It’s been a busy year so far for outrage over cultural appropriation. J.K. Rowling endured withering criticism for her History of Magic in North America, a whimsical set of articles about wizardry that many claimed took improperly from Native American culture. William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was exhumed in the pages of Vanity Fair and tested with the latest literary forensics to see if it had misappropriated the African-American experience. And when the novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address, titled “Fiction and Identity Politics,” at the Brisbane Writers Festival defending her right to imagine characters from other cultures, conference organizers quickly distanced themselves and hastily set up a session to present the alternative point of view.
I am a Jewish-American writer. My new novel, The Feet Say Run, is a sympathetic account of a German who fought for the Nazis. I think often about the criticisms my book will receive. “How dare you write this book?” And, “This is an apology for the perpetrators of the Holocaust.” And yet, through all of my labors, it was the expectation of these very criticisms that encouraged me to persevere. Isn’t this what a novelist should do? Go directly against the grain? Push the limits of imagination?
The more I thought about writing this, the clearer it became to me: a novel is an act of empathy. It requires getting into the minds and motivations, the joys and heartaches, of people outside of ourselves. If that empathy extends to another culture, shouldn’t this be admired and appreciated—even if the result is imperfect? Isn’t the ability to imagine what the world would look like from someone else’s perspective essential to being a writer?
If empathy is at the core of novel writing, it should come as no surprise that some of the most important works of fiction are works of cultural appropriation. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is particularly interesting. Written by a white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, about a black slave family, it’s not a work of great subtlety and has been criticized for its black stereotypes. But it stirred readers’ hearts and helped turn the tide of public opinion against slavery. Should we not admire Stowe’s act of empathy, rather than blame her for the imperfect result?
And if we are precluded from creating these stories, what then is our fiction of the future going to be? White male writers writing about the experience of being white male writers, black female writers writing about the experience of being black female writers, and on through the ethnicities? This is exactly the self-absorbed fiction that we should be resisting! Yes, all of these experiences are valid and interesting, but fiction should be more than just “me, me, me, I am so fascinating, everyone read about me.”
Writing about a culture aside from one’s own has produced some extraordinary literature. Lolita is a brilliant rendering of America by a Russian expatriate. The Remains of the Day is a remarkable take on British culture by Japanese-British novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro, who spent his early years in Japan. Conversely, American novelist Arthur Golden brought prewar Japan to life in Memoirs of a Geisha. In all of these works, the outsider’s perspective actively adds to the portrayal. Lolita could not have been written by an American-born novelist.
Sometimes, in writing The Feet Say Run, I thought to myself, “How can you purport to know the feelings of a German growing up in the 1930s?” But could a German novelist attempt to write this without facing down accusations of excusing away the atrocities? I was confident that I had a story worth telling. Who was going to tell it? It had to be an outsider.
Are there situations where taking from another culture is wrong ethically, or misfires artistically? Surely, but we cannot let this put a wall around our imaginations or make us ashamed of our attempts to empathize. In the end, I hope to be judged on the merits of the book—whether it moved the reader, captured a time and a place and a set of individuals living in that place—and not whether I had a right to attempt it.
Dan Blum’s most recent novel is The Feet Say Run (Gabriel’s Horn); he writes the humor blog The Rotting Post.