Across the cultural divide

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but as I’ve worked on drafts in my head I have kept finding myself stumbling over clumsy expressions about an issue I really don’t want to get ‘wrong’. I find myself coming face to face with assumptions I have made in the past which make me question whether I really understand the area I am tip-toeing around at all. The reality is that I am an outsider in this territory, and the urge to turn away and run is strong. But that is not really how I do things, so I won’t.

The issue I have been grappling with is, essentially, the authenticity of my first novel. And when I say authenticity, I am talking about the thorny area of cultural appropriation: my protagonist is of mixed heritage, Bengali and British. The folk tales of Bangladesh are woven into the fabric of the plot as it unfolds, and the challenges facing Bengali people carving out their lives in Britain are integral to the journeys of several characters.

Now I lived and breathed that story and those characters for the several years it took me to write a first draft. My protagonist, Lili, borrowed much from the young women I taught at a school in Tower Hamlets. And in fact the first tentative steps from plan to prose were made at an Arvon writing retreat that I attended with a small group of those young women: I discussed my ideas with them, asked their advice on elements of language, listened as they told me their stories.

As the draft developed further, I read copious research files on the experiences of different generations of immigrants from Bangladesh on settling in East London. I devoured Bengali recipe books, and tales of the mythology that reached back into Bangladeshi culture.


And eventually I had a novel of which I was proud: the culture that I was borrowing from was part of it, but by no means all, and I had worked hard to avoid stereotypes. Lili was complex and engaging, and the London that I knew and loved was intrinsic to every page.

I got an agent on board, we made a few tweaks, and then went out to publishers. And then things sort of stalled: almost all of the feedback we got was positive, particularly around the multicultural elements, but there were no takers. For a while I wondered whether this was in part a response to the monocultural bias that is clearly evident in the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to books for children and young adults. I latched on to a campaign that had been established to encourage more diverse books, and wrote about it to try to explain why diversity was so important to me. But the people I reached out to appeared to have no desire to engage with me: sure, my book was diverse. But I wasn’t.

Nothing overt was said, but my enthusiasm for that first novel dwindled. I still loved the characters and their story, but thinking about them made me feel guilty. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of that guilt, but in a creative landscape where the smallest excuse is enough to give the self-doubt demons all the strength they need to inflict silence I decided it was time to focus on something else.

Fast forward two years, and I found myself reading Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. And whilst there were elements of what she said that I couldn’t help but agree with, I was embarrassed by the crassness of her refusal to engage with the very real concerns of those whose culture had been exploited. And I began to wonder whether maybe the book I’d written was part of that entitled, white exploitation that can only come from a position of privilege.

I began to wonder whether Lili’s story was actually mine to tell at all, whether in trying to push out my interpretation of the challenges facing a mixed heritage family in East London I was standing in the way of more authentic voices that might be trying to do the same.

But then once I’d started off down that rabbit hole any claim to integrity began to dissolve entirely.

Because it’s not just Bengali culture I could be accused of appropriating. There’s a question of class too, one which is perhaps much more central to the novel that I wrote. Am I not, as a comfortably-off graduate from a middle-class background appropriating the struggle of working class families? And there’s an important theme about the status of elderly people in society – and teenagers for that matter. Are their stories mine to tell?

These are not exact parallels, but they are still examples of where I am using someone else’s truth to build a narrative. And all of these groups of society lack the privilege that is inherent in my existence as a thirty-something, white, university-educated woman.

Except it is here that I grudgingly accept some of Shriver’s points: without stealing other people’s stories there is very little left for the novelist to do. Interestingly the protagonists of the two novels I’ve written since are much closer to me in terms of social and cultural background. That wasn’t a conscious choice I don’t think – and whilst I’ve enjoyed exploring a world that is closer to my own I can’t guarantee that my ideas in the future will not be influenced by a more global outlook. As a writer I am drawn to the outsider – and culture is often a big part of that.

There is also the argument that if we want more diversity in our literature then that needs to come from all quarters – not just from those writers who are themselves ‘diverse’.

And so on balance, despite my reservations about Lili Badger, I am still proud of what I’ve written. And I don’t want to shy away from giving voice to people from different cultures in my writing in the future.

I will continue to endeavour to be respectful and avoid stereotypes – a courtesy I would hope I extend to all of my characters, not just those whose culture is different from my own. But the bigger the gap, the more work there is to be done to find authenticity and integrity – and the more difficult the challenge of convincing others that this really is a story that you can tell.


