Is It Creation or Appropriation?

connect with Indies Unlimited on Facebook hands-543593_960_720Recently Hal Niedzviecji, chief editor of Write Magazine, the quarterly published by the Writers Union of Canada, was pressured to resign as a result of his editorial, “Win Appropriation Prize”. His take was that there ought to be no barriers to writing about those we do not “know” and that readers would be the ones to take us to task if we cross the line.

The furor that resulted prompted me to explore the topic of cultural appropriation in writing. It’s a tricky one and the opinions run the gamut from “never” to “anything goes”.

I think a good deal of the problem stems from not truly understanding what “cultural appropriation” or “appropriation of voice” is. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. Wikipedia adds, “Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration”.

Recently, indigenous activists in Canada forced the cancellation of Amanda PL’s art show in Toronto that drew direct inspiration from indigenous art – which she had studied. In the U.S., white artist Dana Schutz was vilified for depicting the body of Emmett Till, a murdered young African-American, in a painting. Most recently, spy author Anthony Horowitz was “warned off” using a black character because it could be considered patronizing.

In my opinion, these definitions barely scratch the surface. We live in an increasingly diverse world. Many writers share the aim of improving our understanding of that diversity and of challenging us to accept difference as a positive. That same diversity makes it a given that our work will include characters who illustrate the society in which we, and those characters, live. To ignore this, to exclude characters from other cultures, would make our writing both unrealistic and artificial.

Yet, including characters from other cultures, races, religions, etc. places the writer on thin ice. First, it is essential that we do so with respect and that we do our utmost to be as accurate as possible. There is a line that ought not to be crossed and that line moves fluidly depending on whose opinion we seek. The issue is not so much whether or not we include such characters. Rather it is to what depth, what intimate level, we claim to understand the nuances of that culture and incorporate them into our writing. To what extent may we claim “expert” status about another culture and assume such intimate knowledge that we can “speak for” that culture as though we are a member. It’s a matter of degree and that degree shifts depending on who you ask. It’s a little like “political correctness” which, in many cases, is intended to show respect and weed out insulting stereotypes, but can also be taken to extremes that many disagree with.

When studying Feminist Theory at Grad School, we had a great deal of debate about how much I, as a heterosexual white woman, could speak for a black lesbian woman. It got very heated. Interestingly, those who were like me – white, middle class, heterosexual – were least likely to grasp that we could not put ourselves in the shoes of that “other”. It is a truism regarding privilege not to “see” those who do not enjoy it. And that is what makes this so important. It is something we must be willing to challenge within our own attitudes.

Often the answer lies in the nuances, not in the general.

Let me offer an example from my own family: Since my father was imprisoned during the war in Dachau, receiving the same treatment as the other prisoners, I consider myself a “child of the Holocaust”. I fit the syndrome, the personality profile, in many respects. Yet, I have had Jews tell me that I cannot include myself in that group because my father was not a Jew. I felt hurt by the exclusion from that shared background. They felt I had no claim to it.

Who is right? In my opinion both have legitimate arguments.

On the one hand, my father suffered almost all of the things the Jews in Dachau did. The effects were the same in most respects. And, the “next generation” effects on me were as well. I could argue that there is no difference.

Yet…Jewish prisoners were not hauled repeatedly into the office of the S.S. and asked to “Come over to our side – you with your blue eyes and blond hair”. Jews were not offered that unique “privilege”. (For the record, he refused)

So, my father cannot assume to speak for his Jewish prison-mates’ experiences any more than that Jewish prisoner can assume to speak for my father’s – at least not insofar as each is affected by those unique differences.

On the other hand, both can speak about what it was like to be imprisoned in the death camps – about their shared experience.

In my opinion, this is the line we must seek in our writing. At what point in our depiction of a character or culture have we crossed into the area of imagining beyond what is observable, outside of what is universal? At which point have we based our writing on assumptions that we have no means of verifying?

That is the line that we must not cross. That is the “bottom line”.

I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

61 thoughts on “Is It Creation or Appropriation?”

