Saturday, 1 October 2016

Hari Kunzru: On Cultural Appropriation

Clearly, if writers were barred from creating characters with attributes that we do not “own” (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), fiction would be impossible. Stories would be peopled by clones of the author. Since trespassing into otherness is a foundation of the novelist’s work, should we restrict ourselves in some way, so as to avoid doing violence to those who identify with our characters? The injunction to refrain from “cultural appropriation” sounds like a call for censorship, or at best a warning to self-censor, an infringement of the creative liberty to which so many surprising people profess themselves attached.

It is true that the politics of offence are used to shut down dissident voices of all kinds, frequently in minority communities, and the understanding of culture as a type of property to which ownership can be definitively assigned is, at the very least, problematic. Should the artist go forth boldly, without fear? Of course, but he or she should also tread with humility. Note that I do not say, “with care”. I don’t believe any subject matter should a priori be off limits to anyone, or that harm necessarily flows from the kind of ventriloquism that all novelists perform. Quite the opposite. Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency. For those who have never experienced the luxury of normativity, the warm and fuzzy feeling of being the world’s default setting, humility in the face of otherness seems like a minimal demand. Yet it appears that for some, the call to listen before speaking, to refrain from asserting immediate authority, is so unfamiliar that it feels outrageous. I’m being silenced! My freedom is being abridged! Norm is unaccustomed to humility because he has grown up as master of the house. All the hats are his to wear. For the deviant others, who came in by the kitchen door, it has always been expected, even demanded...


Guardian Books.

Other authors' opinions are available.

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