Appropriation- The Problem with Damned If You Do, Damned if You Don’t


Many writers claim they feel under attack; damned if they write characters outside of their culture, and damned if they don’t include a diverse and realistic cast reflective of our world. I haven’t had a book published as of this point in time. Once I’m published, there might be moments when I feel the same way. Thoughts like this might pop into our heads, but we don’t have to let them take root. We don’t have to fertilize them with negativity all around us.

Here’s my perspective: I would rather an author not write anything outside their own cultural experience if the alternative is doing it poorly.

There are writers fighting to have the stories of their hearts published. Do you want to steal their opportunity to put something special into the world, publishing something you know doesn’t represent an experience authentically? If marketing is the main reason you want to write a book with a First Nations (Native American) or autistic character (for example), you need to adjust your priorities. You need to step aside and let First Nations and autistic writers tell these stories.

This sentiment gets turned back on marginalized writers in a really ugly way. They get further marginalized, through their writing, because they dared to insist on OWN voice opportunities and fair representation in books. Not everything a marginalized writer creates is going to be biographical. Not everything they write is going to be about their marginalization. This doesn’t stop bitter writers from telling them that’s all they are allowed to write, because of their stance on OWN voice literature.

Then there’s the publishing industry saying the reading public just don’t care enough to buy OWN voice literature. This reminds me of the local McDonald’s in my town. They brought Deli sandwiches to the store because they were required to by corporate regulations. However, they’d say their sandwich artist wasn’t there every time anyone I knew tried to order one. Then they got rid of the sandwiches after a few months, claiming the sales proved lack of interest. It also reminds me of the local theater in my town only scheduling Hidden Figures to play for two days, in the middle of the week. They don’t want to be accused of being racist by not playing the film. On the other hand, they don’t want actual seat sales to prove them wrong on their assumption people in our town don’t want to see it.

Why do we need OWN literature? Let me use the example of autism in writing since it’s close to my heart and experiences.

There are people who say they can write a good character who is autistic simply by researching. Alright. Name the sources you are going to use.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

You say you’re going to use material from Autism Speaks? Maybe you aren’t aware that most Actually Autistic people despise the organization. Maybe you aren’t aware they’ve made life much harder for actually autistic people through their fear-mongering. Maybe you aren’t aware most of their funds come from anti-Vaxxers like Donald Trump. Do some research on THAT and reconsider any material produced by them.

You have a friend with a child who is autistic, and you’re going to use that as inspiration? Does this mean you’ll be primarily talking to/spending time with the CHILD? Even if that were the case, do you think you’ll be better able to express what their experience of life is than they’d be? You might be thinking I’m showing my ignorance because there are many autistic people who can’t speak or write. This is true. However, there are many non-verbal and verbal people with autism who can write. I guarantee you they can write their experiences of life better than you can.

You are going to use professional psychiatric books and articles? First of all, are you sure you can tell the difference between professional writing and hate-mongering? This blogger has two separate hate speech pages done up to look very much like psychiatric self-help pages; one on mental illness in general and one devoted to autism. Heartless Aspergers (Trigger Warning: Avoid her website if you don’t want your head to explode from rage)

Are you so sure you have the experience and empathy to recognize the difference between a person with a vendetta for people with autism and legitimate psychiatric material?

Now let’s talk about that word legitimate. Simon-Baron Cohen, who the blogger mentioned above loves to quote, is considered legitimate. He also likes to tell people you can’t trust the self-assessment of people with autism and suggests you ask a third party. He’s just another person lining up to say people with autism are voiceless, even though we’re screaming to be heard.

Your answer might be that you intend to talk to actually autistic people. This is a step in the right direction. I hope you’ll be paying them for their time. You must be aware of the chronic under/unemployment of people with autism, and the poverty that results. I hope you aren’t the kind of person who demands emotional and intellectual labour from people for free. Even after doing all of this, are you sure you can present something that avoids the pitfalls of the tragedy narrative so pervasive in autism-related fiction?

If you ignore everything I’ve warned about here (and more I haven’t even thought to mention), don’t come whining to me when your finished product gets challenged. Don’t whimper, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” and expect me to have an abundance of sympathy.

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