I recently read a most interesting blog post on the subject of cultural appropriation written by Dutch author Karien van Ditzhuijzen, author of A Yellow House, which was hosted by Indian writer and blogger Damyanti Biswas. Cultural appropriation is a relatively new term (to me at least), one I only took serious note of when M&S were taken to task over their biryani wrap. I’m not going to re-hash that discussion here but, I have watched the increasing use of that term with interest and no small degree of concern.
Concern? Well yes, for I was born in India, lived there with my family till I was 11, moved to Nigeria for 6 years, before returning to the Indian subcontinent for 2 years to Bangladesh. I attended boarding school in England from the age of 12, but always considered where my parents were based as ‘home’. I moved to live in England aged 19, a fish out of water, feeling a foreigner in ‘my own’ country; it took a long while to shake that feeling.
The adult I am was largely formed by the experience of my early years spent as part of a white minority, albeit one with priviledge, in countries and cultures which were not ‘my own’. Despite the fact I felt more at home in India than I have ever felt here in England, I accept that I remain open to charges of cultural appropriation should I choose to write about India based upon my childhood experience … especially if I get it wrong. And there are so many ways to get it wrong when you write only from your own perspective.
For those who say it’s my personal history and I have the right to write about it however I please, I refer you to the very excellent talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the subject of The Single Story …
The shelves are already crowded with white (largely male) authors and however hard it will be for me to get published, would I have any more right to be published telling my story about Nigeria than a Nigerian author? When on Goodread’s list of Most Popular Botswanna books, you have to go down to 20th place to find the first non-white author (a black South African), and a further 10 places to find a black Botswanan author, yet I sat in the audience at the recent Hay Festival listening to Kate Nicholl’s talk on the book she’d written about her experience of life in Botswanna … need I say more?
Will I allow fears of accusations of cultural appropriation to stop me writing my story? Probably not, for I agree with these words from Karien van Ditzhuijzen “by focusing too much on the negative aspects of cultural approbation, we risk overlooking another important phenomenon: cultural appreciation.”
But I will also listen to her advice that if I write my story I must “write it well!”
© Debra Carey, 2019