July 15th, 2006

I’ve noticed from reading a handful of genre blogs that periodically people will bring a topic to attention and delve into it with great vigor and vim (as Dr. Seuss would say). Since WisCon, the topic receiving the analysis from all angles is cultural appropriation. To be honest, I haven’t followed everyone’s argument (a massive lj-oriented list’o’links is here), but I did read what my list of regulars had to say on it, and what they linked. I have no light to add to the debate, and not very much heat, either. I have no sweeping statements to make, no edicts on who should (or shouldn’t) write what, no real dog in that hunt. Even so, it’s a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I believe in cultural honesty and cultural integrity. I believe in letting people have their own voices about their own history. I’ve criticized white, male writers far more talented than I for writing outside their cultural norms here on this very blog, but only when their efforts failed to convince me they knew what they were talking about. Only when their lies were shoddy. Had they been convincing, all would have been forgiven. But what sort of random, subjective standard is that?

Still, the whole idea of cultural appropriation makes me uneasy. If I should not write outside my culture, then I cannot write at all. I have no culture to call my own. I have a background, sure, but having existed on the planet for several decades isn’t the same as having a culture. I am jealous of and mystified by people who own cultures. I am a rootless outsider everywhere I go. The whole time I was in Europe (the first time) people believed I was European, but were never convinced I was local. In England, they assumed I was French or German. On the continent, they assumed I was British. Actually, I’m just a pretty good imposter.

So this is a problem, you see. I don’t want to appropriate, but really, none of this is mine, so I can’t help it. If I cannot borrow and/or steal, then I cannot frame my stories. This explains some of the brokenness of my shelved story “Olympus”. I am not Argentine. I have no right to this story. And yet, I was standing right there, looking at that building and wondering to myself (because I am a wonderer, you see) why someone would block up all the windows. Didn’t they want light? I walked past that building countless times, staring at it, deaf to the screams of people being tortured within. Don’t I own my experience then? I don’t know. Doesn’t feel like it, and I think my doubts are on the page.

And here’s the other part, the part that I call “I can only tell the stories I have to tell” and I’ve seen (more eloquently phrased) by other writers of genre as “you dance with them that brung you”: if that’s the story I pull from the well, then that’s the story I must tell, best as I know how. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m Argentine or not, whether I’m Hispanic or not, whether I’m Jewish or not. I’ve got Analia, and she is who she is, and I’ve got what happened to her to tell, somehow. I don’t want to shunt responsibility off onto some inscrutable muse by saying that, you understand. I don’t even believe in muses. All writers are superstitious, true, but that whole muse speaking to me paradigm has never had any significance for me. There’s not someone else responsible for my stories. On the other hand, it’s not like I can take full credit, either. Stuff happens in there, and it’s better than I can make it, though not always sufficiently better.

I only have this clay to shape – no other – and if I’m going to do this job, then I have to put my hands to the clay, come hell or high water or accusations of cultural appropriation.

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