“Eyewitness” To Lives

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

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#ThursdayThoughts #writingcommunity What does it feel like for a white writer to write about a non-white culture? @karienvd , author of A Yellow House gives her take. Link in profile. —— In my subjective space, as a non-white citizen of a country that was once a British colony, I respect a white author writing about a non-white culture when they are professional and thorough, and remain sensitive to the fact that the historical balance of power is not the same. As Viet Thanh Nguyen said, “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” — What books by white authors have you read, which depict a non-white culture? What did you think of them? What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation? #ownvoices #writing #culturalappropriation #writersofinstagram #writer #diversebooks #diverse #bookstagram #booknerd #novels #writingcommunity

A post shared by Damyanti Biswas (@damyantig) on

…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. 🙂