Reclaiming and retelling our stories is the first step toward decolonization–this shouldn’t be forgotten even and especially when we are speaking about fiction.
By Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda
Recent discussions around cultural appropriation have, for the most part, centered on tangible cultural products: clothing, food, hair, dance, music, language, and visual art are among the most commonly discussed items on the agenda when it comes to cultural appropriation and the way in which it actively harms marginalized communities.
However, many people seem to have a harder time drawing the line when it comes to a less tangible form of cultural production: fiction writing. Recently the Guardian ran an article called “Whose Life is it Anyway,” which featured a variety of perspectives from creative writers on the topic of cultural appropriation in the realm of fiction.
The overwhelming consensus in this article is that there should be no limitations on the imagination when it comes to writing fiction. Fiction writers, the article argues, should be able to write novels and stories from anyone’s perspective, regardless of whether the identity of the character whose perspective they are writing from matches their own racial or gender identity, let alone class or ability.
This is because, according to the article, one of the main purposes of fiction is to cultivate a sense of empathy for others by imaginatively inhabiting their perspectives–especially those of others whose experiences and identities differ from our own. To insist that we only write fiction from our own perspectives would be to hinder the freedom of expression.
And yet, just as in life, not all voices and perspectives are interchangeable, even in the “imaginary” realm of fiction. The imagination is not a disembodied entity separate from the realm of experience–it is continuous with and grows out of it. That is, our imaginations are always conditioned by the kinds of identities and experiences we ourselves have lived.
It matters who tells whose story.
Good fiction doesn’t depend on distancing ourselves from our our own perspectives and experiences, but on examining them more closely (the dictum “write what you know” applies here). The cultivation of empathy doesn’t depend on imaginatively inhabiting other people’s perspectives, but on listening to their perspectives and stories in the first place.
Moreover, this argument also ignores the stark material realities of the global publishing industry, which still functions primarily to uphold a system of racial capitalism. Writers of color, particularly queer, trans, and disabled writers of color, are still vastly under-published when compared to their white, cis, able-bodied peers.
A survey conducted of major U.S. publishing companies in 2015 revealed what many of us already know: 79% of people working in the U.S. publishing industry are white; 78% are cis women; 88% identify as heterosexual; and 92% are non-disabled. It comes as no surprise, then, that the writers who are most often published in mainstream publishing venues are themselves white, cisgender, and able-bodied.
In 2017, a similar survey conducted of children’s books published in the U.S. found that, although there had been a slight increase in “multicultural content” in children’s books published between 1994 and 2016, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined still authored only 6% of the total number of children’s books published in 2016.
In other words, while the number of books with ‘diverse’ content allegedly increased, the majority of those books were still written by white authors. Set against this backdrop, the arguments over cultural appropriation in fiction writing take on a different tone.
While (largely) white, cis, able-bodied writers with enormous amounts of access to wealthy publishing platforms are arguing over their right to tell and make money off of the stories and struggles of disenfranchised folks, Black and Indigenous writers, writers of color, trans women of color writers, along with other queer, trans and disabled writers, are struggling to stay alive and actually live out their stories, let alone put them down on paper or get them published.
Like the argument for free speech, the argument for absolute freedom of expression in art, independent of context, conveniently ignores the significant imbalances in power that exist between white, cis, able-bodied writers, and members of the populations affected by their words (i.e. immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, people of color, queer and trans people, and disabled people).
Not surprisingly, most “debates” about cultural appropriation in fiction writing amount to little more than a defense of the right of white writers to inhabit and write from the perspectives of people of color in a system in which writers of color are still routinely denied platforms to speak and publish, outside of the tokenized narratives that publishers believe white readers will want to hear—and buy.
This is the reason why, for example, the best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha, a novel written from the first-person perspective of a Japanese geisha woman, but authored by a white man, sold over four million copies and was translated into 32 languages, while the Japanese woman whose actual story the author based the tale off of did not receive close to the same amount of fame or credit.
Similarly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a novel written from the perspective of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome, was authored by a white man who did not himself have Asperger’s syndrome (and publicly admitted to having little to no knowledge about it). The result was a best-selling novel which sold over two million copies, and ended up perpetuating harmful and offensive misconceptions about actual people who live with Asperger’s.
Tellingly, the author of the novel, Mark Haddon, commented: “Imagination always trumps research. I thought that if I could make Christopher [the main character] real to me then he’d be real to readers.”
Haddon’s quote perfectly encapsulates the often violent material consequences that the white imagination, when left unchecked, can have on the lives of disabled people, queer and trans people, Black and Indigenous people, and people of color living under racial capitalism today. It is the same (limitless) white imagination that Claudia Rankine references when she astutely notes in reference to the continual lynching of Black people by the American police force: “Because white men cannot police their imaginations, black men are dying.”
Writers of color, particularly Black and Indigenous, queer, trans, and disabled writers of color, not only deserve to tell their own stories; they also deserve to control the means of production of their stories, and that means running independent, PoC owned publishing cooperatives that don’t cater to the tastes of a white readership. Reclaiming and retelling our stories is the first step toward decolonization–this shouldn’t be forgotten even and especially when we are speaking about fiction.
Author Bio: Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a queer, mixed-race writer, teacher and political organizer living between Berkeley, California, and Tokyo, Japan. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. In her writing and activism, she thinks broadly about queer alternatives to institutionalized forms of belonging.