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Can literature culturally appropriate?

After Anthony Horowitz was criticised for his decision to narrate the experience of a black character, Beth Longman and Mary Francis discuss whether authors can ever really write events from a perspective that they themselves have no experience of. 

In defence of…

Faced with accusations of cultural appropriation, Horowitz was adamantly defensive. “Taking it to its logical extreme,” he responded, “all my characters would have to be 62 year-old, white, Jewish men living in London.”

There is something clearly true in what Horowitz points out about the nature of literature, and its role of narrating and translating the experiences of others to the page. Exploring a diverse range of perspectives is not only part of mimicking human life as it exists but an extremely important and culturally relevant tool. A book has the ability to give a voice to the oppressed and to allow others to relate or engage with what is presented. Even though it is more important that this voice is given directly to those without it, it is potentially more damaging to create a divide between the types of characters that can and cannot be imagined. In the case of Horowitz’s character, for example, were he only able to narrate the experience of people like himself, he would limit severely the impact of the book on his audience as well as the range of important issues he could explore.

A voice is still more important than having no voice at all

This is extremely pertinent when considering that, through much of time, such voices and issues have been denied and overlooked by literature. To avoid narrating other perspectives is not always to avoid the fear of incorrect assumptions being made or experiences being appropriated but also to avoid the chance to turn back on this tradition. A voice, or the carving of a space for a voice, is still more important than having no voice at all. If successful, skilled writers like Horowitz gain enough knowledge of the experience of a black person, for example, so as to recognise their own privilege, then they are merely translators and their novels reflect this.

The key is not to limit authors to narrating experiences that directly correspond with their own but to involve them in direct discussion with those voices that have been previously silenced. It is also, perhaps more so, important to create a space for such people to devise their own writing too. In this case, Horowitz’s writing would be well informed and respectful of those who can better explain their own experience, yet be part of a literary movement that breaks away from oppressive tradition and remains diverse and active in its portrayals. This is how progressive literature should exist – not by deciding that some experiences or figures must still remain somewhat muted but in learning, exploring  and talking about them loudly and wherever possible.

Beth Longman

In criticism of…

In 2014, the black writer Reni-Eddo Lodge published a blog post called, ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’; she is quoted saying:

at best, white people have been taught not to mention that black people are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact not everyone experiences the world in the way that we do”.

The way culture is used and performed in art is not universal to all cultures

Horowitz’s response to his criticism is a perfect example of this bewilderment. While his intentions are certainly well meaning, he cannot understand that the way culture is used and performed in art is not universal to all cultures. Oppressed groups are ‘different’, and they have experienced a history that, as a privileged, millionaire white male, Horowitz has not. Not all writing, of course, has to be directly drawing from individual experience; however to appropriate the experience of an oppressed group which you are not a part of, to the advantage of your own privilege and success is extremely problematic. Horowitz is trying to sell books, and uses the idea of a diverse range of voices in his literature to do this. This takes away from the success of black people being able to write their own voices; it furthers his success in the publishing industry in a way which black writers using black voices have never achieved to the same level.

Black identity is tied to the literary identity of the black author

Race is certainly a complicated subject in literature, with many black characters and writers still being considered ‘revolutionary’ even in 2017; Tracey M Lewis-Giggets quoted in a 2015 Guardian article that many black authors, in order to be considered successful, must address the social ills of the day, and are thus predominantly bound to the race narrative. Many in black literary criticism agree with this assertion, conveying how deeply black identity is tied to the literary identity of the black author.

Horowitz, on the other hand, is not bound to a particular narrative; he can write for any genre – fantasy, sci-fi, romance, spy – and still be considered successful both in book sales and literary criticism. So, why use this for your success when you could literally use anything else?

Mary Francis.


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