Thursday, June 16, 2011

Authenticity and Appropriation

You could write a dissertation on the number of weird cultural constructions in this painting. In the interest of full disclosure, I am whiter than albino almond meringue. I come from an upperish middle class white Texas protestant liberal household, though my income over the last decade has danced coyly around the poverty line. I speak two languages besides English with varying degrees of competence, and I've done my best to get out and see the world, and hopefully bring home a better understanding of it.

The catalyst for this post is a gentleman named Tom MacMaster, who spent several months blogging under the guise of a Syrian lesbian activist named Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari. I'd been following the blog for a while, and when MacMaster wrote that Amina had been abducted, I put links up, bugged people I knew, wrote e-mails, and added my signature to things. In his apology for the hoax- which notably put real activists on the ground in Syria who tried to speak up for Amina at serious risk- MacMaster said that he wanted to draw attention to the story of what was happening in Syria. Actual middle-eastern women responded with a completely understandable "we don't need you speaking for us."

The thing is, and I'd like to say this, if I can, without sounding truly douchey, I understand MacMaster's position as well. Obviously he lied about who he was, and got the world all riled up about a fake problem that looked like but eclipsed in our consciousness ten thousand very really problems. It did succeed in drawing attention to the region, but it also had the assumably unforseen consequence of superceding the real voices of people on the ground. I don't think he ever meant for it to get as far as it did, and he made some truly stupid decisions, but I don't think he ever did it maliciously.


Even if it had always been presented as a work of fiction (and I believe this whole thing started because he intended to write a book), there's still this dangerous water of being a white, Western man, defining, inventing, exoticizing, and romanticizing a middle eastern woman, isn't there? Even without any malice at all, there's that unspoken assumption that it's his place to speak, and that he's just as good a candidate to represent Syrian lesbians as any lesbian in Syria. Better even.

I bring this up because I would love to write about Syrian lesbians, if I thought I knew enough about the matter to do it well. (At the risk of being grossly reductionist, immediately after reading 1001 Arabian Nights and again after reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, I dashed off middle east inspired shorts- second world stuff in general, but trying to catch the flavor those works had for me.) I'd love to write about the Congolese, or the Zapatistas down in Chiapas. I'd like to write about Sumatra and Papua New Guinea. I've often thought when I get a bit better at crafting whole novels, I'd like to submit myself as a ghost writer for one of the abolitionist NGOs or something like the Somaly Mam foundation- to be able to take issues I think are genuinely important, and bring the stories of real people to the public eye.

There's a legitimate question of how much we can ever understand the inner workings of people from vastly disparate circumstances. Even when we're speaking the same language, it's almost impossible that all the connotations of the words- the years of memories, emotions, experiences, and arguments that shape our understanding of what "money", "shameful", "family", "God", and "love" mean, for example- will really jive. It's often different enough to cause misunderstandings even when you're speaking to someone raised in the same style, even within the same family. Ideally, as authors, our job is to be able to put on another person's skin and have a feel for what it means to walk in it, but I know I'm not the only one who's seen truly cringe-worthy examples of a writer who's said "yeah, I totally know how people from this group think."

So how does a white, middle-ish class, American from the bible belt walk that line with grace and respect?

Honestly, damned if I know. I do my best to understand what prejudices and privileges I bring to the table. While my writing tends toward the baroque and exaggerated, I do my best to make sure characters are never set pieces, just there for the exoticism of it. I try to paint worlds, whether imaginary or in imitation of this one, where people reflect a spectrum and either people get to say their piece, or have their enforced silence as a point of contention. It's hard to get a perspective on how well I've actually done.

I know there are times I'm terrified. I worry I've stepped all over somebody else's sandbox, or I've made some unforgivable error, overlooked something truly basic. Made a sock puppet out of a character who ought to have been real. I'm shy with some of these stories.

I guess what I want to be is a global citizen, but I'm terrified I'll always only be American.

Edit: As is so often the case, Benjamin Rosenbaum said it so much better.


  1. I've not been following this, though I heard about it, of course and cringed at the thought of how this reflected on all of the valid issues Syria is dealing with, but it was good to hear your take, and to read Rosenbaum's post.

    I also read the Wash Post interview with MacMasters and I think you are being altogether too hard on yourself. That man is a liar. He wouldn't know what truth looked like if he ate it for breakfast every morning.

    You understand the importance of truth. You bend over backwards, sideways and slantwards in order to try and see someone else's truth. You still may not see it, but you are not afraid to acknowledge that. Admitting ignorance is one of the greatest truths there is. I don't think MacMasters has that capacity. "I didn't think it would get this big." Should it make such a difference if he messed with the lives of only one vs. one thousand? Really? No, he got a kick out of fooling people.

    Some say that writing fiction is about making stuff up, about telling lies. Yes, but we're honest about it. And, when we do it right, disingenuous, because what we strive for, above all else, is to write *truthfully*, even in the midst of our most elaborate fabrications.

    We don't always get it right, no one does, not even when trying to write the truth about our own life and experiences. As long as you are honest about that, about who you are, what you know and what you don't, you will be able to write as truthfully as anyone else out there.

  2. This is thought provoking post. I read it earlier, but had to think about it for a bit.

    Even when it's only a small difference like between the Southern US and the Western US, there are differences in culture that won't ring true if it isn't right. For example, if your setting is LA and you have all the characters acting like Southerners, the story is going to fall flat on its face.

    I think how important it is to get the characters exactly right depends on what kind of story you're telling. Does the character change by the end of the story or are they the same? I think if they change and the focus is on that change, then one has to do a bit more work to get it right than if they don't.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out! I think these are good issues to wrestle with. Something that has been very useful to me is Nisi Shawl's writing on the subject, eg &

  4. I love a good Nisi Shawl article! I'd read and linked Transracial Writing For the Sincere before, but I somehow managed to miss the other one. Many thanks both for putting it up and for stopping by. The Orange is one of my favorite stories ever, if you do come back by and read this again.