What Gives Me The Right? My Story Behind My Ava Butler (and Michele Lopez Hanson) Stories and The Cultural Appropriation Debate in Literature

Lately there’s been a lot of great dialogue in the writing community about the concept of cultural appropriation. Wikipedia, while not the world’s greatest source, defines it fairly well:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration.

I would add “often viewed as exploitation” to this definition.

This begs some questions: In a world of diverse individuals whose cultural differences (or similarities) are not often apparent at first glance, who has a right to enjoy what? And more to the point in fiction, who has the right to write what? And does anyone have the right to censor ideas?

It appears to me that some believe that it is impossible to authentically write in the shoes of someone immutably different from oneself while others acknowledge that with proper respect, research, and skill development it is possible. Some argue that to do so inherently steals opportunity from those within the culture, while others argue that unique voices with unique characters writing unique stories will be more likely to find their readers, and I’d add especially in these days of indie publishing, where there is no gatekeeper preventing anyone from publishing a story. Opinions vary, but even those arguing against writing outside one’s immutable characteristics recognize that not every character in a story will be identical to the author’s background. Certainly almost every book ever written has both male and female characters, for example. And many are written in multiple, diverse points of view.

A writer, in fact, must be able to do this well to create an authentic novel filled with conflict and tension. The ultimate judge and jury will be the readers. If they find a novel to be disrespectful, inauthentic, and/or exploitative, they don’t have to read it and can review it online as such (and do).

I’ve written before about authenticity in characterization, which you can catch up on HERE if you’d like, before we dive in. Or not.

I’ve also disclosed that I have worked in the field of diversity, respect, and inclusion for most of my professional life, which you can read about HERE. We’ll grab a coffee while we wait on you. It’s not a problem. Really.

And that brings us to Ava and Bombshell, Stunner, and Knockout.

Ava is immutably diverse from me. She arose as a supporting character so beloved to readers and to me that I decided to write from her POV. Ultimately, the readers of Bombshell will be the only ones in a position to judge whether I had the right to write her, and whether in doing so I desecrated, disrespected, or exploited West Indian culture.

Let me tell you her—and my—story.

I first began writing about the Caribbean culture during the nearly ten years I spent living on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I wrote about it from the POV first of myself (a “freshwater West Indian,” aka non-local or continental) in narrative nonfiction, which quickly morphed into the POV of Katie, a Texas-transplant to the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands characters I created were based on people (or amalgamations of people) I knew well in real life. Did I mention I am married to a native West Indian (West Indian = a native or inhabitant of any of the islands of the West Indies)? He’s my in-house expert. But it was from loving the islands and the people I met there that the desire to write a novel (novels, as it turned out) in the Caribbean arose. I often call the Katie novels my “love letter to the Virgin Islands.” It’s unflinchingly honest from Katie’s perspective, but it is full of love and the utmost of respect, and I could not be prouder of anything than the praise these novels have received from native West Indians and freshwater West Indians alike about their authenticity and the respect, honesty, and love they see in them, for the place, the culture, and the people.

Phew. I worried about that. A lot.

Now I’m worrying again. And it is this worry that has kept me from writing Ava as a protagonist until now. Ava is a black, native West Indian. She is immutably different from me. That, and she’s sexier than I normally write, but I’ll talk about that in a later part of this Story Behind the Story series. Yet it wasn’t fear that I’d be accused of cultural appropriation that held me back, mind you, at least not years ago when I finished writing the Katie books.

I was afraid (and still am) of not writing Ava authentically. Which is somewhat humorous since she a) doesn’t exist except in my imagination and b) is based lock, stock, and smoking hot barrel on my best friend Natalie. {Assume all her best traits are Natalie’s and her worst are fictitious!} I long for you, the reader, to revel in Ava and find her authentic. But the one person in the world I care most about viewing her as authentic is Natalie. If I have Natalie on my side, well, then I’ll know I got it right.

In today’s climate, I do worry, though, that people who don’t read my novels will libel me as misappropriating culture, without looking past the color of my skin and that of the protagonist. And, honestly, I think that’s doing diversity wrong, as I believe we should always seek first to understand, and anyone who can’t get past a white woman writing from the POV of a black woman should seek to understand before condemning (then they might be appalled to know I’ve already written from the POV of a Latina woman): does this woman deliver this character authentically and with respect? I pray that I do, and I believe with my whole heart that it would be racist of me to omit the most interesting and provocative character I’ve ever written from this series because SHE IS BLACK AND I AM WHITE.

I hope I will be judged not on whether or not I had the right to write my own longstanding character, but on whether I wrote her well.

So tell us what you really think, Pamela.

Let’s be honest. Writers write what they know, and if they don’t already know it, they have to go out and learn it so they’ll know it and can write about it. [Good writers anyway. And you can tell immediately the ones that don’t “know” a subject, character, setting, or culture.] It can get hard in the current discourse to figure out when it’s right to write diversity for story authenticity, and when we are going to be called on the carpet for it. It gets even more confusing when you consider how many books are written in multiple points of view, several of which are immutably different from the author, and how few of the POV match exactly that author’s background. I mean, that’s okay, right? And it can’t be that writers aren’t allowed to write about things which they have not personally experienced (this is fiction, after all), because, if not, HELLO, Star Wars, anyone?

Here’s where I come out on this debate: a writer must write the story of his heart, the best he possibly can. And by he I mean he or she. Or whatever pronoun a character would authentically use  “Best” better include research and hardcore, unflinchingly constructive feedback. Hopefully the result is respectful, non-exploitative authenticity. The writer shouldn’t let anyone censor him without his consent, and he should trust that the readers are pretty dang smart and see through our bullshit. If the book sucks, or it is hateful, or it is damaging, it’s going to die on the vine. Unless it’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and then it’s going to make the author very, very rich, but I digress, and besides, that’s not an issue of potential cultural appropriation (or is it? hmmmm…).

Keep it real, people. Keep it real.

Or, as Ava would say, “One Love!”

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