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Cultural appropriation: A writer’s perspective

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Prolific Canadian writer Charles de Lint has been thinking about cultural appropriation for some time. The matter came to a head when he revisited his his dark speculative novel, Mulengro. The book, which I read last month, is about a series of homicides among Gypsies in Canada. De Lint focused on the Romany myth that people’s souls remain stranded in the world if they aren’t forgiven when death occurs. Someone literally needs to grant the spirit permission to move on to the afterlife. Mulengro is a demented Gypsy drabarno, magician, who can summon the undispatched supernatural mules or spirits to commit murders for him. He sets out to cleanse North America of Gypsies who he considers assimilated. He believes they are no longer pure and therefore unfit to live. The belief that assimilation makes a Rom marhime is normal, but murdering outcasts is not.

De Lint is not of Rom descent. He learned about Gypsy culture, including the vocabulary he uses in the book, by adept research. He first wrote about his interest in Gypsies when Mulengro was released in 1984.

Romanies have fascinated me for a great many years, not simply because of their Romantic image, but because the mythology that has grown up around them seems to represent a living embodiment of the Trickster — whether it be the Puck of the British Isles, or Old Man Coyote of our Native Peoples. What appears amoral about them is, in fact, merely a completely different viewpoint. Perhaps, by exchanging their horse-drawn caravans for Caddys, and their tents for tenements, they don’t hold the same appeal for as many people today as they did in, say, the early part of the century. But for me, their continued co-existence with, but refusal to assimilate into, Western society merely enhances the romance.

Not being a Gypsy, I doubt very much that I’ve been able to do more than scratch the surface in regards to Rom beliefs and customs, but I hope that any Gypsy reading this book will understand that I tried my best to present them in an honest light and tell a good story at the same time. To the rest of you non-Gypsies out there, I hope this book will interest you in the Rom enough to seek out some more factual books on them–particularly books written by Romanies, rather than just about them. And for those of you whose interests include music, the Ewan MacColl songs quoted as epigraphs come from a radio ballad that he wrote for the BBC in England, along with Peggy Seegerand Charles Parker. It was called “The Travelling People” and a recording was available in the late sixties from Argo Records (catalogue #DA 133).

In intervening years, de Lint discovered that not everyone approves of Western writers appropriating material from other cultures.

I’m ten years older, the world is much changed and there blows a wind in certain literary quarters that frowns upon something called cultural appropriation, by which is usually meant: white authors mining the cultures of minorities for their own profit and gain while the voices of writers from those same minority cultures go unheard. . . .

I understand their discouragement. It must be so frustrating to see your culture represented in somebody else’s book — perhaps wrongly, perhaps hitting a best seller list and making all kinds of money for its author –while your own work goes mostly unread because it seems only small literary presses will take a chance on something that is (mistakenly) perceived as not capable of grabbing a viable enough market share to make a larger-scale publication commercially viable. But I don’t think that censuring the white authors is the answer. We should rather be presenting a united front and promoting each other’s work.

De Lint is of mainly Dutch derivation, with some Japanese ancestry, as well. However, like most writers in the Western countries, he acknowledges that his cultural influences have been pretty exclusively European. He says he has attempted to remedy that problem by reading writers from other cultural traditions. De Lint also notes that if the rule of not culturally appropriating material were followed strictly, he would only be able to write mixed-race characters.

Though I have read some of de Lint’s fantasy works, it is his darker speculative fiction, originally published under the pseudonym Samuel M. Key, that interests me more. Those works are Mulengro, I’ll Be Watching You, Angel of Darkness and From a Whisper to a Scream. His ouevre does include people of different cultural and racial backgrounds. By the time he wrote Mulengro, the police officers who are often characters in his novels had changed from being white men to include women officers, and, a black and white pair of Canadian police, much as modern cop shops have.

An aspect of cultural appropriation is whether a writer treats the minority culture he is borrowing from respectfully. To me, a veteran of plenty of books and other media that made some of my ancestors look like savages, that simply means treating all peoples like . . . people. A writer who does so does not ignore blemishes in regard to cultures or persons.

