Why is it so important to so many white artists that they maintain the right to be offensive to people disempowered relative to them?
By Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Novelist and commentator Kaitlyn Greenidge made a powerful argument in the New York Times last year that we don’t have to write what we know, but we do have to accept that if we are going to write what we don’t know, rather than have a temper tantrum when we receive criticism, we need to listen and then try to write better. Nothing reveals white anxiety more than someone complaining that they don’t feel free to upset people of color, and fearful rants against people of color in academic and literary contexts such as Francine Prose’s recent New York Review of Books anti-sensitivity screed are tiring and sad. They are a painful reminder that straight white cis voices continue to reign supreme in the literary discourse and that this dominance functions to silence marginalized people in multiple ways. The political priorities of straight white cis people are elevated above everyone else’s and questions of style and taste are addressed almost entirely in the context of how the conversation makes straight, white cis people feel.I know the easiest retort is that this is about freedom of speech. Yet as a staunch believer in the First Amendment (which we must constantly remind people is only about government censorship), I’m far less concerned about the imaginary legal issues here than about the very real impact of protecting writing that is racist in its mediocrity. Why is it so important to so many white artists that they maintain the right to be offensive to people disempowered relative to them? In the Trump era, what does it mean for literary leaders to worry about protecting these rights?As a queer Black femme and Editor in Chief of a literary publication with a mostly queer/trans person of color staff, The Offing, I struggled in the days after Trump became President-elect to put forward a professional face to the staff, even though I had spent most of election day in tears. I had not been excited about Hillary Clinton, yet the first round of tears came at 6:30 AM -- I had not been confident she had the election in the bag against an opponent far more terrifying yet bizarrely more savvy. Should we close shop, I asked? Resoundingly our editors said no. Publications that fearlessly seek out the best writing by marginalized writers and established writers trying their hand in new forms were needed in that moment more than ever. It was essential that our platform not disappear but rather continue and flourish.
Reclaiming and retelling our stories is the first step toward decolonization--this shouldn’t be forgotten even and especially when we are speaking about fiction.
By Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda
Recent discussions around cultural appropriation have, for the most part, centered on tangible cultural products: clothing, food, hair, dance, music, language, and visual art are among the most commonly discussed items on the agenda when it comes to cultural appropriation and the way in which it actively harms marginalized communities. However, many people seem to have a harder time drawing the line when it comes to a less tangible form of cultural production: fiction writing. Recently the Guardian ran an article called "Whose Life is it Anyway," which featured a variety of perspectives from creative writers on the topic of cultural appropriation in the realm of fiction. The overwhelming consensus in this article is that there should be no limitations on the imagination when it comes to writing fiction. Fiction writers, the article argues, should be able to write novels and stories from anyone's perspective, regardless of whether the identity of the character whose perspective they are writing from matches their own racial or gender identity, let alone class or ability. This is because, according to the article, one of the main purposes of fiction is to cultivate a sense of empathy for others by imaginatively inhabiting their perspectives--especially those of others whose experiences and identities differ from our own. To insist that we only write fiction from our own perspectives would be to hinder the freedom of expression. And yet, just as in life, not all voices and perspectives are interchangeable, even in the “imaginary” realm of fiction. The imagination is not a disembodied entity separate from the realm of experience–it is continuous with and grows out of it. That is, our imaginations are always conditioned by the kinds of identities and experiences we ourselves have lived.It matters who tells whose story. Good fiction doesn’t depend on distancing ourselves from our our own perspectives and experiences, but on examining them more closely (the dictum “write what you know” applies here). The cultivation of empathy doesn’t depend on imaginatively inhabiting other people’s perspectives, but on listening to their perspectives and stories in the first place.