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.
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.
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.”
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.