Jan 15, 2012

Inspiration vs. Appropriation, Part 2

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the concept of inspiration vs. appropriation (read the conversations that followed here on this blog, or here where it appeared on MulticulturalFamilia.com.) I just recently received a comment from YA author, Terry Farish, that got me thinking about the topic again. Terry writes,
"I am a member of the dominant American culture. Here's one thought I have about people from the dominant culture writing about people in non-dominant cultures.  Could it be seen as not appropriation, but as a hunger to understand.  And for writers, it is through writing that we can begin to understand
our communities, our humanity, and, in this case, our multicultural country.  Is this only an apology?  I don't think so.  I think it would far worse if white people only sought to understand other white people, only wrote about other white people.   What if we lived in a world in which each ethnicity only wrote or created art about its own and no bridges were built between cultures by people trying to understand.  I do think it's my responsibility to honor Sudanese writers and work to support the development of their skills of young writers. 
I'd love to hear your ideas about this."
Terry, I had so many thoughts and questions for myself after reading your comment that I thought it best to just write another post. I hope you don't mind me sharing your comment with other readers. I am still trying to flesh out my thinking on appropriation vs. inspiration/appreciation/and now a hunger to understand. These thoughts are still confusing to me and are not cohesive at all (they never were, which is why I wrote that first post!) But what follows is the way I have been thinking and feeling about the subject after many discussions with other bloggers.

Seeking to understand another culture is admirable. Writing about something to understand it better is something that I do, too. But then there's this conundrum that I run into...When sitting down to write, I personally always think of Mark Twain's advice, "Write about what you know." I juxtapose that with something my husband said to me when we first started dating. My whole life, I've listened to black music, loved black culture, and felt like I really identified with black people. He said to me, "You can do all that, but you will never know what it feels like to be black. I can't take this skin off."

Powerful lesson there. He said that to me 20 years ago and I still think about it every day. I can never know what it is like to be in brown skin, in his skin, in the skin of my children; but I can see firsthand how it feels to watch the world treat them based on their skin. I can't tell their stories because I don't really know their stories. I only know my story: the story of a white woman married to a black man who is the mother of three brown children. So that is the story I choose to tell. I write about what I know, not what I presume to know by observing their lives.

While I agree that it might be boring if white people only told white people stories, I can also say with 100% certainty that if a white woman who'd never been in an interracial marriage or raised biracial children wrote a book about the mixed family experience---even though they'd never been in a mixed family themselves---I would be suspicious, maybe even offended. They would have to do a really excellent job of researching and writing, and even then I would be doubtful of their motives, of their honesty. It would really bother me. To have someone write a story about my life situation, without ever having experienced that situation for themselves, would seem very inauthentic. It would bother me even more if they profited from telling that story.

Yet, that's what writers do. They create fictional stories, they pretend to be someone else.  I think life would be really boring if they didn't create those stories. I love to read and learn, but thinking about appropriation has made me reconsider the kinds of stories I want to read. I've decided to make a conscious effort to read authentic voices. That doesn't mean that I won't read books by white authors who write about other cultures, though.

Here's an example of a white author I admire, who tells stories from a different cultural perspective--Barbara Kingsolver.  The Poisonwood Bible was an amazing book to me because while it was a book that took place in the Congo, what it really described was a specific part of European-American culture (missionaries) and their intersection with Congolese culture. Kingsolver managed to teach me a lot about the Belgian Congo in the 1950s, but did so by telling the story of a white character's experiences in that culture. She didn't narrate someone else's story.  In another book, The Lacuna, she again taught me about another culture by writing about life in Mexico from the point of view of a half white and half Mexican character. She focused a lot on the whiteness/American-ness of that character, and how he didn't exactly fit in even though he lived in Mexico and was half Mexican. Is her character problematic for real life mixed Mexican-Americans? I don't know. But I was impressed that she so carefully crafted a story about another culture that still managed to be told authentically from her own white perspective.

Reading from the perspective of that mixed character in The Lacuna made me think of something else: I can think of many, many white authors who have written from the perspective of a person of color. There are too many to list or name, and they are in every genre of literature. But how many writers of color are there who write stories from another cultural perspective? Can you think of any? I can't. The only book I can think of is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I remember reading that book for a class in college and having my fellow students comment how strange it was to read a book about an English butler written by a Japanese man...

It seems to me that white people feel they can write from any perspective they want to, but the same is not true for people of color. White people can say that we are trying to understand, and that our quest for learning justifies writing from another cultural point of view in order to bridge gaps....and I really think that is a noble purpose. I really do.  But at the same time we have to realize that writers of color do not have that same privilege. Their stories are not being told, shared, or published as often as the white versions of their stories. And just as I would be offended if someone else wrote my story, so are many people of color offended when white authors keep telling their stories.

