘tell a very strong story about Aboriginal experience’.

    Annette Marfording Reply

    Thank you, Angela. I thought Larissa Behrendt’s perspective on The Secret River was really interesting.

Willa Hogarth Reply

A researched and thoughtful response to the controversial issue of cultural appropriation and the concept of white writers telling a story using black characters. Annette says of white writers, ‘Rather than approaching such a project by insisting on entitlement, they should recognise the need for extensive research, and approach their project with a strong sense of responsibility, respect and humility. ‘

Is that always enough? The three writers she mentions, Alex Miller, Debra Adelaide and Kate Grenville have shown respect in various ways – through consultation and/or telling the story from a white person’s point of view. Certainly not the strident disrespectful attitude Lionel Shriver put forward. So perhaps it does depend on how the story is told. But at the same time, surely the answer to that question must come from indigenous readers and writers.

Suzanne McCourt Reply

Thank you, Annette, for an excellent post, both thoughtful and thought provoking. I have come late to the discussion and find your contribution very helpful. I have always believed that I write to get under the skin of others, to understand, to find a shared humanity. Previously, I would have erred on the side of writing from any cultural perspective as long as it was done with sensitive research and responsibility. You give me pause to reflect and reconsider. At present I am writing about a Polish family during and between the two world wars and their attitudes to Jewish neighbours and friends. At first I considered including a Jewish perspective but eventually came down on the side of using my non-Jewish characters to show complex attitudes of ignorance and anti-Semitism, bravery and generosity, as Kate Grenville did with her early settlers in ‘The Secret River’. I chose this path because, despite extensive research, I ultimately felt uncomfortable assuming the mantle of centuries of Jewish persecution. What right did I have to misappropriate such suffering? Perhaps I was simply not brave enough to go there. As an occasional painter, I often think it would be fun to do a dot painting in the style of our Indigenous artists. I don’t for similar reasons. It would be an act of misappropriation, of disrespect. These are fine lines. It takes courage to create anything. Thank you for having the courage to further such a complex discussion.

    Annette Marfording Reply

    Dear Suzanne

    Thank you very much for your kind words. How interesting is the parallel between your approach and Kate Grenville’s in context with Larissa Behrendt’s comments!

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