How can we inhabit other characters without causing offence?
Lately I’ve been worrying about cultural appropriation as I have several characters of different nationalities in my books. Hopefully, as decent human beings we want to treat people from different backgrounds to our own with respect, however, as writers we want to write convincingly from others’ perspectives. Do we have the right to present someone else’s culture as our own when we inhabit a character from a different ethnic background in our writing?
I came across an article for the Irish Times (June 30th) written by Kit de Waal and found it really helpful. I hope she doesn’t mind me paraphrasing some of it. First of all she points out that the old adage to write about what you know is ridiculous. Most of us live fairly routine predictable lives. They wouldn’t make very interesting stories. If our books are to come alive we need to take on different personae, and if those personae are to be authentic, we need to convey accurate details about their culture. So, to some extent, cultural appropriation is inevitable. The key point de Waal makes though is that we have to write with respect. It is offensive to trivialise, misrepresent or stereotype other cultures. She concludes, ‘Our aim should be not only to write well but to do no harm along the way.’
However, in our commendable efforts to avoid offence, there is another trap we can fall into, that of adopting fashionable post colonial attitudes to the point of idealising our portraits of characters from other cultures, itself a kind of racism. We have to be real in our portrayal, otherwise we are in danger of being patronising.
So where does this leave us? If we write convincingly about ‘real’ people, using their backgrounds to provide authentic detail, and if our purpose is to create a powerful story through the characters best placed to tell it, and if we do this with respect and integrity then I don’t think we have anything to worry about.