A Headdress Where It Doesn’t Belong, is a direct, unflinching look at the harm caused by cultural appropriation. It confronts with truths some may find hard to hear, but cultural appropriation is a crucial topic of discussion in the art world. Any person considering crossing cultural lines in their writing needs to read that article.
This is part introduction, part confession, and one of the rare times that I will speak from a personal perspective here at Bronzeville Bee.
Appropriation and Representation
Publishers are wrestling with how to increase representation of diverse groups in the publishing industry. Query letters are scrutinized to see if the author has relevant experience or if they are part of a diverse group that is represented by their main character. When the writer and character share that diversity the #OwnVoices tag can be used to authenticate and promote the work. If the writer does not share the diversity of their key characters there is a risk of accusations of cultural appropriation.
I struggle with these issues as a reader, an author, and an editor. This means that I can have what seem to be conflicting opinions about crossing cultural lines in writing.
As a reader I’ve enjoyed many works where a woman wrote male characters or vice versa. I’ve also been a fan of stories with straight characters written by gay authors … and stories with gay characters written by straight authors.
As an author, I hate ‘write what you know’; I’ve certainly never killed anyone in real life, but I have on the pages of a book, and my job is to do the research needed to convince the reader. I was taught to research when I studied journalism, and nobody questioned my ability to write about a strike when I hadn’t walked the picket line. Any time a person writes a superhero story or pens historical fiction they’re stepping outside their direct experience, and I have no issue with that, either.
As an editor I recognize that a person who has knowledge or experience related to specific content in their work has authority. Their insight should infuse the work with credibility. This is something that marketing personnel can use to promote the work, and that means that in the publishing business it’s something that can’t be ignored.
I know my own view is limited. I do not speak as a minority. I am Caucasian. That is specifically why Bronzeville Bee will strive for an #OwnVoices approach to arts, culture and entertainment pieces as much as possible. This is why we have a Muslim author writing about representation for Muslims in fiction. (I will always choose, for example, to have a writer with Asian heritage write about characters and artists with Asian heritage before anyone else. If this is not possible I will weigh the need for coverage versus my ability to secure a knowledgable writer.)
Reasons to Address Appropriation
This series of articles started with my attempt to provide a distinction between write what you know, write your truth and #OwnVoices. Then, the opportunity to have author Gitz Crazyboy weigh in on the subject of cultural appropriation arose, and the focus of my article expanded.
Appropriation and representation are important issues for all diverse groups. As a white person, it isn’t right for me to hold the floor in a discussion about cultural appropriation.
Gitz does not merely look at appropriation in the arts and whether or not people can cross cultural lines; he underscores the significance of the extent of cultural appropriation Indigenous people endure, which extends far beyond misrepresentation in fiction. Indigenous people have mistruths taught about them in schools. Their culture is appropriated in arts, entertainment, sports and beyond. One only needs to look at some sporting mascots and outfits at events like Coachella to see evidence of that. And although we can see it if we’re willing to look, most of us have no concept of the extent of the damage these abuses inflict on Indigenous people.
Welcoming an Indigenous Perspective
In spite of the extent of appropriation Indigenous people experience, the perspective of Native Persons is often missing from discussions about these issues. Gitz presents an unapologetic look at the way appropriation damages Indigenous people.
My own contribution to this topic is an editor’s perspective, with the caveat that there can be exceptions to any position commonly held.
As an editor I have a specific position, but as an author I have been struggling. Should I cross cultural lines in my writing? I don’t want to write monochromatic books; that would not reflect reality.
Last summer, I had a short story published in an anthology titled The Dame Was Trouble.
I made a specific choice to write about a trans woman. Before I explain why, I want to point you to a Facebook post made by Benoit Lelievre some time ago. He gave me permission to reference it, and it’s really the discussion that ensued that is what’s of note. Benoit reviewed a book, written by Anthony Neil Smith, that featured a trans character.
In the comments, an individual took issue with that. The screenshot shows simply the first exchange in a lengthy discussion about representation in fiction.
It is clear that the commenter would have an issue with my choice to write my story, Crossing Jordan, simply because I am not trans. However, I feel the absolute hard line presented is limited. Estimates put the number of transgender individuals in the U.S. at 1.4% of the population. Of that number, how many do we suppose are aspiring authors? Of those, how many want to write specifically about trans characters? Should trans authors be forced to write exclusively about the trans experience or, like the rest of us, are they allowed to write about alien invasions or exploring the galaxy?
I made a specific choice to write that character because I have an immediate family member who is trans and remains in the closet, splitting their time between home, where they live as one gender, and friends, where they live as another. I wrote that story as a way of conveying both understanding and acceptance to someone who refuses to talk to me about their gender identity. I wrote it to help process some of my own feelings. I may not be trans, but it was a story that was very personal to me, and others connected with it:
“Crossing Jordan by Sandra Ruttan doesn’t feature murder or a shoot-out but does get us inside the head of a trans sex worker as she tries to unsuccessfully kill herself. But it’s not just A Man Called Ove done up in high heels. It is a story of persistence and strength in the face of misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. A story that will stick with me.”She Kills Lit
I have crossed other lines in my writing as well. Many protagonists I’ve written are male, and, as people who are familiar with my novels know, I have featured a number of Native characters in my works over the last two decades.
Today, I am more aware than ever before that Native Persons and other marginalized people need to drive their own narratives.
I have been a firm believer that it is disingenuous for Canadian crime fiction to ignore #MMIW. There is no single group of people who are more likely to be victims of violence than Indigenous women and yet so few published works even reference the issue. I realize fiction isn’t reality, but I’ve always written the kind of crime fiction that reflects real social issues, in the vein of Ian Rankin and other writers who use fiction as a way to examine politics, justice and problems in society.
This is why I created a Native character who, despite being an RCMP officer, lost custody of his child to her white mother. The white mother was ultimately responsible for the death of the child. It was a way of underscoring both racism and sexism in custody.
At the time, I didn’t think it odd to have a Native RCMP officer. After all, the research I had done prior to writing that work was with an RCMP officer who was half Native. Since then, my ongoing education has highlighted my lack of understanding of issues between the Native community and RCMP at the time. My conversations with Gitz about his article have been an education on their own, and my reading over the past few years has also reshaped my thinking.
It doesn’t matter how good my intentions were when I wrote that character; what matters is whether he was credible and believable, or whether his existence did harm to Indigenous people. That isn’t for me to decide. I can only say that if I was writing the book today, I would do some things differently.
There’s a distinction between what we can do and what we should do. As an author, I’m struggling with that balance.
I present my perspective as an editor here with a conflicted heart. As an editor I can’t discount a person of one race writing characters from another race any more than I can discount a female author writing male characters. Done well, all possibilities are on the table for consideration.
When working as an author, I recognize the need to continue to research, learn, grow, and strive to tell stories that are inclusive and respectful.
As a reader, however, I am already looking to authors such as Gitz, who are rising to share their stories with the world, and who I hope will inspire more diverse authors to write and publish their works for generations to come.