You asked at the end of last class whether I had an essay I might share with you about cultural appropriation. You asked because of the tense note on which our workshop ended the discussion of your poem, a monologue in the voice of a Black nurse who worked in your white grandmother’s home in Georgia. Your poem was meant to be a complex double portrait of both the Black caregiver and your white grandmother, and the racist logic and history that bound them both. Did you, a young white person, the child of people you freely admitted had been shaped by racist beliefs, have any claim or relationship to this voice? Our workshop worried this question for an hour without resolving it. And while our discussion never devolved, as I was concerned it might, into open hostility, it also didn’t make anyone feel better for having participated in it, nor did it settle the questions your poem raised to anyone’s satisfaction. You still wanted, you said, an answer. Frankly, so do I.
I could tell by your subdued demeanor when you approached me that you were afraid your poem had caused pain, and that there might be some future, perhaps public, fallout for it. Perhaps there will be. I assume there won’t, because your classmates took the poem and you with pretty good humor, respect, and patience, even when they disagreed—sometimes vehemently—with the poem itself. All of us acknowledged that authorial intentions don’t finally matter to how we read a creative work that fails, but what does it mean for a poem like yours to fail, exactly? And what are the implications if we said your poem had succeeded? When we write in the voice of people unlike ourselves, what do we risk besides the possibility of getting certain facts, histories, and perspectives wrong? And was your poem, to certain audiences, perhaps always meant, if not to fail, then to be seen as an ethical lapse?
You should know how many other students I’ve taught over the years whose work has raised the same questions, X. You should know, too, how much I respect the ways you took your classmates’ criticism during our discussion. You didn’t lash out or sulk, you didn’t try to justify or explain anything away. You sat and listened, perhaps the hardest thing to do when a group of strangers ponders whether your words and images, and by implication you, are inherently racist. Your desire to “get it right,” as you expressed yesterday afternoon, was everywhere evident in your response to your classmates’ concerns, and it requires that I now find the right essay to address your question around the ethics of creative expression. While I have a number of articles and books I recommend reading, I can’t think of one that speaks to a young writer trying to probe the limitations of her imagination, one who is both open-minded about the question of appropriation and also, reasonably, terrified. I know when you and other students ask me for such an essay, you are asking if I can find the single argument that would either rationalize or dismiss the practice; you are asking me to tell you how cultural appropriation is generally defined, why and if writers think it’s always wrong, whether it’s been done well before in literature and how. This is an essay I imagine the other students in our class would want to read after our conversation; it’s an essay that I, as a writer, have never found.
Like many writers today, I believe writing in the voice of someone outside my subject position surely crosses a line, but which one, exactly? Writing is mastered over the course of a life, and perhaps you suspect the truth of mastery, which is that it’s achieved by both practicing and unlearning the lessons teachers like me drill into you at school, lessons that, while they lay the groundwork for producing good stories and poems, prove insufficient for creating our greatest work, which often disrupts the messages we’ve been taught.
Cultural appropriation is less a question of “staying in one’s lane,” as one of your classmates put it, than an evolving conversation we must have.
As writers, we absorb much of our technique through reading, more so than through class discussion, and yet books, too, fall short when it comes to determining just what is the right kind of appropriation to attempt, since so much of writing is appropriative, and so much of appropriative writing is historically contextualized. Here is where the workshop might have stepped in with good advice, but as you yourself have seen, people would rather gnaw off the fingers of their right hand than talk through the tangled arguments around cultural appropriation.
Because what we’re really talking about with cultural appropriation, X, is identity, and while we all have identities, few of us are prepared to unravel the Gordian knot of social realities, history, and fantasy that constitute a self and its attendant ideas of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or even physical or mental ability, let alone discuss what an accurate representation of any of these selves might look like on the page. And the more you and I think about identity, the more we might discover that cultural appropriation is less a question of “staying in one’s lane,” as one of your classmates put it, than an evolving conversation we must have around privilege and aesthetic fashion in literary practice.
In a literary world dominated by both writing-workshop culture and social media, many writers hone their aesthetics under the intoxicating influence of ego and shame: how to win your instructor’s or classmates’ approval, how to avoid vilification on Twitter, how to get a book published before you turn twenty-five. But ego and shame reject nuance in favor of outrage or thinkpieces gone viral on the Internet, which purport to offer guidance but more often than not mine our own latent seams of insecurity, bolstering the suspicion that, no matter what choice we make, what ideas we agree with and what writers we strive to imitate, that choice is always wrong. It’s another reason I think our class discussion about cultural appropriation felt so fraught; not only do we each see very smart people around us quick and free to judge, we see them quick to make these judgments public, and to make their object of judgment—ourselves, potentially—the object of derision.
The first thing to understand is that the term “appropriation” simply means the use of a preexisting object or image that you’ve repurposed without fundamentally changing it. Appropriation is an accepted, widespread practice in both music and art, and it’s also commonly used in literature. Before I talk about specific works of literature, however, I want to talk about instances of appropriation you might have experienced in popular culture at large, so that I can show you some of the complexities hidden within the general concept of cultural appropriation.
