Speak For Yourself!: Cultural (and Other) Appropriation in Writing and Publishing

One of the more shocking realizations I have experienced recently—not that the content of the realization is shocking, but that the realization never previously occurred—is on the subject of cultural appropriation, and the staggering difference in perception of it between writers and publishers (from my own, anecdotal experience). This revelation came during a talk by Gregory Younging, an indigenous publisher and author of the Elements of Indigenous Style. During this talk, questions and discussions were raised around the importance of indigenous focused texts being authored and edited by people from indigenous cultures, and that white people writing about indigenous culture is cultural appropriation and silences authentic indigenous voices.

When it was discussed and I thought about it, it seemed so obvious, but I had never actually thought about it before. Because, as I learned in writing courses, researching, learning about, and writing from points of views vastly different from my own was the normal, natural way of things. In fact, writers are obligated to use their linguistic prowess to give voice to people that are not themselves or even remotely similar, according to my experience in writing courses.

This quote, by Hari Kunzru, seems to summarize quite well the general inclination of most writers I have read/come across: “Clearly, if writers were barred from creating characters with attributes that we do not “own” (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), fiction would be impossible. Stories would be peopled by clones of the author. [sic] trespassing into otherness is a foundation of the novelist’s work”1 (Kunzru). However, in a more convincing argument, Nisi Shawl says “if [writers] ignore non-dominant cosmologies and traditions and exclude them from their work and their libraries, writers…could be said to have contributed to their erasure” (Shawl).

I graduated with a degree in music at the University of British Columbia, but I studied (in that I spent most effort, time, and thought on) creative writing. We learned the phrase “write what you know,” but we also learned about doing our research in order to create an authentic voice of someone else. From that perspective it is an innocent practice meant to create art and something new. We learned that writing is to reflect “the human experience.” Not a particular human experience, but the human experience.

In a sense, that is true. The collective efforts of all writers is to reflect the entirety of the human experience which is an interconnected patchwork of near infinite experiences across a shared universe. In another sense, it’s reductive and trivializing of differences between the various human experiences bred from culture and the relationship of one culture to the next.

So far in my time at SFU with the MPUB program, I am seeing far more emphasis on literary works about certain cultures being produced by those same cultures and I am being introduced to the politics of it all, to the actual effect one piece of culturally appropriative writing can have on one from that culture.

The idea that one should only write from one’s own culture is complicated. Setting aside the argument of the definition of culture, one’s definition of cultural appropriation can vary from person to person in terms of the extent to which an outsider utilizes another’s culture in their work. There are all sorts of examples to draw from including recent controversy and older literature considered part of the classic canon.

The obvious, recent one is Joseph Boyden2. With all of the questions leveled against him about his identity, and whether or not he even has indigenous heritage, not only is his authority to represent indigenous voices revoked, but his work can retroactively be perceived as oppressing indigenous voices. He has been such a loud and powerful voice that he has left little room for other voices of indigenous peoples to speak out.

Then there are established literary classic novels like The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, where four points of view are written: a severely mentally handicapped man, another mentally handicapped though higher functioning man, a black servant, and a white man. Three of the four characters are white, but the severely handicapped character, Benji, raises questions not of cultural but of intellectual and experiential appropriation and misrepresenting disabled characters; “…unquestioning acceptance of him as a successful representation of intellectual disability reveals an underlying ableism in the literary critical endeavour and an academic acquiescence to dated socio-cultural constructions of disability” (Vanier). This expands the controversy to not just be about writing about others being people of different cultures but of different intellectual capabilities and cognitive development. To round it out, socioeconomic status, upbringing, gender, and personal identity vastly change one person from another’s experiential understanding of the world—is it oppressive or offensive for a white man of high income to write in the voice of a young white drug-addicted woman on the streets? I raise this question not to trivialize the hurt of marginalized communities that are being stripped of their voices and talked over daily; I raise it to identify the deeply entrenched tradition of writing from other points of view in the cannon of literature.

