William Styron and cultural appropriation

Amid all the other overwhelming news, the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt seems to be dying down, but the issue still exists: can an author cross ethnic or cultural lines (and maybe gender and age lines — as well as others) to tell a story.

My answer was contained in a post I wrote not long ago.

Then I came across this piece in The Atlantic by Alexandra Styron, daughter of the well-known and rightly famous writer William Styron, about the controversies her father endured when he publishe The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967.

The novel, told in the first person, is based on the true events of the slave rebellion led by an African-American preacher in Virginia in 1831. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year it was published. Alexandra Styron tells of the anguish her father felt as he, a white Southerner, was denounced as a racist.

He finally stopped defending his work and retired to his writing desk. His subsequent novel, Sophie’s Choice, appeared 12 years later.

Since American Dirt, plenty of wisdom has been dispensed not just on the matter of who can tell other people’s stories, but how it should be done. Sensitively, of course, and without stereotypes or presumption. By rooting your narrative in truth and checking your facts. To these prescriptions, my father might add a couple more, in line with something Hannah Arendt told him when he expressed his worries over whether he could tell the story of a concentration-camp survivor. ““An artist creates his own authenticity,” she said. “What matters is imaginative conviction and boldness, a passion to invade alien territory and render an account of one’s discoveries.” Source: Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today? – The Atlantic

This is an excellent and enlightening article about an author and his work that had a huge impact on 20th century readers.

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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