I get really annoyed at this “authenticity” business (see an old complaint) about who has the rights to do exactly what for which community. So I really enjoyed this letter to the Guardian about their nonsensical op-ed, The Trouble with Brick Lane:
As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer (The trouble with Brick Lane, October 27) that I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being “authentically” none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms “real people” living in “real communities”. My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone – white, black or brown, let alone any “community” – to represent them in any particular way.
If Monica Ali isn’t brown enough or working-class enough or Sylheti enough for you, then, well, that’s your weird little identity-political screw-up. Presumably she’s not white enough for someone else. I’m sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on “minority” writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn’t about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It’s about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That’s called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.
Apparently, they are all talking about this. Yawn.
update: An intriguing counter-argument:
And Eggers’s book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What’s innocent expropriation of another man’s identity is a post-colonial arrogance — the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people’s stories the way we need other people’s oil.
– The Niceness Racket , Lee Siegel, TNR