Saturday, January 11, 2020

"On cultural appropriation, some answers for worried writers" by Brian Henry

The identities of most of the people in this photo are unknown, but the little girl on the far left was Hanka Lamet.
She perished in the gas chambers at Majdanek 

I'm reposting this piece, because there's been some interest in my take on the topic of late.  ~Brian

I meet many writers these days who dread that they might be accused of “cultural appropriation.” Are they allowed to write about Indigenous characters if they’re not Indigenous; black characters if they’re not black?

As I’ve often said, writers are allowed to do whatever they want; it’s a perk of the job. Indeed, writers are obliged to write what they want, even if it pisses people off; it’s a responsibility of the job.

I do get the indignation over cultural appropriation. Currently, I’m seeing endless memes comparing the Trump administration’s separation of children at the American-Mexican border to the Holocaust. This is an appalling comparison. The Nazis killed 1.5 million Jewish children. American immigration control has murdered none. As Amy Rosenthal points out on Facebook:

Children being separated from their parents at the US border is horrible and disgusting and anyone reasonable would oppose this practice 100%.
So, too, is comparing this solitary act (and everything wrong or immoral) to the Holocaust. Here is a short but by no means exhaustive list of terrible things Jewish children endured in concentration and extermination camps during WWII:
Summary execution
Disease (typhus, dysentery, etc)
Medical experimentation
Severe beatings
Slave labor
Burying dead bodies
Digging *their own grave* before being shot and thrown in
Stop appropriating one of the worst things that ever happened to the Jews to suit you. You people will try and take anything from us, including our tragedies.

I agree with Amy on almost everything here, particularly her disgust at the Holocaust being used to score political points – I agree with everything, except the term “appropriation.”

Novelist Lionel Shriver
For Jews, the Holocaust was a unique and overwhelming catastrophe. But Jews don’t own this catastrophe. The Holocaust was an historical event, not property. So while people regularly trivialize the Holocaust and they make ridiculous comparisons to it so often that it’s become a law of online discussions, people cannot actually appropriate the Holocaust.

Similarly, no one owns any bit of history, whether it’s the residential school system in Canada or the history of slavery, segregation and prejudice in the U.S.

By all means, Indigenous people and black people and all sorts of people should write from their own perspectives. However, this doesn’t mean anyone else should stop writing or should try not to stray outside their own narrow cultures. As Lionel Shriver points out (here), if we follow that logic, we’ll all end up writing autobiography.

Just as it’s nonsense to talk about some people owning a bit of history, it’s just as nonsensical to talk of people owning any aspect of a culture. If Koreans own Korean food, who should I apply to for permission to try my hand at making kimchi? Can I just ask a friend or is there a ministry of the North Korean government which handles this sort of thing, and if I make kimchi without permission should they throw me into a labour camp?

The simple fact is that humans imitate each other. The impulse is older than humanity (animals do it, too), and it’s the reason we’re not all standing around in caves naked and grunting at each other. Can you imagine how much appropriation of each other’s utterances it took to get the whole language thing going?

Indeed, without appropriation, we’d each be in a solitary cave, all alone, because this imitation thing is at one with our social nature. It’s not merely that as social animals we imitate each other, but also it’s mutual imitation that binds us together.

Alan Kurdi, child of Syrian refugees, drowned 4 Sept 2015 
Imitation is also adoption; we feel our kinship to one another through our shared cultures. We gather in caf├ęs to shout at the TV because that’s “our” team playing in the World Cup – and it’s “my” team even if I’m cheering for Iceland that day. And when we see a photo of a Syrian toddler washed up dead on the shore of the Mediterranean, we weep, because that child also is ours.

So to be clear: making cultural appropriation a crime is a way of criminalizing our shared humanity.

Yet sometimes when people complain of cultural appropriation they have a legitimate complaint; they’ve just misnamed it. So, for example, it’s wrong to make spurious comparison to the Holocaust because this falsifies history, dishonors the dead, and may cause needless grief to survivors and their descendants.

