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Dipping my Pen in someone else's Blood

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Dipping My Pen in Someone Else’s Blood a Presentation to HWW

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COMING HOME by Alan Peat I hadn’t been home in over ten years. But a couple of days ago I had a call from my sister to say that mom was pretty ill and had been admitted into hospital. From Boston, I had a sixteen-hour drive ahead of me, so stopped that first evening at a little motel just on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina. The accommodation was cheap and convenient and had a Short Sugar’s diner next door where I figured I could get me something nice to eat, after I’d showered and freshened myself up a little. Although I did have to make occasional overnight stops it wasn’t always by choice. The insurance firm I worked for had branches all over the eastern seaboard and right across to the Great Lakes and if there was a convention or business meeting then the terms of my employment pretty much impelled me to spend time away. As Corporate Executive heading up the New Business Division it was up to me to pull new clients on board and they often needed a little coaxing. But as I’ve already said spending nights in strange rooms wasn’t something I relished. ‘Hey honey are the kids in bed yet?’ I said into the diner’s pay phone. I could picture Darleen standing there in our lounge, that green and white apron she wore draped around her narrow waist, wearing those fluffy carpet slippers I’d bought her for her birthday last fall, and all the while checking her face in that oval wall mirror while she spoke into the phone. In my opinion her complexion was perfect, but she always found some microscopic blemish which irritated her to distraction. ‘Carl’s playing up again,’ she told me. ‘I told him that once this week’s episode of Batman has finished, he has to go take a bath.’ ‘And Mandy?’ ‘She’s fine. Sends Daddy her love and wants to know when you’re coming home.’ I wondered that myself. ‘Let’s just see how mom is baby,’ I replied and waved my hand at the waitress who was just laying my burger and fries onto the table I’d taken by the window. ‘Listen honey I gotta go,’ I said and added: ‘I love you.’ ‘I love you too,’ she said in that smooth as silk tone of hers. ‘Oh George, before I forget, Bill Turner called. He wanted to remind you that your club fees are due. I think he was hoping you’d play a round with him this weekend. I told him the situation and he sends his best wishes.’ I didn’t exactly sleep well that night. I always find it difficult to get a good night’s kip in a strange bed. Plus, the motel was close to Interstate 85 so was fairly noisy. And the curtains in my room, even when drawn, still managed to let in the constant flickering of a neon sign just outside my window. However, three cups of strong coffee, a plate of pancakes topped with maple syrup soon got me back on the road by 7.30 the next morning. By noon I was still two hundred miles from my destination. I thanked heaven that I’d only recently traded in my old car for a brand-new Ford Galaxie. But all

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vehicles need gas. Pulling into a garage I filled her up and headed for the phone booth. ‘Hi Dexter, its George. Did Monroe’s accept our quote for the re-insurance contract?’ The voice on the other end of the line faltered. ‘They want to speak to you in person boss.’ I pinched the bridge of my nose in vexation. I didn’t need this shit. I’d left everything in order before coming on this trip. ‘Oh, come on buddy, you know what to do.’ ‘Yes, but they have a few more questions. Stuff I ain’t comfortable with.’ I could hear the clatter of typewriters in the background and what sounded like someone whistling a lopsided version of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. During the pause in our conversation I watched two truckers having an argument; blue check shirt versus red check shirt, Coors versus Budweiser, beard versus bald head. ‘Give me Paul Johnson’s number at Monroe’s,’ I shouted down the line and covered the mouthpiece with my left hand as I gave vent to a swear word beginning with a capital F. When I’d finished talking to my colleague, I phoned Monroe’s legal department. ‘I’m sorry sir, but Mister Johnson has taken an early lunch,’ his secretary informed me. I promised to call back in an hour. South Carolina gave way to the State of Georgia. I needed a drink and figured one ice cold bottle of beer wouldn’t hurt. Sat at the bar and sipped it nice and slow before heading for the pay phone near the washrooms. ‘George, good to hear from you,’ the loud confidant voice of Paul Johnson reached me over a thousand miles away. ‘Sorry to hear about your mom.’ I placed a handful of coins next to me. I hoped this wouldn’t take long. ‘You wanted to talk about the re-insurance contract?’ There was a chuckle on the other end of the line. ‘Don’t worry yourself, I’ve just had it all signed off. We are good to go.’ That was a relief. ‘But when you get back can we arrange a meeting? I want to discuss container insurance.’ ‘Container insurance?’ That chuckle again. ‘Yeah. The old man’s agreed to go into the shipping container business. Big opportunities opening up my friend. And all of them big boxes need insuring.’ There was a slight pause. ‘You on board?’ and laughed at his own little joke. My beer was getting warm. ‘Very good Paul,’ and raised a weak smile. ‘Of course I’m on board Captain.’ He liked that comment. Massaged his already massive ego. ‘Now listen. Maybe sometime next week you get that lovely wife of yours and come over our place for dinner. We can discuss things in more detail. As I say it’s a great opportunity.’

