Cultural clash: the trouble with writing about the lives of others

Novelists are being attacked for telling stories about experiences that aren’t their own. But isn’t that the point of using the imagination?

Billed as the big page-turner of the season, My Dark Vanessa, American author Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel, is a tale for the Time’s Up generation. Its involving drama invites readers to look back again at any treasured youthful memories they may harbour of a past relationship with an older lover and ask: was it really all so pure and so romantic?

But her provocative book has also caused a stir, first in America and now in Britain, for a different reason. Like Jeanine Cummins, author of this year’s American Dirt, Russell has been repeatedly asked to defend her right to tell a story that is not her own.

Dropped abruptly from a line-up on Oprah Winfrey’s influential television show, the author spoke last week of being ambushed not by questions about whether her feminist work was actually a “thinly veiled” personal account, but instead querying the strength of her connection to its disturbing content about an exploited teenager’s affair with an older teacher.

My Dark Vanessa is about a teenager’s affair with an older teacher.
My Dark Vanessa is about a teenager’s affair with an older teacher. Photograph: PR

“It is interesting because I expected questions about this novel to come from a place of assuming it was autobiographical… and those questions are still coming, but they are also coming from the other angle of ‘are you the one to tell this story?’” Russell told BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour last week.

In a literary climate in which some readers now explicitly value creative authenticity in a writer above imaginative impulse, publishers are having to carry out stringent new levels of due diligence on all submitted fiction. If a narrative follows a character who is battling social injustice, or if it has an ethnically disadvantaged protagonist, like American Dirt’s Mexican immigrant mother, and the author does not share that experience, a cultural row looms on the horizon.

Cummins has had to answer accusations of cultural appropriation for some months. Dubbed as “stereotypical” in her attitudes, to say nothing of “selfish and parasitic”, she fell back on pointing out that she is at least of Puerto Rican heritage.

Since then, the Irish writer Colum McCann has been called upon to explain his latest work, Apierogon, an acclaimed fictional account of a real-life friendship between two bereaved fathers, one Palestinian and one Israeli. In his responses, McCann has argued that it was his serious, researched approach to the factual subject, coupled with his own memories of sectarian conflict in Ireland, that gave him the confidence to tackle the Middle East.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, author Anne Tyler, that revered voice of comfortable, parochial America, made her position on cultural appropriation clear when she spoke from her Baltimore home to the BBC’s Rebecca Jones about her new book, Redhead by the Side of the Road. “I would be very presumptuous to write from the viewpoint of, let’s say, an inner-city African-American, because there’s so much I would get wrong. I would be entitled to do it if I wanted, but I think I would be laughed out of the literary world.”

Author Colum McCann
Colum McCann has come under scrutiny for his novel Apierogon. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Baltel/Rex

Many publishers, including Virago co-founder Carmen Callil, rail against the limitations being imposed on writers. The new orthodoxy based on the identity of the creative voice can only stand in the way of good literature, she says: “If Shakespeare can imagine he was Caliban, then any human being who has suffered can write about other people’s suffering and make it about all of us. That is the point.”

For other authors, including Sara Collins, a British novelist of Jamaican descent, the problem cuts both ways. If only black writers are allowed to write books examining black experience, she argues, the unintended and unwelcome consequence is an added onus on those few established black writers to stick to that subject.

Collins’s book The Confessions of Frannie Langton won the 2019 Costa first book award and has been shortlisted for a British Book Award. It centres on the life of a black servant working in London in the 19th century, but deliberately avoids focusing on exploitation or pain. She told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row that the only whipping she wanted in her story was that carried out in the fetish parlours frequented by the English aristocracy.

“It seemed to me, as a young reader, that there was a kind of de facto segregation in the publishing industry,” Collins said, with a handful of black writers allowed to write, but chiefly about the “black experience”. Every white writer was “deemed instead to be writing about the human experience. I wonder whether it will ever be possible to write without feeling constrained by these fixed categories.”

Novelist Lydia Syson is equally suspicious of the fuss around authorial authenticity. She approached her well-received 2018 novel, Mr Peacock’s Possessions, with special care because it opens in the first-person voice of a young, male Pacific islander. “I resisted self-censorship and braced myself for backlash,” she said this weekend. “I could easily have been accused of ‘dipping my pen in someone else’s blood’, as fellow novelist Kit de Waal has eloquently framed this kind of cultural appropriation.”

Syson’s fears proved unfounded, but she believes that as long as the pool of English language writers of literary fiction is dominated by a privileged, white band, then some caution among writers is fair enough. “I had prepared myself for a battle and was ready to defend myself. In the end I was disappointed: not because I wanted a fight, but because most reviewers simply ignored that side of the story. It was still perceived as a book about a white girl and her father.”

The real issue, Syson contends, is not about a particular book, but about the wider industry. “If these rows make visible the really huge inequalities that divide the world, it is well worth airing them. But there’s a danger such spats end up hiding bigger injustices, muting more writers than they enable and taking up literary coverage that could be used to draw attention to all the brilliant, overlooked writing that has not come from the usual suspects.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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