  1. As a single, white, childless man, I should, following the logic of people who make theses kinds of arguments, only write about characters who are single, white, childless, and male. That’s going to make a very boring book that no-one wants to read.
    I don’t have central characters, or situations, that involve other cultures, but I do have secondary characters that are non-white. If I didn’t I’m fairly certain I would receive complaints for writing a white-washed book that doesn’t accurately represent the diverse nature of the community it is set in.

    I would be willing to bet that the people who voice these complaints would have no problem writing characters of a different sex to their own, or including white characters even when not white themselves, without seeing the irony.

    A writer should always be careful and respectful, and do their research, when writing about another culture or environment, but that doesn’t mean anything outside of our direct knowledge should be avoided.

    1. Of course, on the face of it, what you say is obvious. We must include characters who are different from ourselves; we must be respectful of those differences and do our best to portray them as accurately as possible. But there is a line we ought not to cross. That line is difficult, often almost impossible to discern the further we veer from the familiar. The ‘other’ we portray may see that line in a very different place than we do. Sometimes they are being unreasonable. Sometimes they are not. It’s a tough call.

      Thank you for weighing in. Agree or disagree – we all learn from looking at it.

      1. While I agree with you that good taste dictates we do our best to portray accurately the characters about which we write, the fact is–and given the First Amendment–there’s little that can be done other than to offer literary criticism. We may find what someone writes to be totally abhorrent and otherwise lacking in socially redeeming value, but frankly, there’s little we can do other than voice our opinion, leave the scene, and/or vote with our pocketbook. When it comes to bad taste these days, there’s no lack of examples.

        1. Very true, I only say people should try to be respectful and accurate through research when writing about things we haven’t directly experienced because that’s the kind of person I am. In truth, I think it best simply to say that as long as what is written is intended as a work of fiction and not meant to represent a truth or a factual account of things, either read it or don’t – if you don’t like it, don’t read on.
          There are many things I don’t like, and when I encounter them I either ignore it or I stop watching/reading/listening. Taking offence takes too much energy, and I need all I have for other things.

  2. That Jews would insist you cannot include yourself as a “child of the Holocaust” because your father was not a Jew is ridiculous on its face. I identify very closely with the Holocaust, for any number of reasons. Though I would certainly not claim to be “child of the Holocaust,” my parents helped to bring orphans from Germany to the US following the war. And I had an Algerian-born aunt who was arrested in Paris and taken to Auschwitz, from where she escaped, joined the French Resistance, and eventually made it to the US. I’ve written about her and others who suffered under the Nazis.

    I’ve also written novels that had African-Americans as characters. I’m not black; the material was written from my background as having lived, played, and worked among these people for seven decades. I’ve also written short stories about the Chinese who built the Trans-Peruvian Railroad in the 1930s based on material gleaned from my travels to South America.

    Frankly, I have no patience with those who scream “cultural appropriation” or “appropriation of voice.” They are no better than the book-burning Nazi’s of the 1930s, attempting to stifle free expression with their small-minded, holier-than-thou attitudes. These “cultural police” should exercise the same prerogatives you and I do every day while listening to the radio or watching television: if we don’t like something, change the “station.”

    Your detractors should move on to more substantive issues. They’re going to lose on this one.

    1. Thank you for the support on my personal situation. I only included it to illustrate how subtle the distinctions can be. Those, like yourself, who see no problem with my being included have a broader view of it than those who object. Yet, I do not have a tattoo – nor did my father. He was not circumcised so, even in the camps they could tell he was not a Jew. So there were subtle but important distinctions that must have had an impact on his experience, and by extrapolation, on mine.

      So, the important question remains. Where do we cross the line into appropriation.

      1. I think we cross the line when we falsely claim attributes, histories, or achievements. Stolen valor on the part of non-military personnel is an example. I say again: you being criticized for claiming to a “child of the Holocaust” because you are not Jewish is ridiculous. What is this? some kind of litmus test? What about the millions of others who were killed in the Holocaust? do their lives not matter?

