Ally v Appropriation

Ally v Appropriation

As writers, we are responsible for how our art depicts the world and our place in it. Talking about the things that divide us — race, religion, sexuality, etc — can be difficult, but it can also be enlightening, educational, affirming. Our hope is to delve into these important issues as productively as possible, with respect for each other.

To accomplish this, we will meet in small groups with facilitators, and we ask that the people who attend this conversation read the excerpts/articles below, and consider these questions to frame our conversation:

1. I believe in political and social justice for all people and want to tell stories that include characters from different backgrounds. How do I make my writing more ally than appropriation?

2. What steps can I take to maximize my chance of getting it right and avoiding passive stereotypes when I write characters outside my personal experience?

3. When I’m inhabiting a character very different from myself, how can I recognize my own implicit biases? What do I owe the character?


The title of this event, “Appropriation or Allyship,” was taken from author Rebecca Makkai’s acknowledgments at the end of her new novel about the AIDS crisis. She wrote, “This project was undertaken with a great deal of ongoing thought and conversation and concern about the line between allyship and appropriation — a line that might feel different to different readers. It is my great hope that this books will lead the curious to read direct, personal accounts of the AIDS crisis — and that any places where I’ve gotten the details wrong might inspire people to tell their own stories.” Makkai writes more about this issue here:

From Angela Pelster-Wiebe: “This increasing social fear of white writers and artists at the possibility of getting this work wrong and causing harm when they intended good, is a reasonable fear for anyone who is actually paying attention, but not for the decrease in social status that’s driving it. A corrected white person can be devastating in their embarrassed and terrified thrashing when confronted. And when it comes to absorbing the effects of white supremacy, it isn’t just the matter of increased amounts of stress that people of color have to deal with—though those are substantial and destructive in their own right—but actual bodily harm: we’ve ruined and taken lives while we turn inside our fear, and so the risk of addressing white supremacy is never equal. What a white person stands to lose in these attempts gone wrong is not the same as what a person of color stands to lose: their very lives.”

From Lionel Shriver: “I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.” and “Who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts? The fiction writer, that’s who.”

And here is where several other novelists respond to Shriver:

From Daniel Jose Older: “We are always writing the other, we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories. When we create characters from backgrounds different than our own, we’re really telling the deeper story of our own perception. We muddle through these heated discussions at panels, in comments sections, on social media, in classrooms — the intersections of power and identity, privilege and resistance. How do we respectfully write from the perspectives of others? Below are 12 guidelines to get you started.”

From Kenan Malik: “The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It’s the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others. This is most clearly seen in the debate about Ms. Schutz’s painting “Open Casket.” In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting. To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam. In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

From Michael Chabon: “That’s where I learned it was an issue and that it was something that some people considered problematic,” Chabon says today. “If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant—as I recall someone did—there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.”

From Kamila Shamsie: “I understand the concerns of people who feel that for too long stories have been told about them rather than by them. But it should be clear that the response to this is for writers to write differently, to write better, to critique the power structures rather than propping them up, to move beyond stereotype—which you need to do for purely technical reasons, because the novel doesn’t much like stereotypes. …
The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.”