Even if there is no legal claim a culture might make against an author, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an ethical claim.
In music, appropriation forms the aesthetic basis of hip-hop, which samples from other artists and street sounds as references that provide the listener musical texture and ambience, which you can see in tracks by artists like Nas, Dopp Gang, Kanye West, or De La Soul. In art, you see appropriation in works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Jeff Koons, and Robert Rauschenberg. Appropriation in art changes the object’s meaning by changing the context through which the viewer sees, hears, or reads the object itself. The urinal in the bathroom stall, for example, is a toilet; on the wall of an art museum, it’s conceptual art. In literature, those contextual changes are sometimes harder to accept, because as readers we’ve been conditioned to value stories that are fundamentally tied to authorship, thus to specific identities. No one, however, is the author of a urinal or a soup can; these are mass-produced objects meant to be used by everyone.
Perhaps, reading these letters, you suspect you’ve already come across an example of appropriation. Perhaps you heard other students from my seminar arguing about Meredith’s poem, so you know that I’ve transformed part of that classroom event into a literary analogy to suit my discussion with you. That’s part of the power I possess as a writer: I take things presented to me in one context, whether literary, personal, or historical, and rewrite or reimagine them for my own ends. I doubt you saw my use of that classroom event as any kind of cultural theft, understanding it to be something more akin to anecdote or embellishment. As the scholar Pascal Nicklas notes in his book Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation, “appropriate” carries within it the Latin word “proprius,” which means “something that is characteristic, that is part of oneself.” In the case of my class seminar, I’ve demonstrated that one of its essential characteristics is its public nature; in that, I might use and alter its facts to suit a larger narrative purpose.
Literary theorists call this kind of appropriation “adaptation,” and you see this in literature all the time.
When adaptation occurs in literature, it’s usually when a writer refashions for her own original work particular artistic elements of another work, such as plot, theme, literary or technical devices, subject matters, or symbolic motifs. Shakespeare, in his play Titus Andronicus, appropriates Ovid’s own retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Philomela. Margaret Atwood appropriates the plot and subject matter of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in her novel Hag Seed, just as she appropriates the motifs of Grimm’s fairy tales in her collection of short stories, The Robber Bride. Derek Walcott appropriates The Odyssey for his own epic poem, “Omeros,” just as Pat Barker appropriates the story of Briseis from The Iliad for her novel The Silence of the Girls. Conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin copy news articles and weather and traffic reports word for word as a way of frustrating the limits we have conventionally set between “creative” and “uncreative” writing. Postmodern writers like David Shields (or T. S. Eliot) might appropriate the language of a variety of texts by collaging them into a new but unified literary work, as Shields does in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Eliot does in “The Waste Land.” George R. R. Martin appropriates the events of historical accounts of the Hundred Years’ War in his series Game of Thrones. And every year, dozens of novels and films appropriate Pride and Prejudice in an attempt to re-create, and reimagine, the world of Jane Austen.
All of these works are examples of literary adaptation. The critic Julie Sanders, in her book Adaptation and Appropriation, calls adaptation and appropriation “side by side” practices, with adaptation defined as work that’s “closer in degree” to the original text or source than one that’s merely appropriative. According to Sanders, an adapted work gestures to a relationship with a specific source text that allows readers to identify what she calls “movements of proximation or cross-generic interpretation.” Appropriation, however, requires comprehensive rethinking of the original work’s expression and meaning. It is, as she says, “a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain.” Basically, adapted works derive their pleasure from the fact that we recognize the original source. Appropriative works don’t require that we recognize these sources at all. Appropriation may be part of adaptation, but while they are similar, the two are different from each other based upon the degree of difference from their original source.
Adaptation, in this sense, shades uncomfortably into plagiarism, and here you should look to the American University School of Communication’s Center for Social Media “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry” to clarify questions you might have about the transformational purpose of appropriated material. Simply put, is your work using the original source for a different purpose than the original, or does it repeat the work word for word or structure for structure, to re-create “the same intent and value as the original”? Appropriative and adapted works, even as they mine another source for inspiration, work toward the goal of producing their own original meanings and products. They also make a nod—whether explicitly, through clear attribution; or implicitly, through recognizable symbols, titles, and phrases—to their original sources.
There are readers who might disdain adaptations as much as appropriations, and likely for some of the same reasons, which is the privilege writers place on originality and also the connection they make between authorship and intellectual property. For writers, a published creative work is property that can be owned, sold, and purchased, and it possesses material as well as cultural value.