This essay is predominantly on cultural appropriation so I will not digress far into it, however since I cannot fully relate to someone being culturally appropriated, I would like to draw the comparison of appropriating cognitive capability and experience to contextualize where my argument is coming from. Working with people living with various mental and developmental disabilities as well as living with my own, I have often found the trend of neurotypical people jokingly relating to severe mental illnesses aggravating, and even more so with literature that improperly represents people with disabilities by stacking them up with the stereotypes of that disability5. This perpetuates the trivialization of the serious of the illness. When I see an author with no known or disclosed mental illnesses trying to write in the voice of someone with a mental illness, I prickle with anger and my first instinct is to blacklist that author from my reading list and argue with anyone reading that book to stop reading it. It doesn’t matter how much research that author does, he or she will never be able to fully relate or properly represent somebody actually dealing with mental illnesses. From this perspective I understand why people of marginalized cultures would not want an outsider author writing from their perspective.

In the sphere of fantasy and sci-fi, the appropriation of culture is ubiquitous. From directly basing a fantasy race on an existing culture to creating one from a smorgasbord of various cultures, it can be very problematic. This is only anecdotal now as the website has been deleted, but a blogger I followed, whose premise was to critique issues in fantasy and pop culture in general, being Irish himself, took serious offense from and wrote extensively on the trope of travelling wagon-living people stereotypically derived from the Irish Travellers pejoratively referred to as tinkers3.

It is a common occurrence in fantasy to use other cultures to create the feeling of exoticism to allow the escapism fantasy aims to create. And very often, these other cultures are being represented but for the purpose of appealing to a white western audience and also these cultures are boiled down to their stereotypes that the audience recognize and feel comfortable with, misrepresenting them.

Beyond literature, visual arts and music are chock full of cultural appropriation:



Picasso famously appropriated motifs which originated in the work of African carvers. Painters who are members of mainstream Australian culture have employed styles developed by the aboriginal cultures of Australasia. The jazz and blues styles developed in the context of African-American culture have been appropriated by non-members of the culture from Bix Beiderbecke to Eric Clapton. Paul Simon has incorporated into his music elements of music from South Africa’s townships. The American composer Steve Reich has studied with a master drummer from Ghana and the rhythms of Ewe culture has influenced his compositions. The poet Robert Bringhurst has retold stories produced by members of North American First Nations.

  • Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, pg. 1



Of the above examples, some are ethically unacceptable, but some are ambiguously, debatably acceptable. Just as cultures do not live in a vacuum apart from each other—rather, they mix and mingle—so too will the arts of these cultures come into contact and come away changed and new. However it is imperative that the process by which this happens is sensitive to the myriad of voices that exist in the total tapestry of earth, and that each culture gets a chance not just to speak for itself, but to speak of its experience in relation to the cultures surrounding it.

Circling back a bit to mental illness represented in literature: people with mental illnesses are more and more included in society and literature being a reflection of our world needs to reflect that aspect of our world. It is important that neurotypical authors represent that side of humanity from their own perspective.

This brings me to my main argument: cultural appropriation (and appropriation of any voice) is never okay, but a person does not live exclusively within their own culture; rather they are exposed to a myriad of cultures apart from their own and so should create art that is representative of their own experience and understanding of the world. Faulkner did not write a severely mentally handicapped character and a black character to oppress their own voices; he wrote them to create a rounded picture of a family in a time period. Certainly, the handicapped character was used largely as a literary device, but he managed to write the character with depth and as an integral part of the novel nonetheless.

While “stories should reflect the diversity of our world4,” it is also the diversity  of stories being told from a diversity of authors that will truly and authentically reflect the diversity of our world; one story can only reflect diversity from a single (not very diverse) perspective. But since one’s experience and understanding of the world is affected by the various interrelationships of peoples and cultures around them, stories should include this aspect to properly capture the complexity of existing. There’s a balance and it’s important for one to understand this balance.

