It’s a little while since I posted anything substantive here—and yes, I do feel guilty about that, but non-online-life (if that’s the correct term) has been difficult this year, with the care and safety of elderly relatives falling on the shoulders of my sister and me. Believe me, that cuts into your free time! So to mark what I hope will be a return to blogging about more than other writers’ books, I thought I’d start with something meaty. This is a version of a post I made at the Love Bytes Reviews blog a couple of months ago, expanded slightly to take in some of the points made in the comments.
So, here’s the question: where is the line regarding legitimate inspiration for writers vs the accusation they appropriate the lives and experiences of others?
It’s an old argument and an old dilemma. Not even the very great and famous have avoided the accusation of stealing from other cultures. There’s always an imbalance of power involved, tilted away from the culture in question because of race, wealth, sexuality or whatever aspect being used. It’s an issue loaded with emotion and privilege.
For me personally, the idea of gingerly opening this can of worms was sparked at EuroPrideCon in Amsterdam back in July, when a question during the Ask an Author slot asked me if I’d consider writing more diverse characters in future stories. Now then, no matter how I parsed the question—more characters who were ‘diverse’, or characters who were more diverse than I’d managed so far?—it left me reflecting hard over the following weeks on writing diversity in fiction. And, of course, the issue really blew up post-Amsterdam for the entire genre, when a gay male writer wrote about his anger and hurt that his experience and life were, he felt, appropriated by (in his view) mainly straight female authors writing for straight female readers in order to titillate.
I won’t delve further into that particular incident—except to say three things. First, as a straight woman, I do not get to tell gay men what constitutes m/m sex or m/m culture and how that intersects with other queer cultures. Second, this is by no means the first outing for the expressed views, and the reaction is the same each time: personalised outrage that shuts the discussion down. Third, if the genre sincerely believes in encouraging ‘own voices’, then it behoves us to listen and engage even when those voices generalise in a way that infuriates us, or express views and emotions that make us uncomfortable or with which we vehemently disagree. Listen, don’t dismiss out of hand but respectfully and courteously agree or disagree as the case may be. A bit of mutual respect goes a long way.
Anyhow, back to inspiration vs. appropriation.
What it all boils down to is this. Is writing about the experiences of a group you don’t belong to, one that’s ethnically or socially or economically or sexually or physically/mentally different than the one you’re in, intrinsically wrong and hurtful? Do we writers have the right to use in our stories racial issues, or disability, or sexuality, or gender, or mythology, or religion, or anything else you can think of that characterises specific groups of humans, if we don’t live and experience those issues ourselves? Does the fact that I—a milky-white straight woman—write about gay and bisexual men (one of whom is biracial, and another having Anglo-Indian roots at a time when that was even more problematic than race is today) mean I’m appropriating the lives of people who live that as a reality and somehow stops them from voicing their own experiences? Am I silencing them by having my characters speak as though they were one of them? Does it choke off or drown out the culture’s own voices? Is using any influence from another culture, no matter how transformed in the imagination and reinvented in the writer’s thoughts and prose, a crime? Are we usurping that culture for personal gain?
Bottom line: am I and other authors stealing gay culture? Are we truly culture vultures who don’t have the right to appropriate in this way?
Loaded questions, right? There’s so much privilege, entitlement, oppression and emotion bound up in them that this topic is a real minefield, because how you view it is going to be heavily coloured by where you stand.
I don’t think I’m stealing. I don’t think that ‘culture’ is susceptible to theft, though I don’t deny the power/privilege dynamic going on there since no cultural flow is on a level playing field. But in writing my books, I haven’t silenced anyone. I haven’t denied them their right to speak and write. I’ve actually been careful to avoid some topics that I think ‘own voices’ are far better at telling, issues where they’re far more powerful: coming out, for instance, or transitioning. The mere act of writing about gay male relationships doesn’t mean I’m preventing anyone else from writing about them. And if that ‘anyone else’ is an own voice, then it can only be more authoritative and more authentic than mine, no?
Yes, many of the writers in our genre are women writing about gay men, but cultural flow is at the heart of creativity. Honest, if all I could write was my own experience, who wants to read about that milky-white straight woman living in a little village in the heart of England, who is slightly deaf, and doesn’t do a lot? Not much of a creative bloom on that, I can tell you. Instead, I hope what most of us do, whether we’re male or female, gay or straight, is take that cultural flow, as messy and imperfect as it is, and treat it with empathy and respect, aim for depth and substance, avoid stereotypes, and build connections to the community we acknowledge as our influence, while vociferously denying a platform to anything that objectifies, mocks or caricatures.
In short, we must not be jerks.
More than that. The more we’re exposed to the cultures that are ‘not me’, the better our understanding, the stronger the sense that we’re all just humans of different shades, shapes and sexuality. Cultural flow creates a great many allies who are passionate and vocal about human rights at all levels.
Author Sarah Madison said, in response to the Love Bytes post, “…stories in general should be more reflective of the population around us–which means including characters of different races or backgrounds, characters who are disabled, or have mental illnesses, characters with different sexual orientations, religions, and so on. I think we can even make them our main characters, if we do so with respect for their different experiences.”
Amen, sister. And we’re back to the word respect.
It’s all about challenging the default settings, isn’t it? And in films and books, default is white, straight and able-bodied. You’re often asked to justify a departure from that. You’re never asked to justify why a character is set to default. If the plot doesn’t hinge on white straight abled-bodiedness, why the hell not have a biracial bisexual main character or one with a visible disability? What possible difference can it make, other than ensure a better representation of real life? It’s not like I’m inventing something. I’m just not using the default model—no justification needed.
I’m still wary about getting something catastrophically wrong. I want to write about any and every human condition, but I don’t want to be actively hurtful. Who would be? So the answer for me is to work bloody hard at it: think, reflect, research, discuss, and listen to the voices of those living the experience I want to depict. And then roll all of this into a sort of synthesis that is thoughtful and, above all, respectful.
That’s the key. Respect. Mutual respect.
And lots of it.