Whose Story Is It?

I’m posting this to both my writing blog, Write Through It; and my Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I love it when the two converge like this.

Earlier this week I read a blog post on “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?” Both the post, by blogger TK, and the ensuing comments are well worth reading. “Cultural appropriation” is hard to pin down. Cultural borrowing happens all the time. The only way to stop it is to shut everybody into a room with people who are culturally just like them. I hope we can all agree that this is (a) impossible, and (b) undesirable. So when does cultural borrowing become cultural appropriation? And why does it matter?

My enduring lesson in why it matters came in the early 1980s. I was just starting to publish my reviews and essays. I was also the book buyer for Lammas, the feminist bookstore in Washington, D.C. As both writer and bookseller I thought a lot about ethics and politics and especially the often shifty terrain where the two converge.

What brought cultural appropriation into sharp focus for me was Medicine Woman, a book by Lynn V. Andrews. Andrews, a white woman, claimed to have studied with “Native American” shamans and been initiated into their spiritual tradition. Medicine Woman was popular with white women, including white feminists, including customers of the bookstore where I worked.

Soon after it was published, Andrews’s claims were challenged by people intimately familiar with tribal spiritual traditions. These challenges, at least at first, were published primarily in the alternative press and journals of limited circulation. Andrews’s book was published by a big-name trade publisher. It sold very well. It won Andrews more book contracts and eager attendees for her workshops and lectures. Her audience comprised primarily white women who had no experience of “Native American spirituality” — a misleading phrase because this continent is home to many indigenous spiritual traditions — and in most cases didn’t know anyone who did.

Andrews had access to a mass audience in part because of her own color and class privilege, in part because her big-name publisher thought — correctly — that her book would sell, and in part because her followers didn’t really care if her tales were authentic or not. The aura of authenticity was enough. Medicine Woman would not have had the same cachet had it been published as fiction, which it most likely was. (For a thoughtful and well-documented discussion of this case and cultural appropriation in general, see The Skeptic’s Dictionary.)

Cultural appropriation often involves racism, implicit or explicit, but not always. It does always involve an imbalance of power, but the imbalance can be based on race, sex, class, region, nationality, religion, or other factors. Here’s an example of appropriation, or mis-appropriation, in which the people doing the appropriating look a lot like the people whose stories they’re presuming to tell. Maybe it will shine a little light on the whole contested matter of cultural appropriation or, as I like to think of it, “whose story is it?”

In the summer of 1993, President Bill Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d been a year-round resident for eight years at that point, long enough to know that the year-round island and the summer island occupy the same hundred square miles of land but are not the same place. He was accompanied not only by his family but what seemed like the entire national and regional press corps. The first family made some public appearances, but most of the time they hung out on a hard-to-reach estate near the south shore. They were here for three weeks.

This left all those reporters with a lot of downtime. To justify their salaries and expense accounts, they had to file stories, so they swarmed all around the island, seeing the sights, buttonholing everyone who didn’t look too touristy, and writing about The Vineyard. I saw some of what they wrote because friends around the country sent me clippings — this was before the World Wide Web, never mind Facebook and Twitter. Often a single story would be syndicated and wind up in several newspapers.

Paley TNY clip sm

From The New Yorker for May 16, 1994

This wasn’t exactly going viral, but it did mean that stories written by reporters who’d been here for a week or so reached many, many more thousands of people than anything that appeared in either of the Vineyard’s two weekly newspapers. At the time I was working for one of them, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was doing what most year-round working Vineyarders do in the throes of August: trying to keep my act together and praying for September to come PDQ. In a summer resort, September means sanity, or at least the semblance thereof. But in the national press the Vineyard was all about lolling on the beach; hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and influential at cocktail parties; and seeing the sights.

The following May, still fuming, I happened upon a small item in The New Yorker about Grace Paley, a poet, writer, and activist I much admired. It said, in part:

“Paley’s stories are local, in the wisest sense. If you ask her about whether she would write about what’s going on in South Africa, she says no. A character might comment on the situation, she adds, but ‘if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.'”

Grace Paley nailed it: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” Not only did that become the epigraph of my first novel, it gave me its title and sustained me in the writing of it. It sustains me to this day: my feet are in the mud of this particular place, about which so much has been written by people who only skim the surface, so what the hell else should I be writing about?

mud cover logoAnd that, in a nutshell, is why appropriation, cultural and otherwise, is a problem. Stories have power. Stories told by those with access to education and, especially, to the mass media circulate far more widely than stories told by those who lack such access. Stories that the mass audience wants to hear, or what the editors and publishers in charge think they want to hear, circulate more widely than stories that make us uneasy. Stories told by those whose feet aren’t in the mud of the place all too often come to be seen as authentic, as more real than the real thing.


4 thoughts on “Whose Story Is It?

  1. Love this, Susanna. This topic has intrigued me for a long time. Where does one draw the line? Does this unease apply only to fiction? Obviously sci-fi is written without much first-hand experience or feet in the mud of the place. Should men be restricted to writing only about men and women to only about women? Of course not. How about men writing about feminism? OK or not? In Ottawa there was a feminist conference where no males were permitted, not even a nursing infant. To me, that is PC gone bad.


    • Appropriation is done by the privileged and (at least relatively) powerful. Often they don’t realize they’re doing it, and when it’s pointed out to them, they can get pretty defensive. Those whose cultures or experiences are being appropriated have no recourse other than persuasion.

      No, it’s not just, or even primarily, about fiction. I started really thinking about this when I first read Edward Said’s Orientalism, which explores how western understandings of “The East” have been shaped by western romanticizing, mythologizing, and misconceiving (etc.), with precious little input from those who actually know what they’re talking about. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. People outside D.C. think they know all about it, the way summer residents and people who’ve never been here think they know all about Martha’s Vineyard, but most of what they “know” comes second- and thirdhand, e.g., from the mass media. Journalists may have their feet in the mud of the federal government without knowing diddly about the city working people live in.

      Think about the North American genocide. Think about slavery. Think about imperialism. They all depend on the appropriation of cultures, and denying people the right to speak and be heard.

      Feminism is in part about women getting to speak for ourselves and define who and what we are. Men got to do that for centuries. They’re still doing it. White people are still telling people of color how to act. We have such a hard time getting it through our heads that it’s not up to us.

      Good f/sf writers may never have been to the worlds they create, but try, just try, to create a credible world without knowing how worlds work, geologically, politically, economically, and so on. If they don’t have their feet in the mud of the worlds they create, those worlds won’t come to life.


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