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Question your motives when appropriating minority voices



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?

Maxine Beneba ClarkeIn 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 this, or what you would need to do to gain some."


From my own experiences, desperately seeking queer young adult literature as a teenager, authors like David Levithan felt like a godsend. It's not just that he writes novels about queer characters, but that those stories don't always revolve around a painful coming-out story (a narrative that still dominates the genre). He lets queer characters just live their lives. It was a confirmation of my own reality and an assurance that after coming out, my life would go on.

The obvious solution is to support minority writers until we have parity. However, since we are still a while away from this yet, let's talk about other options.

Though I do think it's important to have more diversity in literature, it should not come at the cost of the real people. Writers, question your motives. Why do you want to tell this story? Will you be able to do the characters and story justice, or, like the painful coming-out stories, are you recycling the same well-worn narrative? Just like non-fiction writing, you need to think about why you have the authority to write this, or what you would need to do to gain some.

Readers, read broadly. Publishers are selling literature. The operative word there is selling, because publishing houses are businesses. If there is demand for writers of colour, for disabled writers, for writers of different religions and orientations — that's when books by these people will start to fill book stores. You can strengthen the Australian publishing industry by showing publishers that when they take risks on good stories written by minorities, about minorities, they will be rewarded.

And let's remember an important point too often forgotten, that in the conversations we have, we need to listen to minority groups. If you know a book has been called out for being culturally appropriative, then go and buy a different book. People with privilege don't get to decide what's offensive, nor should people of colour be burdened with explaining why their voices matter.


Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Lionel Shriver, cultural appropriation



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Existing comments

Thought provoking article. Not sure that in the last paragraph you mean " culturally inappropriate " rather than " culturally appropriative". Seems that the word " queer " has now changed its meaning too !Guess we have to get used to it !

Maureen Thomas | 28 November 2016  

It worries me that we should be considering the censorship or self-censorship of writers who can be considered privileged because other writers are not privileged, or because these 'privileged' writers are creating characters who belong to a minority group of which the writer is not a member. If a writer does a poor job of portraying any character, whether of similar ethnic/gender background or not, then let us judge the work on that basis. If the writer does a good job, then let's recognise that success. Censoring the 'privileged' writer does nothing to help the under-privileged, Telling heterosexual white male writers that they cannot create female, LGBTI or Ugandan characters is simply fascistic. If those privileged writers use their privilege to belittle, stereotype or abuse members of minority groups, then of course, we need to speak up and condemn that racism, sexism etc. It is the job of every human being to walk that mile in the other person's shoes. This endeavor is surely at the root of all our striving to be the best we can be.

Kate Ahearne | 28 November 2016  

'Straight white male writers dominate Australian literature at present'. Historically this is not so. Women writers like Christina Stead - arguably Australia's greatest novelist ever bar none - Thea Astley and Judith Wright - possibly our greatest poet - loom gigantic on the Australian literary landscape. Looking for a writer of non-heterosexual persuasion for the sake of a perceived equity is a personal moral choice and not a literary one. It is very similar to looking for an overtly Jewish or Catholic writer. These are also traditional minorities in a largely, but not completely, WASP Australian tradition. Would you consider the late Patrick White primarily a queer writer or a writer who happened to be queer? Likewise his authorised biographer, David Marr, who happens to be gay and is not ashamed to take on conservative heavies like Piers Akerman when they make disparaging remarks about gays on the ABC's 'Insiders' program. Most gay people are perfectly integrated into normal society. I remember at my Anglican gentleman's academy in South Yarra many of my fellow students were gay. That was regarded as perfectly normal. I think this article is heavy on political correctness but needs a leaven of common sense.

Edward Fido | 28 November 2016  

In creating any character a writer is moving out of the realm of their own experience In order to create a believable character a writer needs to do a lot of research and work hard to get inside the skin of the person they create. Sometimes this can be a disturbing process but a comment overheard on a tram or a chance expression, say of love or anger, you see on the street can take you there. Today it would not be possible to write a credible novel about Australia without creating characters of various ethnic backgrounds different from your own. All that said, it is great to see a young person considering such a question. Getting published gets more difficult every day, Always remember, in the end it is based on some person or group's personal preference. Keep writing and asking the questions But don't limit yourself or your imagination. I look forward to reading much more from you.

Margaret McDonald | 28 November 2016  

It seems to me that one of the key problems is the choices that publishing houses make about who and where to publish. A discerning public would want to know if the publication had integrity, so the author's bio is an important element in this discernment. Perhaps there needs to be a publishing house devoted to publishing minority voices ... maybe it's already been tried and insufficient income is generated? In the end though, people can only choose from that which is published ...

Mary Tehan | 28 November 2016  

Let"s not carry this too far, or writers will only be able to write about people exactly like themselves.

Lenore Crocker | 28 November 2016  

Lionel Shriver was correct to condemn the inanity of political correctness, identity politics and the circumscription of free speech. As she pointed out, political correctness now puts out of bounds huge swathes of cultural expression, and where anything “associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced.” She correctly noted that the enforcement of identity politics makes writing fiction nigh impossible, because what is fiction but an act of imagination. Shakespeare was neither a Danish prince, nor a Roman dictator, nor a young Italian girl in Verona. However he saw deeply into the mind of Hamlet, the ambition of Caesar, and the heart of Juliet. Even before Donald Trump’s election, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students had rejected concepts like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and said controversial speakers would be welcomed on campus. Slowly but surely the repression of political correctness is approaching a Wizard-of Oz denouement moment, where the curtain is drawn back to reveal a feeble old fraud.

Ross Howard | 28 November 2016  

Beverly Naidoo is a writer of South African origin (white) who ,I think ,writes excellent children's books about racial issues in South Africa of which she has had direct experience. As long as an effective , honest message is conveyed the ethnic background of the writer seems not very relevant. After all, male and female writers already write books about the other sex. Many people have had personal experiences with people of the other sex or a different ethnicity which they can draw on for their writing. As long as the work is truthful, and empathetic, a writer should be free to express their views, "To Kill a Mocking Bird" did not demean black people in the USA at the time it was written.

Mary | 03 December 2016  

There has been a bit of going to the other end of the spectrum to rebut Neve's essay. Would there be offense if a young female Asian (for example) writer wrote critically about elderly, well-off, conservative Catholic males (for example)? Maybe not so much with the flow going the other way. I think the point about a book being culturally appropriative has been overlooked in this discussion. That surely is the point of the message. Indigenous artists have some protection against non-indigenous artists appropriating the traditional style of their work. Similar principle? Possibly, but is it justifiable to encourage some degree of censorship because a writer is not part of another group? Writing is not as much about experience as imagination. It is about authors getting into the minds of their characters. It would be useful if Neve had included some examples of books that make her point, if only to keep the discussion relevant. And is this discussion only about fiction? Having read Andrew Hamilton’s moving essay on Joan Healy’s book “Writing for Raksmey”, does the same principle apply here? I hope not because without Joan Healy’s contribution these stories of the Khmer people probably would not be told.

Brett | 05 December 2016  

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