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When I hung up I returned to the bar and ordered another bottle. Container shipping. Wow! I made Alabama by mid-afternoon. The heat was getting slightly oppressive and I was glad I’d had air-conditioning fitted as an extra specification. The South was different. The South looked different; different in lots of ways that only a person born in this part of the United States might notice. For one thing it was poorer. Farmsteads struggled to survive. The folk here still grew cotton, but since that old boll weevil blight a few decades back the industry had declined in importance. Nowadays other crops stretched across this fertile landscape; sweet corn, watermelon and a vast variety of fruit. And of course there was that cultural difference between Massachusetts, my new home State and this the land of my birth. It was a slower pace of life. Some might say backward. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I figured it was all about a lack of opportunity and proper investment. The machinery of government in Washington wasn’t turning the wheels of progress as fast as some legislators lobbying for change wanted. I’d booked myself into the Redmont, a fairly decent hotel on the south side of Montgomery. I’d stayed there before so I knew it was clean and tidy and close to the Baptist Medical Center where Mom had been admitted. Once in my room I needed to put through a call. ‘Hi Darryl, its George.’ ‘Hi man good to hear from you. What’s cooking?’ I watched Lucille Ball having an argument with her husband. ‘I’m in Montgomery, Alabama that’s what’s cooking,’ I told him bluntly. ‘Oh?’ ‘My mom’s pretty sick. Cancer. Not good from what I can gather.’ ‘Shit that’s awful George.’ A couple in the next room began matching the couple on TV, only with slightly more abusive language. I would have stayed with my sister only I couldn’t stand her husband, who was a worthless drunk and hadn’t worked in years. ‘I’ve rang you to apologise because I won’t be able to make the Rotary evening on Friday.’ Darryl told me to forget it, he understood my situation. Our branch had recently raised five thousand dollars for the local maternity unit and I would be sorry to miss the celebrations. ‘Although I think Senator Wilson was looking forward to meeting you again.’ I swore. Capital F again. Wilson was a big-time Democrat, some said he might one day get to run for President. And he wanted me to put myself forward as a candidate for the forthcoming Boston City council elections. With his backing I stood a very good chance. Afterwards I thought a lot about that call. But I was hungry. So, jumping back in my car I headed into town. Montgomery hadn’t changed much since I was young. Sure, the automobiles were sleeker and the women seemed to wear a little less clothing, but other than that time had stood still. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

