As someone who was frankly appalled both by Shriver’s speech and her subsequent op ed in the New York Times, I would argue that McCall Smith’s writing — both about Botswanian women and Scottish women — does not necessarily constitute cultural appropriation / effacement.

McCall Smith is African. He is white African (and of course, male), which obviously grants him a massive level of privilege versus the characters he portrays, but he is (presumably) deeply familiar with the context about which he writes. Similarly, having lived in Scotland for more than three decades, he has a certain amount of contextual grounding when he writes about Scottish women. Moreover, the №1 Ladies Detective Agency novels do not (as far as I know) portray stories that are especially politically-charged, which makes the writing of marginalised characters less problematic. (Full disclosure: I have not read the series and cannot judge as to whether his portrayals are indeed problematic. But they are not necessarily so.)

In her piece she says,

It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always okay if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell their own story?

The key word there is ‘always’. I think that few proponents of cultural appropriation discourse would argue that a writer from one particular cultural identity can never write a character from another background. Rather, they would like writers to take on that challenge in a responsible way.

That being said, the point that you and Abdel-Magied raise about writers from privileged groups displacing the stories of people from less-privileged groups is a very important one. As you say, if McCall Smith had not written his books, that does not mean a woman from Botswana would have a better chance of being published. There is certainly not a 1:1 correlation there. But when white / male / straight / abled writers write stories about PoC / women / LGBTQIA+ / disabled folk — and are published at a greater rate than the people they are writing about, because of their privilege — we risk ending up with culturally dominant narratives about marginalised groups that are not only inaccurate, but effectively efface the lived experiences of those groups, because they are produced and consumed by the social ‘in-group’.



Disability-led design & health justice. Director of Communications for The Disabled List. They / theirs. Tip jar:

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