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Review: From William Styron to ‘American Dirt’: When is it appropriate to culturally appropriate?

On the Shelf

Appropriate: A Provocation

By Paisley Rekdal
Norton: 240 pages, $16

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A guy gets ushered out of his prestigious newspaper job for using the N-word, and a different media guy decides to instruct his media workplace about the N-word’s use. A woman writes high-pitched screeds about “cancellation.” A novelist dons a sombrero on a literary-festival stage to mock the idea of literary appropriation. All are white. Such are the culture wars of our moment, with headlines that range from the infuriating to the ridiculous.

Luckily, we also have Paisley Rekdal, a writing professor and poet laureate of Utah. In her new book, “Appropriate,” Redkal addresses the conundrum of cultural appropriation with patience and care. She is deliberate as she picks her way through questions, focusing on literature, with close readings of poetry and prose that give heft to her case. The book’s power comes from its slow progress and occasional reversals, so a summary feels unfair, but her basic thesis is that culture is situated in its moment; careful consideration of where each of us is in that moment informs what we create, how we read, what literature is lifted up and what is left out.

If recent times have seen cultural power reside in screaming “cancellation,” put on some cancellation-canceling headphones and consider those issues with this quiet and thoughtful book.

“Appropriate” is framed as a series of letters to a white student, X, who has written a poem partly in the voice of an older Black person, generating questions within the workshop conversation that followed. The letters investigate whether it is possible to successfully write across race, cases of racial impostors and interlopers, the nature of whiteness and much more, with touchstones including Claudia Rankine and James Baldwin. As a woman of mixed white and Chinese descent, Rekdal has been both outsider and insider, has experienced both othering and privilege.

Three authors whose work she looks at closely demonstrate different aspects to her approach: William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins and the poetry of Araki Yasusada, a deceased Japanese poet who is now thought to be the invention of an American writer.

Published in 1967, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” saw Styron, who was white, fictionalizing the first-person story of the Black slave who led a rebellion in 1831. It won the Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews despite being written across race. Rekdal’s close read isn’t a surface challenge of the decision to write the book but an examination of specific choices. Styron fictionalized Turner’s history in ways that perpetuated and heightened toxic stereotypes about race and gender. Rekdal gives a lot of thought to how stereotypes play into the narratives we write and read.

“Appropriate: A Provocation,” by Paisley Rekdal.

(W. W. Norton)

Enter Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” which caused a sensation when it was published in 2020 for its appropriation of a Mexican immigrant narrative, exacerbated by many linguistic and cultural missteps. Rekdal sides with its critics, not surprisingly, but doesn’t rest on the discourse; she reads the book and has her own aesthetic takeaways. Most importantly, she takes the opportunity to explore the role of capitalism: Publishing is a business, and Cummins’ book was geared up for success with a big advance and strong marketing push, was selected by Oprah and landed on bestseller lists. Rekdal notes that “the publishing world’s embrace of ‘American Dirt’ absolutely occurs at the expense of Latinx authors,” describing it pointedly as “marketplace colonialism.”

Given the shape of her arguments, you might be surprised by her take on Yasusada. When his poetry began to be published in American journals in the 1980s, he was known as a late Japanese poet who had lost much of his family in the blast at Hiroshima. His work became an underground hit, although many people came to believe that Yasusada and his work were the creation of a white poet, Kent Johnson.

In close readings of his poems, Rekdal explains why they first moved her and still do. Inside the intellectual architecture for her continued affinity for the poems is a sense of aesthetics; despite the inauthentic origins, she simply likes them. She is so careful in her selections that I think this is a pedagogical choice. It gives readers a handhold for an unspoken question: Would you also make an exception to your own guidelines of rightness for a work of art you love?

By addressing the text to the unnamed student X — a construct, in fact, that allows her to also make liberal use of “you” — the letters are also addressed to us, her readers.

“The ideas that I express here, X, are ideas of a moment; I have not always held these ideas myself, and I may not continue to hold them as the world in which we live revises itself. You, too, will change your mind. Because the questions you and I have around cultural appropriation cannot be asked and answered only once: they must be asked and answered every year, every decade we work as writers. Power isn’t static. Race and gender aren’t static. Nothing about our identities, our political presence, and social meaning in the world remains stable,” she writes.

And then she warns — or is it a promise? — “So long as we change, the questions we hold around representation change with us, and what we take as fundamental aesthetic precepts now will be unfashionable, even embarrassing, to future generations.” Even people who seem so certain in their judgments now.

Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times.




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