Is this Cultural Appropriation?

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter who are much more activist than I am (this is a low bar; I’m not really an activist at all) and I have to admit that sometimes a controversy or issue flares up, and I am totally confused about what the problem is. So most of the time, I don’t feel like I know anything about racism or cultural appropriation or the many related issues that gets Twitter a-tweeting.

But then I see someone saying something truly boneheaded about these things, and I realize that maybe I know a little bit of something. Like, possibly enough to not make a complete ass of myself, although granted, I have such a limited platform that any ass-making I do is not likely to be noticed.

So I’m going to say some things here, and maybe make an ass of myself doing it, because frankly, it happens. These days, I think we all have to get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and it’s okay to have people publicly point that out.

The problem I see is that people are looking for simple rules. Tell me what to do and say, and I will follow that to a tee, because I am a Good Person(tm) and then I will carry on with my life and never have to think about any of this again.

I still remember when people could declare themselves a Good Person(tm) because they used certain words instead of others. Don’t say cripple, say physically challenged. Don’t say chink, say Asian. (Don’t say short, say vertically challenged, as the joke went.) So people did a quick substitution of words, patted themselves on the back, carried on.

And now people are confused, because there’s this “Cultural Appropriation” notion out there, and they want simple rules again. “So am I never allowed to make curry? Do I quit yoga?” Or they relate it to their own cultures. “How is drinking beer on St. Patrick’s Day cultural appropriation? Everyone likes to drink beer!” Or they wonder what will become of anything creative. “What about fusion cooking? What about that bhartnatyam-hiphop dance video, is that wrong now? Can’t we all get along?”

The crux of the matter is, it’s not simple. The point is that it never was simple. There’s no singular set of rules you can mindlessly follow to ensure that you are a Good Person(tm).

You need to be mindful. You need to think about your intentions. You need to think about the effect of your choices. You need to think about the power structures underlying all this.

You need to think about who does not get a voice because you are talking over them.

You need to realize that you can love a culture and have nothing but the best intentions, and still appropriate it. Your desire to make art doesn’t give you special exemptions.

You need to consider these questions with respect to each different culture. Wearing a bindi isn’t the exactly the same as wearing a feathered headdress.

Does this sound like a powerful amount of overthinking that will paralyze you and prevent you from writing? Yes, possibly. I know a lot of writers who have been so paralyzed.

So what do you do about that?

Start with writing. Then start thinking. Then revise. Get feedback if you can find people willing and capable of reading for cultural sensitivity. Think and revise some more.

And then if you put it out there, be prepared for the possibility that you may make an ass of yourself. Get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to be wrong, and it’s okay for people to publicly point that out. Should that happen, do you best to listen and learn, even if what you hear makes you uncomfortable.

There are no easy mindless rules.

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Money

I come from a long line of accountants, so the question of money is always interesting to me.

I think most newer writers–and not-so-newer-writers–have this dream in their heads that one day, when they’ve Made It and they are a Real Writer ™ they will also make their daily living from writing. But most–particularly the not-so-newer-writers–are keenly aware that writing pays peanuts. And so how exactly does that work?

There are some people, who through a combination of writing, freelancing, teaching writing, grants, credit, residencies, supportive partners, debt, cheap living, prize money, the kindness of friends, selling stuff, the kindness of strangers, luck, etc. managing to make their living solely from writing and writing-related activity. Here’s a fun article about Michael Crumney winning the Giller Prize and only having $411.46 in his bank account. What’s he using his prize money for? Credit card debt. Rent. Food. Glam life, right?

We tend to see these people as Real Writers ™, but I am here to tell you that this is bullshit. It’s hard to concentrate on your literary career when you can’t make rent or buy food. Lots of writers have full-time jobs that aren’t writing. Or part-time jobs that aren’t writing. Or other ways of making a living that aren’t writing. Still Real Writers ™.

In the context of all the recent sexual violence issues in Canlit, I think this idea that we must make our living solely from writing becomes particularly dangerous for those of us who aren’t regular ol’ white guys, because it puts you at the financial mercy of predatory people, and the systems that support them.

Fair? No. Reality? Yes.

I’m not saying don’t do it. I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough time to write, and so the idea that you don’t have to take 8-10 (or more) hours out of your day to deal with work, commuting, etc., is definitely tempting. Also, as a person with the tremendous privilege of being able to not have a job, I can confidently tell you that jobs suck and life is better if you can get your bills paid without one.

But I am saying, don’t feel like you have to do it if you want to be a writer. Chekhov was a doctor, and considered it his principal profession his entire life, and I’m still waiting to hear someone claim that Chekhov was not a Real Writer ™.

You do what you need to do to get fed and clothed and sheltered. You write anyway. That’s how you become a Real Writer ™.