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The Responsible Writer

When Lionel Shriver ignited public debate about cultural appropriation with her 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival opening address, ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’¹, followed by Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s swift rejoinder², I took it personally. Not in a white privilege, why-are-they-trying-to-stop-me-from-writing-whatever-I-want? kind of way, but in a way that made me pause and reflect on my own creative practice.

At the time, I was working on my PhD in Creative Writing, a component of which was a novel about overseas commercial surrogacy between Thailand and Australia. Prior to this, I’d published three crime novels which were also set largely in Thailand. I’d been motivated to write my novels largely as a corrective to the stereotypes about Thailand and Thai people, especially women, that dominated the English-language books that were available in Bangkok, where I lived in the 1990s. I saw my writing, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, as a means of engaging in the ‘continual quarrel’ to produce ‘books that draw new and better maps of reality’³. All my novels are written with roving points of view, with Thai characters included in the narrative viewpoints.

I hadn’t stopped to think about the ethical implications of my creative choices. That changed in light of the debate that followed Shriver’s speech, and I ended up dedicating a chapter of my thesis to the issue. I am a staunch supporter of calls by advocates of Own Voices writing – that is, ‘stories told by marginalised peoples about our own experiences rather than stories told by outsiders’⁴ – for greater diversity and representation in every aspect of the literary industry. But I can’t agree with the idea that lived experience is a prerequisite for truth in fiction, and that any and all attempts to imaginatively understand each other across boundaries of identity are harmful. Many of my favourite books are written by authors who cross multiple boundaries of identity in their narratives – Tash Aw, Simone Lazaroo, Michael Ondaatje, Jock Serong and Christos Tsiolkas, just to name a few. Indeed, British writer Hari Kunzru describes the attempt ‘to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences’ as ‘an act of ethical urgency’⁵.  But how to do this responsibly and without causing harm?

What emerged from my research was an ethical framework of sorts for writing across boundaries of identity – a framework that comes with more questions than answers and no guarantees for success. But it might make a useful starting-point for thinking about the ethical implications of writing across boundaries of identity, particularly if you are, like me, a white writer attempting to represent a cultural identity other than your own.

1. Clarify your narrative intent

The first step in an ethical creative writing practice is probably the most important: to examine your motive for writing from the perspective of another. Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in ‘The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind’, suggest that instead of asking, ‘Can I write from another’s point of view?’ writers start with the first-principle question, ‘Why and what for?’⁶

Are you motivated by a desire to support diversity in literature? In this case, would your efforts might be better directed to supporting diverse authors and amplifying their work?

Do you aim to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’? Is it really ‘giving’ voice to another or ‘taking’ it when you write their story? If you feel a community is ‘voiceless’ or under-represented, could you instead mentor or support a writer in that community to tell their own story?

Are you writing from the point of view of a person of colour because you think it’s the best way to write about racism? Might you consider an alternative approach and rise to the challenge, as YA author Justine Larbalestier suggests, of writing books ‘that examine white complicity in systemic racism’⁷?

Are you writing to seek approval among readers in the community you are writing about? If so, be aware that readers in non-white communities are increasingly disinterested in white writers’ takes on them. As Michael Mohammed Ahmad said candidly during the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival episode of Q&A, ‘I’m especially not interested in what a person from a privileged position has to say about someone who is not privileged’⁸.

Perhaps you have an idea for a story that won’t go away, a character in your head who seems to have a life of their own, or some other compelling reason to take this step. If you decide to proceed, it is worth remembering that good intentions alone do not make for good literature, especially if you don’t have an existing relationship or rapport with the community you’re writing about. Rushdie again offers helpful advice in this regard, via a history professor who advised never to write history ‘until you can hear the people speak’. ‘[I]t came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well,’ Rushdie writes. ‘If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t – you shouldn’t – tell their story.’⁹ Which segues nicely into the second element of an ethical creative writing practice: research.

2. Research

While US author Malinda Lo notes that research is required to write ‘any fiction … truthfully and well’¹⁰, writing across boundaries of identity arguably requires a particular diligence. First Nations scholar and author Janine Leane recommends any attempt at writing across boundaries – if it takes place at all – must stem from ‘social and cultural immersion’, which includes a ‘conversation-through-literature’ written by representatives of the community about whom you are writing¹¹. In addition to reading books, watch films, listen to podcasts, read blogs, study the language, culture and history of the community. Meticulous research can unearth the kind of details that are fundamental to personalising a story, to creating complex and nuanced characters that resist stereotyping and cliché and come alive on the page.

Consultation with people who are part of the culture you are writing about is also an intrinsic part of research, but raises additional ethical considerations.

3. Consultation and sensitivity reading

When it comes to consultation, I’ve heard some real horror stories. In this issue of ‘The Victorian Writer’, Rashida Murphy describes her grief and rage at being unwittingly mined her for cultural knowledge and having her stories used with neither permission nor acknowledgment (pages 14 and 15). Another writer tells of being confronted by a stranger in the street, bent on grilling her about her life as the basis for a character in a book. While the latter was at least upfront (and thus could be directly challenged), neither approach constitutes an ethical form of consultation.

