Whose life is it anyway? Novelists have their say on cultural appropriation

Kamila Shamsie in The Guardian:

KamilaOne of the novels I love is Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows. It’s set entirely in the north of Pakistan – and is beautiful and true (a better word than “authentic”). If anyone tried to dispute Hobbs’s right to have written that book (and I should say, every Pakistani I know who has read it has expressed only admiration), I would be the first in line to defend him, and it. But the point about the book is that it’s wonderfully and sensitively written; it has no interest in peddling stereotypes, or making great claims about the place in which it’s located; there is no whiff of arrogance or entitlement. I don’t know what went on in Hobbs’s mind when he wrote it but I feel fairly confident it wasn’t: “How dare anyone dispute my right to write this?”

In fact, if you do start with an attitude that fails to understand that there are very powerful reasons for people to dispute your right to tell a story – reasons that stem from historical, political or social imbalances, you’ve already failed to understand the place and people who you purport to want to write about. That’s a pretty lousy beginning, and I wouldn’t want to read the fiction that comes out of it. Far better to understand the reasons, and perhaps even use those reasons as a way into character and story. So by all means, let’s have a broadening of the imagination. That doesn’t mean you have to leave the patch of ground on which you live – but it would be helpful if you looked at who else is on that patch of ground with you. To continually return to the same subset of humanity, and declare that there is no one else who imaginatively engages you or who you know how to imaginatively engage with, strikes me as one of the most dispiriting things a writer can say. In short: don’t set boundaries around your imagination. But don’t be lazy or presumptuous in your writing either. Not for reasons of “political correctness”, but for reasons of good fiction.

More here.