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I’d agreed to meet my old school pal Will in Martha’s restaurant. Will and I had grown up together and pretty much knew everything about each other. Offered him a place in my office one time, but I guess his parents were getting on in years and someone had to take care of their farm. As I entered, I could see him poring over the menu at a table near the back of this tired old joint. Martha’s had been here since the Great War and although it could have done with a lick of paint, it still served a decent pulled pork sandwich. I would rather have met my friend in the hotel bar, but I figured that wasn’t his sort of environment. ‘You still are one handsome son of a gun,’ I said by way of greeting. He looked up and stretched out a hand. Firm handshake. Muscles like whipcords. Kind eyes. A man you could have trusted with your life. ‘And you George could do to lose a few pounds. Reckon sitting in an office all day is catching up with you,’ he threw back at me. We both laughed and began a catch up. Over a couple of beers, the years melted away. I left him to order while I went to make a call from the pay phone near the counter. I’d meant to call Darleen earlier but with one thing and another I had clean forgotten. ‘What you doing of boy,’ I heard a voice shout out. I turned with a coin poised in my hand and the receiver propped awkwardly on my shoulder. ‘I said boy what do you think you’re doing?’ the gruff voice repeated. Only louder this time. I could sense people looking over. ‘Making a phone call,’ I told the burly looking chef standing next to the griddle. He pointed with his metal spatula and I followed the direction indicated. There was a sign hanging up. A metal sign which stated in blunt capital letters that people of color must use the washroom to the left, could not drink from the water fountain which stated WHITES ONLY and must sit at the designated seats near the rear of these premises. Will’s mouth was hanging open. And it wasn’t because he was in need of another cold beer. ‘See that sign?’ the chef went on. ‘Well those restrictions also include the use of that there public phone.’ I carried on holding the receiver. ‘We got a problem Big Eddy?’ another voice joined in. A cop. A cop sitting at the counter tucking into a big plate of ham and eggs. Eddy pointed at me and wiped his hands on his apron. ‘Seems we got a Negro that can’t read proper.’ I continued holding the receiver. I was trying to be calm. But my heart was racing. ‘The phone across the street is out of order,’ I began explaining. ‘Is it really,’ the cop said sarcastically. ‘And what would you be wanting to make a phone call for anyway?’ ‘He asked you a question boy,’ the chef added. I slammed the receiver onto its cradle and swore. Yes, that word with a capital F again.

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He was on me like a flash. My body thrown up against the wall. Arms pinned behind me. Handcuffed before I even knew it. Somebody cheered. In fact, two or three diners cheered; one of them an old lady who should have known better at her time of life. Didn’t sleep well that night either. My bed was rock hard. And the drunks making a racket in the next cell weren’t exactly conducive to the creation of pleasant dreams. Coming home hadn’t provided me with the kind of welcome I’d expected. And I still needed to put a call through to my lawyer. * * *

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I enjoyed writing this story. I think it had plenty of “show don’t tell” all the way through it and a nice, if not totally original, twist at the end. I like to think it dealt with the issue of race and prejudice in a respectful and fairly observant manner. Spelling mistakes? Well, you may have spotted one or two or the inappropriate use of a certain word in my attempts at description. Too flowery? Ha! Maybe. But the subject of today’s presentation is whether, as a budding author seeking to be published through competition or via an established publisher, I have the right to create a story that doesn’t reflect my own social and racial background. In other words, can I, as a “privileged” white male, write about the struggles and hardships of an oppressed minority? Whether that’s a black man from the Deep South or an Asian student demonstrating on the streets of Hong Kong. Am I being culturally insensitive, appropriating a subject which I know nothing about from first-hand experience? Can researching and then writing about a particular subject ever be on a par with somebody who is from a background of oppression? Or doesn’t it really matter? Shouldn’t the story itself be able to stand on its own as a piece of literature? Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, CEO of Inclusive Media Solutions, writer, and sensitivity reader, (I want a job like that) calls this form of cultural appropriation in fiction “cherry picking.” She says that: “By picking what they want to highlight and what they wish to neglect, writers are being disrespectful in a lot of contexts. Someone might be taking part in something that is not from their identity,” continues Wilkins, “but they’re either doing it in a mocking way, not giving proper credit, or ignoring its historical background and once again cherry picking the so-called “cool” parts in order to seem like they (the author) are worldly.” So perhaps I have tried to portray the “cool” parts in my own story. Maybe I don’t understand fully what it must have meant to be refused access to a washroom or suffer simple prejudice just because I was born with a skin colour that was non-white. Maybe George with his nice house and company car is just myself, but I’ve simply “blacked up” for the part. Maybe. When members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures. Firstly, what is cultural appropriation? Well ever since time began people from different tribes and empires have appropriated their neighbours’ culture; style of dress (the good old poncho for instance) the food we eat (think of a Ruby Murray on a Friday night) music (think jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll) and of course language (think Anglo-Saxon and those numerous French words which have become part of our everyday vocabulary). And dare I even mention religion? Jesus was a Jew, not a Celtic sheep farmer, but not long after his death the Roman empire and much of Europe appropriated His teachings and spread Christianity all over the world. So, all of these, in their own way and in their own style, followed the course of cultural appropriation, or as we used to refer to it, assimilation. And often it was seen as a good thing. Where

