'Writers should be free to draw from other cultures'

But how it is done is important, say members of the arts community

In Singapore, where the blending of cultures and borrowing of artistic practices from different cultural traditions are commonplace, it is not difficult to find people who share author Lionel Shriver's view on cultural appropriation.

Those in the literary and performing arts whom The Straits Times spoke to say writers should have the freedom to draw from cultures other than their own when they come up with works of fiction.

But they also believe that how the appropriation is done - respectfully, responsibly and skilfully - is important.

Dr Kirpal Singh, associate professor of English Literature at Singapore Management University, believes that restricting cultural appropriation in fiction, when no malice is intended, can be harmful to social harmony and cross-cultural understanding.

He says: "How can we as human beings even begin to understand one another if we are compelled to only and ever stay within the bounds of our own cultures?"

Something has got out of hand if sushi must be taken off a menu for fear of offending Japanese authenticity, or a yoga class must be renamed 'mindful stretching' because the teacher is not Indian.


He adds that especially in Singapore, where "we inhabit multiple spaces and multiple identities", to deny authors the "right to write and discuss all cultures which find a place here" is to "perpetuate the tyranny of a 'mono' viewpoint".

Author Peter Augustine Goh, who is Chinese but grew up in Malaysia and writes in Malay, is an example of a Singaporean writer who identifies with multiple cultures and identities.

He says: "I grew up speaking and writing in Malay and the community welcomes and considers me as a part of them because I understand the culture, religion and lives. Readers will ask me when I am going to write my next book and, to me, this is a sign that they see me as a part of them."

Singaporean author Meira Chand, who is of Indian-Swiss parentage and has lived in London and Japan, is another writer who has drawn from other cultures for her work. She has written from the viewpoints of Japanese, British, Indian and Chinese-Singaporean characters, as well as in the person of a murderess, a man, a child, a nun and an ancient with dementia.

"While I write, I am these people," she says. "It is the writer's gift to have the ability to slip in and out of different skins. Whether the writer has the talent and compassion to pull this off is quite a different matter."

Poet Joshua Ip echoes a similar sentiment on cultural appropriation.

He says: "Every writer should have the right to write whatever he wants. And every reader should have the right to tell him it's rubbish."

How an artist draws from the cultures of others is important, says Mr T. Sasitharan, director of the Intercultural Theatre Institute.

"This freedom of the artist to use an aspect of some culture other than his own carries with it a serious and profound responsibility to understand and be sensitive to its context, history and politics," he adds.

"In the final analysis, it comes down to artistic empathy, creativity and craft. The way in which diverse cultural elements hang together in a work and how they are received is precisely the line which separates the artists from the pretenders, the artists from the appropriators."

Artist Bani Haykal, an associate artist with home-grown theatre company The Necessary Stage, says that while he is sympathetic to Shriver's argument, he believes the crux of the issue lies not in cultural appropriation, but rather "the imbalances of power relating to forms of imperialism and hegemony".

In a reference to Shriver's speech about how fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats, he says: "Wear as many hats as you'd like. At the end of the day, we need to remind ourselves that they were all accessories in a masquerade to express an idea or situation.

"The trick is to be vigilant at identifying hegemony."

Chand, who also traces the cultural-appropriation debate to its roots of "rightfully" defending the rights and dignity of minorities, cautions however that "something innocuous can turn toxic if allowed in excess".

She says: "Something has got out of hand if sushi must be taken off a menu for fear of offending Japanese authenticity, or a yoga class must be renamed 'mindful stretching' because the teacher is not Indian."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline ''Writers should be free to draw from other cultures''. Print Edition | Subscribe