RICK MOODY: I think the pressing question of the PEN World Voices Festival is “Why, exactly, are we bothering?” The United States of America has become a culture that exports and no longer imports. If I were to project up here a graph of literature in translation published in the United States, you would see, over the last twenty-five years, a steep decline in the number of titles published in this country in translation. It’s now hovering near the 5 percent mark of the twenty thousand–odd books published annually in this country, and that includes engineering manuals and the like. So in terms of literature, the art of what we do in language, an infinitesimal number of books are being published in English. Personally, I think that’s political. I think it has a lot to do with a general trend in the culture away from intellectual investigation and toward a kind of recoiling from the rest of the world.

That’s part of what the PEN World Voices Festival is trying to address, and it’s what I’m going to try to address with these panelists tonight. The Believer came up with a great topic for the discussion: the rules of cross-cultural appropriation. The late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was first writing, was a period when identity politics was as forceful as it ever got. And there was a real unwritten law that certain kinds of cultural appropriation were not to be done. In other words, a man writing first person from a woman’s point of view was considered faintly distasteful and inadvisable; a white writer trying to write from a black point of view was considered inadvisable; a first-world writer writing about the third world—same kind of thing. That has loosened up a bit, I think, these days. Imagination is given a slightly freer rein, but in a cultural context, literature is taken less seriously and translation barely happens in this country at all.

Chimamanda, do you think that there are rules of cross-cultural appropriation or rules for composition in fiction at all? Your novel Purple Hibiscus was written in English and seems, even though it’s about post-colonial Nigeria, influenced in some ways by Western novel writing, and I’m curious if you thought about that while you were writing it.

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: First of all, I’m ambivalent about the idea of rules when it comes to literature because I think that fiction, and literature in general, should be magical and you should let yourself be free. But going back to your examples of cross-cultural appropriation—men writing from the point of view of women and white people writing from the point of view of black people not being seen as good—I think it’s important to keep things in context. I come from a place that for a long time has been grossly misrepresented by people who have written about it. When I read a book about Africa by a non-African, I’m very careful and oftentimes resentful because I think that people go into Africa and bend the reality of Africa to fit their preconceived notions. I think the same could be said for writing about women when you’re a man, writing about blackness when you’re white, and while I think such writing should be done, it requires sensitivity. It’s easy to say that we should do whatever we want because we’re writing fiction, but it’s also important to remember context and to be circumspect.

MOODY: Chimamanda, can you give us examples of works where you feel the representation issue is particularly troubling?

ADICHIE: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuœciñski has a little blurb on the cover that describes it as the greatest intelligence to bear on Africa since Conrad. And I really was insulted by that, because it isn’t the greatest intelligence to bear on Africa, and I didn’t think, by the way, that Conrad was particularly writing Africa as Africa was. What’s troubling is that this claim sets the norm for how we see Africa: If you’re going to walk in Africa, you’re told to read that book to understand Africa. But this is really not what Africa is, at least not from the point of view of Africans in Africa, which I think is an important point of view. These books distort reality—there are many examples. Maybe I shouldn’t name names because it’s less about the specific people and more about the larger phenomenon of writing without an open mind.

MOODY: So there are some rules in some cases, or at least sensitivities that we have to think about in these moments when we try to write about other cultures.

PATRICK ROTH: I feel we have to judge case by case. I mean, there is a novel, Amerika, by Franz Kafka, and you’re not going to tell me that he wasn’t allowed to write about America. A couple of years ago, I read about a German writer who supposedly wrote a novel that took place in the former East German Republic and I thought that was wonderful. When I read it, I thought, That’s a great idea, because we all had fantasies about the East German Republic at the time. Why wouldn’t it be legit for us to broach that subject? Why not write a novel from the point of view of a woman, using the female part in yourself as a man—I mean, why not? Who would want to put a limit on that? It would be literary suicide to limit yourself in that case.

MOODY: Isn’t it true that Kafka had never been to America when he wrote Amerika?

ROTH: That’s the whole point. Exactly.

MOODY: So it’s all about imagination.

TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: I’m not sure whether it’s all about imagination because imagination is informed. How is general imagination about Africa informed in this part of the world? I agree with Chimamanda that there must be some limits. A young lady in my part of the world, in South Africa, wrote a short story about a maid on her Sunday off. This young lady was a white South African. She went to one of the best schools, which meant she must have been one of the 10 percent in terms of earning power—upper class—and she chooses to have, as her character, a lower-class African maid. What could she possibly know about this person? The writer was so young, she obviously hadn’t had the chance to think about the implications of what she was doing, but it seemed to her like the kind of story that would win her acclaim, which it did: She got a prize in a short-story competition. But the way she represented this character was so completely false.

I had the same experience some years ago when a writer from this country wrote about a girl in my part of the world. She named this girl Nhamo, a word that means negative things in many contexts, but especially in the sense of grief. The title of this book about Nhamo was A Girl Named Disaster. Now, grief and trouble: There are similarities, but the essence—the nuances—are quite different.

Interestingly enough, this book was translated into German and the German translators had some qualms, so they asked me to read the book and write a foreword, which I did. I gave my opinion that actually the translation of this word that was the girl’s name, Nhamo, was not adequate in the title. Of course they had to go back to the writer to ask her to endorse my foreword and she refused. As a Zimbabwean who understands what the German people were trying to do, and the English, I had said, “Well, let’s put a preface to this that would give it a different context,” and the writer refused. I think that kind of cross-cultural appropriation is really illegitimate, but there is no way to stop it. There are no rules to cross-cultural appropriation.

ADICHIE: I want to respond to Patrick. I’m not at all advocating limiting anybody or anything—not at all. As I said, I really don’t believe in rules. A writer like John Gregory Dunne, who is somebody I really admire, has written a book from the point of view of a woman, which I believed as a woman. But at the same time, I do think that it’s too easy to simply say, “Why not? Why not use the imagination? Why not let the imagination run free?” I think there is something to be said for authenticity, that if you’re going to write about a particular experience in specifics, then the least you can do is to learn about it.

MINAE MIZUMURA: Can I just shift the topic? Right now, people are using the word “appropriation” and supposing that the people who appropriate are the dominant people—white people appropriating black discourse or African discourse or men appropriating women’s discourse, et cetera. The verb “appropriate” has a force that makes you believe it’s the dominant subject who is doing it. Yet if you look at the history of humanity from two or three thousand years back, it’s the dominated cultures that do the appropriating. I’m thinking of Japanese literature: Twenty years after major restorations, we appropriated Western literature and that became our literature and we transformed ourselves through the literature. That sort of asymmetrical process still continues and, one hundred years later, we continue to appropriate American culture.  

Now, when a Japanese writer is writing in Japanese, she might use a certain alphabet for Japanese characters that was once used only for Western names, because it sounds more modern, more American, more global, more international. The ironic fact is that this literature that appropriates American literature but doesn’t really speak truth about Japan is what gets reappropriated into America, because it’s the easiest to translate. What I think is the best of Japanese literature hardly ever gets translated. It’s the easiest and the already appropriated Japanese literature that gets reappropriated.

DANGAREMBGA: I would argue also that in the term “appropriation,” there is a notion of force. If a person is assimilating a literature—for example, Francophone Africans were assimilated into the French culture—can we then say that they have appropriated the culture? I think being assimilated and having your culture appropriated are two different things.
In Zimbabwe now we have two opposed parties: one very nationalist and one more, according to Western norms, liberal. I was talking to some younger people in this liberal party and I said to them, “Do you know what you’re taking on? We are veterans; we’ve been through the whole colonial rigmarole. Do you know what we are taking on?” And I quoted to them this limerick: “There was a young lady of Niger/ Who rode on the back of a tiger/ They came back from the ride with the lady inside/ And a smile on the face of the tiger.” They said, “Yes, Tsitsi, we know the West is a tiger, but we think we’re strong enough—we can tame the tiger.” This is in the same sense of not understanding the difference between appropriation and assimilation. Perhaps we think we are appropriating, but we are actually being assimilated. This is problematic—we need to know where we stand so that we can have authentic voices. It’s a kind of alienation if you think you’re appropriating and actually you’re being assimilated; your voice cannot be authentic.