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would we be today without the wheel? After all it must have been appropriated from somewhere. But today cultural appropriation has come to mean something different; when a dominant culture copies or tries to emulate a section of the same society which has been marginalised or has been disadvantaged in some way. I’m not quite sure how wearing a kimono at a fancy dress equates to being disrespectful but maybe that’s the crazy WOKE world we live in today. About forty years ago the BBC decided, quite rightly in my opinion, to cancel any further shows called The Black and White Minstrels. And I get that. Blacking up always was a derogatory expression of racial stereotyping which hearkens back to the days of slavery in the southern part of the United States of America. The connotations associated with blacking up are far-reaching and repulsive to most people living today in a multi-cultural society. What might once have entertained would nowadays deeply offend. However, during Hollywood’s golden era in the middle of the last century there were many actors who made a very decent living from playing various roles associated with “people of colour”. Burt Lancaster played an Apache Indian in the 1954 film (wait for it) Apache. Mickey Rooney played a Japanese man in the iconic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Laurence Olivier played Othello in a 1965 stage production with one reviewer commenting that “he looked like the end man in an American minstrel show”. Oh, dear the poor old luvvie! (“There goes my Oscar Nomination”)

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But women (those who used to be called actresses) have their part to play as well in this retrospective crime of cultural appropriation. Both Audrey Hepburn and Yvonne de Carlo played Native American Indians in The Unforgiven and The Deerslayer respectively. And even Angelina Jolie, who really should have known better, donned a frizzy wig and darkened her skin to play the part of the mixed-race reporter Mariane Pearl in the 2007 film A Mighty Heart. But now it all gets a little confusing. I mean is this appropriation a racial insult, a cultural insult or a national insult? Why was the Australian born Mel Gibson allowed to play the part of William Wallace in the film Braveheart? Couldn’t Sean Connery of played him? And if you have an all-black cast in a 2012 RSC production of Julius Caesar what’s to prevent a bunch of say Swedish actors remaking the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood. After all it’s only entertainment. Isn’t it? But back to writing, the world of fiction writing.

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“I wish someone browner than me would write it” Author Jeanine Cummins’s British publisher, Headline, stood shoulder to shoulder with the American press that published her divisive thriller. They declared that “it is proud to publish her in the UK”. As the backlash continued over her novel about migration from Mexico to the US, the imprint acknowledged the book has “sparked debate about the legitimacy of who gets to tell which stories”. American Dirt was published last year, it’s the story of a Mexican mother who crosses into the US with her son. It was acquired for a seven-figure sum by Flatiron Books in the US and received effusive pre-publication praise from authors including the relatively unknown author Stephen King. It went on to land a film deal and win selection from Oprah’s Book Club – a surefire guarantee of bestsellerdom. But reviewers have called into question Cummins’s right to tell the story and accused her of stereotyping – criticism that intensified when it emerged Flatiron celebrated the book last year with a dinner party featuring barbed wire in floral arrangements. Insensitive or what? The Mexican-American author and translator David Bowles called the novel “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama”, (steady on old chap) while the Chicana (Mexican-American) writer Myriam Gurba condemned Cummins for her “overly ripe Mexican stereotypes”, and for prose “tainted” by the “white gaze”. Latinx (I think this used to be Latino) authors have objected to Cummins – who in the past has identified as ‘white’ – appropriating a story that could have, and should have, been voiced by someone of Mexican heritage. One critic accused the author of “numerous inaccuracies in her story are clear evidence of the white gaze, capitalising on hurtful stereotypes and cashing in on human suffering.” Cummins acknowledged from the start that her decision to tell this story raised questions, and of her concern that “as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no

