As an editor and writer, I have been following the argument over cultural appropriation with interest. I’ve also been watching the calls for cultural diversity in books closely. At the moment, I can’t see how any writer is able to walk this line between appropriation and representation with any kind of success.
On the one hand, you have people telling writers we can’t/shouldn’t write about cultures unless they are a part of that culture or know that culture very, very well because we are hindering writers from that culture getting published and telling their own stories. Fair call and I support it. I prefer to read about characters who are completely true to the ‘reality’ that character would have faced in the real world when I’m reading about a ‘real world’ situation.
On the other hand, writers get slammed by critics for not having culturally diverse characters in their novels. Again, fair call. Books with only one cultural perspective can be limiting and less than engaging. But why would the writer create culturally diverse characters if they are going to get accused of cultural appropriation?
I understand that culture and identity is an important and emotive topic. But having diversity in characters is just as important and emotive. But how is the modern writer suppose to balance both?
As a topic, this juggle requires serious consideration and discussions. How does any writer create a character who is different from their own experience? Does this mean I should only create characters who are female? Have a chronic illness? Are mothers? Should settings stay only in the time period since I was born in 1970? Or should I focus on creating entirely new worlds, new problems rather than explore the issues and problems that interest me?
The biggest benefit I can see to fiction (other than relaxation) is the ability of the reader to see into the inner world of the characters and hopefully gain insight into what makes those characters real. This can then be transferred to a wider context of society. This takes dedication, research, communication. A writer creating a character outside of their own culture needs to be willing to use all available options for getting that character correct. But does it really mean the writer cannot create diverse characters? Or more importantly, how do we create culturally diverse stories and characters that are honest, appropriate and real? As a profession, writers and creators need to be having this discussion but at the moment, rhetoric from one side of the fence or the other is almost all I can find.
At the moment, it seems like writers are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Or is that just me?