cover image Appropriate: A Provocation

Appropriate: A Provocation

Paisley Rekdal. Norton, $15.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-324-00358-8

“People would rather gnaw off the fingers of their right hand than talk through the tangled arguments around cultural appropriation,” writes poet Rekdal (Nightingale) in this timely meditation on the topic. The essays take the form of a series of letters addressed to a student in one of Rekdal’s creative writing classes who had asked for a recommendation for an essay to help better understand appropriation in literature. Rekdal begins by distinguishing appropriation from adaptation (“adapted work gestures to a relationship with a specific source text,” she writes, while appropriation “requires comprehensive rethinking of the original work’s expression”) before moving onto questions of identity, empathy, and representation. Throughout, Rekdal explores the nature of creativity, and a publishing industry that “determines whose stories sound ‘authentic’ enough to deserve money and a readership.” In the course of the letters, she analyzes a number of creative works, such as Katy Perry’s performance in a geisha costume in 2013, which she suggests amounts to racism for its “Orientalist trope of the submissive Asian female that’s existed since the late nineteenth century,” and surveys the response to Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel American Dirt, writing, the violent acts depicted in the book “exist only to activate our sympathies, not our critical reimagining of the characters, nor what underpins the migrant crisis itself.” This passionate, nuanced take will raise sharp questions for literary-minded readers. (Feb.)