Appropriation or Imagination?

Two poems of mine have been published in a journal dedicated to “the Black experience”. An audio piece of mine has been aired on Native radio programs. I am neither Black nor Native. Had this been known, I suspect some might have accused me of cultural appropriation.

It’s an interesting idea, but as a reincarnation of the autobiographical school of writing – according to which one must have actually experienced what one is writing about – it is also a poor idea.

Taken to its logical extreme, any poem about a child must have been written by a child. Well no, one could say, you were at one time a child, so that’s okay. Hm. So memory is okay but imagination is not? I suggest that often the one is as accurate as the other.

But perhaps accuracy is not the point. Perhaps it’s a matter of “I can speak for myself, thank you” – a reaction against previous patronizing attitudes to the contrary. And if that’s the case, if you can speak for yourself, then by all means do so. But that shouldn’t stop me from also doing so if I want to. And if the editor or publisher selects only and always my speaking, then take that up with the editor or publisher, not the writer. Let’s be inclusive rather than reactionarily exclusive.

Further, there is a difference between speaking for and speaking about. Speaking for does entail the suggestion of advocacy – patronizing if unrequested, and possibly unnecessary. Speaking about entails no such suggestion. And actually, there’s a third option, the one that I thought I was doing – speaking with.

Think, for a moment, of all the literature that would not exist if writers had to restrict themselves to what they have personally experienced. Entire genres would disappear: science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, probably most adventure and mystery too. Oh, and romance.

Also, to be consistent, this perspective should extend to non-fiction writing as well. So there goes most of the news – most stories are not first-hand accounts. But at least, you’ll say, the third person accounts remain third person – there is no saying ‘I’ when you really mean ‘he/she’. True. And this is one important difference between fiction and non-fiction – the leap of the imagination, the projection of oneself into the other.

But let’s not pretend for even one second that news reports are bereft of this very same imagination. If they were, they’d have to be written in a purely phenomenological fashion, bereft of all ascriptions of emotion, for starters. To say ‘the demonstrators were angry’ instead of ‘the demonstrators were shouting’ is as much a leap of imagination – unless the reporter spoke to the demonstrators (all of them) and they said they were angry. (Even then, strict accuracy requires you to report ‘they said they were angry’ rather than ‘they were angry’.) To merely assume anger on the basis of their behaviour is to project, to imagine, to fictionalize. Chances are, you’re quite correct, they were angry. If you know about human behaviour and if you know about the context, you can probably come up with a very accurate story without actually experiencing it yourself. The same goes for the fiction writer. (But then again, I suspect accuracy is not the issue.)

The ‘no appropriation’ perspective doesn’t seem to recognize that there are people whose awareness doesn’t go very deep. They live in and for the moment, they are not reflective, they are not analytic. Or they may be all that but not very articulate. And there are others whose research is thorough, whose imagination is rich, and who are articulate to boot. Which is why Brian Moore can write a better novel about a woman with PMS than a woman who has it but doesn’t even know it. And which is why I can write a better poem about being Black or Native than some Blacks or Natives can. In short, one’s imagination can exceed another’s awareness.

But it’s not really ‘just’ imagination, it’s informed imagination – it’s empathy. So not only does the ‘no appropriation’ perspective discourage imagination, it discourages empathy. But surely to limit ourselves to ourselves is sad. Oh, and dangerous.


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