I haven't read your books, Terry. I just looked at your website after you commented on this blog. I don't know how you approach your cultural subjects or who the characters are in your books. I do know a lot of social-justice minded white writers who want to bridge cultures and share new perspectives with white readers, and I think that it is important work. But I am personally always reminded of what my husband said to me 20 years ago, "You will never know how it feels to be black." My 20 years of being the only white person in my household gives me a huge research base to draw from. I could use that experience to write a story from a black perspective, trying to give white readers a better understanding of black culture; but there is no way I could really get it right. I am not black and I never will be. My story wouldn't be authentic. Personally, I'd much rather foster and support a writer of color who can share their own story. If I write my own story, it would be the authentic story of how a white woman can interact with and learn to love black culture. That is my story to tell, and I believe it can bridge gaps just as well as (maybe even better than) a story I could write from a cultural perspective that is not mine.


  1. Jen, I absolutely love your response and I'm so glad that you're continuing this important conversation.  Love and appreciate your perspective so much and I'm so glad to have met you.  I'm sharing my response here, from Facebook and I totally agree with everything you've said here.  Bravo!

    I don't think it's necessarily wrong, but it's something that we need to be really careful about. Because of the privilege we whites have, we don't follow the same checks and balances as everyone else and words can carry considerable power in a world where few POC are in a position to contradict our assertions. Not only that, but we often come into topics with misconceptions and prejudices that can carry over onto our work.For me, I feel like I deal less with this issue because I have constant source of checks and balances in my life...my husband. But many whites may not have someone that they can rely on for serious critiquing. Too many whites are isolated from the perspectives of people of color...and that makes for a dangerously inaccurate portrayal of their lives. ♥ 

  2. What a thought-provoking post! I really appreciate your delving into this, and after reading it I considered which books about race have most touched me and gave me a bigger perspective.

    Without a doubt, all have been written from people who inhabited their "own skin," so to speak. Example: I really like To Kill A Mockingbird for its powerful simplicity in dealing with adult racism from a child's perspective.

    From personal experience, too, I'd hesitate to even imagine that I could pretend to be from (or write as a member of) my husband's race. There's too much of "I don't even know what I don't know," so to speak.

    Maybe that's why I tend to distrust first-person narratives in fiction when I know beforehand that the author is basing the story on someone else's experience. It always bothered me! I much preferred third-person accounts. :)

  3. Thank you for responding to me with so much care and
    reflection to my puzzling through the questions.  Thanks for sharing my words and letting them provoke
    more discussion.  I hear you clearly when
    you say you can never know exactly what it is to be black even though you've
    been the only white in your family for many years now and have vast first-hand
    experience.  You have a fascinating perspective
    on race and culture and I'd love to know you to hear your stories.  I think you're right that we all have only
    our own life story from which to see the world.  And my experience of war has shaped my interest in cultures.   But what I find so interesting is how much we can learn about our culture from newcomers to it.  When I wrote about a Sudanese girl, I learned
    equal parts about her and about our culture through her eyes.  She taught me to see the western view of
    death and dying as cultural, not the norm. 
    She showed me how work-focused Americans are.  I collected oral histories with Sudanese
    refugees for a decade.  I recently heard
    about a story in which a refugee documented the life of a white girl and that's
    a story I'd like to hear.  We have so
    much to learn from each other. 

    I think I do see my work and my role as a bridge
    builder.  I'm working with two other
    writers to create a blog called "New Neighbors: Using Children's Books to Build Bridges Between New Arrivals and Long-term Communities."  The focus is all about building bridges.  I work with refugees who are often invisible
    to many in the dominant community for many reasons.  One of my goals is to reveal small places of
    commonality where people can meet.  For
    instance, there is often commonality in how much a parent loves a child and
    would sacrifice to give a child safety and an education. 

    My greatest hope for the races and cultures
    is to find ways to inspire more curiosity about each other, to inspire more ways to imagine each other's
    lives,  to value simply being aware. Thanks for inspiring me to keep thinking.  Have to mention one more thing.  I've heard various points of view from editors on this topic.  Many seek new writing voices representing all the  cultures in the U.S..  If you are reading this, and you have a story to tell,  please know there is interest in your voice.  Some other editors express a desire simply for a story that tells a truth, sensitively created. 

