In Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”, there is a scene involving a Cuban prostitute in Amsterdam. It is no more than a few lines long, if memory serves me right, and it is completely inconsequential to the rich, multi-layered plot. Yet, when I first read the scene, it made me feel uncomfortable.
Analysing my reaction years later, I realised that my mistake had been to place more emphasis on the perception people had of Cubans, and our women specifically, than on the role the character had to play (not even a supporting one).
Luckily, this incident — for want of a better word — did not deter me from seeking out more books by the same author and I can proudly say that I have got all four of Zadie Smith’s novels on my bookshelf. I can’t wait to get my hands on her upcoming fifth one.
However, the same feeling of unease has resurfaced every now and then, in different contexts and with different writers. It was on my mind recently when I read Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. It was there again when I read the backlash against her words. Shriver’s keynote speech was on Fiction and Identity Politics.
This is not a trouble-free topic. Fiction in literature operates on the principle of “otherness”. How this otherness is expressed is very much dependent on the author’s ability to construct a credible narrative within the boundaries of a make-believe world. Oscar Wilde famously said that:
“The mark of all good art is not that the thing done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the head and the workman’s heart”.
Clearly, if the otherness created by the writer carries too many attributes of its maker, Wilde’s “good art” will be nothing more than autobiography. I am aware that in creative writing courses many tutors tell students to “write about what you know”. Forgive my impudence, but I’d rather write about what I don’t know.
Which brings me back to Lionel Shriver’s speech. In it she rails against what she perceives as a counterproductive attempt to silence writers who dare to trespass into other people’s experiences, especially, those from ethnic minority groups. One of the examples she uses as frontier-jumping is the novel English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale. This is probably one of the better books I have read in the last twelve years, and one I have reread on a couple of occasions. The writing is so good, the language so exquisite (including the Aboriginal passages) and the convoluted plot so carefully laid out that I never bothered to try to find out in what little “ethnic box” the author was filed. That is what outstanding writing should do for us, book lovers, make us forget the world around us, or even better, transform that world into the lines we are reading.
So far so good. If fiction works on that otherness, then, why is it that so many writers from ethnic minority groups are up in arms at the way their cultures are portrayed in literature? Because sometimes the alleged perpetrators ride roughshod over sensibilities they do not understand. Furthermore, much-needed research is not carried out properly resulting in caricatures rather than fully-fledged characters. Had White Teeth been about the Cuban experience with the Cuban prostitute as the sole personage, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would have closed the book on whatever page I was at the time and not picked up another novel by Zadie Smith. All these factors, coupled with a lack of representation at mainstream publishing and editorial levels, mean that BAME (and there’s an acronym I strongly dislike. It stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers have to content themselves with the few crumbs hurled in their direction. No wonder people are angry.
There are many reasons why ethnic minorities — readers and writers alike — can oppose a particular work of fiction. The two top ones I can think of straight away are historical and cultural. They are intrinsically linked. In the past, recent past even, people from one continent conquered people and enslaved people from another/other continent(s). This was not just part of an economic model but also, with the passing of time, part of an ever-growing mindset. A mindset that created a “them” and “us”. The “them” being the backward element of the equation versus the superior “us”. The phenomenon of “cultural appropriation” originates from this imbalance. It comes from the perpetual clichéd-ridden portrayals of “natives” we have had to withstand for centuries. Whilst I would never justify censorship in any way, I can understand the backlash, even if I do not condone it.
Why not? Because writing is a subjective process and so is reading. This is the third layer of this cultural appropriation issue. The first one is the right to write about what “you don’t know”. The second one is to observe a set of protocols (not protocols that will limit your capacity as a writer, but which will enhance your relationship to the reader, i.e., a more credible fiction) on the subject to be written about. The third one is to accept criticism of the work produced. Said criticism should be based on the work the writer creates. Unfortunately, some of it will be unrelated to it. It is tough but completely understandable.
The only time I have had a short story published in a major publication happened four years ago. I was over the moon as many of you, I am sure, writers in your own right, have been in the past or continue to be when you see your work in print. What I also remember distinctly is getting an e-mail from a former dance student of mine to tell me that she loved the way I had developed the female character in my story. A similar comment was left below the line by a fellow blogger. That feedback meant more to me than the actual publishing. Why? Because I had gone out of my way to create a well-rounded, fallible human being, as far away from my own experience as possible. It is the same expectation I have of any fiction book I read.
The contemporary writer does face a dilemma, namely, the one brought about by social achievements. How many LGBT characters do you have in your novel? Have you got black/Asian/disabled people in your book? If not, why not? Who have you offended/ignored this time? It is a tremendous responsibility for a profession that does not offer (believe or not) healthy returns. In the UK, a writer will be lucky to earn around £11,000 a year from their work. That is less than half the average salary in London (£26,000 p.a., roughly). How do they make ends meet? By not giving up their 9–5 job. Many authors are teachers, juggling marking and assessment-setting with a passion for plot-building. I do not think that their number one priority is to present a content-poor, equal -opportunities novel to their public.
In my opinion the way to go about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation is through education, mainly history. The more future generations learn about their countries’ past (I’m mainly talking about the UK and other First World nations) and their real role in colonising and exploiting other lands, the better equipped they will be to tell whether an author’s work is nothing but a collection of stereotypes or a well-crafted story. Another way is for publishers to invest in writers who do not always conform to a certain white, middle-class, middle-age stereotype (the chief buying market). It is a tough decision to make because of the long, arduous process that characterises book-publishing, but one that is necessary if we are to push the boundaries of fiction. Who knows, maybe next time they will not need to use a Cuban prostitute.