My to-be-read pile has reached such towering proportions I’ve had to break it into two edifices. The collection includes books I’ve chosen myself, books I received as gifts at Christmas, and books chosen by my book club. Topics range from the science of climate change to a Gothic fantasy to a YA mystery. That’s the joy of reading books others have chosen. I’m not a science geek so would have passed over the climate change book, yet I find it fascinating , and actually easy to read.
Gothic and fantasy are not my first choices, but this gift introduced me to a writer of amazing skill and imagination. It opened my eyes to a subject I have long ignored.
There is a lovely gentle read from an author I love. I’ve opened that one today and consider it my reward for persevering through the tough ones.
One of my book club choices provoked controversy upon its release over the question of cultural appropriation. Unless you’ve been living on a desert island with no internet, the topic of cultural appropriation has crossed your consciousness. I’ve heard people get really worked up about the topic but I could not understand what all the fuss was about. Isn’t fiction supposed to show us other cultures, other ways of being, other realities? Can’t a woman write from a male point of view? or a child’s or even a cat’s? It happens all the time.
The argument that you don’t have to be a murderer to write a mystery seems obvious. I write historical fiction but I am not a pioneer. I’ve never lived without running water or electricity. Yet I feel I have every right to tell those stories. My forebears were pioneers. Their story is part of my history. It is their cultural legacy to me. I research the times and places to be as accurate as possible, but I believe these are my stories to tell.
Wouldn’t the same research-based approach allow me to tell a story from another culture, another race?
Now that I’ve read this controversial book, I can appreciate the furore. Although the protagonist of the book in question is non-white, I never really identified her as such. As I read, I felt as though she was a middle-class, white woman looking through a picture window at a story unfolding before her. The protagonist was in peril but the narrator was safe.
When I read Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, I had a very different experience. I was terrified for every page of the book. If I read before bed, I’d have nightmares. Hannah never lived in Nazi-occupied France, but she told an authentic story.
Authenticity is, I believe, at the heart of the cultural appropriation debate. For someone who has never been beset by bullies because of the colour of her skin, or her style of dress, to tell the story of someone who lives with that reality every day, is a herculean task. It may be possible, in the hands of a very skilled writer, dedicated to uncovering the nuances and subtleties of a different culture and layering them onto her characters. Such a book would be very hard to write. In the case of my book club choice, that author missed the mark.
The variety in my “to-be-read” pile, is a gift. It demonstrates the wonder of books, how they stretch our minds, challenge our prejudices, and bring joy and comfort. Even when they fall short, they can teach valuable lessons. The old adage of “write what you know,” I now understand can mean, “is this your story to tell?”