One of my first serious long literary endeavors was a novella, submitted as my undergraduate thesis in 1990. It was called Where the Buffalo Roamed and had intersecting stories of young adults in Grand Forks, North Dakota, including a young man named Delano who was half Native American and half African American. My thesis advisor was a writer named Annie Dawid, and she grilled me about this character. I don’t think she used the phrase “cultural appropriation,” but it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that white people ought not to write about other cultures, or that they at least better have a good reason for doing so.
I did not have a good reason, damned or otherwise, but I was defensive about it. I was pretty thin-skinned at the time. But over time I did understand where Dawid was coming from and, moreover, came to appreciate that the character’s racial identity wasn’t very well explained or described, just a passing description. I probably gave more narrative attention to the battered field jacket he wore, which was based on a jacket I wore myself at the time. It’s easier to write about a jacket you’ve lived in than a skin you have not.
I’m now grateful that Dawid mentored me that year on cultural sensitivity, because she pushed me in ways my advisor (who was on sabbatical), John Little, never would have. Creatively I had been doing a lot of that impulsively — writing inauthentic Chinese fairy tales, for example. And those stories tended to leave me the most satisfied at the time and earn the most praise. It was hard to let go but over time I was simply less moved to write in that vein and more aware of the issues behind mining other cultures for inspiration. By the time I was actually getting published my characters looked like me.
But a few years ago I became interested in the intense way kids play baseball in the Dominican Republic, the fervor that grips the country, and the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their dreams. I was casting about for a new story and since Mudville is my most successful book, thinking I really needed to get back to baseball. I imagined a boy who was ambitious even by D.R. standards, who made up for a lack of natural talent with sheer determination. I imagined a best friend who had a natural gift as a teammate and friend but not the same talent and ambition (in that regard, resurrecting a theme of Mudville). Usually the difference between an idea for a book and writing a book is the characters, and these kids stayed in my head.
So, I wrote that book.
By virtue of the fact that they are Dominican, these boys are Latino and of African descent. I’m obviously neither of those things, and in fact have never been to the Dominican Republic. I know it was audacious, but sometimes writers have to go where the heat is. Unlike Delano, their identity is essential to the story and to their characters. I did a lot of research, and found readers from the D.R., and tried to be accurate. I probably made mistakes (I make mistakes writing about my own life), but I dare say I did no harm, reinforced no stereotypes, and exploited no tragedy. But as I plugged along with the book I kept wondering if Rafael’s story was my story to tell, and if people would declare that it wasn’t. I wondered if insult and harm would necessarily be visible to the author. I knew eventually I would have to answer questions about it. Why this story, or, put another way, why this author?
This was a big week for discussions about cultural appropriation so it was more on my mind than usual, as I was finishing up copy edits and retooling the ending and getting excited for cover art. I’ve posted a couple of times about facebook, and one invited a thoughtful response from Michael Kleber-Diggs.
There are two general but tall hurdles to clear in order to do so. First… you actually have to love those characters. Your motivations in writing about them have to be scrutinized thoughtfully (ideally by zealous and ‘woke’ first readers). You have to inhabit that experience as fully as you can. You have to convey a high degree of care. The characters need to be essential to the story. They need to exist on the page like they are essential.
Second, the writer has to be able to clear that first hurdle. They need to be able to answer the question Bill Cheng isolated so well [in this article] – why does the writer want to tell these stories?
It’s a good set of criteria, but ultimately the readers will have to decide if I’ve written with care, or needed to write this book… which readers do for every book. If it isn’t self-evident, then my protests and explanations are irrelevant. If it is, they aren’t needed.