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[process] Another shot at thinking about the Other

The Edge of the American West has a post up today about speaking from cultural authority and presumed expertise. As is sometimes the case, a lot of the interesting action is in the comments section there.

The blog is talking about current fighting in Gaza, but this is a question which runs rife through our field. I’ve spoke before here on the blog about being on a panel about cultural authority and appropriation a few years ago with an Australian writer, a Canadian writer, and a Scottish writer. Both the Australian and the Canadian were horrified at the thought that a white writer might use Aboriginal or First Nations material in their fiction, that we as white writers didn’t have standing to do that. This baffled both me and the Scottish fellow.

By this logic, the only culture I have ‘standing’ to comment on is middle aged, middle class, WASP male American culture. If I stuck to writing about that, I’d either be John Updike or unpublished. (Which of those possibilities is the more likely I leave as an exercise for the reader.) This line of thinking says I cannot write about female characters because I am not a woman, or Jewish characters because I am a Gentile.

That way lies madness. Our field, at its best, is about Writing the Other. Likewise, to the point of the cited blog post, the arts of politics and diplomacy are about the Other.

I am not ignorant of the nuances of exploitation, oppression, colonial heritage and the whole panoply of errors, wrongs and outright crimes committed by one group of people against another. Bluntly, in many cases by my ancestors against quite possibly yours. I am the transparent case of the oppressor class, in stereotyped leftist dialectic.

Yet I’ve spent years living in Africa, for example. That is something about me which you can’t read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that experience empower me differently? My family is multiracial. Again, something you can’t read in my skin color or my surname or my accent. Does that give me a different cultural authority?

Whose voice counts? Why or why not? I find these questions distressing and uneasy, which means they’re important questions. The churn they raise drives the boundaries of good fiction, good thought and good citizenship.

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