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January 15, 2006

A brief note on cultural appropriation

This article by Margaret Drabble says some really excellent things about appropriation in relation to “The Red Queen”, not all of which are entirely politically correct. This concept is a fairly new one for me, and I’m still grappling with what I think, but one less controversial aspect of appropriation is factual correctness and how a failure to achieve this can disturb the spell fiction casts.

I read “White Teeth” a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. Now I know nothing about Bengali culture, and really at the time I knew nothing of British culture either, so I didn’t read it with an altogether critical eye. But I know other people did, and Zadie Smith received a lot of negative feedback from her protrayal of Bengali characters specifically. I went to see Smith speak in October, before I read “On Beauty”, and I was curious to know whether she found bridging the American/British culture gap more/less/as difficult as gaps in her previous books. Her response, with trademark self-confidence, was that it was a story, fiction. It didn’t all have to be true, and she wasn’t bovvered if others picked it to pieces. I respected her gumption. But.

I read “On Beauty” recently (and I loved it). But there were bits that were like hooks, that cut into me and pulled me out of my reading experience. Why were the American Belsey family travelling in a “people-carrier”? There were other examples of this. And I wasn’t trying to read this and “pick it to pieces”. Similarly I read the wonderful “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson this summer. It took place in East Anglia, but there was a character whose daughter had moved to Canada. She lived in the suburbs, but like most Torontians had a cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario, where they hiked through the ancient forests and canoed on the rapids. Torontians, Torontonians and Ontarians alike will see the problem I had with this passage, and “bovvering” about it ruined the book a little bit for me. Maybe this was my fault, but I didn’t want it to happen.

This is important to me, because I have written a novel about English people that takes place in London, and I want it to resonate with truth. As a writer, am I even capable of that? My next big project involves a family living in Iran during the 1979 Revolution, where I’ve never been, when I was barely born. Is it possible? I don’t want to be limited to only writing about brown haired girls called Kerry who are twenty-six and live in Toronto. How do you use facts in fiction? Where does the fault lie when facts let you down- with the reader, the writer, or -perchance- the editor?

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