That’s MY Voice and You Can’t Have It

I feel the need to apologize to Colum McCann.  Last week I complained in this blog that I was taking forever to read his book, Let the Great World Spin, because he was being profligate with his characters.  Colum, if I may call you that, all is forgiven.  The penultimate chapter makes up for all.  It is a lovely piece, with lots of powerful insights on race and class, beautifully written from the perspective of a middle-aged black woman living in the Bronx in the early 1970s.  How the hell did McCann, an Irish born white guy, manage that?  It puts me in mind of all those who rail against voice appropriation, i.e., those who believe that writing from the perspective of someone whose culture you do not share is to inappropriately appropriate their voice (a quick web search brings up the following type of discourse: “Appropriation of voice, by definition is not a dialogue among equals, but an exercise of power by the appropriator over the minority object, who is thus made an object and not a subject.” (Joseph Pivato).)  I think the real problem with writing from the perspective of someone of a different culture is that it is very often badly done.  But then again, there is also a lot of bad writing from the perspective of someone whose culture is the same as that of the author.  From which I conclude that the real problem is bad writing.  Mr. McCann does not have this problem.

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