KATJA LANGE-MÜLLER: I can understand this only indirectly. The question seems backward. The question for me as a writer is not “May I do this?” but “Can I do this?” Whether I manage to portray a man is not my decision. This is what the reader decides. If I practice a self-censorship, which says, “May I do this at all?” I might as well stop writing.

DANGAREMBGA: I agree entirely. The audience decides. But between you, the creator, and the audience, there is a third party. This third party is the people who have the power: They have the money, the distribution resources—they physically get your work out there. If you present your work to these people and they say, “This is no good,” simply because they feel that a woman should not be writing it, how are you going to get your work out there? Look at nineteenth-century British writers like George Eliot. They did not even dare to appear physically in front of their publishers because they knew they wouldn’t get published.
Maybe in Germany, the situation is better, but for those people in the world who are still being appropriated, that situation still pertains. For example, a Zimbabwean writer like Chenjerai Hove, who made his name with a novel called Bones about a woman spirit medium, was only celebrated because people said, “Wow! He’s writing in a woman’s voice!” at a time when there were not so many women writers. But how many women writers like that novel, or even women readers? Very few. We have to understand the interval between creative work and the fact of that creative work getting out there. Many cultural and economic decisions prevent voices from being heard.

MOODY: I agree with that. That’s how we find ourselves in this country with a paucity of translated literature.

LANGE-MÜLLER: I started writing in a country where what was published and what was not published was really a political decision because it was the GDR. Writers who were suspect wondered while writing whether they would be published or not. One can say that one does compromise because one does think about the readers, but in reality, those compromises were not convincing as literature.

MOODY: I want to move to a hidden subtext in this. Globalization and the economic climate in which we find ourselves suppress local culture in favor of a strange corporate über-culture. I want to address myself to Yoko, who is Japanese and has lived in Japan and yet writes in Germany, and has written in German as well. I’m interested in your own experience of cross-cultural thinking and if you function now in a global context or if you still think of yourself as a local writer.

YOKO TAWADA: I don’t think that at this point it is possible to even talk about Japanese literature or culture because that culture has already absorbed so many others, like the Chinese or Western cultures. The same is true for American culture, which has absorbed other cultures from all over the world. All cultures at this point are pluralist and we who live in these cultures don’t belong to just one culture but to many. This does not mean that everything is the same; there are many differences. But you cannot pin them down nationally. One can only take the differences between, say, German culture and American culture as a way to differentiate between these literatures. Kafka could write the book Amerika because America itself is a fiction.

MIZUMURA: I still think that’s idealistic. I understand exactly what Yoko means: Every culture is an amalgam of other cultures. But, for example, I have a grandmother who was a geisha. Now, this is a very good topic for a writer to exploit. She eloped with someone who was twenty-five years younger because she couldn’t stand her life. I have this topic and still haven’t done anything with it, but I want to write about it. I have a choice between whether to write it realistically and interestingly for myself, using all the historical context and proper names that people outside Japan would never understand and all the contours of the Japanese society, which only Japanese readers would understand, or whether to come up with something like Memoirs of a Geisha, which became a bestseller a few years ago. If you want your book to be translated, which I think a lot of authors do, you face these concrete problems: whether you make it more accessible to the global audience, or you don’t care, you just want it to be your own thing.

DANGAREMBGA: If I could say something to Minae personally: People who care would like the version that you care about. At the end of the day, it’s a question of money: Do you want your money now or do you want a legacy that remains for years?

I want to come back to the idea of appropriation and Kafka daring to write a novel called Amerika—there you are. But let’s say I decided to write a novel called Amerika—who would publish it? I’m not just talking off the top of my head here because I’ve had this experience. Nervous Conditions is now recognized as a good novel, but what did it take to get it published? All Zimbabwean publishing houses, which were run by men at that time, turned me down, and it took a women’s organization with a South African woman at the head to pick up that novel.

Between the time of writing the novel and continuing with my life, I did other things, and now I find I’m in the same situation with filmmaking. I turned to filmmaking because I thought writing wasn’t working, not knowing that actually it was working, and I have the same problem with film. I’ve just made a film and people turned it down—Sundance eventually picked it up, but the National Arts Merits Awards in Zimbabwe said it was confused and substandard. We use certain criteria when it comes to judging on a public scale, which really do not always have to do with the merit of the work.

