When Lionel Shriver, the well-known author of We Need to talk about Kevin, said recently at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival that she “hope(d) the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad,” she set off a storm in a small but interesting teacup. Fellow writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied not only disagreed with Shriver’s statements, but she also walked out of the lecture and later wrote a piece in The Guardian expressing her thoughts and concerns. Needless to say, the post went viral.

Like millions of others on social media, I was one of the many who shared the posts, op-eds and articles that came of this dyad of events, complete with the compulsory smiley/frown combo. And like many, if not millions of, other writers, I felt the topic had hit at something personal and undeniably uncomfortable.

What if a story that is exclusively mine is…boring?

On more than one occasion, I’ve grappled with the question: At what point in telling a story do we cross that fine line to “appropriate” the identities and experiences of others? Simply put, how far can I go in telling a story that is, in some way, uniquely mine – and predominantly so through experience and observation? What if that exclusive story, the one that is made of my sweat and tears, isn’t all sweat and tears, but quite simple, even boring? What if the only interesting tales I have to share are of the lives and experiences of others, as seen through my imagination?

In my defence, I did think and more than once of writing the story of my recent forebearers and promptly gave up, for lack of much to say and nothing nice to say at all. And now that I’m done dissing my family for generations with that statement, and (thankfully) reducing the likelihood of being invited to weddings and other occasions that demand social propriety, let me confess: What I’ve just said reeks of privilege.

I can’t deny it, nor can I escape the fact. I am a person who is kindly but correctly described as one more equal than others, evidenced not only by parameters such as education or economic class, but by a fundamental ennui that does not tantamount to dissatisfaction – for what else could explain a life less remarkable, one with neither grouse or grievance that is worth the plaint? What else does one call a life where any feature of interest – entertaining or enlightening – comes predominantly from imagination and not actuality?

Frankly, this doesn’t really do much for me as a writer. It is nothing more than rhetoric, and it’s near impossible to complain about it without sounding even more insensitive and inured to reality than I truly am. It leaves me with few experiences or communities that I can talk about without running the risk of appropriation, no matter how respectful my intent. And let’s face it, who wants to hear about the boring life of middle-class entitlement…or my angst as a writer without something uniquely her own to say?

With that realisation, it might have been time to bury both bestseller and critical acclaim ambitions in the same grave – except I realised I was overlooking the obvious: I could always write, without fear or favour, about women. And dogs. (The latter mostly because I love them, and their standard response to things they don’t really fancy is to piss on them and walk away.)

Another form of appropriation

Now this is obviously the climatic “makeover” point in this story, where I embrace the trials and tribulations faced by my gender and am duly rewarded for the ensuing prolificacy in sales, awards and blockbuster reviews, especially if I’d learn to be funny. But no, there is a plot twist: I am back at square one.

You see, to write “about women” or “for women” seems to me as great an appropriation as any – because, contrary to what a host of popular novels, self-help books, and online pundits will tell you, there is no one thing that women want. Because to club an array of individuals under a singular tag is not very different from saying “This has four legs. This is made of wood. Therefore, this must be a desk.”

Not only is that statement logically flawed because it excludes a range of possibilities, including the fact that we might be talking about a chair, or that desks could be made of stainless steel, but also, the very obvious problem with it is that it objectifies. And that is a risk we run whenever we – individuals – use a few instances, a small sample to make conclusions about the great whole that we think they represent.

Does that mean writers are, morally and logically, limited to the field of immediate experience? Hardly! All authors write about characters they are not; about experiences they have never had. Men have been writing about women, and women about men, for ages. I’ve written books where characters have died gory deaths and, thankfully, I’ve neither meted out or been subject to such violence (not yet, though I’m being reminded of something called a “word-count” for this piece.)

Interestingly, two of those books are in a first-person voice. They are also from a male protagonist’s point of view. And these hunks can kick ass, charm women, as well as be their person in their own way. They simply are individuals, and what I write comes from that individual’s point of view. I can tell you what Professor Bharadvaj – such as he is called – wants, because hey, that’s stuff I imagined up. But if I tell you what most men or women want, or most Indians want, or most 50-is-the-new-40 year olds want – that has to be stuff that I, or any writer, has imagined, or at the very least, made an educated guess about.

I agree with Abdel-Maggied that there’s an aura of inequality around this thing. But in current times, when your average published author is a creature of profession and not a prisoner of conscience, writing becomes an activity that comes from a place of entitlement, for we presume to be read or heard, and presume that what we have to say is truly of interest others. But there is, I want to believe, a degree of difference between writing under the shadow of prerogative and remaining blissfully oblivious to the very fact.

The former is far easier a guise than the latter. It is the token price I pay for my privilege.

That’s why it makes us (see, I presume you agree with me) uncomfortable when any author claims to speak for a gender, a generation or a community, and their trying to do so feels like appropriation, condescension or both. Unless of course, I’m writing about dogs. I have three fur-kids who know exactly how to react to that.

Krishna Udayasankar is the author of The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy, Objects of Affection, 3, and Immortal, and mother to three fur-children with impeccable literary taste.