It is “total nonsense” for authors to be accused of cultural appropriation for writing about other cultures, the first black female winner of the Booker Prize has said.
Bernadine Evaristo won this year’s Booker prize, along with Margaret Atwood, for her novel Girl, Woman, Other which follows 12 black and mixed-race characters.
Speaking at the Hay Festival winter weekend, Ms Evaristo said authors should not be told to “stay in their lane” adding that it is ridiculous to be expected not to write “beyond your own culture”.
Evaristo, 60, has dismissed the idea that being curious about other cultures and engaging with them artistically is some sort of injustice, and refused to be pigeonholed by her own race.
Her Booker-winning work follows the lives of people from their teenage years to their 90’s, with a range of gender attitudes, sexuality, class and background.
The novelist, reports The Times, said : “This whole idea of cultural appropriation, which is where you are not supposed to write beyond your own culture and so on, is ridiculous. Because that would mean that I could never write white characters or white writers can never write black characters.
“Look in television; that happens all the time. But there is this idea that when it comes to fiction that you are supposed to stay in your lane. It is a total nonsense.”
Cultural appropriation is the claimed act of taking from another race, nationality or identity group’s hallmarks and heritage, and the exploitation of these features by those outside the given group.
The phrase “stay in your lane” has been deployed by some as a reminder to the allegedly exploitative group to remain in their cultural group and not explore, take from, or comment on any other.
The accusation of cultural theft has been leveled against the likes of JK Rowling, who was criticised for writing about Navajo traditions.
Regular members of the public have been criticised for donning sombreros, in an act thought to be a slight against Mexico, as have non-black people wearing their hair in dreadlocks or cornrows.
Evarsito is determined to be unshackled in her fiction, and her polyphonic Girl, Woman, Other was dependent on a variety of characters and worldviews. The novelist wants the freedom to “write any character at any time”.
She believes it is impossible to guess what audiences will find offensive, and does not try and anticipate any outrage at her creations.
“That’s not my primary concern,” she said. “I refuse to construct some kind of character who is going to appease everybody.”
The writer did admit that writing a non-binary character, whose name shifts from Megan to Morgan in Girl, Woman, Other, was difficult to get right. She said of the character’s identity “it is a sensitive area”.
Evaristo said following her Booker Prize win that she hoped she would not be the last black woman to be feted by the judges.
She shared the prize £50,000 money with Atwood following the ceremony in October, reflecting on her history-making win.
She said at the time: “It’s a bittersweet experience. In one sense it’s great to be the first, but I shouldn’t be the first.