  4. Heidi Durrow is a Mixed Chick who writes in the voice of different ethnicities =) 

  5. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Chantilly! I am also grateful to have met you! I like the way you refer to "checks and balances" and how your husband can critique your work. My hubs and I had a talk after I posted this and he told me about a book he'd finished reading by a white author he really likes--Robert K. Tanenbaum (he's big into action/thrillers.) He said that while he loves the suspense and action of that author, he recently had a black woman character in his book. Bobby read it and just shook his head because it was a complete stereotype. He said it was obvious that Tanenbaum hadn't interacted with many real black women. He is a good writer who didn't take the time to get that character right, and it was disappointing. Just like you said white authors being isolated from perspectives of color...makes for a dangerously inaccurate portrayal of the lives of those described. 

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I think To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my first favorite books about race and culture. I agree with you: it tells the story from such an interesting perspective.  

    It's interesting to think about your preference for third-person narratives! I just listened to an interview with a mixed race author last week on the Mixed Chicks Chat podcast. He commented that he sometimes hesitates to write in the first person because when he does, many readers assume that what he is writing is autobiographical. Readers will approach him and ask him about fictional incidents from his stories as though they really happened to him, but they are fictional! Seems like many people have a hard time separating the author's voice from the character's voice...which to me is all the more reason to have the writer come from a place of authenticity. Now you've got me thinking again! :D

  7. Terry, it sounds like you've had a fascinating awakening to other cultures through your exposure to war, and now through your exposure to recent immigrants. Your new project sounds beautiful. One of the things that my multicultural blogger friends and I talk about is finding commonality, but also balancing that commonality with a recognition of each individual's cultural uniqueness. Everyone has their own experience, their own perspective. We try to encourage others to move beyond the notion of a melting pot where we melt all the cultures that make up the U.S. into one American culture, and to cast aside the idea of "colorblindness" where no one sees the beauty of being culturally different. Because all of us in multicultural/interracial marriages have realized that we can be together, and also we can maintain our uniqueness--it just takes some work! I think it would be fascinating to read the story of your journey--how you've learned that the western view of dying and death is not the norm in our world, how you've learned that other cultures value education and safety for their children. I look forward to reading your new book! Did the girl you spent time with get to read it yet? Thinking of Chantilly's comment on this post (above? below?) I realize that you have a perfect opportunity for "checks and balances" since you're working with a very authentic voice!

    I am so glad that you've shared your thoughts here again. Thank you for stirring up my thoughts and more conversation!

  8. Glenn, I've only read The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, which was narrated by a mixed chick (black and Danish as a matter of fact!) so it had a very authentic narrator :-)  I'll have to check out some of her other stuff!

  9. I commented on your original article.  What I thought was interesting about Jerry Lieber(songwriter for Elvis) in your original article is that he was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who lived in a mostly African American neighborhood.  I'd doubt that someone like him even saw himself as part of the "dominant culture".  If he lived in an African American neighborhood it is doubtful that he had much opportunity to engage in the culture of a Polish Jew.  Did he necessarily even have a culture he could call his own.  My Polish grandmothers parents came to the US shortly before she was born..I don't know if it was the same for Lieber, but I think many Poles during that time period were told they should attempt to assimilate as quickly as possible, and leave the ways of the old world behind them.  Might I think differently of Lieber's story if he were an Ivy League educated person with wealthy parents who might have had any number of opportunities to pursue...perhaps.

    I like to read and it seems like the backdrop for many stories is the interplay between cultures...whether it be poor vs. rich, differences of education, city vs. rural, experiences of immigrants, religious differences etc. It seems like I wouldn't have much to read if I only read authors who wrote strictly about their own cultures.

    Culture is something that is always changing as well.  My parents came from a big city.  My spouse is from a small town.  His mom grew up in an area where many people had dirt floors in their houses.  With each generation the culture that is passed down changes just a little bit.

    I thought Terry Farish's responses were interesting.  Jen, do you think there is a difference in cultural appropriation when someone perhaps borrows a certain art form of a culture(like cooking, or music) to profit, as opposed to actually trying to tell someone else's story?

