Tuesday, February 10, 2015

There Is No Such Thing As Appropriation of Voice

Back in the dark ages (1980s) when I was at Concordia University studying English Lit and Creative Writing there was a lot of debate about “Cultural Appropriation” or “Appropriation of Voice.” It seemed like a silly discussion to me – a writer creates fictional characters. Every kind of character; men, women, old, young, aliens, talking dogs, whatever.
And yet.
At the time one of the main drivers of the debate was W.P. Kinsella.* For many years Kinsella published short stories written in the first person narrated by Silas Ermineskin, about life on a First Nations reserve in Alberta, Canada. I thought many of the stories were really good, really funny and tragic and very human. I liked Silas and his friend Frank Fencepost was often hilarious. It was fun hanging out with them.
But after many of these story collections (and a few national awards) there were a few complaints of cultural appropriation. Kinsella rejected the criticism on the grounds that a writer has the license to create anything he chooses and called the term "cultural appropriation" the nonsense of Eastern Canadian academics. And I agreed with him.
And yet.
As this article points out, even though the non-natives writing native stories were “doing this to foster and promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal people and their histories. They can't do that forever and ever because it [becomes] the same old missionary situation.” 
And we didn’t even have the term “white privilege” back then.
Still, I don’t believe in appropriation of voice, I believe writers create fictional characters of all kinds. Lots of non-native writers in Canada have Native characters in their writing.
I think the reason the issue has died out, in this case, is because there are now many more Native writers being published in Canada than there were when Kinsella was publishing his stories so it’s less of a “missionary situation.”
And yet.
There is one kind of book which seems to be popular these days which I realized I have a personal prejudice against, my own appropriation of voice issue. I suppose it’s my own problem and I need to overcome it, but when I see a book written by a middle-aged man and the story is told from the point of view of a young woman I’m very reluctant to pick it up.
It’s my own baggage, I get that. But it kind of feels like the Native issue. It kind of feels like a missionary situation. Literature was dominated by men for a long time. At a literary conference I was at recently one of the panels addressed the question, “Is the default voice in literature male?” It could have been “still male.” If you go by how many more books by men are reviewed then books by women (the VIDA count keeps track) then the answer seems to be yes. And now there are all these young “kick-ass” women created by men. Maybe we need a literary equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
And in Canadian crime fiction we have what seems to be an odd situation. There are a number of bestselling women writers who write from a male point of view and a bunch of bestselling male writers who write from a young female point of view.
But there aren’t many Canadian women writing bestsellers with female protagonists.
So, thank goodness for Hilary Davidson and I hope soon Robin Spano is a bestseller.
And although it’s not really being marketed as crime fiction, Elizabeth de Mariaffi’s debut novel, The Devil You Know is a fantastic story with a young female protagonist.
The story follows twenty-one year old Evie Jones, a reporter for a newspaper in Toronto in the early 1990s. As she says, when you read an article and in addition to the reporter’s byline there is the line, “with additional files from,” that’s her.
This is a novel that uses many real, horrific events in the story and it could easily have become exploitive. One of the reasons it doesn’t, I think, is because of how feminine it is. The way the narrator talks about the silences and the darknesses in her daily life and the way she identifies with the victims, slipping in a casual, “I could so easily be those girls,” that it feels so natural.
This isn’t a book about justice or the search for justice or some detective trying to find the guilty man.
The Quill and Quire review said, “In her engaging, witty debut novel, Elisabeth de Mariaffi challenges the mainstream tropes of the detective and suspense genres by placing sexual violence along the spectrum of intimidation, harassment, and fear that women experience on a daily basis.” And that’s true. Sort of. I really liked how the novel did place the sexual violence along that spectrum but I think it may only be a Canadian review that would see this book as challenging the mainstream tropes. Those tropes have been challenged so much by Megan Abbott and Denise Mina and Tana French and Gillian Flynn and Hilary Davidson and Krist Belcamino and so many more that they’re no longer mainstream tropes.
While I still feel that there’s no such thing as appropriation of voice and writers certainly have the license to create anything from any point of view they want I’m still unlikely to pick up a book with a young female narrator written by a middle-aged man. It kind of feels like a missionary situation these days.
* Kinsella is probably best known outside of Canada for writing the novel, Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa which was turned into the movie Field of Dreams.