        Let’s look at who died in the Holocaust”

        Number of Deaths

        Jews: up to 6 million

        Soviet civilians: around 7 million (including 1.3 Soviet Jewish civilians, who are included in the 6 million figure for Jews)

        Soviet prisoners of war: around 3 million (including about 50,000 Jewish soldiers)

        Non-Jewish Polish civilians: around 1.8 million (including between 50,000 and 100,000 members of the Polish elites)

        Serb civilians (on the territory of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina): 312,000

        People with disabilities living in institutions: up to 250,000

        Roma (Gypsies): 196,000–220,000

        Jehovah’s Witnesses: around 1,900

        Repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials: at least 70,000

        German political opponents and resistance activists in Axis-occupied territory: undetermined

        Homosexuals: hundreds, possibly thousands (possibly also counted in part under the 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials noted above)

        I see a whole lot more than the Jews! Whoever is criticizing you needs to educate themselves. They know not of what they speak.

      2. Yvonne, You may already know all the information found in the following website,, but I send this to you as it may be helpful. Being Catholic, I remember learning that many of my faith were also killed by the Nazi due to religion. Many different people were targeted. I do not know why they aren’t considered part of the Holocaust. Perhaps the term victim of Nazi persecution will be better accepted than victim of Holocaust. It is a tightrope walk, isn’t it? Finding balance is difficult, particularly with such a painful topic.

        My children’s series is considered multicultural and covers topics most children face, but is not controversial, so no one has lashed out.

        I applaud your work.

        1. Thank you Ellen. Yes, Catholics were victims. They have also, like every other so-called religious group, been oppressors with a lot to be accountable for. No one group has a monopoly on hate or oppression. Our job, as I see it, is to recognize when both things happen.

    2. You are 100% correct, Theodore J. Cohen. Yvonne’s originating article is good in that it brings this kind of skewed information to the public, and to writers. No one would be able to write anything other than their own life. As writers, we should live the life of each character who inhabits our stories. We need to be diligent in getting facts correct and by talking with, or interviewing people. We can live with people, work with them, and be aware of our surroundings.

      I was walking down a wide avenue in Beijing with a friend. I commented that, except for the air, the road and brick sidewalks were very clean and tidy. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. He thought everything I was looking at was completely dirty and untidy. Two people, coming from LA, looking at the same environment, having completely different views. This is going to happen with everyone to one degree or another.

      I’m writing novel based entirely on a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany and what happened to him on his journey through allied countries. I interviewed him, his language, his insights, his aspects, and conclusions. I wasn’t born for much of his life, yet I can tell his story because it’s his story, not mine. My story-telling elements come from what he experienced, and what I’ve experienced in my world travels. They are legitimate, and they are fiction embedded in truth. That is all a writer can do.

      1. Yes, the essence of what you say is in your last paragraph, ” I interviewed him, his language, his insights, his aspects, and conclusions. I wasn’t born for much of his life, yet I can tell his story because it’s his story, not mine.” and also in the example of the sidewalks in China. In the story about your friend the Jew, you made sure that you kept his ‘voice’ by including him as much as possible. The sidewalk example shows how easily we can go wrong if we don’t do that research – on an personal level. Good on you.

  3. Agreed Theodore. It’s just another form of censorship. I write satire. Does this mean I should only write about characters who are like me, IE white and male? Is it permissible to satirize only white people? Are white people the only ones on earth who are stupid, pompous, greedy and corrupt? Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?

    PS Sensible sensitive comment Yvonne. The censorious should read it.

    1. Yes, ridiculous in the extreme.

      If someone complained to me about such things, my response would be: “I’m sorry; you must have mistaken me for someone who cares.”

    2. It is difficult in the extreme to write satire in particular and interesting fiction in general without offering characters *and viewpoints* which are not our own. Even if in doing so we cross the flexible line of which Yvonne speaks.

      I suppose perhaps the line occurs where the recipient of whatever work of art it is (in our case, written words) either simply enjoyed the work, or has been compelled to tell the creator that they find it offensive.

      It is rather easy to be offended these days. And giving offence, by people in both the public and private sphere is ubiquitous too. Our comedian Frankie Boyle on this side of the Pond is frequently banned from TV because of the outrageous things he says. Social media has a lot to answer for here. A chance or ill-judged remark can provoke a viral storm of outrage.

      The price you pay for freedom of speech is that you may not always like what is spoken.