Speaking more to the point for writers, it’s wrong to write characters who perpetuate negative stereotypes or to write a novel that gets someone’s culture wrong. Not because of “appropriation” but because it’s disrespectful or may even be racist, and it makes for a bad book – or at least a book that’s not as good as it should be.

When writers are dipping into any area they’re not intimately familiar with, they’re always well advised to have a beta reader who is. You’re writing a YA novel? Having a teen reader look over your manuscript is a good idea. You have an Indigenous character? Having an Indigenous beta reader would be a good idea. Even better if your reader comes from the same First Nation or perhaps the same milieu. (If your Indigenous character grew up in Toronto, that urban environment might be more relevant than the specific First Nation your character belongs to.)

Novelist Angie Abdou
That said, writers do need to keep in mind that it’s their novel. “Sensitivity readers” as they’re called can’t become censors. I think the story of Angie Abdou (best known as the author of The Bone Cage) serves as an excellent example of how not to do things.

For her most recent novel, In Case I Go, Abdou hired an Indigenous consultant and rewrote her novel according to his advice, changing it from a ghost story to a story about her character’s relationship with a flesh and blood Indigenous character. 

Then she consulted with the cultural liaison for the First Nation people she was writing about, and following the liaison’s advice, rewrote her novel again, bringing in residential schools. Then Abdou asked the elder council for their okay for her representation of their Nation. Finally, after all this, once her book came out, she was still attacked. 

Jonathan Kay tells the whole sorry tale here.

What lessons might a writer learn from this story? First, perhaps it’s better to use a fictional name for the specific First Nation you’re writing about – just in case. Second, there’s a danger in being overly sensitive. A writer’s job is not to act as some group’s P.R. agent. It’s not your job to write the novel someone else wants to see written. You’ve got to remember it’s your book.

More generally, don’t pay attention to people with an axe to grind. The cry of “cultural appropriation” is a political attack, rooted in a peculiar ideology. Cultural appropriation is a made-up crime and simply has nothing to do with the art of writing.

Brian Henry is an editor, writer, creative writing instructor and the publisher of the Quick Brown Fox blog.

See Brian’s schedule hereincluding writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


  1. Really enlightening piece and very helpful, thank you

  2. Bravo, Brian. Well and bravely said.

  3. Thanks. A thoughtful and wise piece.

  4. A very brave comment, very necessary. Thanks for posting it.

  5. I’d like to clarify here what appropriation actually means, which is not mentioned above. Appropriation is 1) to write for or about cultures who have a history of oppression and/or still have oppression, 2) not be a member of that community, and 3) make money or gain some other personal incentive off those stories. Without, I might add, those cultures receiving any financial gain, changes in discriminatory policies, etc. Which completely ignores the history and plight of that community. This most often occurs when white people write about the stories of people of colour. The other problem with this, is those writers tend to get it wrong, because they will NEVER be able to understand the trauma these black, indigenous, or other communities have gone through, no matter how many people they’ve interviewed, consulted, or how much research they’ve done. So we end up with poor representation, but more importantly, white writers are making money, gaining credibility or whatever, off the stories of people who are STILL being repressed today (thinking of indigenous communities who don’t have access today to clean drinking water, education, affordable housing or food, are more subject to murder, suicide or police brutality, be racially profiled by police, etc.). POC should be writing their own stories and getting financial gain from it because they are still at the mercy of a system that privileges and gives better opportunity to white heterosexual men. So no, we should never be writing stories about indigenous or black people. There are plenty of other stories we can write about. We will not be limited to biography. Hell, write about dragons or some mystical community that was repressed. Also: it’s not up to US (white people, myself included) to decide whether cultural appropriation is okay or not. It’s up to THOSE communities. And they’ve made it quite clear, gone on national television, written on blogs, created school curriculums based on this, and so forth to say that they don’t want other people telling their stories.

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  7. A thoughtful, rational, respectful, and helpful argument on a controversial issue.


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