Edward LearIn 2009 Elizabeth Bear posted a blog on “Writing the Other.” This was meant to be simple writing advice on how to deal with characters as diverse as stag-horned ponies to Jewish former Army Captains from St. Louis. Bear recommended considering these characters as unique individuals, rather than “other” and writing from that perspective. This sounds like good advice at first glance. However, the post provoked a firestorm of comments about cultural appropriation by privileged white writers who take minority characters and make them over from the white perspective. Various people got their feelings hurt, and pro writer MacAllister Stone called the whole thing “abusive.”

We’re back now to the question about freedom of expression in fiction writing. It is definitely true that an African American writer can fill in current cultural details about a contemporary black American character better than a white person could, but does this ability qualify the same African American writer to write about African characters, for example? What about the US African American experience would inform this process? Would that be cultural appropriation on the part of the African American writer?

Can a Chinese American writer from San Francisco write authentically about the culture of ancient China? Or does the fact of being born into contemporary American culture negate this ability? Would a Chinese American author writing about African American characters be a case of cultural appropriation? Or is cultural appropriation only about white privilege?

Do minority readers/writers have a point about cultural appropriation? Is it a problem that writers of a particular ethnic background write their characters based on their own viewpoints? Or, as Ann Rice says, is this just another case of author bullying?

Advertisements