      If you want your story to reach the mainstream, you must be prepared for the mainstream to put its own stamp on it.

      I rather feel that shoulders should be broadened and skins thickened.

      Let the brickbats rain down: I am braced.

      1. I grew up watching Jim Davidson, and all the other comedians from that era who, over the years, have insulted just about every group that exists.
        You definitely need a thick skin to watch them.

      2. On the one hand I agree that we are too easily offended. On the other, there are many, especially those in positions of privilege of all kinds, who need to be sensitized to the hurt they cause by their lack of empathy – or even attempt at empathy. Thick skins can protect us some, but there are times when they allow hurt that ought not to happen.

    3. I have been told that only the oppressor (usually white) can be racist. I believe we all have that capacity. It depends on how you define it. Point well taken. However, I’m afraid we’re all getting a bit hooked into veering away from the topic of cultural appropriation. (including me)

      1. Everyone can be racist, whether oppressor, oppressed, or just walking past. Racism is a matter of opinion, attitude, and behaviour, not position in society.

    1. You always can write the more controversial material under a pen name. I use two, one (a female) for YA novels and some flash fiction, another–and one I have been using for more than 40 years–for other fictional material that if people knew it was me, they would blow a gasket! Only a handful of people even know about my use of the latter pen name. My old magazine editor (a good friend who passed away a few years ago) used to say: unless at least five people cancel their subscriptions after reading one of my articles, it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed! That’s how riled up people got…and still do.

    2. Interesting take, Tessa. But that, too, can be a unique experience that someone outside of may have difficulty truly understanding and writing about. I’m going to be watching closely to see how my grandson experiences that very thing. When he gets old enough I look forward to some good discussions with him about it.

  4. Excellent article, Yvonne, a subject that needs to be handled with care. As you do, I can see both sides of the argument, but lean towards the side of writing about other cultures, people, etc with respect and accuracy. I can not write only about what I have personally experienced and exclude the rest of the world. That would be unrealistic and extremely boring.

    1. That line can shift dramatically depending on which side of the story the subject is on and how their life experiences has affected how they see themselves within, or outside of, a community. Exploration of difference can lead to greater understanding. Reaction to our conclusions about it can have the opposite effect.

  5. Good article about a difficult subject. It’s easy to get righteously irate about any limitations, social if not legal, being put on our free speech. Then again, those who’ve lived with much more brutal limitations for generations — and are still living with them on a daily basis — are likely to have a different perspective. A writer from a privileged group would be smart to seek advance readers from any oppressed group she’s including in a novel to make sure she’s not treading on sensitivities needlessly. (This is a lot easier if you also know people in those groups, which also means you’re likely to be writing a better book to begin with.) But then, frankly, she also just has to hope nobody out there decides she needs to be schooled about it, because it’s always going to be a risk. We live in a world in which mounting a campaign of outrage against someone is very, very easy. So you either take the risk, or you write safe little stories. And what a yawn that would be.

    1. I understand what you are saying, but frankly, if you try to be everything to everybody, you will produce mediocre material. I think you have to be honest with your readers and yourself…do your research, reach back into your experience, be sensitive to what is going on around you, and treat difficult subject with care. Regardless, I guarantee you…there will always be readers who will commit the “intentional error,” thinking they know exactly what was in your mind…and of course, will have no idea whatsoever.

      1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about ‘intentional error’ and ‘mediocre writing’. But we also need to be aware that there are many who commit ‘unintentional errors’, mostly due to ‘innocent blindness’. And that is why discussions such as this are important.

    2. A yawn, indeed. 🙂 And knowing people you can ask about the accuracy of what you say is a big help. As for those who still may call us out – I see those as opportunities to challenge my prejudices and try on a different point of view. Some will make sense, others may not, but we can’t know until we actually look at them closely with an open mind.

  6. Interesting discussion.
    Leaving aside today’s PC climate, as an author of fiction I can only attempt a struggle for empathy with the characters I create. I may miss the mark — but it’s that effort that counts. At least to me.

    1. Reaching for empathy goes a long way, to be sure. But if we misrepresent the ‘other’, even with empathy and the best intentions, we need to remain open to correction. It’s tough to be humble, but that’s what it takes, in my humble opinion. (sic)

  7. It seems to me that misconceptions need to be expressed. Otherwise, how can we learn about them and have a chance to correct them?

