Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider series of books, reported recently that he had been ‘warned off’ creating a black character. The criticism stems from the concept of cultural appropriation, which challenges the legitimacy of penning characters from a very different perspective of the author. The concept is North American, and the context is typically protest at a white affluent author portraying black, Hispanic or native American characters in a way that is inauthentic or stereotypical.
Obviously, taken to extremes, avoiding all ‘cultural appropriation’ would be impractical, and would end all works of imagination. It would also present problems for ghostwriters, and would mean that every ghost would have to have identical skin colour, religion, upbringing, etc as their client; otherwise, how on earth can they represent their worldview and tell their story?
Horowitz responded that if he were only to write from a point of view he had lived through himself, he couldn’t write a female character either, and everyone would have to be a 62-year-old white Jewish man from north London.
The issue is of keen interest to me, because as a ghost I have many clients who are non-British, and as a novelist I have generally created a fairly diverse cast. The idea of everyone in my novels being a middle-aged white heterosexual male sports fan would bore me, never mind the reader.
There is a ‘but’, however. As writers, we should take care to try to understand a different world view, and question and challenge our own prejudices, and create convincing characters that are neither negatively stereotypical nor saccharine. As a white Brit, I haven’t experienced oppression, but I have winced at the occasional US show or movie, such as Titanic, where all the British characters are cold and heartless, and all the Americans and Irish are plucky, artistic and warm-hearted. That experience has been lived a thousand times more, and a thousand times more deeply, by many people who are black, Asian, Hispanic or native American.
A complicating factor is the multi-faceted nature of culture. For example, if you look at me, see my surname and hear my accent, you may assume I’m a bog-standard WASP. But I was raised Roman Catholic, and have Irish ancestry. So while a protestor against ‘cultural appropriation’ may challenge my qualification to pen a female Hispanic character, when I wrote the short story Gringos Can’t Dance, in which the Chilean character Rosa meets the white Yorkshire lad Johnny, I was able to draw on my own experience when she described the day of her first Holy Communion (an important and elaborate ceremony in Catholicism), and I had to use imagination and experience to shape Johnny’s reactions.
One of the biggest risks as a ghostwriter is to slide into telling your story, rather than your client’s. I confess I have occasionally put an opinion into the text that was more mine than the client’s, subconsciously, obviously. I have always sought a relationship of trust and continual dialogue, and such lapses have not (I don’t believe) reached the printed page. A good ghostwriter doesn’t merely report the basic facts of the client’s story, he or she engages in deep conversation, to draw the stories out. Sometimes, you can spot things that the client has missed about himself or herself. It’s almost like therapy.
One of my first conscious thoughts was at about the age of three, when I realized I could only ever be myself. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by how other people see the world. I’ve lived in different parts of the world, learned a foreign language, had friends from many different backgrounds, penned books on cross-cultural teams. Sadly, my ignorance on other people’s perspectives will always outweigh my knowledge, but until you try, you cannot even understand your own culture. Only through empathy can people come together, can a writer a pen a novel and a ghost tell someone’s story.
- There are some exceptionally perceptive and helpful observations on cultural appropriation in this collection of authors’ views on the subject, published last year in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver
- You can read more about my work at pjwhiteley.com