Writing Bubble

7 thoughts on “Across the cultural divide

  1. Rebecca Ann Smith

    Very interesting post. I’m grappling with this myself at the moment, as a straight cisgender woman writing a book which touches on LGBTQ issues. I’m not sure what the answer is: I can’t quite get behind Shriver’s bullishness (she comes across as very entitled to me, setting up ‘straw men’ and resolutely refusing to listen), but at the same time I don’t buy the logical conclusion of the appropriation argument, which is that writers should be limited to ‘writing what they know’. Fiction is about empathy, about recognising the connections between us and the common ground in our experience. Perhaps the answer has something to do with humility? If I start from a position of acknowledging that there are things I don’t understand about the struggles LGBTQ people face (or people of colour, for that matter), I can research, ask questions, listen, learn, and remain humble. It’s often when people preach to others about their experience (whitesplaining or mansplaining to them) that they get into the biggest trouble. Having said that, there will probably still be people who object to my book and my telling of it – I might just have to suck that up…

  2. Kamsin

    This is a very interesting post. I have many, many thoughts on this issue. My husband is Japanese, we live in Japan, a country where I am the minority and have almost no voice apart from in a very few narrow circumstances, my son is mixed race. Which is all an attempt to claim that living here has given me some insight into what it is like when someone else dictates who you are based on your skin colour, and gives you a very narrow range of the possibilities of how you can live your life. But even then, I am still an educated, white woman with opportunities and advantages many will never have. My status here carries a certain prestige and privilege despite other ways in which I am discriminated against.

    So, although I found myself agreeing with some of what Shriver said, I cannot support her argument. She is arrogant and apparently thinks being a novelist gives her the right to do whatever she wants and if you don’t like it you should suck it up because “darling, it’s art.” (She probably doesn’t talk like that). She seems to be upset with people for taking offense at some of the characters she has written, but what gives her the right to tell people from minority groups what they should or shouldn’t be offended about?
    And to try to come back to your post I think the issue is not about cultural sensitivity or avoiding stereotypes. Can a white woman authentically tell the story of someone from an ethnic community? Perhaps. I suspect you have every right to be proud of your work and told the story well. You did take the time to talk with and listen to the people you were trying to portray. You weren’t just trying to appropriate their story for you own means. But for me, the issue is about the wider political climate in which we live. Bengali girls in Britain today, do not get a widespread platform to tell their stories outside of their own community. A work of fiction has to serve the political climate of the society in which it is received. Not the other way round. Which is what Shriver seems to be arguing, that society should bend to meet the needs of fiction writers. If we, for example, lived in a world where a Mexican woman was given the same sort of platform as Shriver to share her impressions of college students wearing sombreros then it would be a different story. But we don’t.

    I’ll get down off my soapbox now. To some extent you’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. If I write about Japan and include mostly non-Japanese characters someone is going to take issue with that. If I write too many Japanese characters then I’ll be accused of orientalism. But it’s so long since I’ve lived in Britain, can I still write about home?!

  3. maddy@writingbubble

    Ooh this is a thought-provoking post! I have to admit, I don’t have much of an understanding of the area but I do think as writers we can’t only tell our own stories or those that are close to our own experiences. Of course, as you say, the further we get from an area or experience we have an inherent understanding of, the more research we need to do but it sounds like you really did your utmost to understand the culture you were writing about. It’s a sensitive issue though, I know and from a position of privilege the last thing you want to do is appropriate someone else’s story. Lots to think about! Thanks for linking to #whatimwriting xx

  4. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    It is such a dilemma. Because why as a writer can you not imagine something beyond your experience (otherwise there would be no science fiction, etc), and if, as you have done, thoroughly research it so that you can write with authenticity? I haven’t read about what Lionel Scriver says, so I can’t comment on that.
    Really it has nothing to do with the writer but with the way society deals with minorities as a whole. The problem is that those who publish take a view on what will sell and what won’t but it’s their opinion. In our present time, with issues brewing under the surface of the country’s skin, I think that no-one quite knows how to relate to the minorites and so sadly the ‘safest’ thing to do is to leave them alone.

  5. Nicola Young

    This is a really interesting concept, Sophie. I agree with all that’s been said already. On the one hand, you’re told to write what you know, but you can’t do that continually and surely as a writer, it’s just as much part of the job to do your research to make sure story as authentic as it can be. If you’re writing an historical novel, all you have is research, not experience, but in your case, is it because you’re delving in to an ethnic minority and the sensitivities that surround it are just too high?

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