Cynthia Dettman:  Author

WHITE WRITERS and BROWN CHARACTERS – In a racist and post-colonial world

Is it OK for a white writer to write a novel about black or brown people?

Good question- but I don’t think it’s the right one.  The answer is not yes or no- it’s more complicated!

Many of you know about recent controversies in the English language publishing world about cultural appropriation.  Some of you have likely read the book American Dirt and have heard about the controversy surrounding its author, its subject, and its quality.  The book also raises bigger questions of racism in the white-dominated publishing industry as a whole.  This article summarizes clearly the arguments involved.

Here’s my take as a white American woman writing about brown people in India.  First, writers can write about anyone they want.  It’s called creativity.  

AND….BUT….  it’s not that simple, folks.  If we white writers are going to take on the challenge of cross-racial and cross-cultural writing, we need to think, plan, research and get edited thoroughly by the right editors. Of course any book must be well written!  And the characters and events need to be at least plausible.  But there are many other critical questions I choose to ask myself:

  • Is my story authentic and believable when read by Indian readers who have walked in those or similar Indian shoes?
  • Are there cultural or class assumptions and stereotypes to which I am blind?
  • Who am I writing for?  A primarily white audience?  Am I trying to educate?  Am I exoticizing India?  Am I trying to gain sympathy for those “poor downtrodden women” in India, to show off my own liberal views? 
  • Am I focusing on typical and negative views of India’s injustices, as though the West has more justice and less violence against the marginalized?  
  • Are Indians depicted in a complex, multi-layered manner that shows joy, kindness, creativity, egalitarian views, progressive change?  Or is the focus pain, violence, inequality, and horrific views?  Some angry black and brown writers call one-sided oppression stories “trauma porn”, a chilling term.   
  • And finally, am I contributing to the white dominance of the publishing world and failing to support the voices of Indian writers?  

I ask these questions not to avoid death threats, but to be a good writer and ethical.  Just like all progressive people with comfortable, safe lives, I sit at a distance from the poverty, violence and cultural oppression in India, trying to offer what I can.  And I’m NOT writing about similar injustices in the US.  Again, creative license.  But these choices have ethical and political implications.  



Add Yours →

I am interested in your take on cultural appropriation, and appreciate that it is complex. Part of me thinks any time a first world white person writes about another culture it is appropriation – but I also think it can be a part of the creative process and that it can be a way into a culture for a reader. We have a responsibility both as artists and as consumers to look for balance through a tricky subject. I look forward to your book.

Thanks Molly! Yes, the issues are tricky. And important. I hope I can navigate these cross-cultural waters skillfully! Cynthia

Cynthia, you summarize the issues involved very well. I agree that a writer can inhabit other worlds and characters and spaces than her/his own, but only with, as you say, awareness, research, check-ins with others who know that world, and a deep sense of responsibilityl Looking forward to reading your book!

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