ROTH: This is a way of looking at things that’s foreign to me. You write your stuff; you’re alone with your psyche, which does not give a damn about whether your book is going to get published, does not give a damn about whether it’s going to make money. If you get caught in these questions, you’re not going to be able to write—or your writing is not going to be worth anything. It’s not a question of whether I should, whether I may, whether I can, artistically speaking, it’s whether I must, whether I’m actually compelled to. The writing process, as far as I’m concerned, is about pushing myself to the point where I can only do this one thing, and I absolutely have to do this one thing—otherwise life would not proceed for me. I could not care less at that point about who’s going to publish it, is anyone going to like it, is so-and-so going to understand this or that. That is of absolutely no concern to me. I think it is pure poison.

ADICHIE: I find it particularly curious that here in the United States, there’s such a thing as a black section of the bookstore—that it’s really about what you look like. If I wrote a book about Poland, for example, I would still end up in the black section of the bookstores. There are still categories.

When I was trying to get an agent for Purple Hibiscus, I got a really nice response from a woman who said she liked the book very much but she didn’t know how to sell me. She said, “You’re black, but you’re not African American, so I can’t sell you as African American, and I can’t sell you as ethnic, because right now in the United States, ethnic is Indian.” So I considered becoming Indian for a short while.

MOODY: One of the effects of globalization is massive vertical integration of American publishing companies. Twenty years ago, there were two or three times as many publishers as there are now.

In line with this vertical integration comes unwillingness to take risks in terms of what gets published, and this is concurrent with a refining and dumbing down of the critical vocabulary in the country. Globalization selects for a certain kind of aesthetic. In American fiction, we’re generally selecting for naturalism against an experimental impulse. We’re left with a narrow bandwidth. Is there a similar process happening globally?

DANGAREMBGA: I think it’s definitely happening globally. If you come to Zimbabwe, the culture that travels is the culture that people here know, and that culture is not being subsidized by Zimbabweans. The Zimbabwean government hasn’t got that much money, so it subsidizes culture that’s locally consumed. The culture that travels is generally subsidized by bodies from outside the country that very definitely have an agenda. We see that narrowing process.

As Americans, you don’t have to think you’re the baddest people in the world. I know that Germans used to think they were, but now maybe Americans think they take that position. But no. Just the fact that there’s a gathering like this means that there are still sensitivities out there that we can put to good use. We just need to keep linking up in this kind of forum.

MIZUMURA: You’re constantly reminded of the fact that just because what you’re writing is different, so remote from what the global market wants, it’s not going to be translated. My first book is a continuation of a Japanese classic and I knew from the start that it would never be translated. To have the feeling and write it is sad, because I read in English all the time and I love reading in English. I love Jane Austen, for example, and the people who enjoy Jane Austen would, I’m sure, enjoy my work if they could read in Japanese, but it’s not going to get translated.

DANGAREMBGA: But then isn’t the problem, “Who are you writing for?” I’ve had that problem in the reverse in that I have been so pressed to write things that I know European audiences would like, and I’m very capable at that. I kept on having to say, “No, I’m not going to write it until my authentic voice comes back.”

MIZUMURA: I think our problem is a little different because you’re writing in English.

ROTH: These are just opinions, like a filmmaker talking about his camera when he would really like to show you the film.

DANGAREMBGA: I disagree. I’m having a wonderful time here, and for me, these are issues of life and death.

I’ve taken to you, Patrick, so I didn’t want to say this when you began to speak, but the very fact that you have the luxury to say “I’m not going to write anything unless I write my authentic voice” is something that most people in my country cannot afford to do. We have the British coming in, saying “Write this, write that, go on television, say this, say that, tell people how you’ve been tortured.” People do it because they are hungry. Why are they hungry? It is not because the land has been taken over. It is because in the aftermath of the land being taken over, all aid was frozen. There was an embargo. That’s why people are hungry. If we had fertilizer, if we had money for seed, people would not be hungry. We haven’t got the luxury of that, we really have not got it. We have to fiddle to the master’s tune and some of us are trying not to do that, and we take advantage of audiences like this to harangue people and say, “Please, think differently.”