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business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants”, and adding that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”. Careful my dear, that sounds slightly disrespectful. What a minefield we have created. After the controversy blew up, Cummins addressed American booksellers, telling bookshop manager Javier Ramirez at an event in Baltimore that she had struggled with the question of what gave her the right to tell the story “for a very long time”. “I lived in fear of this moment, of being called to account for myself. And in the end, the people who I met along the way, the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognise my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.” Personally, I don’t think I could have grovelled quite as much, but hey, a seven-figure book deal and the chance for Hollywood to turn your effort into a major film probably made that slice of humble pie taste sweeter. And now the emphasis begins to switch from “you maybe shouldn’t have written that book” to “I know someone else who could have”. David Bowles, who teaches literature and Nahuatl (a form of Aztec language) at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley, said there was “nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans”. “What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions”. “Mexican-American writers”, he said, “have been writing about the border for years. However, none of us has been advanced as much money or had publishing, press, and personalities marshalled to promote us in quite this way.” And in many way’s he’s probably right. Perhaps we need to turn the original question regarding cultural appropriation on its head. After all, we’d be talking all day about why Alan Peat had written from the point of view of a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz if hardly any Jewish authors had published books about the Holocaust? (Of course, we know they have but it’s a good example).

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I’m not gay, I’m just empathetic. No, I’m not curious even for the sake of my art. A.P. (Illustration above courtesy of Happy London Press) Now there’s a huge difference between writing a story with characters that reflect the complexities of the world and a story which looks to represent them to the world. I think you are on safe ground if you say write a story about storm-tossed migrants in a rubber dinghy attempting to cross the English Channel. Lots of colourful description. Lots of drama. And a good opportunity to make readers aware of how others less fortunate have to live. But try writing that same story from the mind of somebody who has spent a year living under a tarpaulin in what they call the “jungle”. Try to get across to the reader why he (or she) is in France, what their hopes for the future are and how their own feelings of being exploited affect the way they think and deal with particular issues. Now that’s a completely different angle. Now you are speaking for somebody, you are exploring an identity and representing their case to the world. And it may not be your place to do so.

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I’ve been informed that it is fine to write a story with gay characters even if you are straight. But have been strongly advised against writing a story that centres on the specific struggles of being gay in an oppressive society. I guess that goes for tackling black issues as well. And up to a point that’s fair enough. Up to a point. I have three stepsons; one is highly motivated and driven, one lives rough and is hell-bent on increasing the population of our local traveller community and the other is gay and has self-confidence issues. (Don’t worry folks I shall never run out of writing material). I have had many, many conversations (into the wee wee hours over a bottle of Beefeater’s) with “the Gay One” as we, being a politically correct extended family refer to him, especially regarding bullying when he was at school, his overall lack of confidence exacerbated because his biological father is an out and out homophobe and doesn’t talk to him (imagine how that would make you feel). My step-son also suffers from an inability to embrace the modern Gay World, as his partner does; that world of Gay Pride, Queer Rights and any excuse to unfurl the rainbow banner of equality. He despises much of what we might think, naively, is part of being a gay man living in the heart of London. So I think, maybe incorrectly, that as a writer I would be able to get his story across, but might be vilified by some publishers who are looking for the “real deal”. I should state that I will go to any lengths to make one of my stories credible but draw the line at . . . well becoming one of the Village People shall I say. Or would pretending to be gay while researching a book simply be another crime of cultural appropriation? Is having a drink in a gay bar if you’re straight just like blacking up? Perhaps the only crime when writing about the gay world is to not set yourself up as a spokesperson, although that can be difficult if it fleshes out one of your characters. I have a confession to make; I’m straight but confused. As with my character George in Coming Home the protagonist in my short story Spears of Irony is a middle class, professional man who happens to be in a civil partnership. Just as George was an executive for an insurance company and not a black man living in a rundown tenement block in Harlem. Once again, I like to think I’ve stuck with what I know in my writing. A cop out? Possibly. Maybe I’m just not that overtly interested in other cultures to do any meaningful research. I mean where do you begin to embark on a novel about an African escaping a world devoid of aspiration and rife with poverty? How could one get inside the mind of a non-English speaking migrant and make the story credible enough? Good luck with that one. Returning to George in Coming Home, as the author I’ve played it safe. The America seen through my eyes has always been the world of Route 66, Buddy Holly, the Empire State Building, the Wild West. The America I’ve often written about is steeped in clichés; sipping bourbon on the rocks, driving a Chevy, watching bikini clad beauties playing volleyball on some Californian beach (extensive research involved), or pushing through vast acres of sunflower fields somewhere in the State of Kansas. I have both sympathy with the disadvantaged and plenty of empathy for oppressed minorities, but to tackle this painful subject properly would be stretching my own reserves of literary skills to the limit. In truth it might even make me feel uncomfortable. After all it could throw a spotlight on my own cosy little world. It could possibly make me feel like a charlatan, a hypocrite, a condescending sprinkler of the written word who thinks he knows how “alien” voices really communicate but in fact obtains the voices of his characters from the usual reliable stock of naïve,

