Showing posts with label Cultural appropriation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cultural appropriation. Show all posts

14 August 2018

Not Like Us

by Michael Bracken

Hanging out with Kevin Tipple
at The Wild Detectives shortly before
Noir at the Bar-Dallas,
August 2, 2018.
About a month ago, as I write this, I dined with an early career writer who shared his experience during a recent writing workshop’s critique session. One of the authors who workshopped this writer’s story criticized him for cultural appropriation because he—a middle-aged white male—wrote about an older black woman.

My immediate response was a flippant, “If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.”

I’ve thought often about that discussion, have not changed my opinion, but realize I may not be the person best suited to make the argument. After all, a lifetime of both male privilege and white privilege likely colors my viewpoint.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN?

Several years ago, Bev Vincent experienced a similar dilemma, which he describes in “Apparently I Write Like a Girl,” when an editor rejected one of his stories, stating, “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.” Bev is male and the protagonist of his story is male. The editor saw his byline, falsely presumed his gender, and savaged Bev’s story based on that false presumption.

I had a similar experience many years ago when an editor rejected one of my stories because it had a male byline and a female protagonist, and the editor expressed her belief that no writer could successfully write from the opposite gender’s perspective.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN!

I’ve never presented myself as other than what I am—a middle-aged, middle-class white male—yet I’ve sold more than 350 stories with female protagonists and at least 100 stories in which the protagonist differs from me in some other significant way (ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example). In most cases the acquiring editors matched my submissions’ protagonists more closely than I did.

AND NOT JUST LIKE A WOMAN.

For an interview published in The Digest Enthusiast #8, Richard Krauss asked, “In ‘Professionals,’ Out of the Gutter No. 2 (Summer 2007), the narrator is a gay prostitute. In ‘My Sister’s Husband,’ Pulp Adventures No. 27 (Fall 2017), the narrator is a middle-aged woman. How do you ensure your characters act and speak authentically, with respect to their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.?”

Part of my response described how I develop characters: “The key [...] is to build characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and whatever else divides us, we share many commonalities. We want to love and be loved. We want to feel safe and free from fear. We want to be happy and healthy. We want to be appreciated by our families and respected by our peers. The list goes on and on.

“If we build characters from the inside out, the characters will ‘speak’ appropriately and more genuinely than if we build characters from the outside in and rely on stereotypes.”

BUT SHOULD WE?

Where is the line in the sand that we dare not cross when writing from the perspective of a character unlike ourselves? I don’t believe such a line exists, and if it does, I hope a rising tide washes it away.

Rather than limiting ourselves for fear of offending others, we should instead strive to create characters out of whole cloth, making them as authentic as our skills allow, and we should strive to improve those skills with each story we write. We should not be accused of cultural appropriation simply for writing about those who are not like us, but should rightly be called to task if fail to do the job well.

And those who critique our work should not make presumptions about our work because of who wrote it, but should instead judge the work on its own merits. A piece of writing succeeds or fails within the context of itself, not because the fingers on the keyboard were male or female; old or young; gay, straight, or bi; black, white, or any other shade of the rainbow.

We all benefit by reading and writing about characters that are not like us.

John Floyd and I have stories in the third issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the only writers to have fiction in all three issues. I’m uncertain how many stories John has upcoming in BCMM, but I have three in the pipeline, so we’ll likely share space between the covers several more times. Fellow SleuthSayer Eve Fisher also has a story in the third issue, so order your copy now and get a SleuthSayer three-fer.

21 September 2016

Dance Him Outside

by Robert Lopresti

 This year of 2016 keeps stealing celebrities at a record pace, doesn't it?  On the same day last week two famous authors passed away.  The better-known was playwright Edward Albee, but the one who mattered more to me was Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella.

Even if you haven't read his stuff, you probably  saw Field of Dreams, which was based on his novel Shoeless Joe, which in turn was based on a short story.  That  piece was not a one-off.  He wrote a lot of novels and short stories about baseball and they were almost examples of magic realism.  My favorite was a short story in which the manager of the Boston Red Sox receives a vision from God which informs him that that beleaguered team will win a World Series some day - but it will be the last one before the end of the world.  How would that affect your coaching decisions?


But my first encounter with the man, and still my favorite were his Ermineskin stories, and frankly they have always been controversial.  They should be.

The stories are set on the  Reserve of the Ermineskin First Nation in Alberta.  In the U.S. we would call it a Reservation of an Indian Tribe or Native Nation.  The problem is that Kinsella is not a member of any First Nation and, if I recall correctly, said that when he wrote the first story, his only experience of that people was having some as customers when he was driving a cab.

Which brings up the subject of cultural appropriation.  Now, you could argue that Tony Hillerman did the same thing with his Navajo characters, but they were clearly the heroes and as far as I know, his books were popular with members of the tribe.  (They gave him an award, after all.)

But Kinsella was not so respectful.  His stories were often funny, sometimes at the expense of his First Nation characters.  As the books went on they got worse in that regard, in my opinion. One reviewer complained: "[I]magination does not absolve racialism; humor is no excuse to exploit negative preconceptions about tribal people. The author plays Indian for a white audience."

So why do I bring these works at all?  Because some of them are so damned good.

The hero is Silas Ermineskin, a sensitive young man, who practices his writing skills by telling these stories, which also feature  his family, his friend Frank Fencepost, a snarky and sneaky Lothario, and the shrewd medicine woman Mad Etta.  (At least two lines from Mad Etta have found their way into my quotations list: "Gifts make slaves like whips make dogs." and "The law is like rope...useful, necessary, strong, but it can be bent and twisted into all kinds of shapes depending on the occasion.")

Most of the stories are not mysteries in any sense but a few are and one is on my list of favorite crime stories.  The title tale of the first collection, Dance Me Outside, concerns the murder of a young First Nations woman by a young White man who is let off with a slap on the wrist.  When justice fails, a type of vengence is exacted. (This story and a few others were the basis for a pretty good movie of the same name, which then spun off a not-so-good CBC series called The Rez.)

But my favorite is "Pius Blindman is coming Home," which appears in The Moccasin Telegraph, probably the best of the books.  An elderly woman is dying in a hospital and her westernized children, against Mad Etta's advice, assure her that her son is coming to her side.  They just want to comfort her dying hours but, expecting her son, the woman simply refuses to die. The ending is one of the most stunning I have ever read in a short story.

So there you have it.  I wish I didn't feel so ambivalent about the stories. .  Kinsella's world may have nothing to do with the real life of the people on that Reserve, but, for good or bad, he makes me believe it and feel compassion for them, even if he and I are a million miles off from understanding who they are.  Such is the complexity of fiction.