The ethical writer recognises the risk of getting things wrong and seeks advice to minimise harmful mistakes. Consultation in an ethical practice is not a shortcut to research, but about a willingness to show representatives of the community or culture you’re writing about your work, to listen to their feedback and take their critical comments on board. Recognising the considerable intellectual and emotional labour involved, ethical consultation is paid or in some other way reciprocated. And it is consensual.

If you can’t identify consultants in the community you’re writing about (in which case, see point 1, above), you might consider hiring a ‘sensitivity reader’, also referred to an as ‘authenticity reader’. Definitions vary in terms of what sensitivity readers do, or should do. The US-based Writing in the Margins website, which hosts a sensitivity reader database, suggests a sensitivity reader ‘reviews a manuscript for internalised bias and negatively charged language’. Some sensitivity readers see their role as ‘cleaning up’ writing for ‘racist, homophobic, transphobic, able-ist, Islamophobic material’¹². Others emphasise sensitivity reading is about authenticity, not political correctness: says Nic Stone, ‘the goals of sensitivity reading actually align with those of good art – to create a layered and truthful portrait, whether or not it ruffles some sensibilities.’¹³

Crucially, sensitivity reading is not a ‘fix’ or ‘stamp of approval’ that provides a special defence against criticism of the finished work. Sangu Mandanna helpfully describes sensitivity readers as ‘a resource, not a shield’¹⁴ ; and the Writing in the Margins website emphasises that sensitivity readers will help avoid mistakes but are no guarantee against them. As responsibility for the work and its reception remains with the author, a further step in an ethical writing process, then, is to remain open to criticism.

4. Openness to criticism

Openness to criticism is the corollary of creative freedom. As Australian author Omar Musa puts it, ‘There will be people who will tell you that maybe you didn’t quite get this [writing across the cultural divide] right, and you just have to cop that flack.’¹⁵ However, as Loffreda and Rankine note, ‘white writers can get explosively angry when asked to recognise that their racial imaginings might not be perfect … and in particular when confronted with that fact by a person of colour questioning something they wrote’¹⁶. When she spoke of her ‘right’ to write whatever she likes, Shriver was in fact responding to criticism of her depiction of African-Americans in her novel, ‘The Mandibles’. As Loffreda and Rankine note:

This language of rights is as extraordinary as it is popular, and it is striking to see how many white writers in particular conceive of race and the creative imagination as the question of whether they feel they are permitted to write a character, or a voice, or a persona, ‘of colour’. This is a decoy whose lusciousness is evident in the frequency with which it is chased. The decoy itself points to the whiteness of whiteness – that to write race would be to write ‘colour’, to write an other.¹⁷

Kunzru suggests artists should ‘go forth boldly’ but ‘tread with humility’¹⁸, humility being a word that surfaces regularly in discussions of what it means to be an ethical author. There is what Kunzru refers to as ‘humility in the face of otherness’, the admission of what the writer does not know. There is also the humility of fallibility, of accepting as inevitable some level of failure²⁰ as part of the work’s reception.

There is also the humility of recognising, as Naomi Alderman puts it, ‘No one has a right to be read’²¹. As noted, many readers, whether from marginalised groups or not, prefer to read Own Voices work, and publishers in Australia are increasing seeking to publish diverse authors. I might hope my work generates conversations with readers, particularly Asian Australian readers, but I accept that might not happen.

Moreover, to be humble means to accept that in the current climate, the very act of writing as a privileged white writer from the point of view of someone who is not privileged may be enough to offend, regardless of the quality of the writing; and further, that such offense may not necessarily result in debate or dialogue. Those who protest about cultural appropriation may do so not to persuade the unconvinced, so much as to acknowledge a ‘cultural trespass’²². And as activists, their aims may be to disrupt rather than debate.

The responsible writer must be open to criticism of their work, but also to criticism of the creative choices that precede the work. In addition, they must remain open to criticism without resolution and, most humbling of all, to the prospect of not being read.

Ethics and art

Unlike social scientists who require ethics committee approval to broach human subjects, writers are not accountable to external oversight of our creative practice. Publishing contracts require us to warrant that our work is original, and doesn’t contain defamatory, libellous or potentially injurious material²³. But when it comes to other potential harms posed by our work, ‘fiction’s capacity to cause pain’²⁴, it is left to individual writers to set our own ethical standards. I do not concur with those who imply that an ethical process can only produce ‘anodyne drivel’²⁵.