In essence, a single author must absolutely write a story within complex and complicated settings of diversity, but that is only one author’s perspective on diversity and not an authentic voice representing another culture; it is an authentic voice representing his/her understanding of another culture, and this must be seriously considered not only by an author when choosing to include other culture in a work, but also by publishers when deciding what to push out into the world, and how to position it in its deliverance.

When writers, artists, or any other person, say things like “We wouldn’t have Eric Clapton without him appropriating black culture” or “this person of colour here liked the white author’s novel from a person of colour’s perspective” and therefore “cultural appropriation is fine and dandy and even encouraged in the arts,” they are entirely missing the point (not actual quotations). Even if they do their research and represent the cultures other than their own half-decently, they are still stealing the opportunity for someone from that culture to say it themselves, with more authority.

As publishers we need to be absolutely critical and aware of the spotlight and who is in it, and we need to make sure all voices are being allowed time on the podium. Publishers are the gatekeepers (including self-publishers). The responsibility falls on publishers to ensure representation of one culture is not grifted from an authentic voice and that the diverse reflection of our world in text gets equal diversity in representation by writer.





1This article is a collection of opinion pieces defending the right to culturally appropriate by authors: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver


2For a more indepth, dualistic exploration of this controversy, consider, Joseph Boyden’s side ( http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/my-name-is-joseph-boyden/ ) and the accusations leveled against him ( https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wnd97z/what-colour-is-your-beadwork-joseph-boyden ).


3For an overview of Irish Travelers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Travellers#cite_note-2


4A good introductory article on striking the balance: http://www.jimchines.com/2014/05/diversity-appropriation/


5A good, short read on the popularized use of OCD and the problem with its usage: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/ocd-is-a-disorder-not-a-quirk/385562/








Boyden, Joseph. “My Name is Joseph Boyden.” Macleans.ca August 2, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/my-name-is-joseph-boyden/


Coombe, Rosemary J. “The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy.” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Volume 6, Issue 2. June 9, 2015.


Couchie, Aylan. “Commentary: Let’s Start with what Cultural Appropriation is not.” Globalnews.ca May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://globalnews.ca/news/3463986/commentary-lets-start-with-what-cultural-appropriation-is-not/


Hagi, Sarah. “A Bunch of White Canadian Editors Really Love Cultural Appropriation.” Vice.com May 12, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/pg7q8m/a-bunch-of-white-canadian-editors-really-love-cultural-appropriation


Hines, Jim C. “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other.” Jimchines.com May 1, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2017. http://www.jimchines.com/2014/05/diversity-appropriation/


J.C. “Art for All.” The-tls.co.uk September 13, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/art-for-all-cultural-appropriation/


Johnstone, Ingrid and Mangat, Jyoti. “Reading Practices, Postcolonial Literature, and Cultural Mediation in the Classroom.” (Chapter 3). Springer Science & Business Media, March 24, 2012.


Kay, Jonathan. “Why is Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous Identity being Quesitoned?” thewalrus.ca December 28, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://thewalrus.ca/why-is-joseph-boydens-indigenous-identity-being-questioned/


Langan, Michael D. “Commentary: Cultural Appropriation—good or bad?” September 25, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. http://www.nbc-2.com/story/36444373/commentary-cultural-appropriation-good-or-bad


Lawton Andrew. “Commentary: Is Cultural Appropriation an Act of Theft or Artistic Literary Exploration?” globalnews.ca May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://globalnews.ca/news/3459237/commentary-is-cultural-appropriation-an-act-of-theft-or-artistic-literary-exploration/


Mcmahon, Ryan. “What Colour is your Beadwork, Joseph Boyden?” vice.com December 30, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wnd97z/what-colour-is-your-beadwork-joseph-boyden


Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory, Colume 16, Issue 4 (474–503). November 6, 2006.


