Within all written texts there exists an implicit writer-reader contract. Although this contract can be defined in many ways, essentially, the writer agrees to share something that is true and valuable, while the reader agrees to listen and give the writer her trust. This unspoken contract creates a personal relationship between the writer and reader that is infinitely unique, and is based on what each party brings to the text. For any written text to have purpose, the writer-reader contract is necessary, but it is also problematic. In Paisley Rekdal’s new book, Appropriate: A Provocation, the author critically analyzes the writer-reader relationship as it relates to cultural appropriation, a pervasive political and literary criticism for how people and their history, art, language, and ways of life and thinking, are portrayed by those outside their cultural sphere. Put simply, cultural appropriation is the act of passing someone else’s work or voice off as your own. It’s wrong, but how, why, and when; and is it irredeemable? These are some of the questions Rekdal thoughtfully considers.
Rekdal, who is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah, epitomizes the writer-reader relationship in the way she composes her book as a series of letters to a student known as “X”. The book proceeds as a series of definitions, observations, and case studies about cultural appropriation in literature and popular society. Rekdal moves from one “letter” to the next, carefully providing her observations and analysis on various forms of cultural appropriation, both those that have been done with intention or malice, and those that have been done out of ignorance or good intentions. It is written in a manner that is highly academic in language and process making it, at times, challenging to comprehend. But, it’s Rekdal’s dedication to process that makes this book and its conclusions that much more effective and necessary.
Appropriate does not cast aspersions (with one notable exception toward author Jack London) on writers past or present for their attempts to convey or portray cultures different from their own. That’s not to say that she agrees with them or believes their actions are moral or justified, but she asks the reader to look beyond the failure of any given text in order to mine value from what remains. Essentially, Rekdal champions critical thinking as both a reader and a writer. Rather than being pretentious and haughty, she admits to her own faults while asking readers and writers to look beyond their own worldview, to consider context, and to reevaluate the purpose and results of culturally appropriative materials. In doing so, Rekdal provides a series of guidelines, both for understanding and for analyzing appropriative texts. These guidelines provide readers the tools they need first, to recognize and distinguish appropriative texts, second, to deconstruct the text for any underlying value or lessons, and third, to look inward in order to evaluate their own role in the existence and perpetuation of racist ideology and colonial, capitalist structure. Rekdal does the same for writers, giving them guidelines and strategies to avoid cultural appropriation when possible and to manage its risks and consequences when avoiding it becomes impossible or undesirable.
Ultimately, the only way to avoid cultural appropriation is to back away completely from society. But, I would argue, that would be quite a dull existence. In her book Appropriate, Paisley Rekdal shows us that we must confront cultural appropriation, not as a moral judge or caretaker, but as an open-minded participant both in the world we live in and the one we are striving to achieve. No single authority has ownership over the moral righteousness of any single work of artistic expression. Right or wrong, better or worse, every reader brings their own set of intricate experiences and biases to a text while every writer brings their own truth and goals. There should not be a single solid line, which moves over time by the way, that producers and consumers of appropriative materials cannot cross. There should, however, be an open and respectful dialogue about what delineates cultural appropriation, how and why it’s hurtful, and how all of us, together, can express ourselves and our stories without harming, subjugating, or minimizing the story of another.
Quotes from the Text
“With regards to writing and appropriation, the real question is not whether I can simply ignore or override racial stereotypes, or even whether certain cultures have immutable claims to particular subjects and content, but what appetites I feed when I write from a position outside of my own.”
“I’m going to suggest that, if you engage in subject appropriation, you will research your characters thoroughly, doing all the intimately engaged critical, historical, literary, and sociological due diligence necessary before committing the details of your character’s life to the page.”
“If you are looking for comfort or vindication for your writing, you will never have it. You will have to choose for yourself, understanding that even sensitive literary portrayals may perpetuate racist systems.”
“To understand that we are each—at best—a set of relations and possibilities, not inevitabilities, is a great lesson to be learned.”
“In that sense, if I don’t believe reading is a moral endeavor, I do believe it is a critical skill with moral effects, and that these effects become more pronounced the more carefully I attend to my reading.”
“So instead of discarding all texts that could neither anticipate nor correspond with our contemporary sensibilities, perhaps we might ask what, if anything, we might want to recuperate from them, so that these works can continue to educate us as readers of history, if not as models of humanistic merit.”
About the Author
Paisley Rekdal is the author of ten books of poetry and nonfiction. A former recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, she is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah and is the state’s poet laureate. She lives in Salt Lake City.