‘Moral flaws are artistic flaws’, says ethicist Claudia Mills²⁶. For Mills, fiction that causes pain because it is ‘unfair’, ‘unkind’, ‘exaggerated’ – in short, untruthful – undermines a work’s artistic merit²⁷. Other philosophers distinguish between ‘non-distorting’ instances of cultural appropriation, and harmful practices such as misrepresentation and stereotyping²⁸. ‘[T]he novel doesn’t much like stereotypes,’ Kamila Shamsie notes²⁹. ‘They come across as bad writing.’ Further to the relationship between an ethical creative writing practice and artistic merit, Shamsie suggests that work that stems from a sense of ‘arrogance or entitlement’ is unlikely to succeed³⁰, because writers who ‘start with an attitude that fails to understand that there are very powerful reasons for people to dispute your right to tell a story … [have] already failed to understand the place and people who you purport to want to write about’.³¹

In cross-cultural fiction, humility, respect and an understanding of reciprocity are especially important qualities in a writer. These qualities do not quarantine a creative work from criticism, but they surely make for better starting-points for writers and readers to empathically imagine themselves into other subjectivities.


[1] Shriver, L 2016, ‘Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’’, The Guardian Online, 13 September, viewed 21 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

[2] Abdel-Magied, Y 2016, ‘As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her’, The Guardian, 10 September, viewed 7 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

[3] Rushdie, S 1991, ‘Outside the Whale’, in Imaginary homelands: essays and criticism, 1981-1991, Granta Books, London, p. 100.

[4] Kwaymullina, A 2016a, ‘Author-Illustrator Interview: Ambelin Kwaymullina on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family’, Cynsations, web log post, 25 October, viewed 19 May 2017  http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com.au/2016/10/author-illustrator-interview-ambelin.html

[5] Kunzru, H, Shamsie, K, Forna, A, Kennedy, K, Hensher, P & and others 2016, ‘Whose life is it anyway? Novelists have their say on cultural appropriation’, The Guardian, 1 October, viewed 1 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[6] Loffreda, B & Rankine, C 2015, ‘Introduction’, in MK Cap, B Loffreda & C Rankine (eds), The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, Fence Books, Albany, p. 17

[7] Larbalestier, J, 2016 blog post, ‘How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White’ http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2016/06/20/how-to-write-protagonists-of-colour-when-youre-white/

[8] Collinge, A (series producer) 2018, Q&A: Episode 27, television program, ABC, 20 August, viewed 13 September 2018 http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/vodcast.htm

[9] Rushdie, S 2012, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Jonathan Cape, London, p. 40

[10] Lo, M 2014, ‘Should white people write about people of color?’ Malinda Lo, web log post,  24 April, viewed 9 May 2017, https://www.malindalo.com/blog/2014/04/should-white-people-write-about-people-of-color?rq=%22Should%20white%20people%20write%20about%22

[11] Leane, J 2016, ‘Other peoples’ stories’, Overland, vol. 225, p. 43.

[12] Ha, T-H 2017, ‘Kids’ book authors and publishers are so afraid to offend they’re hiring “sensitivity readers”’, Quartz, 5 April

[13] Waldman, K 2017, ‘Is My Novel Offensive? How “sensitivity readers” are changing the publishing ecosystem—and raising new questions about what makes a great book’, Slate, 8 February, viewed 10 May 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/02/how_sensitivity_readers_from_minority_groups_are_changing_the_book_publishing.html

[14] Ro, C 2017, ‘On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing’, Literary Hub, 17 January, viewed 19 April 2017, http://lithub.com/on-the-use-of-sensitivity-readers-in-publishing/

[15] Convery, SH 2016, ‘We need to talk about cultural appropriation: why Lionel Shriver’s speech touched a nerve’, The Guardian, 15 September, viewed 7 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/15/we-need-to-talk-about-cultural-appropriation-why-lionel-shrivers-speech-touched-a-nerve

[16] Loffreda & Rankine, 2015, p. 19

[17] … p. 15

[18] Kunzru et al, 2016, para 2

[19] … paras 2-3

[20] … para 30

[21] … para 32

[22] Friedersdorf, C 2017, ‘What Does ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Actually Mean?’, The Atlantic (Online), 3 April

[23] Hansen, R 2007, ‘The Ethics of Fiction Writing’, Santa Clara University: Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics, viewed 15 July 2016, https://graduateway.com/blog/the-ethics-of-fiction-writing/

[24] Wood, C 2009, ‘Forgive me, forgive me: The ethics of using other people’s lives in fiction’, Meanjin Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 4, p. 72

[25] Shriver, 2016, para. 3

[26] Mills, C 2000, ‘Appropriating Others’ Stories: Some Questions about the Ethics of Writing Fiction’, Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 31, no. 2, p. 201

[27] …p. 201

[28] Young, JO & Haley, S 2009, ‘‘Nothing Comes from Nowhere’: Reflections on Cultural Appropriation as the Representation of Other Cultures’, in JO Young & CG Brunk (eds), The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, Wiley-Blackwell, Sussex, pp. 275-8

[29] Shamsie, K 2012, ‘The Storytellers of Empire’, Guernica, 1 February, viewed 16 May 2017, https://www.guernicamag.com/shamsie_02_01_2012/ para 44

[30] Kunzru et al, 2016, para. 4

[31] … para. 5


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