by Jules Older
I'm in the middle of Trendy But Casual, the recent novel by Paula Morris. It’s hilarious. It’s outrageous. And it should never have been written.
Paula Morris is, after all, a New Zealander, and a half-Maori one at that. Trendy But Casual is told from the point of view of an all-American girl living in New York.
That’s cultural appropriation. Instead of basking in the glow of a book well-written (and awards well-won), Ms Morris should be deeply, deeply ashamed.
If that sounds insane, consider this. In November, 2005, New Zealand artist Lyn Bergquist was shown the door. The Warkworth artist’s work, intended to be displayed at an Auckland gallery, was rejected by the gallery owner because… because it depicted Maori flags.
Oedipus Rex Gallery director Jennifer Buckley told Radio New Zealand, “Flags are symbols and emblems of a very specific culture. And these are Maori flags. I would have the same issue with a Maori artist using my MacKenzie tartan.”
Flags or tartans, art or literature, the issue is cultural appropriation. Of all the dumb ideas to come out of academia, cultural appropriation is just about my least favourite.
Why? Oh, let me count the ways.
But first, a quick review.
Here's how New York Times reviewer Richard Eder described E. Annie Proulx’s novel, Close Range: “She knows…extraordinarily much about males: their bodies (who else writes of them with such lyrical respect?), the roughness and wary companionship of a raw macho society and a sporadic, startling sweetness.” [Book review, May 23, 99, p 8]
I felt the same about Julian Barnes’ description of the experience of a young girl in his novel, England, England. It had a ring of truth as clear as a pure crystal goblet.
The literary and film worlds have both been enriched Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur S. Golden and Remains of the Day, a spelunk deep into the mind of a traditional English butler, by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Yet, all these books would be banned, or at least derided, if the cultural appropriation school of artistic criticism had its way. For they all suffer from the same “flaw” — their main characters are not of the same gender and/or ethnicity as the author. The author is therefore “appropriating”, an academic term for stealing from another culture or poaching into a province that is not his own.
As a writer, the very notion of appropriation drives me crazy.
All three books reveal the world, perhaps all the better because the authors viewed the place they were writing about with the fresh eyes of someone from a distance.
Fourth, and for now, finally, when academic voices call for an end to appropriation as a protection of minority culture, they pose the greatest danger to… minority artists. Why should Black artists be limited to painting Black subjects? Jewish women to writing about Jewish women? Ngai Tahu writing poems about Ngai Tahu and not Ngati Mahuta, Ngai Wai, or white settlers from Dalmatia? Would New Zealand really be better off in Hone Tuwhare only wrote from a Maori perspective, and only about Maori subjects?
But my longer answer is the world is better for “appropriation,” that artists are better for appropriation and that minority artists would be in a tight and narrow place without appropriation.
What’s derided as appropriation, I celebrate as imagination. Deep in my heart, I do believe that no artist should be limited by anything other than imagination.
Where are the intellectual Darwin Awards when we need them?