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Question your motives when appropriating minority voices

  • 25 November 2016


Cultural appropriation remains a buzzword, especially in regards to Lionel Shriver's keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. In essence, Shriver attempted to take down 'PC culture' because it impacts on her freedoms. Freedom of what, I wonder? Writing free of criticism? Freedom to think deeply about the inner lives of minority groups?

In a writing class I had, my teacher instructed us to tell our partner a personal story. We then went around the room, and our partner would tell our stories, and we weren't allowed to talk or correct them. The exercise was called Caregivers, and it drove home that fact that writing is a privilege as well as a responsibility.

We are responsible for the repercussions of our writing — this includes perpetuating stereotypes through lazy characterisation or taking the opportunity from, for example, a writer of colour to represent their own experiences.

Cultural appropriation is a difficult subject to navigate, because in literature appropriation is full of grey areas. Is the minority character a main or side character? Do they feel tokenistic? Is there a sensitivity reader available? It's hard because literature isn't magically separated from the systemic oppression faced by people of colour and other minority groups.

In a utopian world, free of racism and bigotry, there would be no problem with writers having complete artistic freedom. It becomes a problem when, for example, a white author takes the experiences of a Ugandan woman and writes a novel that becomes an acclaimed bestseller, while writers of colour struggle to get published and have their own stories told. This is white privilege at its finest.

Morally, should the privileged be able to profit from the experiences and oppression of another culture?

So where does that leave us? Straight white male writers dominate Australian literature at present, but diversity in literature is important too. Maxine Beneba Clarke (pictured), author of Foreign Soil and The Hate Race, in her Melbourne Writers Festival opening address, spoke about how powerful it is to see characters who are like you in literature from a young age.

'Children unseeing themselves in Australian literature is unfortunately not an unusual introduction to story ... [they see] that books render them invisible, that their stories are not important.' Beneba Clarke quoted Palyku novelist Ambelin Kwaymullina: 'It is the right of every child to see themselves in story.'


"Just like non-fiction writing, you need to think about why you have the authority to write