Appropriation of Voice: Part 1

January 10, 2011 By: Hiromi Category: Blog

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

6 Comments to “Appropriation of Voice: Part 1”

  1. Thanks for your comments Hiromi. I liked the set of questions you use for asking yourself about writing and voice. I agree with you that appropriation of voice is linked to power, and that to write about another culture or group is to risk not only “getting it wrong” but also to take power away from that group.
    I have read and enjoyed several YA books by authors written about other cultures recently. I think of Deborah Ellis’s series, and Sharon McKay’s work, as well as Anne Laurel Carter’s most recent book, The Shepherd’s Granddaughter. While I would prefer to read books written by Palestinian women, rather than Carter’s version, I am grateful to have read her book, and thank her for giving voice to people we don’t often hear from. I think it’s a very tricky path to navigate, and I do wonder how Palestinians feel about being written about by a Canadian. I imagine, but I might be wrong, that they are glad to have their stories told.
    I know from my own experience of writing my book “Gravity” about a young Jewish girl from an orthodox family, that gay Jewish readers were happy to hear their experience expressed, even if I am not gay myself.

  2. Yes, it’s a multi-stranded and complex situation. I fully recognize and appreciate the need for cross-cultural allies to write stories and characters who are under-represented for myriad of reasons. Maybe another question that could be added to my list is one which asks whether or not the urgency and need of the story to be heard sooner, rather than later, is greater than waiting for “the potentially best person” to write it. But another consideration is, why are some groups/cultures less heard from– what’s systemically standing in the way, and how can we support in breaking down the barriers, instead of writing in their stead? Again, I don’t want to promote a reductive and essentialist approach to writing. It’s all very complex. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and thinking on this issue!

  3. Dear Ms. Goto,
    I am so glad your website came up when I googled “appropriation of voice” this evening. I am currently rereading Chorus of Mushrooms (for about the hundredth time), and think the coincidence is too perfect (for me). Thank you for your sensitive discussion of the topic, above.

    I’m struggling with a story I’m writing and I could really use your insight, if you’ll offer it further. The story is about a male doctor, in his 60’s, Indian-Canadian heritage. It’s one in a collection of linked short fiction (my debut collection). This character has appeared in other stories in the collection, and I feel as though it’s his turn to be the protagonist (perspective in third person). The collection is set in Edmonton, after all – a culturally diverse area of Canada.

    My hang up is that I’m white and my character is not. The story’s theme is centred around adoption and acceptance. Though I’m working to write with sensitivity and subtly, I keep wondering if I have rights to the text. So I stop, forsake the work. But then, as my collection comes to completion, I think, is it worse to not include diversity in my collection? Do I really want to marginalized my non-white characters as only secondary characters, the doctor only serving to facilitate my white main characters lives? No. He has a story, a family, goals, regrets. Why must this man not receive equal spotlight? So I guess that’s my question:

    In your opinion, is it worse to fail to represent diverse characters in one’s work, or worse to assume the voice of someone outside one’s own culture?

    Loaded question, I know. But thank you in advance.

  4. Dear Katie,

    Thank you for your letter and thinking very seriously about appropriation of voice and how to write mindfully. I think my post pretty much provides you with the questions you need to navigate this unsettled terrain. The answers need to come from you. You know your intentions best– what follows next is that have adequate writing skills to put in place what you intend. And the final piece is seeking relevant feedback if you decide to write cultural representations not your own.
    The world is very diverse and most of us who live in cities see and interact with diverse peoples every day. They are our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones. Depicting this reality is
    just, well, reality…. Best wishes with your writing.

  5. Hiromi,
    A very useful article as this issue is once again in the headlines. We can all learn from your wise words.
    Thank you
    David Doyle

  6. Thank you, David. May we all write with thoughtfulness and care.


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