“Eyewitness” To Lives

Lately as authors regularly we see this sort of thing thrown at us…

…and I decided here to toss in my two cents. 🙂 In her full blog post, that author Daily (W)rite’s Damyanti Biswas cites observes:

There is a lot of talk these days about cultural appropriation – usually when western (white) people emulate non-western culture for their own benefit.

As a former academic (history/political science), immediately I would have asked a POLI SCI 101 student who offered that definition in class: “That’s great, but how would you also define ‘western’? And what is ‘white’? Is an African-American ‘western’? And while we are at it, what is ‘culture’ anyway?”

The class would then argue and debate itself into knots (and I would stand at the front of the room and love watching it). 🙂 As fascinating and necessary as considering all of that also is, I don’t want to get into a discussion here of what other writers should or should not do about such…

…I am simply going to explain what I do.

[Me. Paris, France, 1994. Photo by someone else.]

“You seem to know lots about what Frenchwomen think,” my [English] wife has teased me more than once. Actually, no, I don’t believe I do… at least not as a “group” or as a “class.” I take from what I have read over the years that was composed by this woman or that one, what I have heard discussed by various individuals, and most importantly what I have been told directly by those I have known:

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

I suppose I have stumbled into writing what are more or less “fictional biographies”:

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

I have also lived most of my adult life outside of the United States. In that, I have been lucky to have gotten to know so many remarkable non-Americans over the decades – people I never would have known otherwise. Hearing of their life stories has often stayed with me, leading me to want to preserve them and to share them:

[Excerpt from Frontiers: Atlantic Lives, 1995-1996. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Race is usually pointed to as the cornerstone of the “no go” for “appropriation.” But what about, say, sex/gender? In many ways that latter is even more of an issue given women’s having been subservient to men in nearly all societies.

I am obviously not a woman, and clearly I also write lots of women characters:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris, on Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

Few would argue that the female J. K. Rowling should not have written “Harry Potter” the boy wizard. And likely a man having written “Harry” would also be fine. But would it have been just as acceptable if that same man had also written, for example, “Hermione Granger?”

In the late-1980s, my uncle (1940-2015) wrote a novel built around a woman detective. The book was well-reviewed, and even optioned for a film by a prominent American actress – you’d almost surely know her – who wanted to play the role (but sadly it never became a film). He knew women detectives and obviously felt he could write one as a main character.

“Write what you know” is a cliché; but given that just writing a book is difficult enough I would add… write what you know well. Which is why my novels – be they set in recent times or in “1787” – so far have revolved around a man from New York who is, well, I suppose a lot like me.😂 I admit that although they can be central parts of a story based on what I feel I know well, I cannot as of yet envisage myself writing an entire novel with a woman as the main character because I don’t feel I know enough to stretch that far, and I believe my readers would immediately spot that too.

[The Virgin Mary, at the harbor, Olhão, Portugal. Photo by me, June 8, 2019.]

Having been in academia and now a fiction author, I have come also to believe fiction writers don’t actually write about grand matters like “culture”; they write about individuals. Exploring the nuances of an academic term such as “cultural appropriation” is to me properly the preserve of sociologists and anthropologists. As a fiction writer I consider myself above all merely an “eyewitness” to lives and maybe that’s also the “residual” historian in me; I look merely to tell stories as I think best… and I hope to leave academic debates to, well, academics.

In the end, it always falls of course to each reader to draw their own conclusions about any writer’s fictional efforts.

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