Appropriate Appropriation

Ophelia Benson


Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what people mean when they talk about “cultural appropriation." The term bounces into the news now and then, when someone is accused of committing it—or of suggesting that it’s not actually a crime one can “commit" in the first place.

The manifestation (these things manifest, like ghosts) that got me prodding at the idea again was the furious reaction to a keynote speech by the novelist Lionel Shriver at a writers’ festival in Brisbane, Australia, in September. She described her talk this way in a New York Times op-ed piece a couple of weeks later: “Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction—thus should not let concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir."

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