Russell, Andrew. “What you need to know about the cultural appropriation debate.” Globalnews.ca May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://globalnews.ca/news/3464337/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-cultural-appropriation-debate/


Shawl, Nisi. “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.” Irosf.com October, 2004. Accessed October 30, 2017. http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10087


Tipu, Fatima. “OCD is Not a Quirk.” Theatlantic.com February 22, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/ocd-is-a-disorder-not-a-quirk/385562/


Vanier, Jean. “Becoming Human.” House of Anansi, 1998. Excerpted in Faulkner, William’s “The Sound and the Fury,” W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.


Various. “Irish Travellers.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Travellers#cite_note-2


Young, Helen. “Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness.” Routledge, August 11, 2015.


Young, James O. “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts.” John Wiley & Sons, 2010.


Ziff, Bruce H. and Rao, Pratima V. “Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation.” Rutgers University Press, 1997.

2 Responses to Speak For Yourself!: Cultural (and Other) Appropriation in Writing and Publishing

  1. dylemmawalter says:

    I had a similar experience of wading this minefield when preparing my second position paper. I was studying Unceded Territories: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, the exhibition catalogue of an artist who is extremely concerned with authentic voice and Indigenous peoples’ sovereign right of self-representation. Consequently I was shocked to learn that Jimmie Durham (author of the short story “Bekkah and Son, and Elpidio” which appeared in the catalogue) was recently exposed in the vein of Joseph Boyden and Rachel Dolezal as public figures who have fraudulently represented themselves and published work that claims to speak from an authentic minority experience. In Durham’s case, his Cherokee heritage has been under debate for many years, officially discounted by the Cherokee nation, and publicly denounced this past summer (Boucher). However, what happens to the legacy of his work, writing and artwork, which has played a major role in American Indigenous rights? Durham was a founding member of the International Indian Treaty Council to lobby the United Nations towards decolonization of indigenous peoples worldwide, which led to the 1977 UN conference on Indigenous Affairs, attended by representatives of 98 indigenous groups (“The Process”). The editors and curators of Unceded Territories must have been aware of the contention over Durham’s status and yet commissioned a short story by him to be included in the catalogue. The Whitney Museum, Walker Art Centre, and Hammer Museum, who have all recently shown retrospectives of Durham’s work, have similarly chosen to acknowledge the debate and include his work anyway (Boucher). What is the responsibility of the writers and curators, in this case, to either support Durham’s work or denounce him as an appropriator and fraud?

    In my opinion, writing, publishing or creating art about cultures which are not one’s own exists on a spectrum. On one end we find creators who are enacting blatant appropriation and exploitation; on the other are those who are attempting to be allies by opening up understanding about people marginalized under hegemony. One example that comes to mind is the work of Trinh T. Min-ha, a Vietnamese artist who made documentary-style films about the life in particular Chinese and African communities, and particularly the women of these communities, in the 1990s. Min-ha and her collaborators place themselves as a part of the “residual class,” as outsiders of the dominant class, who are interacting with their film subjects from a place of hybridity or relatability, unlike a typical anthropological (and potentially colonizing) view of “speaking for” or “speaking about” another culture. Min-ha’s work has been largely regarded as “speaking nearby” (Chen). One could try to argue that this kind of work smacks of appropriation, but at the end of the day it comes down to the creator’s intention and action. Who has benefitted from the production of the work? The colonial project of Othering has always been about the accumulation of wealth; if a work about another culture seems to be only for the gain of the creator, I think we can fairly label it as exploitative.

  2. dylemmawalter says:


    Boucher, Brian. “Cherokee Curators and Artists Speak Out.” Artnet News, 27 June 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cherokee-curators-artists-jimmie-durham-cherokee-1007336. Accessed 17 Nov 2017.

    Chen, Nancy N. “Speaking Nearby: A conversation with Trinh T. Min-ha.” https://docfilmhist.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/chen.pdf. Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.

    Duffek, Karen and Tania Willard. Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories. Museum of Anthropology at UBC, 2016.

    “The Process of Coming Back into the World: An American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) Activist Advocates Cultural and Political Unification.” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6904/. Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.

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