You might have spotted comments by the American novelist Anne Tyler trending on Twitter recently. “I’m astonished by the appropriation issue,” she said in a 20 March interview with the Sunday Times. “It would be very foolish for me to write, let’s say, a novel from the viewpoint of a black man, but I think I should be allowed to do it.”
Does she have a point? Some might argue that literature can become limited when we say people shouldn’t use their imagination to take on identities that are not their own. Cultural appropriation accusations be damned, some declaim. Why on Earth can’t a white person write from the perspective of a person of colour? After all, authors throughout the ages have written from the perspectives of human beings unlike themselves, and even from the more-than-human or non-human perspectives – from the viewpoint of wizards and witches and all kinds of creatures.
But what such arguments miss is that people of colour do not simply exist as figments of white authors’ imagination, to be portrayed in whichever way they want. They are real people. And, for years, white people have been writing misinformed, derogatory and downright racist portrayals of them. Those portrayals have seeped into the cultural consciousness and into the hearts and minds of readers to deleterious effect, breeding further racism.
In so much literature, including in books written specifically for children, black people have been horrifically stereotyped by the pens of white authors. Golliwogs, for example. Enid Blyton’s The Little Black Doll. The Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – who were initially pygmies from Africa before Dahl made revisions in 1973 following complaints. If they’re not there to be mocked or laughed at, dark people in literature are too often seen to do dark things. They’re the baddies. They’ve evil.
That’s not to say, of course, that Anne Tyler would do any of those things. Rather, it’s to point out that the historical, and indeed contemporary, context of writing about people who are not white has all too often been a case of racist misrepresentation, views that can then be internalised by the reader. The pen is mightier than the sword, as the old adage goes, and can be used to destructive as well as creative effect. So it’s only right for those who have been stereotyped and maligned to claim back the power of the pen and take a critical view of how others portray them.
Moreover, I’m not sure it seems fair to complain about what white people should or shouldn’t write when people of colour often don’t get enough of a look-in with regards to the publishing industry. I would love to see more voices from the perspective of minority groups themselves who have hitherto been unrepresented in the publishing world. I’m not advocating for a total ban on white people writing about people of colour – but space on bookshelves needs to be made for people to tell their own stories, for writing from within cultures.
Writing a story is an enormously potent thing, which has the capacity to influence hearts and minds. The celebrated black American novelist Toni Morrison carries a quote that I love: “if there’s a book you want to write and it hasn’t been written before then you should write it.” The misrepresentation of minority groups can crush the confidence of those maligned to share a story at all, or to believe it can be published given the preconceptions still held by some gatekeepers within the industry.
Now isn’t the time to be arguing over what white authors should be allowed to write. Now is the time to publish books directly from voices and viewpoints that have not been heard enough before. Those voices belong here.
[See also: How a new wave of literature is reclaiming spinsterhood]