Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Cultural Appropriation

Someone close to me, a fellow teacher, with whom I share a great deal in common, sent me this speech by Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin. It's an attack against those who wish to do away with cultural appropriation. The summary: Shriver begins by noting the undergraduates on college campuses who freak out at any suggestion of racism, particularly white theft of non-white cultures. She segues to the meat of her piece, defending the author's right to get inside the minds of those different from herself, among them people who don't share the author's ethnicity.

The essay has an unfortunate beginning. Shriver attacks the overreaction to a party at Bowdoin College, in which a couple of jokers donned sombreros and drank tequila. Shriver is guilty of ignorance on a matter that I was once ignorant of myself. The sombrero is not a small thing. There is a long history of anti-Latino stereotypes which involve the sombrero. This history may or may not be as pernicious as the history of blackface, but it would probably be a good thing if white college folk stopped donning the sombrero on Halloween or any other time of year.

On the rest, she is on firm ground. Why can't she feature a character who is Armenian-American, as she does in We Need to Talk About Kevin? Is she to avoid describing a morbidly obese person in a novel because she is not herself morbidly obese? (Her brother died of health issues related to morbid obesity?) Why should reviewers look at the author's photo, note the author's ethnicity, gender, body, and then determine the "right" of the author to describe the characters she creates. She lists her own favorite books we would not have if such rules had existed throughout the history of the novel. I can name my own list of favorites and I'm sure you can too, concerning race (A Passage to India, Pudd'nhead Wilson), gender (Washington Square, Tess of the d'Urbervilles), and class (seventy-five percent of all nineteenth-century novels). Unlike Shriver, I believe that discussing the position of Forster, Twain, James, and Hardy -- all white males -- in relation to their subject can be interesting, at least for an hour or so, and sometimes much longer. Like her, I dislike the way these discussions become an endpoint, a tool for rejectionists who dislike joy. (The two rules of criticism I tell my students. First, figure out the questions the text asks itself. Then ask whatever questions you want to ask the text.)

The larger question is whether or not you can learn something, or get something, from bigots. And the answer is yes. V.S. Naipaul may be the most vile novelist alive. He has done a great deal to miseducate the Upper West Side about the non-white world. There are parts of A Bend in the River that should make good liberals cringe. Those good liberals will never write an opening sentence as firm and as brutal as "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." The racial politics of Huck Finn will always be maddening, but those racial politics allow the novel to survive. Take out the n-words, allow Jim to throw off his minstrel costume, and you neuter the thing.

On Monday night, I saw the 1992 film Baraka on an original 70 mm print at the Cinerama here in Seattle. It's a montage of white, and mostly non-white gazes, Western but mostly Eastern, African, and Latin American temples and churches. It's the kind of movie that makes you dumb. If you're one of those people who freak out about cultural appropriation, the movie is a 90-minute exercise in Orientalism, and your critique may be useful. I admit that I impose my own question on the text. I see a human civilization that won't exist in another 100 years, and I wonder if the film, when it came out in 1992, had the same apocalyptic sensibility. If the human race, by some miracle, survives another 100 years, and this movie along with it, in a hologram projection, I doubt many of our great-great grandchildren, living underground in cool compartments in a world whose human population has been reduced to 500,000, will care all that much about the film's racial politics.

Update: Okay, I only read the thing. I didn't know about the rest of it. Shriver actually wore a sombrero  during her address. I don't think I would have walked out of the speech, but I wouldn't blame anyone for doing so.

We may need a little bit more nuance in our discussion. I stand by what I just wrote. I will offer the caveat that our intellectual culture should always strive towards more diversity. I have no problem with white writers tackling any culture from Korea to Peru. But if we don't read any Korean writers writing about Korea or Peruvian authors writing about Peru, there may be a problem.

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