Sunday, January 29, 2017
I recently read a book that began with an author's apology. Apology for the conceit of writing from the perspective of a Native American; acknowledgement of the possible cultural appropriation of choosing to do so. I have to say I'm a little tired of the cultural appropriation discussion. We are, at the end of the day, all people. I hear some question how a man can write from the perspective of a woman and vice versa; because we're all people. We all have hopes and dreams. Some men are more masculine, while others may have more feminine interests and attributes than some women I know. Why do we put people in boxes? Isn't the nightmare that is unfolding politically right now enough to make us realize that first and foremost, we're all people? That we should not let labels divide us? If I can read a story from the perspective of a man or boy or Native American or Muslim, how is it different than writing from that perspective? On the one hand, we can never truly know exactly what others are going through. All the experiences that have combined to bring them to whatever point they're at in their life and what they believe are unique to them, and it is conceit of any of us to say we completely understand. (Except with teenagers who think they know it all, but that's another discussion.) Do we ever completely understand anyone else? Perhaps not. But there are levels of understanding. My husband understands why I analyze situations before I go into them. He understands my need to examine things from every angle. While others would tell me to stick a sock in it and don't care about my musings and deliberations about decisions, my husband understands that I know myself; that I can attempt to be completely logical about a decision and still throw logic to the wind and make an emotional choice. When I bought my first house, I had a checklist. All the things that were important priorities. I took notes of each house I visited. And at the end of the day, there was a house that had every single thing on my checklist... And I still bought a different house that didn't have all those things. Don't ask me how that happened. I recognized after the fact that I'd been swayed by sentiment and charm and some of the things that bugged me about the house were things I'd identified from the first time I set foot inside, and still ignored. Buying a house isn't the same as being banned from a country because of your ethnicity. It isn't the same as being pushed onto a Reservation and treated like a second-class nobody for centuries. However, I've seen a lot of commentary lately. And that commentary has included the sentiment that white people don't know what discrimination is. That we should shut up because we've never been there. Except that very statement is a discrimination all of its own. No, it isn't the same as what some other people have endured. However, part of being an artist... part of being a decent human being... is learning to try to see the world through the eyes of someone else and consider their perspective and their experience. I have experienced discrimination. I've casually said that I never knew what it was to be discriminated against because of my race until I worked in a specific school in Baltimore. I was called cracker and held down on the ground while a group of teenage boys kicked me, because I was white. I had students whose guardians laughed while they taunted me and talked trash about me. Physically and verbally assaulted for months. And I don't know anything about discrimination? It's nothing compared to what some people have endured, but it's enough to prompt understanding. It isn't even, in truth, the first time I experienced that. Once, when on vacation overseas, my traveling companion and I accidentally docked our canoe near the residences instead of the stores on an island. The children pummeled us with rocks until we got out. They had some choice names for us, too, because they thought we were Americans. And when I was 18 and lived overseas, I found myself constantly presumed to be American, and many of my traveling companions who were Americans started wearing Canadian flags and pins because Americans were treated poorly. When people realized I was Canadian I was treated differently. I may not have endured the worst there, and it may be nothing compared to the discrimination others have faced, but it does inform my understanding. It helps me begin the journey to compassion. Why wouldn't I want to be able to portray that in my writing? Am I limited to writing from a white woman's perspective? I don't believe so. I think that we have to be willing to take a journey with our characters - whoever they are - and try to probe their psyche to understand them. And the process of doing that may lead to a greater understanding of what other people have endured. Isn't the cornerstone of characterization respect? As long as we push past stereotypes and try to really build a perspective that considers the factors that have affected this person, can we not produce a believable character who is credible? I certainly felt that way with the book I read. The book touched on prejudices and struggles from both Caucasian and Native people, and I believed it did so with tact. It was a touching story that specifically dealt with moving past prejudice. I want you to write as a Muslim, as a Native, as a person facing prejudice because of your color, gender or religion. I want you to work hard to bring these characters to life, so that I can read more stories that deepen my perspective and understanding. Isn't that what great fiction is all about?