Much of the tension in Mulengro arises from the fact that Gypsies who are not living in poverty and associate with majority culture are considered outcasts. It would not have been possible to write the book without confronting that reality, which some people might consider disrespectful because it is critical of Rom culture. Both of the protagonists are outcasts. Musician Janfri Yayal became a recording artist after his wife died because he could not afford medical care for her. Ola Faher, the young drabarne who opposes Mulengro, is doubly outcast. Gypsies prefer that powerful magicians not live among them. In order to survive, Faher had to become marhime. She has adopted an identity as a black woman and writes folk wisdom books under a pen name. I can find no more fault with de Lint writing about outcasts of Gypsy culture than I can with Ibo writer Chinua Achebe writing about outcasts in Ibo culture, one of the themes of his masterpiece Things Fall Apart.

De Lint says we need to confront cultural appropriation by integrating the publishing industry. He advises: “Instead of tearing down the white literary establishment, let’s work to turn it into a rainbow.” Though I know that is easier said than done, I can support that goal as an ideal.

When I’m in bookstores, I sometimes subtly shift works by minority writers out of women’s, gay, black, brown, red and yellow ghettoes into mainstream sections where they belong. When I do it, I know I’m going against the tide. The books will be moved back because many people still believe the mainstream is not interested in us — unless we are being interpreted by straight, white male writers.

De Lint concludes:

No, we can’t limit our palette — that’s the death of good writing. But we can make sure that we approach cultural and sexual differences with respect when we write about them. We have to do our research. If we can, we might even run the material by someone from that different culture — not to be politically correct, but for the sake of veracity. Nothing is worse than the uninformed author; all they do is spread stereotypes and often outright lies. . . .

Let the criteria be good writing — books that inform and enlighten us while they tell a story — not the source of the writing. And if that makes me sound naive, so be it. But I’ll continue to read as widely as I can, and I’ll be enriched by it. And I’ll continue to use as large a character palette in my writing as the story requires, because I can’t do otherwise and still maintain my integrity to my work.

Note 1: Part I of this series appeared here and here.

Note 2: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • This entry is Part II — a companion to yesterday’s entry about cultural appropriation and the music industry. I think some of what de Lint says applies to both music and writing.

  • Chris Kent

    I thought the Gypsy culture, by nature, was extremely secretive. I would think Gypsies would be upset only because their culture is being revealed to the mainstream media. I believe a true writer should write about his/her own culture for it to be truly valid. It would be like de Lint writing Child of the Dark, the diary of Carolina Maria De Jesus detailing her life in the slums of Brazil. What De Jesus has to say is more relevant than de Lint’s outsider observations.

    Jack Kerouace, in one of his final novels, tried to write from the perspective of two black men traveling to Harlem. It is probably his least satisfying work, if only because it is never very believable. Now when he wrote about his own life, say in On the Road, the work was magic…..

    If a man plays country & western music in Minnesota, is it really country & western? I suppose we could use other examples here….

  • Chris Kent

    Jack Kerouac..the novel was Pic

  • I haven’t read Pic, but will give it a peek.

    I can’t go along with the belief one has to be a certain gender, race, sexual preference, etc., to write believable characters that are of that description. It opens the door to writing not being about characterization, theme and plot. Instead, it becomes about ‘authenticity’ only. Something is wrong when one says, for example, Richard Powers, is not allowed to write about being a person of color because he is white. I am not done thinking about this topic, but that is where I stand for now.

  • Chris Kent

    It’s an interesting argument. For example, if I heard a man/woman grew up in the Gypsy culture and decided to write a book about their childhood, I would immediately be interested and purchase the book. However, if a man/woman learned of the Gypsy culture and then wrote a book about it, I would be less interested. It takes a very brave and confident writer to attempt such a task.

