For the last ten years or so I have been a subscriber to Mslexia magazine. This is a publication by and for women writers which not only gives news and information but provides opportunities for publication within the magazine. I have had a poem published by them and for six months I was a guest writer on their blog, a time I used to write about my experiences of being married to someone with gender dysphoria.
Issues often focus on a particular theme, and the latest issue focusses on cultural appropriation. The movement ‘Own Voices’ seeks to ‘improve diversity by matching authors to subject matter’ – in other words, to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write about a ‘marginalised’ experience unless you have had that experience. So, for example, if you are autistic and want to write a character with autism, fine. If not, you risk being inaccurate or stereotyping the character in question. You also ‘take up space’ in the publishing world which might be otherwise taken up by an author with autism.
Then there’s the political issue of writers in a position of relative power ‘appropriating’ the narratives of those with relatively less power: for example were I to write a novel set in colonial India featuring Punjabi characters I could justly be accused of cultural appropriation. But whilst I would never seek to write such a novel, I do aim to write characters (albeit minor ones) from backgrounds other than mine because my novel ‘Tapestry,’ a portrait of post-Brexit Britain, would be incomplete without them. If we take this nostrum to its extreme then white men would only write about white men – which would not be a positive development.
Yes, I think cultural appropriation exists. Yes, I think there are political implications involved in writing about ‘marginalised’ experience and yes, we should all think very carefully before doing this. But to say, as the article does, that ‘in order to write authentically about marginalised experience empathy cannot help you: you must have experienced it’, is worryingly limiting. Where does it end? Should we say that men cannot write female characters? Or that those without a disability cannot adequately comprehend the experience of those living with one? Fiction is above all about imagination; not merely imagining other worlds like Narnia but imaginatively placing yourself in the position of another – and this, I would contend, is something we all need to do more of, in life as well as in fiction.
I welcome your thoughts on this topic. There’s a critique of it here.