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conscious ridden upper-working / middle class individuals. The locations of my stories might change, be it the Russian Front in 1941 or Stevenage 2021, but the articulation used by my characters hardly varies. It’s something I need to work on. STAY IN YOUR LANE: THE OXYMORON OF ‘AUTHENTIC FICTION’ Award winning author H.C. Gildkind, writing for Arena On-line recently noticed a question in the guidelines of a prestigious short-story prize run by a respected left-wing Australian journal. The question asked entrants to declare if their story ‘takes up the voice or experience’ of marginalised or vulnerable identities and, if it does, if the entrant personally identifies with who and/or what their story depicts. (The journal wants to know, for example, if a story about a refugee has been written by a refugee.) While the guidelines state that it is ‘not mandatory’ for entrants to answer this question, they also emphasise how ‘agonising’ it is for judges to decide whether a story is ‘appropriate’ for publication when ‘experience or identities are assumed or guessed’ and an author’s ‘cultural authority’ is unknown. Though the editors say they will ‘uphold the integrity of the blind judging process’, they nevertheless explain that judges can request this volunteered, identity-specific information during the selection process. Integrity? What integrity? As a fiction writer, Gildkind found this ‘not mandatory’ question deeply troubling. As do I. Though it might be voluntary to answer it, this question immediately communicates a warning about cultural appropriation: that is, that the judges will not only be judging the inherent qualities of her work but might also be judging whether her particular story is dis/allowable (‘appropriate’) for her to write—and, by extension, dis/allowable for people to read. (Phew!) Being covert, this question provokes authorial confusion and anxiety because it is unclear which rules determine this appropriateness, who decides what these rules are, and what the punishments might be if these rules are broken. Are these judges, I wonder, genuinely concerned about cultural appropriation? Or are they actually concerned about the accusations of cultural appropriation that are likely to result (via social media of course) if they award and publish a story that turns out to be written by someone who doesn’t identify clearly and directly with their subject matter? I don’t think I’d have a chance with my short story Coming Home; that’s heading for the shredder. But if the latter is true—and I suspect it is—then it is very worrying that such a respected and experienced journal should allow the selection of their fiction to be dictated by fear rather than by the quality of submissions.

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American author Lionel Shriver (left below) in her speech to the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival argued that the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction. Similarly, Shriver argues that fiction is a rude, disrespectful, prying, voyeuristic and kleptomaniacal vocation by its nature. If one wants to ban culturally appropriative texts, then all fiction must be banned. I couldn’t agree more. Sudanese born media presenter and writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied (right above) walked out of Shriver’s speech, protesting against what she saw as a colonial attack on minority identities. In her counter-attacking article, Abdel-Magied accuses Shriver of presenting a ‘tirade’ that mocked those who want writers to ‘seek permission to use their stories’. She sums up Shriver’s speech as ‘a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others.’ Wow strong stuff indeed. Abdel-Magied went on to ask: ‘How is it that a straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?’ It would appear that these ever more vocal public debates seem to concentrate less about the fight for social justice and more on the identity of the writer. Cultural appropriation isn’t often mentioned but it’s there because publishers in these sensitive times of cancel culture and social media pressure are feeling more obliged to fight the stigma of systematic discrimination. Therefore, the publishers most powerful weapon is affirmative action. Nicola Solomon, chief executive for the Society of Authors, has pleaded with publishers “please don’t troll our authors for cultural appropriation". "We need to have as many diverse voices as we can," she said. "This is often hard to hear for publishers and others, but for our authors who maybe are trying to include other voices in their books - because after all, writing fiction is about imagination, and you ought to be able to imagine other worlds to your own and other faces than your own - please don't troll writers for cultural appropriation every time they put a

