Opinion: Should Authors Write Outside Their Cultural Identity?

This piece, written by Bay Area Book Festival Founder and Director Cherilyn Parsons, original appeared on Ozy.

Every January, I travel to India from California to plunge into a festive literary fray: the Jaipur Literature Festival. JLF is billed as the greatest literary event on earth, but what I love is its fearlessness.

The festival is totally unrestrained; even the colors seem to explode in your midst. Think Indian wedding, or becoming Dorothy as she lands in Oz. The black-and-white of text bursts into JLF’s fuchsia, tangerine, lime, and saffron ribbons, lanterns and umbrellas strung from pavilions hammered together just in the nick of time. The crowds are like the near stampedes at the mass Hindu pilgrimage, Kumbh Mela.

All this for books, not footballers or rock stars.

The authors hail from pretty much every continent—this year even included an Antarctic explorer. Guests have ranged from Helen Fielding to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, from Rupi Kaur to humanitarian Muhammad Yunus, from Sir Tom Stoppard to Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American novelist Abeer Hoque and Chinese-American Amy Tan.

What unites many of them? Perhaps the fact that “we’re hyphenated people,” Indian-born novelist and poet Jeet Thayil says.

Ah, the hyphen — how it connects and divides. This year, it was used like a sparring tool. As in the wider literary world, JLF speakers debated how much writers should be allowed to publish stories outside of their own cultural or racial identity— negatively termed “cultural appropriation.” The majority of JLF writers asserted that authors should be able to write and publish from any perspective — and I mostly agree — but others pushed back with incisive critiques that need to be heard.

Pico Iyer’s keynote speech planted the flag on one side. “The whole point of writing is to dream your way over the garden fence and into somebody other than yourself, and by doing so to see how much the other is inside yourself,” he says. Banning cultural appropriation as a literary tool, he reckons, would mean giving up on trying to understand those who are different: “It can be a very dark form of nationalism. Suddenly Shakespeare’s no longer allowed to write in the voice of Othello, or Desdemona.”

Thayil agrees, noting that cultural appropriation is exactly “what writers do.” If you write only from within your own skin, “how soon would your material be used up?” he asks. Leila Slimani, author of the Prix Goncourt–winning novel The Perfect Nanny (Lullaby in the U.K.), is a Moroccan living in France who’s “fed up” with hearing she shouldn’t write outside her own experience.

“When I write, I’m not a woman, I’m not a Moroccan, I’m not a Muslim, I am whatever I want.… It’s important that a Moroccan can write about a Chinese woman … because in the end we are all human beings. Melancholy has no nationality. Despair has no nationality. Love has no nationality,” Slimani explains.

But a conversation I had with novelist Susan Abulhawa put the question in a different light. As a Palestinian, Abulhawa’s view is that she’s “been robbed of home and heritage and history and food and culture.” She says Palestinians “don’t share one mind” but are united by “this wound we all share.” “When somebody whose life has not been so profoundly affected by this wound then comes and narrates from that wound, they’re colonizing a space that they have no business being in. And that becomes renewed oppression,” she argues.

From her point of view, cultural appropriation is about power. “Writing down, writing in the voice of those whose power you have taken in one way or another,” Abulhawa says, is equal to theft.

JLF authors talked about the flip side too — about what it’s like if you’re writing from inside one of those oppressed communities outside the white, male, imperialistic Western world. Either you’re pressured to write from the gaze of the empire (exoticizing or eroticizing yourself and your story) or expected to explain yourself to the empire.

Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed describes how non-Western or nonwhite writers are “situated as anthropologists” of their particular experience. Nigerian author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim says that when an African wants to write a cosmopolitan novel, publishers request stories about African villages. Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, who identifies with being San Franciscan more than anything else, says it’s frightening to have to represent the Arab world.

An invitation to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival is one of the most coveted in the literary world, and not only because of the sumptuous evening parties. The authors thrive on the freedom to speak, which hasn’t been encouraged lately around the world.

The festival’s adventurous programming inspired my own efforts in founding and leading the Bay Area Book Festival. Where do I land on the cultural appropriation debate? The answer, I suggest, is not black and white but riotous with color and voices, just like JLF. The best answer lies in fearless confrontation with self and others that is the very purpose and pleasure of literature.