  8. I recently wrote an article on the same topic on my own blog, and I won’t restate it all, but the real problem is a matter of bad writing, usually in the form of stereotyping. Minorities are quite rightfully more sensitive to this, as it is often used in a pejorative sense. Thus the mistaken impression “only the majority can be prejudiced.” I would rephrase that as “the minority feel prejudice far more keenly.” Thus they deserve more sensitivity from the rest of us, but not universal abject submission.
    The tribalism that causes members of any group to reject others because “we are the only ones, and you can’t become one of us,” (Which Yvonne was subject to) is counterproductive to solving their own problems.
    And it is counter to the Canadian ethos of inclusivity. Our culture is trying in its own way to solve these divisions, and that will always offend some people.
    Be sensitive, as all writers should, and forge on!

    1. I love your statement, “the minority feel prejudice far more keenly.” So True. The reasons for that are only partly based in their ‘outsider’ status, however. Another cause it that the the majority, or un-oppressed, by the very fact of their status, are so often blind to the prejudices they inadvertently perpetrate. This is why this discussion is so important. To raise awareness, not so much among the ‘other’ as among the privileged so that we do not commit that error in our writing.

  9. As human beings, I believe that each of us has a moral and, for writers, a professional responsibility to represent others in a respectful and compassionate way, whether in writing or in speech. However, I also think there is an even more pressing need for unity and mutual understanding in this disjointed world. Yes, I agree with Lady Gaga’s sentiment: “You don’t know how it feels”. No one can ever have perfect empathy for another – but we have to try. Ask questions, listen sympathetically or, if you’re a writer, make sure you do the research. In the end we will still get some of it wrong but that is ok. What is important is that we are open – to share, to be educated and, if this is not too Pollyannaish to learn to love and understand one another.

    1. And there lies the rub. “You don’t know how it feels”. Sympathy and empathy are positive, of course, but there is a line that ought not to be crossed when assuming we do “know how it feels”. And it is our responsibility , as writers and as members of the human race, to do our best to discover where that line is and not cross it. Of course, we will and do cross it, in the opinions of some. For others the attempt at true depth of honesty will go far to erase much of the anger and hurt it can cause. But for some it will not be enough. And for them, too, we must have empathy and compassion.

  10. Great post, Yvonne, and I think the example of your father illustrates the problem perfectly; as authors, we can only write honestly about our shared /humanity/. History and culture we have not shared is not ours to turn into a commercial product.

  11. Hello, Yvonne:

    This is timely. Last evening (Monday here) I watched a movie about a Polish zoo-keeper’s wife.

    She was played by an American. He was played by a Belgian. Another important (Polish) character was portrayed by an Irishman. Most of it was shot in Prague, Czech Republic.

    The whole thing was directed by my countrywoman Niki Caro, MNZM. I’ll come back to her later.

    I tend to lean towards ‘anything goes’ because I live in a democracy that, within certain limits, allows me to do so.

    As well, I question some of them who want to limit what I and my fellow Kiwis say and write and sing and paint and perform. Where do they get their authority from?

    Let’s be clear: people who threaten to kill, to destroy, to burn down, to harm writers and artists lack authority. They are a mob. They are thugs.

    I feel no obligation to treat another culture, race, people, gender, experiences with respect. Nor do I feel obligated to promote ‘social responsibility’, either.

    Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean.

    In one of my novels I gave my narrator a Maori auntie. She’s not an important character but she is important to him. She is more his mother than his mother is. She is warm and kind and comforting; his mum, though, is cold and judgmental.

    Auntie Kura and her daughter, Mihi, performed a waiata tangi at a funeral. I went to a lot of trouble to ensure that I got that right.

    A Maori who has read the book wrote to me to tell me how relieved she was that I had portrayed a Maori character positively.

    I didn’t tell her this but I did so only because it suited me and suited the story to do so.

    The inspiration for Auntie Kura partly came from a woman seated next to me on a course for the unemployed we were on.

