Talking ideas

Why are writers and critics around the world worrying about (or ignoring) cultural appropriation?

And what does it mean for writers in India?

The heart of fiction is imagination, and in the course of creating it, writers usually depict the lives, societies and worlds of people other than themselves. What used to be standard practice, however, has in recent times been interpreted as the problematic act of cultural appropriation. Although this aspect of a creative artist’s work has been defended spiritedly by, among others, novelist Lionel Shriver – who called the idea a passing fad – it has also come under attack and, elsewhere, been the subject of more nuanced analysis. Novelist and university professor Saikat Majumdar responded to a number of prompts from to explain the nuances and implications of cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation in a literary context? How is it different from writing about cultures the writer does not belong to? And why is it reprehensible?
If appropriation means writing about someone you’re not, or worse, writing as someone you’re not, then it is impossible to write unless you appropriate. This is especially true of prose, perhaps more than poetry, which can stay rooted more fully in the poet’s own self. But it is difficult, if not impossible, for prose to remain totally confined within the author’s own self. Prose, especially fiction, even when it originates in the story of the self, also has to be about the lives of other characters, and to represent them, and sometimes to speak in their voices. In such situations, the writer has to appropriate other subject positions.

The trouble starts when these other positions are significantly different from the writer’s: say writing as someone older or younger than oneself, or somebody living in a different time period. But things become really complicated when the assumed voices and depicted characters occupy a position that is, in the established social order, weaker or more marginal than that of the real life identity of the writer. Can a male writer speak as/about a woman? Can an upper-class writer speak about/as a working-class character? Can a Dalit character come alive in the hands of a Brahmin writer? Can a black character take credible shape in a work by a white novelist?

I don’t think such appropriation can simply be dismissed as “reprehensible.” But they are certainly deeply problematic. There is, for one thing, the question of aesthetic authenticity: can an upper-class, educated urbanite write about a poor tribal community from a rural area? Worse still, is it possible for such a writer to assume the voice of someone from the latter community? Will it ring true? How do we even know if it can possibly ring true when the latter social is so poorly represented among writers and even readers? Such is how the aesthetic import of the question shades into the political. Who will take the political burden of mis-representation – or for that matter, representation of any kind, when speaking as/about the marginalised is always an act of violent infringement?

The alternative is auto-ethnography – writing about one’s own social and cultural group. But if you look closely, neither is that a simple affair. There are shades of difference in power and privilege everywhere, even within such groups. The alternative is to write just about oneself. But that is impossible, and hence once must always appropriate while writing. The question is what lines does one cross – those such as of race, class and gender – as misrepresentation across those lines has a heavy ethical and political cost.

How does a writer then write about people, societies, genders and cultures they don’t belong to without appropriating? What is the fine line here?
There’s no simple answer to this question, as it is one of those situations where the undefinable idiosyncrasy of the artistic instinct meets socio-political exigency. The results are always unpredictable, and will vary with individual texts. Remember, auto-ethnography – writing about one’s own culture – can also become a burden, especially when imposed on the minority writer. If you are a black writer, must your subjects be always taken from street-crime, basketball and rap? Will you always be seen as inauthentic if you (dare to) write about Mozart and Shakespeare?

A recent book, Racial Asymmetries, by the American literary critic Stephen Sohn, examines works by Asian-American authors where the author’s ethnoracial makeup does not overlap with that of the storytelling perspective. He reads Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex, Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore’s Inquiry and Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind to find out intricacies of racial power and oppression that operate outside the usual grids of race-relation but are nevertheless shaped by them. Sometimes, it is important to step beyond the limiting lines of autho-ethnography.

Is this specially relevant for writers in horizontally and vertically multiculturally societies like the ones in India?
Definitely. A unique situation is the pervasive presence of domestic servants in middle and upper-middle class life in India, which quite naturally finds its way into literature. The good news here is that the political and the aesthetic exigencies usually coincide. If a middle or upper-middle class writer writes about them but the voice comes out as politically inauthentic, it is almost sure to be aesthetically ineffective as well. There are few things as pathetic as a bourgeois representation of working class life, and yet this is something we see all the time.

The fundamental problem is that literature is the most bourgeois of all art forms – more so than music, art or even film – because of its rootedness in literacy and the culture of reading. Literature in English is doubly so in the Indian context, and hence vast swathes of life in this country outside its worldview. But like all challenges, this too, is a constructive one. So even bourgeois writers, even English-language writers like us who are the most bourgeois of all, must confront and break through our own worldview while writing – and this is not only an act of political liberation but of great aesthetic richness as well.

Saikat Majumdar
Saikat Majumdar

Are there books you can think of that are highly rated in literary terms but might be accused of cultural appropriation today? And conversely, which ones are free from it?

Cultural appropriation is not just a matter of encroaching on other identities, but also about assuming foreign worldviews. This is the very subject of Amrita Pritam’s story, “The Weed.” An educated, urban female narrator talks to her illiterate, rural young maid over a couple of days. The maid, Angoori, given to an old man in an arranged marriage, believes that women can fall in love only under the toxic influence of the weed, which men in her village sometime smuggle in through sweets and paan. The act of falling in love, which goes against the wishes of family and community, does not make sense to her otherwise. At the end of the story, however, it is Angoori who is sick with desire for the night-watchman, Ram Taara, and is bewildered how and when Ram Taara fed her the weed, since she has taken no food from him.

All of this is narrated in first person by the educated narrator, who reports the conversation but makes no attempt to “become” Angoori, or even understand her worldview. But neither does she try to judge or correct her. The beauty of their relationship lies outside their difference, and the power of the story lies in the searing encounter of the modern and the non-modern that their relationship entails.

Mahashweta Devi’s fiction stages similar encounters between the modern, urban, rational self and the tribal worldview that is fundamentally alien to this self. I think this is the key issue when you write about cultures that are distant from your own: be sympathetic to their worldview, even if you don’t understand it fully, which you never will. Don’t judge, don’t try to compare it with your own value-system. It is as the French philosopher Emmanual Levinas said: to relate to the Other without reducing it to the same. Respect without understanding; because understanding, too, is a kind of intellectual violence, an act of control.

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