But what about artistic elements that we see as tied to specific cultures but aren’t practically able to be sold or purchased, like songs or religious myths? If certain stories or aesthetic elements are associated with a culture, or if a culture argues that it collectively created these aesthetic elements or stories, does it follow that the culture then legally owns these elements? Sadly, copyright law focuses on specific or concrete artistic works and the execution of an idea. Cultural control of stories and literary motifs is an issue of ethical, not legal ownership. Stories belong to cultures based on recitation, practice, shared knowledge, and memory. A writer may want to keep her stories within the boundaries of her own community, but she can’t practically—or easily—enforce this desire in the courts. But even if there is no legal claim a culture might make against an author, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an ethical claim. Ethical artists avoid appropriation not out of fear of being sued but out of fear of harming others through insensitive depictions.
In general, an appropriative artistic act can include taking a material object from one context and using it in another, or performing certain songs and stories originally authored by another artist, or using artistic elements from another artwork in your own art. These, however, are not the kind of appropriative practices I suspect you’re asking about. You aren’t worried about artistic influence or postmodern collage or adaptation so much as about what constitutes cultural appropriation.
As many of your classmates noted in workshop, cultural appropriation occurs when an artist, or collector, appropriates objects or aesthetic practices from a culture or community different from her own for her own use. This may include being inspired by stylistic elements or stories from another culture’s artworks, but it also includes collecting and exhibiting ritual objects from other cultures, such as a natural history museum’s display of indigenous people’s skeletons. It also includes the taking of another culture’s artworks wholesale as one’s own, which is what the British Museum did with the Elgin marbles or the Musée du Quai Branly did with African objects taken from France’s former African colonies.
The philosopher James O. Young, in his book Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, breaks down cultural appropriation into two general categories: subject appropriation and content appropriation. Content appropriation may also be called motif appropriation, and it occurs when artists from one culture are influenced by artists from another but without creating works in the original artists’ exact style. You can see this with Paul Simon, who uses musical elements gleaned from South African townships on his album Graceland, or in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which is influenced by African carved masks. In literature, you see this in Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which takes on the Akan people’s Anansi myths.
Subject appropriation, however, occurs when a writer depicts a real culture or community other than her own, whether by focusing her work on particular events, people, or practices that exist within that culture or community, or by writing in the voice of a specific member of that community. We see this in Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, for example; or in “Kim,” when Rudyard Kipling writes from the perspective of a young Indian boy.
Subject appropriation is what the writer Lionel Shriver defended in her impassioned and angrily received keynote address at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival. In it, Shriver declared that she was “hopeful the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad,” insisting that all fiction was at heart inauthentic, and that it was both the writer’s right and duty to imagine the lives of those different from themselves: what we call “appropriation,” then, wasn’t theft but the essence of fiction itself. Shriver’s argument duplicates (or perhaps appropriates) Margaret Drabble’s 2004 argument that “appropriation is what novelists do. Whatever we write is, knowingly or unknowingly, a borrowing. Nothing comes from nowhere.”
Drabble, who created Guyanese and Jewish characters for her novel The Witch of Exmore and an 18th-century Korean royal protagonist for The Red Queen, later walked these comments back in a 2017 Publishers Weekly article, saying, “You can’t just barge in there and assume you have got the right to tell other people’s stories. You have to react sensitively to other people.” Drabble’s hesitation does not seem to be shared by Shriver, however; two years after her talk in Brisbane, in the March issue of Prospect, Shriver amplified her argument, insisting that our “call out” culture was slowly creating a literature that would ultimately be “timid, homogenous, and dreary.”
It’s this combined problem of cultural privilege, profit, and self-aggrandizement that must be considered when we appropriate items from other cultures.
“The whole apparatus of delivering literature to its audience [now],” Shriver wrote, “is signaling an intention to subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests, unrelated to artistry, excellence and even entertainment, that miss the point of what our books are for.” For Shriver, to concern ourselves with “political correctness” doesn’t just produce art that bores, it narrows the writer’s artistic vision, shrinking the reader’s own capacity for imaginative empathy as a result.
As you might imagine, Shriver’s comments outraged a lot of people, and it didn’t help that she delivered her remarks wearing a Mexican sombrero. But while the public backlash to Shriver’s speech is understandable, it’s something that, for the moment, I want to set aside. You may take issue with Shriver’s claims, but it is a fact that appropriation is deeply tied to artistic practice, whether through the adaptation and appropriation of another artist’s content or through the appropriation of cultural subjects themselves. One of the reasons that Shriver’s claims sounded so outrageous was that she herself bundled together a variety of appropriative practices into the same category of “cultural appropriation,” thus to defend rewriting King Lear was potentially also to defend the writing of Uncle Remus. But there’s a difference between adapting a widely shared story and the burlesquing of a particular artifact we consider unique to a specific culture, and that difference might best be articulated by the legal scholar Susan Scafidi in her book Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, who argues that cultural appropriation is the taking of someone else’s “intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts” in order to “suit [our] own tastes, express [our] own individuality, or simply make a profit” (italics mine).
It’s this combined problem of cultural privilege, profit, and self-aggrandizement that must be considered when we appropriate items from other cultures.
Adapted from Appropriate: A Provocation. Copyright (c) 2021 by Paisley Rekdal. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.