Lavie Tidhar is a World Fantasy Award winning author. In the beforetimes, I was due to interview him at English PEN’s Literary Salon at the London Book Fair… but the event was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Instead, we conducted the interview online, and its just been published on PEN Transmissions.
The occasion for the interview was the publication of By Force Alone, Lavie’s retelling of the legend of King Arthur. We discussed the (lack of) chivalry in the original tales; ‘equipoise’ fiction and being a modern writer. And of course I asked him about free speech, offence, and cultural appropriation:
Can you talk about what ‘cultural appropriation’ means to you? Are there limits on what authors can write about? Should some writers ‘stay in their lane’?
This is such an exasperating topic. Because the only people who ever complain about how they can’t write about stuff anymore are over-privileged writers – your sort of white generics, suddenly being called up on their crap. No one is telling you what to write, but this really is about power and privilege. Can you write about a culture you don’t know and understand? Sure. Can you pull it off? Well, probably not. And the most important question really is, should you? Because why? Why do you feel the need to tell the story of marginalised people? Why do you co-opt someone else’s story?
The problem isn’t really with writers; it’s with the whole publishing industry, which would prefer a white writer’s narrative to a black writer’s. We’ve all had rejections or heard the rejection that says we don’t publish stories about (for example) Nigeria. Or we don’t publish stories set in Mexico. And yet those same publishers will reject a good Mexican novel in favour of a white American writer writing – badly – about Mexico. You keep hearing the line it doesn’t sell. Well, nothing sells if you don’t sell it. So, you know, can you write anything you want? Sure. Should you? No, and if you do, then take the criticism and don’t whine about it. Really what we need is a more diverse publishing ecosystem, and we need to recognise the bias that publishers and writers hold.