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black face in their book if they are not black. We absolutely need as many authors as possible, but we also need authors to write about a range of people and to imagine people they are not. "It's a terribly important thing and our authors are finding they are very, very caught between two stalls here," she said. “The presence of Black editors is really important. You need more than one at the table.” Journalist Arifa Akbar writing for The Guardian wrote in December 2015 that British publishing stood accused of woeful blindness to diversity, and not for the first time, after World Book Night (WBN) announced its titles, and none of the 15 books was by a writer of colour. An apology was issued by organisers but a wider malaise had already set in, and along with it, the troubling feeling that WBN’s oversight was less an isolated incident and more a recurring pattern of exclusion that stretched across the literary establishment. In December 2020 The New York Times gathered a list of English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018. That list came from WorldCat, a global catalogue of library collections. The aim was to focus on books that were widely read, so they limited their analysis to titles that were held by at least 10 libraries and for which they could find digital editions. They also constrained their search to books released by some of the most prolific publishing houses during the period of analysis: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Doubleday (a major publisher before it merged with Random House in 1998), HarperCollins and Macmillan. They were left with a dataset containing 8,004 books, written by 4,010 authors. To identify those authors’ races and ethnicities, they worked alongside three research assistants, reading through biographies, interviews and social media posts. Each author was reviewed independently by two researchers to determine race. By the end, they had identified the race or ethnicity of 3,471 authors. Even guessing that most of the authors in the survey would be white they were shocked by the extent of the inequality once the data had been analyzed. Of the 7,124 books for which they identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people. They found this broad imbalance is likely linked to the people who work in publishing. The heads of the “big five” publishing houses are white. So are 85 percent of the people who acquire and edit books, according to a 2019 survey. So there is obviously a correlation between the number of people of colour who work in publishing and the number of books that are published by authors of colour.

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Marie Dutton Brown (above), herself a literary agent of colour states that in her opinion “many white editors are not exposed to Black life beyond the headlines”. Maybe she’s right. I don’t suppose those “white privileged middle-class males” have any cultural empathy with aspiring black / Hispanic/ Asian authors. But surely raw talent will win out in the end. Won’t it? Well not unless the mix of literary agents and editors begins to change to reflect society as a whole. Or, dare I say it, authors of colour write mainstream literature everybody wants to buy. Apart from recent literary Awards (where a conscious point is being made to celebrate diversity) a survey of The New York Times’s best-seller list for fiction has only 22 of the 220 books on the list last year written by people of colour. But the bottom rungs of publishing are a source of hope. When Ms. Brown started at Doubleday in 1967, she was the only Black intern in her year’s cohort. In contrast, by 2019 almost half of all publishing interns identified as people of colour. The publishing world is bending over backwards to change, offering grants and scholarships to non-white graduates who wish to have a career in publishing. While I welcome this move, on a personal front I do hope that in the coming years black and Asian writers widen their appeal by writing fiction with no boundaries, for once an argument has been made and won it’s time to move on and slowly decouple from making everything a political debate. After all no one in my humble opinion wants to constantly read about (a) the slave trade (b) Malcom X or (c) gritty tales about brothers living on a housing project. But that is my opinion. It’s early days but from my research things are improving with regard to authors from ethnic backgrounds getting their stories out there. And that’s surely a good thing.

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It’s all a learning curve anyway I think as writers we all worry about what we write. I don’t think any of us set out to insult our readers. Our sense of humour may sometimes be out of kilter with others and even the odd political comment should be tolerated and openly discussed. I suppose when writing about minorities or those from a different culture we should try to avoid stereotyping or writing in a way that perpetuates stereotyping. Always be respectful should be our constant watchword just as it should in our private lives. To finish I will quote from some published authors regarding what they consider to be the principal rules of good writing. You might have heard these before. Aminatta Forna Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand. Chris Cleave A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style. Al Kennedy When the writer writes, or the reader reads, they’re consenting to be someone other than themselves. Stella Duffy We can write who we are not and do it well if we write with passion, strength – and care. We’re bound to get it wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we want our writing to reflect the truth, then our characters and their experiences must be as diverse as the world in which we live. Naomi Alderman Treat your characters as human beings. Write them as people not ideas or stereotypes.

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Philip Hensher Good writing can do whatever it feels like doing. Bad writing can’t do anything. A bad writer can’t tell you anything about his or her own culture, let alone anyone else’s. Maggie Gee Writing is very like the definition of empathy, or its German origin word, einfühlung, “feeling our way into another”.