Do I have the right to IMAGINE you?

I wish I could speak with ironclad certainty about the right of fiction writers to portray anyone, from any culture, in any way we wish. In her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver, a celebrated U.S. author, adamantly took that stance. Her argument appeared sound: the genre is fiction, therefore it’s made up, imaginary, and nobody should take offense.

I’ve pored over her speech and studied the uproar of commentary it incited. Do you remember the movie, Fargo, now a television series by the same name? The Coen Brothers created the film and billed it as a true story. Here was a movie about my state, my peeps, getting rave reviews. I couldn’t wait.

I’d heard it called scathing social satire, but that didn’t prepare me for the film’s insulting portrayal of people, dare I say it, like me. I couldn’t separate myself from the exaggerated Scandinavian backwoods brogue littered with you betcha, golly,and gee whiz. But the problem went beyond a personal affront. People all over the world watched it and formed an opinion of Minnesota, a state of hicks who talk funny and are a little stupid, but really, really, nice. Nobody sat beside them saying, “This is a farce, a parody, people there aren’t like that, seriously they’re not!” It was cultural appropriation at its box-office best.

We can’t help ourselves. We believe what we read, see, and hear in the media. If we don’t swallow it whole, there’s an impression left in our mental data banks that sticks.

So I had a problem when Ms. Shriver, from a position of white American privilege, told the rest of the world in so many words: Shame on you for feeling marginalized. This is fiction. It isn’t about you, it’s about the author’s freedom to IMAGINE you.

Is she right?

Don’t we all love story? What if the freedom to imagine and create is censored, given walls, boundaries, taboos?

I didn’t like my group being portrayed in an unflattering way. Who does? And yet I’m a creative writer and imagining is what I do. I invent unsavory characters as well as quirky, funny, bumbling, brilliant, and dull ones. I visualize them in skin: tanned, pale, olive, sallow, wrinkled, white, brown. I identify them ethnically, socially, culturally, and by their own, unique voice. I give them place and purpose and bring them to life. It’s never my intent to ridicule or malign others. But have I unwittingly done that by creating people who are nothing like me?

How I love getting lost in a book that someone else has imagined, living with those characters in their reality while momentarily escaping my own. And how I love to create story, allowing my normally serious mind to come out and play, to run with abandon waving my magic wand as my dreamed-up people populate the pages and live and breathe before my eyes.

It’s scary when I extrapolate the issues of cultural appropriation in fiction to various possible outcomes. What if we were banned from writing anything but what we have personally experienced? Memoir would be off limits unless the only character was me. As soon as I introduced another person, an ex-husband, mother-in-law, one of my children, and shined my prejudices upon them, whether in a positive or negative light, zap! Guilty!

The fact that literary festivals are springing up all over the world, and writers are being introduced cross-culturally to a degree never before possible, brings issues of sensitivity to the forefront. Years ago, when authors wrote for a small segment of the population: those who could afford to buy books and also knew how to read, this was a moot point. But now that events bring writers and readers together world-wide, and literacy rates are increasing, those who have been portrayed in ways that don’t ring true to what they believe about themselves, are speaking out.

I get an uneasy feeling in my gut when the word censorship is bandied about. As a writer I come down solidly on the uncensored side of the debate. As a human being who identifies with a specific place and a distinct heritage, I’m torn. Cultural appropriation is a valid issue and one that won’t resolve anytime soon. Pandora’s Box has been flung open and as we say in Minnesota, who knows where the chickens will come home to roost.

How does this strike you?
Have we gone over-the-top with cultural appropriation, politically correct, sensitivity issues? Or have we barely scratched the surface of a necessary heightened awareness of The Other. Please share your thoughts.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shanemac
    Sep 26, 2016 @ 02:46:58

    Oh, how I despise political correctness and that goes for comments that even lean in that direction. Therefore I’m solidly in the camp of writers and others being free to say whatever they like about me, my people, or anyone else. There is no contest between the cultural portrayal of Minnesotans and southerners which is the part of the world I grew up in. Even our accent immediately labels us as slow-witted, insular, narrow-minded, etc. I’m actually an Aussie but often people forget that because of my southern accent. I even have friends who tell me how much they dislike the south and southerners. But that is their privilege and I believe they have the right to say so as loudly and adamantly as they like.
    When prejudices or beliefs are oppressed they can become ugly and ooze out later in unintended ways. They can even become deadly. So can expressed prejudices but at least when they are in the open there can be dialog.
    And, as a final thought, gee-whiz I loved the people in Fargo, stereotypes and all. They were endearing partly because of the parody. And golly, they were in the longer term shown to be far brighter than they sounded. I don’t remember her name but l loved that female detective who persevered to “get her man”. The villain I mean, not the husband.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Sep 26, 2016 @ 03:28:55

      You forgot the iconic sheriff, Marge Gunderson?! Thanks for your insightful comments, Shane, and by gosh and by golly, you’d better not start sprinkling your conversation with those words or you’re likely to see the Minnesota nasty side of me!



