Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

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In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here.

Lionel Shriver knows this, at least in part. Her birth name was Margaret and at age fifteen, she decided to go by Lionel instead because she “was a tomboy”. From a youthful and formative age, identity was important to her. And as a woman, she is part of one of those “marginalised groups” Abdel-Magied was writing about.

So who is right? I suspect there is no right and wrong in this disagreement. If Shriver is prevented from writing exactly what she wants to, that smacks strongly of censorship. If Shriver writes exactly what she wants to about experiences from the perspective of “the other”, then terms like “cultural appropriation” begin to be bandied about.

Rachel Dolelzal was outed for cultural appropriation, a white woman who permed her hair, darkened her skin and worked as a civil rights activist for the NAACP. She defended herself by saying she was “transracial”, equating her identity struggles with those who are transgender. As someone who isn’t dark-skinned, transracial or transgender, it seems reasonable enough to me. Identity is about choice, after all, choosing who you want to be instead of just accepting who you are told to be. Of course, I’m part of that “profoundly white, straight” norm, so what would I know? And yet I’m a very long way from the patriarchal, so I hope I know a little.

I write “the other” all the time. Men, children, the elderly, married people, dead people, mothers, fathers, doctors, farmers, victims, killers. In my debut novel, Enemies Closer, there are several minor Chinese characters. Chinese in that they were born, raised and worked in China. I didn’t delve extensively into their cultural identities because it wasn’t that kind of book. The furthest I went was writing their English dialogue in a formal way, reasoning that it was their second language and that many people for whom English isn’t their mother tongue seem to stick rigidly to rules they are taught when they are learning it. In fact, I just recently read an article on BBC News online about how foreigners hate native English speakers because of how lax we are at sticking to the rules of our language, how much we love to use slang and sarcasm and newly invented words and speak too fast for genuine comprehension.

I’m not sure that Yassmin Abdel-Magied would approve of my use of Chinese characters. Would it help her to know that I did it specifically so that they wouldn’t be the bad guys of the novel, to turn the stereotypical notion of villains on its head? Would it make a difference that at my job at the time I sat next to a Chinese national (who later became an Australian citizen and a very good friend) who would advise me on numbers that were considered lucky and unlucky and translated several pieces of dialogue into Mandarin so that the book wasn’t completely white-washed?

In the yet-to-be-completed sequel to Enemies Closer, the bad guy is a global citizen born to a Turkish mother and a Liechtensteiner father who grew up speaking Allemanic, German, Turkish and English and later learned enough Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and several African dialects to get by in his chosen career, which was international arms dealer. I gave him those traits because I didn’t want his former or current nationality or languages to be linked to the reasons for his poor life choices. The inspiration for the character in real life was Russian, but how boring is that? It’s been done a million times before.

Assigning nationalities and languages is about as far as I go in exploring cultural identity in my writing. I don’t assign race, mostly because I don’t do extensive physical descriptions of my characters. Hair colour if I’m feeling imaginative. Eye colour if I’m verging on wild and wacky. Skin colour? Not once so far.

Perhaps the oddest thing is that the cultural identity I feel most uncomfortable exploring is my own. I doubt the authenticity of my Australianness, my identity as an Australian, so how could I write an authentic Australian character or story? What makes someone Australian? Not just being born here or naturalised. I don’t have any desire to explore the outback but I do love my football – Aussie Rules, of course. Do these factors cancel each other out? Am I just not Australian enough?

Some of the most respected Australian writers, who have contributed extensively to what it means to be Australian, are those who live overseas. So do we need to leave our countries, our cultures in order to write about them in profound ways? There’s an entire section in the Wikipedia article about Australian literature on expatriate writers such as Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Geoffrey Robertson. I travelled overseas for a month in 2014 but it didn’t make me feel any more Australian, just unworldly and exhausted.

So what’s the solution to the question of cultural identity in writing? Write what you know, if that’s what you want to do. Write “the other”, if you want to do that instead. It doesn’t have to be authentic. It just has to feel and sound like it is. Which means avoiding stereotypes. Which means thinking beyond national dress and official languages. Which means undertaking a lot of research. And which means being prepared to take it on the chin when other people don’t like the choices you make.

*****

It’s Australia Day downunder today. Some people prefer to call it Invasion Day. As a writer, I just enjoy having a public holiday I can devote to writing and inspiration for my latest blog post!

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