A Beautiful Land. That is my new book about a land that is physically beautiful but often far from beautiful as a place to live one’s life. I’ve spent years working on this book, though the work was intertwined with other projects. During these years, a storm blew up in the literary world concerning what is known as ‘cultural appropriation.’ I’m caught in the storm. I’m not complaining. I put myself there. Though I’m from the US, I set my book in Africa because my heart and curiosity were moved by stories I read about the genocide in East Africa and for a number of other reasons. In composing the story I chose to tell, I was aware of not wanting to tread on the actual events and their survivors. I felt I didn’t have the authority or right to do that. But I did write a fictional derivative story that attempts to explore some of the human pain and deep emotional conflicts associated with being caught up in such a maelstrom: as a victim, a perpetrator, or some of both.
I’ve written at times about activities and places very close to my own daily life or my past, in Midwestern towns and cities. At other times, I’ve written about far-off places, some of them imaginary or some that are amalgams of the real and the imagined (all portrayals of place in fiction are actually such composites). I was not fully alert to the resentment that a story such as mine might fuel, set in a land distant from my geographical home and concerning people I have placed there through some alloy of imagination and historical realities. The common ground among all the stories was that they engaged my heart, imagination, and curiosity but perhaps that was only part of the tale of site selection. I see now that the tougher stories I’ve written—those that are more disturbing—I’ve set farther from home. I think I had trouble imagining them unfolding in my homeland, or didn’t want to imagine that. Sometimes I think I can see more dimensions of events if I set them at a distance, and it’s easier to unleash one’s imagination when not on well-worn ground.
As I’ve listened to anger expressed about cultural appropriation, I’ve had mixed emotions about the arguments proffered. I can readily understand that people would not want others to tell their story, especially when the story concerns people who have historically been disenfranchised. They have had a lot stolen from them and might detest the idea of their stories, too, being claimed by others who might in some monetary or other way profit from them. I might well feel that way myself if I stood in those shoes. On the other hand, I have a belief that a creative artist should have license to go wherever their imagination takes them, a belief that no barriers should be set to the imagination and creative process. The protection then for those to whom the story “belongs” is their right and power to criticize. Any written work should be fully subject to critique. So if I write about a world I don’t live in physically or a people who aren’t those I live among, the reader is free to say I didn’t understand my subject and didn’t produce work of value. But ought the reader to bar me from the effort? I am Jewish and of eastern European descent and have never thought a non-Jewish person or a person of different lineage ought not to undertake to write about the Holocaust, but on many occasions I have critiqued work on that topic as glib (without knowing its creator’s background) and “Hollywood” and not properly honoring the memory of those murdered or displaced by the horror of the times.
All that said, were I to start my project over, I would be more determined to fully consider, in advance, if there is good reason I can’t relate the human essence of the story while setting it in a geographical place (and with a people) closer to home. That question seems well worth asking. Recent years in this country have opened my eyes more fully to the reality that any of the “tough” stories I’ve written could in fact be set very close to home and associated either with our national past or our present, both of which are full of difficulty. With A Beautiful Land, this issue took shape for me when I was too far along with the work to reimagine the story. I had swum three quarters of the way across the lake and decided to finish the swim, not go back and start again.
Toni Morrison shared some thoughts about the teaching of writing that bear on the issue of cultural appropriation and would seem to come down on the side of the unfettered imagination:
I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.
When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.
–NEA Arts Magazine, 2014 No 4, interview by Rebecca Sutton
I’m thinking of exploring, in another post, questions of what it actually means to “belong” to a certain cultural group. Where do we draw the lines between groups and how do we assign membership and say who is in and who is out, who has “valid” connections and thus belongs and who does not? But that will wait for another day.