How does a person establish the cultural or ethnic group to which they belong? Does another person define it for me or is the judgment my own? If it is my assessment, do I look only at the most obvious, surface characteristics that define me, for example skin color or country of origin? If my group membership is decided by others, from the outside, can I as an Ashkenazi Jew write about Sephardim? Can an African-American write about a person born and raised in Nigeria?
I have on occasion written about black-skinned people–some African-American but also Jamaican and African. I have thought about why I’m drawn to write about black people. I think I’m drawn there because a black woman was the person I loved most in my early life. Her presence in my life was largely a function of white privilege and structural racism. That is unarguable. So is the fact that I loved her and lost her abruptly and something in my spirit and memory continues to seek her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been part of my life, but she was. I have sporadically been attracted to stories of great conflict and violence, wherever they are set. Perhaps my Jewish roots and the familial memory of the Holocaust contribute to that interest. I suspect that equally or more important is the hunger to understand certain aspects of the human spirit that I see at work within myself and others I know and see in startling magnitude and complexity in national and international news stories. I have often wanted to look into the eyes of a perpetrator of violence to understand what is in their heart. George Floyd’s death wrenched my heart but Derek Chauvin’s haunted eyes did as well, and it was Derek Chauvin whose heart—a mystery to me—I wanted to plumb, perhaps even to comfort and humanize because he seemed so desperately alone.
If I look at the various influences on me, I am puzzled by the question, To whom do I belong? What culture or ethnicity can I write about without appropriating? My skin is white. I was born in Chicago, Illinois. Is that all that matters in this determination of identity? I am Jewish as well and that complicates the issue of whiteness since many with white skin wish not to include Jews in their tribe. White supremicists are not interested in embracing Jews of any skin color. Whatever their pigmentation, they are not white. So with whom do I belong? Only with Jewish people from the Midwest? But I am an atheist. Does that narrow my field further? In the end, must I write only about myself? That seems like an odd and constricted journey to take, when writing is meant to be a voyage of exploration and discovery. Novelist Lionel Shriver argued in a 2016 speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival: “The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.
Revisiting this question of whom one is entitled to consider in writing, in the end I rest upon the same idea—for me, the strongest—that I wrote about in my second blog post, which is the notion that one can venture where one will artistically, ideally with respect and great interest in the subjects of one’s attention. The reader or critic is entirely free to say, You did not understand the place you were going, but perhaps not to say that you shouldn’t have attempted the journey.
I’ll add as a concluding caveat that it is important to look at the human elements of one’s story and to think hard about why one is choosing (or imagining) the particular location and the ethnic and racial groups one is. Yes, one is entitled, but is one well-founded in choices made out of a genuine wish to honor one’s subjects with attention and interest or are the choices motivated by some baser need—for example, to build on the weak foundation of stereotypes or to express some reflexive, perhaps ignorant judgment based on “othering” people with whom one chooses not to identify? Is one writing with a wish to understand and to communicate or to pose meaningful questions or does one’s work flow from some other place, which might be the impulse to debase but might also be the urge to steal what seems rich and colorful, perhaps enviable, but does not feel like one’s own? In that last impulse lies true cultural appropriation.