  2. lindaharris1948
    Sep 26, 2016 @ 05:09:28

    I relate completely. I can hardly stand to see movies that do the same with “the South” and when actors try to do Southern accents. It never rings true unless it’s written by and acted by people who know the place and the accents.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Sep 26, 2016 @ 05:50:17

      Thanks Linda! I think anyone who writes about people unlike herself faces challenges and can easily assume things that aren’t true. It comes back to the idea of fiction though, made up story, and as such, can the character be however the author writes her to be? And what if she’s writing comedy? People have very different ideas of what’s funny and what’s isn’t. So if the author makes 70% of the people laugh, makes 25% of them disgusted, and 5% really angry, should that story not have been written? Who gets to decide?



  3. Sandra Dee
    Sep 26, 2016 @ 07:40:11

    “It isn’t about you, it’s about the author’s freedom to IMAGINE you.”
    Wow – I love that…..

    “But the problem went beyond a personal affront. People all over the world watched it and formed an opinion of Minnesota, a state of hicks who talk funny and are a little stupid, but really, really, nice. Nobody sat beside them saying, “This is a farce, a parody, people there aren’t like that, seriously they’re not!” It was cultural appropriation at its box-office best.”

    As you know, I’m from Minnesota….
    The first 21 years of my life, I didn’t “know” people from Minnesota “talked different”. After marrying someone from Minnesota (in the early 70’s) and moving to WA state, people would say, “where are you from, Minnesota?” I soon became embarrassed to be “from Minnesota” and went out of my way to change my supposed accent/brogue and for the most part was successful. When I would return home to MN to visit family/friends in those early years, my “listening” had changed and I could now “hear” the difference ….. YOWZA (….can’t really explain why I no longer wanted to identify with my heritage – well, I have some thoughts on that but won’t expound here.)

    When the movie, Fargo, came out in 1997, my now ex-husband was excited to see it, as you we all were. As he sat in the theater, he was very embarrassed and sunk lower and lower in his seat as if to think people were looking at him like “HE is from Minnesota”… (And how could THEY know). It was humiliating to him and although it ended well with Marge getting her “man”, and the over exaggerated emphasis on speech, it was a good film. He felt very uneasy however, and wanted to crawl out of the theater. As he was walking out, some friends of ours were ahead of him unaware he was there, and laughing their butts off about the “golly”, “you betcha” “gee whiz”. He kind of hung his head and hurriedly went to his vehicle…..
    He was most anxious to encourage me not to see it in the theater and so I waited until it came out on VCR…(lol as I keyed those initials – had to think about that for a minute). When I did see it I was very embarrassed at how our state was portrayed. YET, couldn’t help but think “you betcha – that’s how some people talk”….(…and still do I might add, totally unaware of how they sound)

    I’ve said and now re-said all that to say – YES, people in Minnesota DO talk different…..Not as exaggerated as that movie portrayed them, but different nevertheless. I can say that because I’m from Minnesota and having lived away from Minnesota longer than I have lived in Minnesota, when I return to visit family and friends, especially in Northern MN, I crack up…not everyone has the “backwoods brogue” but a lot do. The exaggerated “no-ah” instead of NO, “ho-um” instead of HOME, “melk” instead of MILK, etc. How to Talk Minnesotan is a book by Howard Mohr, that provides examples of stereotypical MN speech and mannerisms. It’s hysterical… I’m laughing at my former self!!! I can do that!

    My current spouse and I, he too is from MN, giggle constantly when we are “ho-um”. Sorry if that offends anyone but it’s all about FREEDOM, except I’m not imagining …. I have ears and I can hear…

    Not sure any of that answered any of your questions in “red” about cultural appropriation or “misappropriation” .

    We live in an era of oversensitivity; it seems these days just about anything can offend anyone. No disrespect intended to “my originating” culture! Still love my peeps, don’t cha know?



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Sep 26, 2016 @ 08:12:01

      I love your comments Sandra!I’ve read the book, How to Talk Minnesotan and laughed ’til I cried. And I can remember, like you, living out of state, (for me it was Texas and that’s a whole other cultural dilemma!) and getting calls from my family who sounded like, yup, backwoods bumpkins! So what happens for those who take offense at a story that overstates the obvious, I think there’s enough uncomfortable truth in what we see/hear and don’t want to acknowledge, that it makes us angry. It magnifies the very things we don’t want to look at. It generalizes, stereotypes, and makes us into caricatures of ourselves. But what about the larger picture, different people groups who have been stigmatized by the way they’ve been represented in literature and film, Asians, Italians, our neighbors in Mexico to name a few. Do the same rules apply for our portrayals of them?



  4. Susan Wiste
    Sep 26, 2016 @ 16:32:16

    I so agree with you about the film “Fargo.” I walked out of it because I felt affronted and ridiculed. And, to think it was a couple of Minnesota men who did this to their own. I wholeheartedly support their right to do this, but what if they were ridiculing the black culture, the Native American culture or transsexuals? What about Charlie Hebdo’s so-called satire (which has caused so many problems)? What a Pandora’s box of discussion you have opened. Thank you.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Sep 27, 2016 @ 07:01:09

      Thank you for your comment, Susan. And I think your point about ‘what if’ they were ridiculing an already marginalized population is a relevant one. Did Minnesotan’s sit back and say nothing because we’re so ‘nice’? The groups you mentioned would have been up-in-arms had it been about them.



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