  10. It is so complicated, this whole cultural inspiration/appropriation issue, isn't it? I read your comment and started thinking about a lot of stuff again, but we have such a busy week this week that I'm not sure I have time to write a proper response. I'm going to list some ideas you made me think about and then when it's time for my weekend writing I'll come back and try to flesh them out. Here's what I've thought about so far:

    --I remember your comment about Chef Samuelsson. He grew up in Scandinavia and is now an expert on Scandinavian cuisine. But when he came to the US, he became "black". People here didn't look at him and say, "Look at that Scandinavian chef!" The U.S. is very skin-color focused...but I think his celebrity is making people change. He is really amazing. I just watched him on The Next Iron Chef, and a lot of his dishes were fusion dishes combining Scandinavian cuisine with American ethnic cuisine. 
    ---in the U.S. at least, skin color has been used as a means of oppression. I think that's why this inspiration vs appropriation thing is such a difficult issue here when it comes to white people writing or performing in the style of brown people
    --Skin color and culture are not the same in our society. Black is not just a style of food. There is a history of oppression that brown people carry around with them every day, everywhere they go. 
    --Wally Lamb wrote a book called She's Come Undone from the point of view of a woman and it was, to me, an amazingly accurate female voice! Women have been oppressed by men...was that offensive? and how did he do that?
    --Julia Child made a living as a French chef. How did French people feel about her?
    --Taco Bell is a huge restaurant chain that makes a lot of money selling "Mexican" food...but it isn't authentic Mexican food...How do Mexicans feel about Taco Bell?

    Writers who write from a different cultural perspective need to really be careful. Because when they're not it's like the old vaudeville black face acts; they're putting on a lot of make-up and acting out a stereotype that is truly offensive. A city person writing about rural people without proper research and insight is also offensive (think of Stephen Bloom's recent Atlantic article about Iowa...what a lot of insulting stereotypes!!!)

    When I have time to think more, there may be yet another post on this topic. Thanks for your comment...I am thinking again...a lot.

  11. I think that with writing comes an enormous responsibility to honor truth: the author's truth that comes by way of experience. To write from a perspective authentic to the author. The way you break down this argument brought me close enough to the issue to see how I would feel if a non-Latino wrote my life story, "imagining" what it would be like to grow up the way I did. I'll tell you, it wouldn't sit well. Other people's experiences I don't believe should be taken so.

    As an aside, recently, a writer posted a short flash piece about an abused young girl who kills her abuser. Although the piece was well-written, it bothered me that the writer would write from such a perspective simply to meet another writer's challenge, to see if they could pull it off. I thought it was insensitive. To handle other people's experiences in such a way is merely self-serving.

    I agree with Twain.

    Great post, Jen.

  12. I thought about Stephen Bloom when I wrote my comments before.  I think what Stephen Bloom was very purposeful in how he write about Iowa, that he wanted to write in a way that was misleading, and make people believe certain stereotypes.  

  13. Thank you, Ezzy. It is hard to sort out this whole issue. What I've been coming back to recently is the fact that there are many, many writers out there; but only a relatively few who become widely renowned. I believe it is those who take Twain's advice, really pouring their souls on to paper by writing their deepest truths, that make it to that level. I've tried to think of any "classic" piece of literature that is not based on an author's experience or truth...And it is difficult. It seems to me that the most powerful pieces of writing-- those pieces of literature that we, as a society, deem as "classics"--are all based on the truth/reality of the writer. 

    Culture and classics aside, if you read a spy novel by someone who was never a spy but imagines what it's like vs. reading a spy novel by someone who really was a spy--there is a noticeable difference! If you read a book set in your home town and the author gets the street names or bus stops incorrect, it is irritating. If it is irritating to read a small mistake about a bus stop, then it must be infuriating to read a mistake as big as misrepresenting someone's identity. In the end, I think it's all about how much effort the writer puts into the research. How much work does she/he do to make sure it is an accurate portrayal. Is there a person who can be the author's check/balance as Chantilly said? I think the "good" writers are those who will pay attention to every last detail, pour their souls on to a page, and then let someone else who KNOWS that experience proofread their work for authenticity. 

  14. Hi Jen,  Congratulations on almost completing your Masters. While maintaining these discussions!
    I've been reading two blogs that relate to this discussion and the more recent one about teaching and inspiring empathy.  Wanted to share these links. One is Coloring Between Lines about writing and illustrating books about people from many cultures, http://coloringbetweenlines.blogspot.com
    The other is not continuing but the informative posts are still up - Diversity in YA Fiction

  15. Terry left a new comment that shows up in my email from Blogger, but not here on the blog. I am posting it along with THANKS to Terry for sharing the links to sites where similar conversations are occurring.

    Terry Farish has left a new comment on your post "Inspiration vs. Appropriation, Part 2": Hi Jen,  Congratulations on almost completing your Masters. While maintaining these discussions! I've been reading two blogs that relate to this discussion and the more recent one about teaching and inspiring empathy.  Wanted to share these links. One is Coloring Between Lines about writing and illustrating books about people from many cultures, http://coloringbetweenlines.blogspot.comThe other is not continuing but the informative posts are still up - Diversity in YA Fictionhttp://diversityinya.com 


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