    The other part came from the nannies and aunties in New Zealand’s far north who nearly 50 years ago showed great warmth and kindness to a skinny little white boy newspaper reporter just out of school and 500 miles from home

    How I portrayed her was my choice.

    In the same novel I inserted a gay character. I didn’t do so to portray him ‘positively’ or appeal to the gay market. I did so because it suited me and the story I was telling. I had known a man like him – a middle-aged, retiring, ‘bachelor’.

    Another Kiwi author suggested I should use him as a marketing tool. But I won’t do that because I feel that would be tacky.

    In my other novel people smoke a lot. I have received finger-wagging correspondence about this. I lack ‘socially responsibility’.

    I don’t feel I have an obligation to be ‘socially responsible’. That story is set in 1968 when smoking was widespread in these bucolic South Pacific isles. People who asked ‘mind if I smoke?’ as they were lighting up were confident that no-one would dare say ‘yes, I do mind’.

    When I wrote the first draft of that novel – 2002-04 – a lot of discussion was going on in New Zealand that only Maori people should tell Maori stories (see the paste below about Niki Caro) or that if Maori are to be portrayed in art then it should be ‘positive’.

    I didn’t know what to do. So I settled on what little I did know. This novel is about a rural school in the North Island whose first fifteen (a rugby team) is invited by a posh boys school in Christchurch to play a centennial match.

    Just one of my team’s characters is a Maori. At a meeting his father stands up at a school meeting and gives a ringing, rousing speech. Part of me wanted to have it translated into Maori but I didn’t know any Maori who could do that for me. Nor did I want any flak if any got fired my way …

    But in having one Maori player in the team and his father addressing a meeting in English rather than te reo was, to me, a picture of how I remembered many Maori people in the district where I lived in 1968.

    I’ve been much relieved to see in replies to you, Yvonne, that many of our fellow indie authors feel we should not be bullied by unelected mobs of thugs.

    The next step is when unofficial, self-censorship becomes official censorship, and book-burnings.

    – Paul

    This paste is from an interview done with Niki Caro by The Washington Post in March.

    ‘Then there is the question of cultural appropriation. Tell me about the Whale Rider backlash.’

    ‘There was a very damning editorial in a Maori publication (Mana magazine) before I shot the film. The gist was that a pakeha (a non-Maori New Zealander) shouldn’t be telling that story, that the author of Whale Rider (Witi Ihimaera), who is Maori, should never have allowed it. Of course, I was devastated. And the chief of the community (in Whangara, where the book and film are set) came to my production office, quite unannounced, shut the door and said: “You have to understand two things: Firstly, we have chosen you. The second thing is, now you have to be a chief”. I realized that my story was the same story as little Paikea in the movie. I desperately needed the approval of some people who could never give it to me. But I knew that the work would speak for me. The person who wrote the original editorial saw the film and wrote another one taking it back. It went full circle.’

  12. I see a lot of anger in your comment, and it rambles a bit so I’m not sure I have your point(s) correctly. I’ll touch on the two points that hit me. While I see nothing wrong with accurately portraying a lot of smoking in a culture where smoking is common and accepted, (That’s not cultural appropriation. Nor is is socially irresponsible) I do believe, as writers and influencers, we have a moral obligation to be socially responsible in how we portray the ‘other’. It must be accurate. It need not be positive if that is not accurate – but it must be accurate.

    But I see no bullies or thugs anywhere in this post or its comments. Nor do I see attempts to censor. Only a discussion about truth and the efforts we must make as writers to see that truth is what we write. That is what is socially responsible.

  13. Oh, so many things about this post need to be said, nay, shouted. I’m a white, cis female in a majority white cis culture, but I want to write stories that are diverse, with characters from different backgrounds, different view points, different values. Which is REALLY difficult, because I don’t want to step on anyone, as much as I don’t want to leave them out and write another book filled with white people that look and talk like me.

    I agree with your ideas. I try to look at each of my characters as an individual, give them a past, try to understand differences between their culture and mine, and put those differences in to their values and how they see the world. But then I try to focus on them as an individual, and not on their race or cultural differences. Unfortunately, I seem to focus too much on who they are, to the point where when I give my writing to someone else, they don’t even know they are from a different culture – they assume the characters are the same as them, typically white and cis. Should I describe their ethnicity and cultural background more? Am I actually promoting diversity by writing characters of different races and cultures, if it’s so subtle? How does anyone write a book with a diverse group of characters, unless the person has mixed race/gender/sexual/religious experiences?

