Is cultural appropriation silencing the Middle East?

American journalist and author Lionel Shriver. Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images
American journalist and author Lionel Shriver. Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images

There has been an argument raging in literary circles this month – a rather genteel argument, of course, carried out in carefully-crafted sentences in the pages of newspapers – over “cultural appropriation”. This is the idea that taking elements of one culture – say, dreadlocks, for example, or the hijab – and using them in another culture – “white” American culture – is offensive and demeaning.

The most recent round of this argument started this month when the American writer Lionel Shriver – best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book about a boy who commits a school massacre – gave a lecture at a literary festival in Australia in which she derided the very idea of cultural appropriation. It was not, to use the vernacular of the moment, “a thing”. Indeed, said Shriver, it was a “passing fad”, part of a climate of criticism that constrained fiction writers. Even before Shriver had left the stage, a furore had erupted.

At its core, Shriver’s argument and that of her detractors – particularly the Australian-­Sudanese author Yassmin ­Abdel-Magied, who walked out of Shriver’s lecture – is a question of the right to tell stories: who has the right to tell whose story? Rooted in identity politics, this debate raises concerns about stereotyping and power and how the narratives of one group of people can be warped by their reflection through the perspectives and biases of another.

Shriver’s lecture took the argument to its extremes, noting that ending cultural appropriation would mean yoga, belly dancing and even ethnic food would remain the province only of those from those “cultures” (however that would be defined). That would be a patently ridiculous situation.

But the conversation about cultural appropriation occurs at the margins. It is a conversation shrouded in shades of grey. Of course, writers should be free to inhabit whatever characters they wish. That is the role of fiction writers.

Yet fiction exists within a political reality – the fictional world is only a smaller part of the real world where its readers reside, and each is informed by the other. The real world provides context and clues for the readers.

And how could it be anything other than that? The readers must understand the real world in order to understand the signs and symbols of the fictional one.

(Shriver herself should know this. The reason her book became so successful was because it touched on a topic of current interest in the real world – something she has admitted.)

That makes fiction trickier than it first appears. Culture does not exist in a vacuum nor is it impartial. The road from writing a manuscript to being published, appearing on television and speaking at writing festivals is filled with cultural, social and economic checkpoints, and only a few pass through them.

Artists cannot expect their work to be read outside of the prevailing power structures. They should seek to transcend them, ideally, but writers must also accept that their work will be read “within”, quite literally, the culture. What is changing is that those who for a long time dominated the dissemination of culture – white, middle-class men, mainly – are now having their certainties, biases and definitions questioned. That is a good thing, even if it feels uncomfortable and leads to some rather absurd situations.

And yet. In a Middle Eastern context, the power constraints within which artists create feel rather real. Across the region, governments, powerful interest groups and communities seek to censor the voices of those they don’t like. That occurs across the world, of course, but in some parts of the region it can lead to imprisonment or exile.

Looked at like that, arguments about cultural appropriation suddenly become more about who has the right to speak.

Writers such as Shriver – white, well-educated, western – tend to set the cultural agendas of their countries and even other parts of the world. When they feel the pushback from communities of colour, they get upset and angry, feeling that their power is being taken from them.

In a Middle Eastern context, cultural appropriation by the West can feel very real – part of a longer history of occupation and colonisation. But there’s another, internal, side to cultural appropriation: what happens when the dominant culture in a society feels itself under threat by voices from the fringe? In other words, what happens when use of the symbols of a country or culture – the Palestinian flag, for example, or the hijab – is by those from within the culture but without the power structure? Can these elements be incorporated, or must they be marginalised?

That is a broader dynamic that is playing out today, and can be seen from the demand for greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia to the clashes between liberals and conservatives in Lebanon. As with cultural appropriation in the West, the right to speak in the Middle East is not merely dependent on the willingness to do so. It is dependent on the power to do so: to be published, to be broadcast, to be heard.

If a particular “culture”, whether African-American music, Egyptian artists or Japanese cuisine, can only be showcased by “authentic” representatives, that places tight constraints around that culture, meaning it cannot evolve and adapt.

Boxes, like walls, don’t only help define the spaces around them, they also keep the rest of the world out.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: September 26, 2016 04:00 AM


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