The Work of Representation : How to avoid cultural appropriation in fiction writing

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By Stella Heinz

As a creative writing major, I often find myself fascinated by the experiences of others.

I wonder about their lives and their struggles and how I could use them in a story. However, I am then faced with the challenge of accurately representing this other person who may have a different race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion than my own. In trying to write this character’s experience, I realize how unqualified I am to just speculate about how their life is lived, and I run the risk of misrepresenting the person or group of people. I can imagine that other artists on campus can relate to this dilemma. When does representation become cultural appropriation? How does an artist manage the power they now possess to give this character a voice and a life of their own?

The answer to these questions lies in the experiences and research of the author along with the purpose of that character within the piece. For example, white writer, Lionel Shriver, wrote a black character in her novel, The Mandibles, that the white patriarch of the family married solely to reflect well on him. She later develops dementia and is held on a leash so that she doesn’t get lost. In contrast, white writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, accurately wrote about black slaves in America and the horrors that they faced in order to raise awareness and propagate the abolitionist movement. There is an obvious difference in the way these two authors approached writing characters and experiences that were starkly different than their own. Lionel Shriver’s version depicts the black character as an accessory and something less than human. When she developed dementia, they no longer cared to treat her as a human so they just put her on a leash like a dog. Harriet Beecher Stowe showed the slaves’ struggles and the problem with this group of people being treated as less than human. Stowe did research and used events that she witnessed as her material to prove a point; she did not just have a black character being treated terribly for the sake of entertainment. When a group of people is misrepresented or disrespected in a piece without having a point to prove, it comes across as distasteful and offensive.

The issue arises not when an author attempts to take on a new perspective, but when it is done so ignorantly or in a way that distorts the experiences of a group of people. One cannot just decide to write from somebody’s perspective without doing their due diligence, the research necessary to understand the lives of people living with that identity and the struggles they may face. As fellow writer and Purchase student, Jamison Murcott stated, “It’s not so much ‘write what you know,’ but ‘don’t write what you don’t know.’” It is vital to do the work and understand what you are writing before, for example, attempting to write a gay character as a straight writer.

Author Rachel Hall discussed this very issue in regard to her book, Heirlooms. When asked if she felt as though she was morally able to write these stories without experiencing the trauma of fleeing the occupied zone of World War II and other conflicts in the story, Hall responded that because she heard these stories so much while she was growing up, she felt she had “some ownership of it.” She also did immense research, reading old letters, published journal entries, and more; she admitted that the research done in this context is actually fun for her and that her work benefitted from it.

Fiction writing is fiction. It does not have to be completely true or one hundred percent factually sound, but when dealing with identity politics, regardless of how tedious the research may seem, it is important to be considerate of those represented in your work. If it needs to be offensive to be good, the world may be better off without it.

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