Monday, November 21, 2005


Cultural Appropriation: Take 1

I spend a lot of time over at the Poets and Writer's Message Boards, and became embroiled in a lengthy discussion about cultural appropriation. More recently we've been having the most fantastic cultural-appropration-discussion over at Japundit about Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls, and I do plan to post on that subject later.

But here's what prompted this post. Over on another message board, I uncovered the following post regarding Zadie Smith's new book "On Beauty."

"The Junior Mint muddle (a favorite E.M. Forster word) is symptomatic of the larger problems with this book. It is full of dull expository passages, which are frequently just bizarre, as though Smith were purposely writing about an America that doesn't exist, even though this is a naturalistic novel. She can't even keep basic facts straight about her characters, never mind about Boston or American candies. At one point, Kiki's grandmother, who was a nurse, is said to have inherited the house where Kiki now lives; later the narrator says it was Kiki's mother's bedside manner that led to the inheritance. Mother, grandmother, which was it? But you be the judge--here is the passage:

On Junior Mints by Zadie Smith:

"He dug into his pocket and found two individually wrapped Junior Mints. He offered one to Choo, who declined it sniffily. Levi unwrapped his own mint and popped it into his mouth. He loved Junior Mints. Minty and chocolatey. Just everything you want from a candy basically." (p.247)."

The poster goes on to point out that Junior Mints are not individually wrapped, and that Zadie's misuse of this special candy is evidence of her lack of familiarity with America.

Now, I haven't read "On Beauty" (yet) so I'm not in a position to comment about this passage, or any other in her book. But this post did call to mind something somewhat related. I have been re-reading one of my all time favorite novels, Possession, by AS Byatt, which for me is about as good as a novel gets. Ms. Byatt is British (I think English) and has a bevy of colorful British characters in the novel Possession. She also has an American who, on page 336 of the hardback edition in the US, says the following:

"I always forget how pitifully tiny your space is here. It indicates a disrespect for Women's Studies, I guess, or is it just English university meanness? Can you read French, my darling? I've got things to show you."

Okay, well that is just not the voice of an American. There are a couple of things that ring true: the use of the phrase "I guess" is spot on. The extrovert commenting on how "small" the space is seems like something an American would sling out there. But I don't think an American academic would use the adverb "pitifully." I'm also not feeling "It indicates," or "meanness," which has a different meaning in American English than British English. An American -- even an educated one -- would probably insert the word "some" in between "got" and "things." So, at the risk of being offensive, a more American version of this dialogue might go something like:

"I always forget how incredibly small everything is over here. What -- is this some kind of hint from the University President or something? They should give you a decent sized carrell. Hey. Can you read French? I've got some things I want to show you."

I remember now reading a few books by British authors trying to capture American voices, and I haven't been completely sold on the voice in any of these cases. I also don't always care. In the case of AS Byatt, I don't care at all because I adore this book, and the funny American character just fits in with the slight precociousness of the novel -- and I have a serious weakness for precocious and talented people. I suppose every time I read something that Leonora, the American, says, I sort of smile to myself and maybe my disbelief is not totally suspended. But I also don't really care, because the novel as a whole is just a freaking brilliant accomplishment.

I mention this because one of the arguments put forward in the discussion on Poet's and Writer's has been that:

"You can get the details of a story wrong, but still get the story right."

Initially, I vehemently disagreed with this point of view. But reading "Possession" again, I realized that it's a point that has some merit to it. In the end, I'm not entirely sure that we can really do anything close to legislating about when to "appropriate" and when not to.

Finally, today as I waited in the doctor's office, I was happily lost inside the pages of "A Year in the Life of Shakespeare" by James Shapiro. At the bottom of page 99 and top of 100, Shapiro discusses the ending to Henry the Fifth, which includes the wedding of English Henry to French Katharine -- and the end of a war. Shapiro writes

"The overriding irony of Henry the Fifth is that its happy ending leads . .. with English Harry wedded to the French princess. The language of breeding persists to the very end, as Henry tells Katharine that "though must therefore needs prove a good soldierbreeder. Shall not though and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? Shall we not?" (5.2.206-10). The specter of Islam will help the French and English temporarily forget their differences."

This, as we used to say in California, freaked me out. For here is Shakespeare, yet another precocious writer, messing around with language and cultural appropriation many, many years before we even have the novel. What's more, he highlights how cultural alliances are very malleable in the human mind. And how bizarrely current it is to see the English, French and the "Turks" duking it out in drama. Precocious writer indeed -- tackling subjects with which we are still struggling to come to terms. My literary crush on Shakespeare is enflamed. What a smart boy.

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