Appropriation of Voice: Part 1

I can think of few topics on writing that can elicit a heated, volatile and divisive dicussion/argument as can the issue of appropriation of voice. In Canada, in the nineties, it was very much the hot topic among writers and academics. Currently, there is far less mention of it, and I get the sense that a lot of writers would prefer to look away from the can of worms, or, think it is an issue that’s been dealt with, thankfully, and let’s move onto to more interesting ideas. Others, from the very beginnings of the discourse, discounted it as a form of “political correctness” that had no place in art and creativity.

I bring it up now, because of an email that came through my blog. An author has written a novel set in Japan, and her publisher has concerns about appropriation of voice, because it is written in the first person. The writer was asked to find someone Japanese (Canadian), who would say a book like this is okay….

No one person can speak on behalf of her culture, and, as if she has the authority to do so. Of course she doesn’t– the native informant is symbolic, and, ultimately, an easy out of an uneasy and unsettling place. The native informant is a proxy, but she is also the fall guy. Look, they will be able to say. She said it was okay, and she’s Japanese! On the other hand, I’m heartened that the publisher is actually thinking about the issue. It’s an ongoing concern, and it’s never going to go away.

I always claim that I can’t even speak on behalf of my sisters– how I could I ever imagine I could speak for an enormously diverse Japanese Canadian community? I do, however, have a subjective opinion on appropriation of voice, and a writerly thought process around it. My ideas about this matter is also informed by my experiences as a Asian Canadian girl growing up into adulthood in Canada.

We are not all working under the same definitions. Although we often have core understandings of what people mean when they speak, I think the edges of the understanding are soft and unfixed, shifting with subjectivities. My understanding of appropriation of voice is not the same as every other writer’s. I think that appropriation of voice is the representation of a culture and subjectivity that is not one’s own but placed on the page as if it is/can be and that this representation is of a subjectivity that’s been historically marginalized, disempowered or disenfranchised. Appropriation of voice, for me, is instrinsically entwined with power.

I am not comfortable telling people what they can and cannot write. But when a writer (including me) wades into the murky and complex waters of creating representations of peoples and cultures not my own, there are basic questions that can bring perspective:

1) Who am I writing this for? The people I’m representing? For people like me? Everyone?

2) Am I the best person to be writing this particular story at this particular time?

3) What is my stake in this story? What is at stake for the cultural group I am representing?

4) Has this cultural group had ample time/agency/opportunities to bring their own cultural stories on their own terms into the publishing space?

5) Who benefits from me writing this story?

6) Why do I want to write this story?

These are ethical and moral concerns that also dovetails with social justice. I do not think that writers and artists are exempt from these concerns. Even as writer and artists, we exist and play a part in a social and historical context. Our creative practice does not elevate us from this site– we are always implicated. Our creative projects are not neutral, just as we as citizens are not neutral.

There are no clear lines to separate what is okay, from what is not okay. I do not believe in a kind of creative essentialism, for instance, that limits all writers to only write from their own lived experieces, their own cultural group, their own gender, sex, class, religion, etc. I don’t feel like I cannot write a story from the point of view of a white male heterosexual character, for instance. What I ask myself is this: in the grand scheme of things, is my writing a story about this character going to take something away from the culture I’m representing, something they have always struggled to gain? In a kind of simplistic way, for me, it all boils down to air-time. If we look to published literature in N. America over the past 350 years, who had the most air-time? Who has not?

If a writer is subtle, complex, careful, artful, well-practiced, she is technically capable of writing anything, really. There are social and ethical implications and repercussions to writing we put out into a broader public. We cannot pretend that this responsibility is not ours. To my mind, how well something is done does not trump whether it ought to be done.

I like to think that contemporary books and stories are peopled by characters we see in our lived lives. Especially in representations of cities. This means writing in many characters of diverse cultures we might not be a part of. I think there is a difference between detailing diverse three-dimensional characters and writing a representation of a culture and people as if they were our own. Where’s the final dividing line?

That is something every writer must decide for herself.

Next week, Part 2: Appropriation of Voice and POV