Writing Stories & Cultural Appropriation

Do stories belong only to those who are in the story? Who has the right to tell stories of minority cultures, vanished cultures? Is it only the members of that culture? Can anyone else tell those stories in a valid way? When does it cease to be storytelling and become cultural misappropriation? (Or, in the reverse, when does it cease to be cultural misappropriation and become storytelling?)

The examples in this Slate article, Going Native, are extreme, obvious examples of cultural appropriation — a white person actually pretending to be Native American to cash in on the tragedy and poetry expected to be inherent in the stories of Native Americans. And this is not fair to real Native Americans.

The real victims are Indian citizens and writers. People who have for so long been denied the opportunity to express themselves. There are many Indian writers with stories to tell that are ignored because they do not fit the preconceived notion of tragedy and cheap melodrama that make books like Love and Consequences so appealing.

It is wrong to take on the identity of someone from another culture. It is ethically, if not legally, fraudulent.

If you stick to the most basic morality and keep your own identity and write about other cultures, where is the line drawn between storytelling and cultural appropriation? Is it different if you are from a minority group and are writing about the majority? Can someone from another culture ever authentically tell stories of a different culture?

Ursula K. Le Guin pulls it off beautifully. She uses her experience growing up as the daughter of anthropologists/ethnologists studying the Native Americans of California to write wonderfully crafted stories of other cultures. With one important difference. None of her cultures are on Earth. Her works are labeled as science fiction because they all take place on other planets, with alien cultures.

Is there space for writers to stick to Earth and the amazing variety of cultures and people found here? I don’t know. What do you think?

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