A recent social media storm brought to the fore the discussion of writers and film-makers and cultural appropriation of certain people’s stories. It was started by the rumour (which later was shown to be false) that Beyoncé was planning to write and star in a film about Saartje (Sarah) Bartmann, the “Hottentot Venus”. Bartmann was a Khoi woman who was taken from South Africa in the early 1800s to be shown in circus acts and other such places and eventually died in France. Her remains were put on show in a museum there until Nelson Mandela demanded they be returned. Eventually they were, and she was given a proper burial in South Africa.
Many people were angry that Beyoncé would think of “stealing” this story, they feared she would not give it the proper research and respect. They labelled it another instance of cultural appropriation. A Khoikhoi chief, Jean Burgess, said that Beyoncé lacked “the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah’s story let alone playing the part”. This view was countered by South African Guild of Actors member, Jack Devnarian on the BBC website who said film-makers had the “right to tell stories of people you find fascinating and that’s what we must be careful not to object to”.
What is cultural appropriation? It is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by a different culture often in an exploitive manner with little understanding of the history, experience, or traditions of the first culture.
I accept that cultural appropriation in various sectors of the arts has been and still is a problem. But I think people were jumping the gun with Beyoncé. Who can say she was not going to take the time to do her research and understand the politics, emotions and nuances of Saartje’s story? I thought that having a high profile person such as Beyoncé take up this story would bring a horrible part of the past to light, to let everyone see the crimes that took place. I would think that would be something South Africa and the Khoi people would want.
But then what about writers and cultural appropriation? Who do stories belong to? Should writers feel free to write about anything under the sun? Or are some stories off limits because of the tribe you belong to or the colour of your skin, your religion, your sex? Is it okay for a man to write as a woman? A black person to write as a Chinese person? Can a person in Australia write a novel about President Masire? Can a Motswana write a story about Queen Elizabeth?
I have asked myself these questions. I’m always interested in how other writers approach the answers to these problems. One of my favourite writers, Aminatta Forna’s most recent novel, The Hired Man is set in Croatia and is about the effects of the war there. Some questioned if it was okay for a writer from Sierra Leone to be writing about Croatia, that it was not her story to tell. She thought otherwise.
I’ve never accepted the adage: write what you know. I think it is write what you can imagine. Write about places you’ve researched that have caught your imagination. I have never limited my stories to my one small and quite boring life. I would have stopped writing long ago if I had been forced to do that. What is the fun in writing fiction if you cannot imagine another person’s life? If you cannot walk in those shoes, feel those pains, and that happiness?
I am of the opinion that all stories belong to everyone. The story will be judged on its own merit. Does it hold human truth? Was it told well? That's all for me. The categories society slots me in for their social experiment is irrelevant. All that matters is: was I honest to the story and the people in it, and did I tell the story well. Full stop.
As Forna says in her excellent piece in The Guardian (“Don’t Judge a Book By Its Author”, 13 February, 2015) : “The writer of fiction says to the reader only this: come with me on a journey of the imagination and I will try to show you something you have not seen before. This is the gift of the writer to the reader.” And this is what she tells her writing students: “write what you want” and then adds “write it well”. I agree completely.
(This first appeared in my column It's All Write in Mmegi newspaper, 15 January 2016)