John McFetridge, writing in the Do Some Damage blog last week, raised the issue of “appropriation of voice.” I agree with John’s position—mostly—but the post got me to thinking, and my thoughts grew into more than what would fit into a comment.
The core question: can a white man (anyone, for that matter), write as someone of a different gender or race, without improperly “appropriating the voice” of the group the character belongs to? John linked to an article by Kenneth Williams in Windspeaker Magazine, which takes an even-handed approach, citing both those who see no real issue (aside from the author’s need to be sensitive to the group represented), and those who take major issue, such as Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Anishinabe author and story-teller:
"I think the most important thing for a non-Native writer to do when they write about Native issues is to have respect - respect means research and talking to the people. I can see non-Native writers doing that in the field of journalism, but when it comes to literature it's a dicey situation because we all grow up with certain biases, and if we accept or reject those biases, it always shows up in our writing."
"I appreciate the work of Rudy Weibe and M.T. Kelly because they were very, very respectful and they were the only things going. But they must realize there comes a time for them to step back. I believe that the reason that they're doing this is to foster and promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal people and their histories. They can't do that forever and ever because it [becomes] the same old missionary situation."
I’m not going to argue that white men have not dominated the lists of books published and reviewed for years, and still do; any moron can see they have. Whether the underrepresentation of women and minorities is due to publishers’ bias, or because their books may be perceived to occupy too much of a niche to suit the suits, is not today’s discussion. (That women still have this problem is confounding, as a substantial majority of novels are bought and read by women. The market should be there, which could be prima facie evidence for the bias argument, but, as I said, that’s for another day.) What I will argue is, who gets to decide who can write what?
I’m not familiar with the work of Wiebe and Kelly, but I am with Tony Hillerman, who won universal acclaim for his portrayals of life on a Navajo reservation. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, along with many others, are fully formed characters the reader can appreciate as people, with many of the concerns all of us have, formed by their unique Navajo culture, toward which Hillerman is never patronizing. Keeshig-Tobias didn’t mention Hillerman by name—maybe because he was not Canadian—but one must wonder if he was among the white authors she wanted to “step back.”
Whatever the causes for the underrepresentation of woman and minorities in publishing, individual writers are not to blame; larger forces are at work. Some are likely benign. Others, not so much. All the writer can be held responsible for is his or her effort; all they can do is the best they can. If all of my black characters are either fiends or hard core bangers, by all means hold me accountable. If all my female characters talk about is shopping and men, let me have it. If I make a genuine effort to avoid those pitfalls and fail, that’s due to a shortage of talent—which I also have to answer for—but it’s no justification to preclude me, or anyone else, from making the effort. If I, or any other writer, regardless of background, make the effort and it creates believable characters that read like real people with real problems, well, then give credit where it’s due.
John notes in his essay that he has problems reading books where middle-aged men write from the perspective of young women. I hadn’t thought about it much, but, since he put it in my head, I can’t remember liking anything of that ilk myself. Not that it made me uncomfortable: the books just didn’t work. The same can be said of some books by women with male leads. There are also plenty of books—too many—where the minority characters aren’t well realized. That doesn’t mean the effort should not be made. One never knows when an author—of whatever background, color, or plumbing—may have something to say about a group he or she is not part of, and it will resonate. The more often that happens, the better off everyone is, and I don’t mean just the writers.