    At what point is it ok to just try, and hopefully start more conversations about it?

    All I did was add questions to this post. I am sure this has been a huge help.

    1. Questions are what make us learn and grow so thank you for those. I wish there were easy answers. lol And I think you’ve hit on at least part of the problem. Much of our human experience is universal and so our characters will behave in ways that are familiar to all of us. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. The problem arises when we make assumptions about the ‘other’ that become integral to our portrayal of that character that aim to focus on the differences.

      For instance, in my father’s example, (and it is a fine distinction but that is exactly where we run into trouble) if a Jewish prisoner had written a story in which his character had been invited to “come to the other side” and explored how that felt as thought he understood it intimately he would have been appropriating my father’s voice. The only way that could be done legitimately would be to use direct quotes from my father – to keep it in my father’s actual words.

      On the other hand, I believe it would be quite appropriate to write a story with characters in a prison in fear for their lives at the hand of an enemy. I think we can all imagine what that might be like.

      That’s what makes this subject so difficult to get a handle on, and why the line I say ought not to be crossed my move so far one way or the other depending on who you ask. That said, if we become frozen and stop including characters different from ourselves, or if we become too politically correct, our writing, indeed our exploration of human nature, becomes stilted.

      It’s a tough concept – which is why I love struggling with it.

      1. Yes! That I feel is really important. We are exploring humanity, creating characters that are scraps of people we have met and ourselves all stitched together, and watching them live. I think it’s so important to keep doing that, and the more accepting and curious we are about each other, the more we should explore it.

        I’m aware though that coming from a majority is much easier a life than coming from a minority. So I don’t speak for everyone when I say I don’t mind if people from different cultures explore mine. Sometimes they get things wrong, which I see as a chance to educate, rather than reprimand, and sometimes they show me something about how my own culture is viewed by others, which can educate me.

        I don’t think it’s wise to blindly write about another culture without making an attempt to engage with that culture, but I do think it’s wrong to never write about another culture at all, for fear of getting it wrong.

        1. That’s the attitude I think we need – to be open to hearing that we got it wrong and learning from it, and to see the errors of others as a chance to educate. 🙂

  14. Hello, again, Yvonne:

    Sorry about the rambling. I will try to do better. It’s clear to me that what I said did not translate well. I apologise for that, too.

    All I will say about my ‘anger’ is that you don’t know me well enough to make such a personal comment.

    I’ve now read a bit more about what happened to Hal Niedzviecji. If that wasn’t bullying and thuggery then what was it?

    I absolutely must disagree with you (and at the risk of sounding ‘angry’ …) at this paragraph in your reply to me: ‘… we have a moral obligation to be socially responsible in how we portray the ‘other’. It must be accurate.’

    And with A. C. Flory – who was commendably succinct – in her second sentence: ‘History and culture we have not shared is not ours to turn into a commercial product.’

    Speak for yourselves. You don’t speak for me. I decide what are my moral obligations. When you say ‘we’ and ‘ours’ without asking me you put an obligation on me that I might not share. In the examples of my original post I guess that’s what I was trying to say.

    You’re welcome to your view.


    – Paul

    1. When I use the word “we” I speak as a member of the human race. If you choose to exclude yourself from those of us who believe we need to treat each other with compassion and respect – even in our writing – I think you will find yourself to be lonely and isolated. When I say I saw anger it came from your words. It has nothing to do with whether I know you. That is why the words we choose when we write are so important. They demonstrate who we are – or in the case of a character – who that character is.

      No, I don’t know you – but your words showed anger and that is what I responded to. I said I saw anger in what you wrote, not that you were angry. I stand by that. When we read we respond to what is written. That is also how we understand the characters in what we read.

      You are, of course, free to disagree. I wish you well.