    Authors of fantasy/science fiction are obviously not writing about childhood/life experience, so the argument does not hold true there. Ray Bradbury writes Fahrenheit 451 and it’s a brilliant work of science fiction. He then writes Dandelion Wine, a beautiful novel in many ways about his own childhood. Which is his most intimate artistic expression?

  • Shark

    MD: I can’t go along with the belief one has to be a certain gender, race, sexual preference, etc., to write believable characters that are of that description.

    End of story. (And frankly, raising the “appropriation” question about any form of art seems to be naive and absurd.)

    Writing is about imagination and originality. If it works, it works, regardless of the gender, race, religion, nationality, etc of the artist.

    The list of successful ‘appropriations’ is close to infinite in all of the arts: Picasso/african art, Bartok/Turkish folk music, Duchamp/DiVinci, etc etc. And one of the best, most honorable and sympathetic black characters in American literature (Jim) was written by a white man (Twain).

    ALL culture is based on some form of ‘appropriation.’ Influences and homages should be acknowledged as an educational service to the reader/consumer.

  • Eric Olsen

    MD, I agree entirely with your assessment of this on the creative end: anyone can create anything, the work either “works” or it doesn’t. “Authenticity,” in the literal sense, is for Antiques Road Show and art auction houses.

    I also decry the ghettoization of creative works into the gay, women, race categories, but it isn’t some conspiracy of white males doing this: it’s a marketing and categorization tool that publishers, stores, libraries, etc., demand – everyone is looking for that marketing hook and these kinds of demographic labels are easy.

  • Shark

    Eric: “I also decry the ghettoization of creative works into the gay, women, race categories, but it isn’t some conspiracy of white males doing this: it’s a marketing and categorization tool…”

    Excellent point, Eric!

    I might add: it’s also a tool of academics, teachers, political activists, opportunists, charlatans, etc.

    (In the interest of peace, etc, I’ll withhold my opinions on this trend.)

  • Shark

    While I do think America has (had?) the opportunity to advocate the moral and democratic high road in international politics, I do think it’s always interesting to see what our neighbors think about us.

    You may disagree with the characterization, but you can’t deny that that’s at least one perception.

    Shark (who sees or *Canadian nieghbors as really nice, incredibly well-mannered, extremely boring people who drink beer and watch hockey)

    *Very similar to my fellow Texans, except without the manners and the hockey.

    PS: If I have to explain this is a joke, I’m gonna have to kill somethin’.

  • Shark

    Man, that was supposed to go in another thread!

    Sorry, kids, don’t ask me how it happened…

    I blame Y2K.

  • Chris Kent

    The list of successful ‘appropriations’ is close to infinite in all of the arts: Picasso/african art, Bartok/Turkish folk music, Duchamp/DiVinci, etc etc. And one of the best, most honorable and sympathetic black characters in American literature (Jim) was written by a white man (Twain).


    The Twain example is invalid because the work you mention was autobiographical, based on actual people he grew up with. We can find a few minor appropriations as you’ve listed from the history of mankind. You can find far more stronger, more believable classics, written by people about their own lives and cultures – Kerouac, Steinbeck, McMurtry, Fitzgerald, Hemingway.

    Sure, Spike Lee made The 25th Hour and it was a good film. But his far better works were Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Sure, Kerouac wrote Pic and it wasn’t half bad. But his far better works were On the Road and Dharma Bums.

    Appropriation will always be the odd exception rather than the rule. To argue otherwise is to champion minor works.

  • Chris, if you pull your perspective together in an entry, I will link to it as an alternative view. I will be writing one about music telling my blog friend composer Richard Einhorn’s perspective. You could focus on literature if you like.

  • Chris Kent


    Give me a day and I will put one together.

  • Shark

    Chris: “The Twain example is invalid because the work you mention was autobiographical, based on actual people he grew up with.”

    I think you’re splitting hairs to some extent; Twain was ‘appropriating’ the voice and viewpoint of a black man, which some would argue is either a cultural crime of theft or aesthetically invalid.


    My main point was that human culture is sort of the evolution of “appropriation”.