A couple weeks ago, I read this opinion piece in the New York Times of the same title as this blog post. It touches on an issue within writing, and art in general, in which I have a hard time grappling with, particularly because of my position in society; as a white, heterosexual male in Midwest America, what right do I, or any other writer, have to write about other lives outside my own existence?
Now, my gut tells me that writers should be able to write on whatever topic they want. I personally believe that the power of literature lies in the universal, that the greatest writing goes beyond the universal and taps into a universal humanity. Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature, not merely the white male class that he exists in, as do countless other titans of literature, and this is the effect that art can achieve. I believe in the transcendent power of art.
I also believe that literature and narratives have immense power to stir change and growth within people and society. Great writing works on us, consumes us, and transforms us, and we as readers engage with these texts and determine for ourselves whether its ideas are good or evil, beneficial or harmful. We ourselves have to grow in order to incorporate new ideas and new perspectives, something that literature and writing and art facilitate on a level that nothing else can match, spurring us to expand our minds and our beliefs and consider the entirety of the landscape of ideas and beliefs and behavior and emotion that our existence is comprised off, which the cloistered life without reading and literature and art lacks the exposure to.
But, there is always the sin of cultural appropriation. What right to I have to write about other races that I have, historically, been privileged over? Am I perpetuating a cycle of assimilation and erasure that has claimed and destroyed so many cultures at the hand of Anglo-American domination?
This is a constant fear I have when putting forth writing on these subjects, not because of any malice that I have put into my thoughts, but because of the possibility of my own damaging ignorance. With that in mind, the article itself addresses this anxiety best. The power of fiction and writing to capture wholes and essences, which can cause objections of cultural appropriation, is both the problem and the solution, according to the skill and ability of the writer.
A writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases — she’s always had it and will continue to have it. The complaint seems to be less that some people ask writers to think about cultural appropriation, and more that a writer wishes her work not to be critiqued for doing so, that instead she get a gold star for trying.
A writer must be intent on inhabiting that character, fleshing them out wholly without rendering them as an illustration or parody. A gravity must come with these attempts, and a writer needs to wrestle with not only the characters themselves, but the reactions to these characters; to write in a vacuum is to learn nothing, to experience only your echoes. To actually reach out and expand our borders, to create an equal humanity and depth of being in all characters, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender, is the absolute ideal of art and literature. Cultural appropriation is a thoughtless act, and so long as we remain thoughtful, critical, and rational, we can transcend, through art, the divisions that create these sorts of controversies.
Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing — how much further fiction could go as an art.
It’s the difference between a child playing dress-up in a costume for the afternoon and someone putting on a set of clothes and going to work.
Image courtesy of https://qarrtsiluni.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/kempton-face-recognition-collage-1000px.jpg
Mike McQuade, photographs by Joan Vicent Canto Roig/Getty Images and Peathegee Inc/Getty Images