Yassmin, I am thankful you wrote this article and that you stood up and walked out. It seems that in many of the responses below readers seemed to miss that you were asking for cultural awareness and sensitivity rather than an all or nothing argument against writing about others from another culture or experience than one’s own.
To me it seemed like you were suggesting that if someone, for instance, who was not Jewish wanted to write about the holocaust, that writer could show some sensitivity to do some research and in some fashion seek permission from someone to step into that world and describe that experience.
I think we can all be inspired to write stories and or poems because we are moved by a culture or feel really drawn to it. In order to do so it would be respectful, if one were outside that culture or experience, to show respect for it. Like we would show respect for something that is sacred. Stories for most of us are in fact sacred as they define us. To treat stories like they are only a commodity is to imply that people are only objects. Of course, this will happen in our market system, but it is not what I hope would be our standard we are shooting for as writers and poets.
I think beyond the all or nothing arguments that polarize us is something else, something that allows us all to access each other with respect. And, if there is no way to do it with respect then I would suggest that no honorable writer would really want to be a part of that.
I suspect that the real challenge is when a writer does not realize that he or she has appropriated because they just do not know any better. This seems an issue of education which your act was a part of.
It is easy to get polarized on either side of an issue whenever something is coming out of the the collective unconscious into the light. My hope is that after the anger and confusion and denial lifts there can be a greater sensitivity that is based in compassion and care rather than accusations and denial. But it will take time.
Your decision to walk out was a powerful act that at least gets the conversation going (again). In time, I hope that those who are most privileged, like myself (white, male, American) can at least hear in your decision a call to look at ourselves and ask, how can I respectfully include that which is other to me? The question does not have to be answered with, you can’t, your too privileged, that is also an injustice. The answer in my mind, is you can, but with careful and deliberate respect and permission given by those you hope to represent with accuracy and insight. Permission cannot and need not be given by an entire culture or group of people.
When I wrote a story about the holocaust I did not get permission from the entire Jewish world. I got it from a close friend who’s grandfather was there. And he gave me permission to write the story because it needed to be told. Why did I feel like I needed to write it? Because the story of the holocaust devastated me as a human being. As a writer and poet and a human being it was, in my mind, my job to investigate my reaction and endeavor to understand what happened there. But in no way would I ever want to hurt another in that process who had suffered in that calamity. I think all good writers and poets hope to live up to that standard. I hope to do so myself and when I do not, I can handle the criticism when someone I have unintentionally offended or hurt tells me, and I can learn from it. And even if in a case when the criticism might be misguided, I can handle it. Doing so is an act of responsibility and compassion in proportion to the degree of privileged that supports me every day of my life.