Last night Saturday Review discussed American Dirt and Cultural Appropriation. I have a personal interest in the subject . When I was writing Brushstrokes in Time at the same time, in Montreal, Madeleine Thien was writing Don’t Say We have Nothing. Our novels have in common: the locations, the Cultural Revolution playing an important part, the muse – in Madeleine’s book it is music and in mine the visual arts. The difference between us is that she is Canadian and I am English and the colour of our skin.
The material in my novel has more authenticity than hers. Why? Thanks to Qu Leilei. I interviewed in depth the founder of the Stars Art Movement over three years. Leilei was eyewitness to the historical events in my novel. He was present in Tiananmen Square in 1966 when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to over a million teenagers. He was present in Tiananmen Square in 1976 when the people rebelled and mourned Zhou Enlai. He was on the Stars March to Tiananmen Square in 1979. He was at the trial of Democracy leader Wei Jingsheng who believes Leilei saved his life. His father Qu Bo was a popular novelist as well as the senior administrator in charge of the manufacture of railway rolling stock and for a short time -the navy. Madame Mao turned a part of Tracks in the Snowy Forest into her model opera Tiger Mountain. His father knew Mao, Zhou, Lin Biao etc. The stories which form the historical background to BiT were unique and authentic. Madeleine’s book was not accused of Cultural Appropriation even though she is Canadian and her parents come from Malaysia whereas mine was .
Agents told me that despite BIT being well written, fascinating and a page turner they wouldn’t be able to sell it as I am NOT Chinese. That is why it is published by an Indie publisher. Claret Press was brave to take it on but being an Indie distribution and recognition is hard. The discrimination begins with censorship in many cases. We have come to accept colour blind casting is desirable in theatre, film and TV. What matters is the quality of the acting. The same is true of literature –it is not important what the author looks like but where their book is any good.
The good news for me is that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is not German. Drachenhaus Verlag will launch the German translation of Brushstrokes in Time at the Leipzig Book Fair in March.