Recently I had a debate with another writer on the topic of cultural appropriation that was too mild to be labelled as ‘heated’, yet interesting enough to warrant further investigation. Coincidentally, around the same time earlier this month Lionel Shriver appear on Mark Steyn’s ill-fated The Mark Steyn Show, primarily to discuss her now infamous “Sombrero Talk” at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival.
I don’t usually wade into such politicised debates, preferring to stay within the relatively calm waters of writing and publishing technique, but these recent interactions about what is and what isn’t permitted as creative acts by writers and artists brought from me rather strong feelings on this point.
My debut novel Man O’War is primarily set in two places in the 22nd century: London, and Port Harcourt, Nigeria. To me, it seems axiomatic that any story set in modern / future London features a diverse, multi-ethnic cast of characters. It’s my duty as a writer to populate and therefore represent the setting of my work as accurately (or, more importantly in genre writing, as plausibly) as possible. It simply wouldn’t be plausible for a sprawling story set across modern / future London to be ethnically homogenous. So, plausibility covered, I then comes to the point of the right I have to write characters of differing backgrounds, ethnicities and races.
To me, even the thought of such self-censorship is a troubling concept. It’s not in my interest to think, “what would a Sikh do here?” or, “what would a Japanese woman do here?” True, our ethnicity shapes our worldview to some immeasurable degree, but less so when actually we’re all from the same city. So I mostly discard such thought processes. For me, writing is more about identifying commonalities (which I suppose is why it’s called the human condition). It’s the reason why identity politics is doomed to fail, as it’s a way of Othering the person next to you, rather than attempting to see the common ground you share (there are plenty of other good reasons why it’s just not feasible as a system of thought and even less as a system of action, but they are far too numerous to go into here. Another day, perhaps). Good writing has a way of making you feel a connection with a fictional character who, on the surface, has nothing in common with you. In conversation I always at this point wheel out the apocryphal Goethe quote: “it is the job of the poet to capture the specific, but reflect the universal.” If you, as a writer, can make a commuter on the train from Swindon to London feel something in common with a fisherman from Burma, then that’s a job well done.
This is not to say we’re all the same. We’re all different, but as individuals rather than at group level. So, in Man O’War, there is a cast of people of different races, colours etc, but they all have their own thought processes, internal conflicts and motivations to deal with. On the surface I – or possibly you – can’t have much in common with them (such as the Sri Lankan gangster D’Souza; or the struggling jellyfisherman Dhiraj; or Nita, the Head of R&D in a cutting edge corporation; or Sir Ingham, the aging diplomat within the Department for Business), but if I’ve done my job properly (yes, I know, a big if), then there are more commonalities between these people – and their readers – than meets the eye. And that means enabling people to connect with a broad spectrum of other human beings. Which is as it should be.