Holly West said...

Hmmm. Ultimately I think I have to say I don't believe in voice appropriation for writers either. In fact, I've not given it much thought. However, awhile back I read an early draft of a novel that included the "voice" of a young girl who'd been gang raped. It was written by a male. For reasons I couldn't put my finger on at the time, I was upset by these chapters that were written from the girl's POV (and not just because the subject matter itself was upsetting). I really felt that this person had no right to give voice to this girl, which surprised me--I knew his intent was not to exploit but to shed light. I realize now that it was the appropriation of her voice that I objected to, rightly or wrongly. It was a knee jerk reaction that caught me by surprise.

John McFetridge said...

It's really impossible to tell white guys that there's anything they don't have the right to do ;).

The article I quoted in the post also said that there are some non-natives writing from a native pov that are well respected, "But they must realize there comes a time for them to step back."

And it seems that many have stepped back, so to speak. There's no censorship or anything like that, but I'm likely more inclined to read Sherman Alexie than WP Kinsella's native stories these days. The market has changed.

So, maybe with so many excellent women writers being published today the same will happen with regards to men writing from the pov of young women. The market will change.

Dana King said...

Wow. This is a real can of worms. There is no disputing the fact that First Nation* writers (women, blacks, Hispanics, and others) are badly underrepresented among published authors. Much of this is likely attributable to the business of publishing. If they write strictly for their own audience, and that audience is limited, publishers will not beat a path to their doors. (It’s the women’s situation that confuses me. It is also a fact that most books are bought and read by women, yet women are also badly underrepresented. Exploring that conundrum is slightly off-topic here, and would take too long in this comment.)

What’s concerning is—to stick with the Kinsella example—who’s to blame? If Kinsella writes books that First Nation readers enjoy, and believe depicts them fairly, why should he stop? The key here, as it should be in all writing, is “how well is it done?” If done well, it shouldn’t matter; if done, poorly, well, then it’s just bad writing and should be ignored anyway. The test should be, “If a First Nation reader did not knot know Kinsella is white, would it affect his enjoyment of the book?”

There’s a slippery slope here. How much is too much? My Penns River novels are told from multiple points of view. The one I finished last week has a female POV character, a black POV character, and a gay POV character. How much time can I spend in any of their heads before I have “appropriated their voices?” A chapter? Two? A thousand words? Can I do it at all?

* -- I love this term, and wish we’d adopt it here in Baja Canada. It’s so much more descriptive than “Native American.” Hell, I was born in Pennsylvania. That makes me a native American. “Aboriginal American” comes to mind, but that’s way too much work for most Americans to be bothered to say, and still doesn’t resonate like “First Nation.”

Cary Watson said...

Back in the 1980s I worked as a script analyst for CBC, and I was given a script called Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway to read. Highway was a noted First Nations playwright at the time, and so there was a lot of interest in his script. It was very good, but his portrait of life on a Manitoba reserve was, in the end, too blackly humorous for CBC. I got the feeling the CBC was disappointed that a First Nations writer didn't give them something more long-faced and serious. The scene that probably did it for the CBC was one in which two characters crawl on their hands and knees around the rez while carrying on a normal conversation. They're crawling because everyone else on the rez is drunk and firing rifles out their windows just for the drunken hell of it. It was a hilarious scene, but the idea of making light of a social problem, even if a First Nations writer was the one doing it, was too much for the CBC. Anyway, Highway turned his script into a novel so everything ended well. I guess the moral of the story, from the CBC's point of view, was that minority writers must not be allowed to make light of their own cultural group.