  15. Really great post, Yvonne.

    I think the issue of appropriation is a hard one because it’s not defined particularly well. Appropriation isn’t stereotyping. Appropriation usually occurs when someone greatly admires the culture and wants to share it, yet they fail to give credit to the culture for it’s contributions. In the US, some of the people most often accused of appropriation are people like the Kardashians, who regularly wear African American styles, but fail to credit African Americans as their inspiration. They act as if it was their idea, and that’s where the anger comes from. It’s a form of exploitation. It’s taking something that is regularly criticized or looked down upon if done by the people of the culture, but, if done by someone of the majority, is suddenly lauded or rewarded financially.

    We live in a time where there are a lot of cultures and a lot of information is available very quickly. People who have spent hundreds or thousands of years being exploited are naturally incredibly sensitive to exploitation. There is no easy answer to this question or no quick fix. Obviously, giving credit can help. If your character wears something of another culture, then don’t act as if you just dreamed it up. But that doesn’t fix everything. There can be genuine motives behind things that are appropriation. For example, the Emmet Till artist, based on my reading of that story when it occurred, seemed genuinely interested in bringing the story to the forefront. While she saw it as brining the story out again, others saw her as exploitative, exploiting black pain for her monetary gain. And that’s a tougher one to avoid, because both sides have valid points.

    1. That’s certainly a major aspect of appropriation, RJ – like the designer with a runway full of models wearing feathers and indigenous style fabrics. But the artist in Toronto who has her show cancelled because the native community thought her work looked too much like that of the artist she had studied under and was emulating doesn’t quite fit. She freely ascribed her inspiration to him. In her case I personally felt they got it wrong to cancel her. It’s another example of how that line we cross can shift. (

      There is another aspect of appropriation that falls outside of what you say, as well. And that happens when someone outside a group or culture assumes such intimate, inside understanding of that culture that they feel justified in ‘speaking for’ them as though they are the authoritative, authentic voice. That kind of appropriation is much more difficult to understand. It is often, as you say, done with the best of intentions, which makes it that much harder to object to, especially by those of us on the outside.

  16. Great post, Yvonne. It’s a difficult subject to say the least.

    For me, personally, what I take away from this dilemma is this:

    If you’re writing about a world that you want to feel real, you must have a diverse cast of characters. There’s no getting around it — that’s what a real society looks like. I don’t think there is any imperative to portray people of other races as heroes or strictly positive characters, but we do have a responsibility to make them real, to do our due diligence in research and to talk to people belonging to the culture we wish to portray.

    I think that where a white author steps out onto thin ice is when a narrative or a main character is closely tied to a particular experience that could be told more truthfully by someone belonging to that group. Say, for example, your book is set in an indigenous community and tells indigenous stories. That’s where for me, personally, we cross a line, because there are indigenous writers who are doing that better, more authentically, than we ever could. That doesn’t mean to me that we can’t include indigenous folks and stories, but I think it comes with a duty of care.

    I don’t think it hurts to seek permission. I once worked tech for a one man play by a white dude, during which he takes on the character of a native chief and speaks his words. Before he opened the play to the public, he consulted a group of chiefs that have ancestry in the specific area, and in the specific nation, he was portraying. Respect doesn’t cost you anything.

    1. I don’t think you missed anything, it was a very well constructed piece 🙂 And it’s a topic I don’t think there is a “right answer” for.

  17. Phew! Ouch! Well handled, Yvonne, this is such a hot potato topic.

    In New Zealand Maori generally do not like non-Maori writing/using/talking about their culture. You need permission from the correct iwi and whanau. There have been some dreadful novels written by non-Maori, non-New Zealanders over the years which have thoroughly annoyed us all and brought about this attitude! And it is a bit much to see traditional art used in overseas adverts, or moko (facial tattoos) being used as pretty patterns when they are almost sacred, very important and personal forms of family history.

    I don’t know how we writers get round this grabbing at what we see to make a story but I think you’ve got it when you say it’s a matter of care and consideration and asking permission.

    1. Thank you. I tend to thrive on “hot topics”. lol

      I live in Canada and our indigenous peoples feel just a strongly about it and for many of the same reasons. I have compassion for their anger as they have lost so much to “white” culture. There is a big part of me that wishes the dialogue would be more healing and less antagonistic.

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