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Grey Owl Yousef Karsh

Why I Publish What I Publish Even Though Some Might Find It Offensive: Cultural Appropriation and Publishing

Grey Owl, born Archibald Belaney from England, photographed by Yousef Karsh

I am no naïf. I published Brushstrokes in Time with my eyes open. It’s a story of a girl growing up in post-Mao China and joining the controversial movement, the Stars Art Movement, which agitated for freedom of expression. Many of its participants have been exiled, some jailed and a few, like the artisit Ai WeiWei, tortured. The Stars Art Movement is unknown in the West, and it's an extraordinary example of the human drive to express oneself and the price that some pay for it. 

I couldn't believe my blind luck when it crossed my desk. Yet I hesitated to publish it.

Written by journalist Sylvia Vetta, this author and myself as her publisher, are open to accusations of cultural appropriation. Vetta is not Chinese, has no Chinese ancestry, doesn’t speak the language, and has only been once to Beijing to research her book. Although the book has been endorsed by academics at both Harvard and Oxford, and it's on the reading lists at universities such as Kent, it is undeniably not her story to tell.


And for some, that's offensive.

I am sympathetic to the concerns raised, especially from Chinese people who have suffered human rights abuses. More broadly, I have long thought that men can’t persuasively write from a women’s perspective and find it creepy that a man might want to, for instance Madame Bovary. I remain baffled when white people write from a black person’s perspective, like The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, who was astonished at the hostility that the black community greeted his book. And then there’s the respected conservationist and author, Grey Owl  – real name, Archibald Belaney from Hastings, England – who had to have help applying brown make-up before he met the press. Given that Grey Owl was fighting to raise the profile of First Nations, you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry. (Grey Owl is pictured above)


Recently, three editors in Canada lost their jobs over their support for cultural appropriation, with the fallout hitting the front page of the New York Times. Using Canada as an example, the New York Times called cultural appropriation, 'secular heresy'.


Sylvia Vetta told me that an agent had told her she’d never get Brushstrokes in Time published over fears of cultural appropriation. Although it wasn’t put like that. In the industry we have a new and improved word for it: Authenticity. As is: I’m sorry but we are unable to publish your novel as we prefer to support the authentic voice.


So do I. Yet I published Sylvia Vetta anyway.

Here’s why:

In an ideal world, every person who has a story to tell would be able to tell it. In this fantasy world, people not only don’t suffer oppression from governments when they speak out, they have the skills and resources to express themselves fully and eloquently. It has no income inequality with low wages and long hours, all education is fabulous, no review process titled to favour of white, middle-class men, no publishing industry based on who-you-know. And every manuscript submitted is already exquisitely written.


I’d gnaw off my left arm for that world. Sadly, I live in this one. And in this world, Chinese people are not allowed to write about politics unless approved by the government. Bookstore owners in Hong Kong get arrested, disappear for weeks, and re-emerge on national TV insisting that nothing happened to them and they are deeply deeply deeply sorry for anything they might have said or sold or had in their shop that in any way might be offensive to anyone anywhere. In this world, a Chinese person could not have published Brushstrokes in Time even if as an ex-pat due to concerns over family and friends back in China.

Sometimes, silence is deafening.

I fail to see how colluding with this silence by being silent myself helps anyone. I fail to see how publishing a novel of the Stars Art Movement offends anyone except those in power. When I published Brushstrokes in Time, I didn’t publish a work of someone who was ripping off or stealing from a culture or history that wasn’t her own. I was publishing a profoundly moving story of girl coming of age during a time of political turbulence, and her battle for dignity and freedom. That’s a global story. That’s everyone’s story. That's why I published it.

And for the record, everyone, including ex-pat or second generation Chinese, love it.

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