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Author Jess Row discusses fiction writing and cultural appropriation

Jess Row is a writer, professor, and literary critic. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Almosa Pirela-Jones

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Author Jess Row is sharing his knowledge and skills with aspiring UA writers this week. 

The University of Alabama’s Creative Writing Master Class is an ongoing series that features contemporary novelists, poets and short-story writers from across the country. This week, award-winning novelist Jess Row is the featured writer and has hosted two events thus far. His first appearance on Feb. 27, “An Evening with Jess Row,” focused primarily on his own experience as a writer coming to terms with his identity as a white male and the privileges this has afforded him. On Tuesday morning, Row’s interactive Master Class, “Risking Everything: Empathy, Appropriation, and Self-Awareness,” helped create a free-flowing dialogue between him and the students in attendance, many of whom aspire to be published at some point.

Much of the discussion of “Risking Everything” focused on defining cultural appropriation, which is loosely defined by a person in power (a member of the majority) takes or borrows some aspect of a minority person’s culture and adopts it as his own. Rooted in the minstrel shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern forms of cultural appropriation include the discussion surrounding white women choosing to wear cornrows and the use of traditional Native American dress as Halloween costumes. When examining such issues in a global world and a purportedly post-racial America, Row begs the question, “Can a white man escape his guilt and privilege?”

Students who attended the workshop were bursting with opinions and questions. One young white man was in the beginning stages of writing a novel centering around the experiences of three black protagonists and had encountered pushback from friends regarding the decision. A young woman recounted her efforts to produce a satirical piece detailing life in Los Angeles, but she was unsure about how to respectfully incorporate characters of color in the would-be novel without her efforts being misconstrued by her audience. The probing question is, in such situations, who has the right to write about what?

Row’s talk ended with an important note: when writing about someone else’s experiences, first ask why. Why write from the perspective of a poor Vietnamese immigrant adjusting to British culture if your own background is middle-classed American-Jewish? However, this does not suggest that a fiction writer may only draw upon his own racial and socioeconomic experiences. With the proper research and careful attention to the nuances of unfamiliar cultures, anyone can pick up a pen and create a character whose everyday reality is world away from their own.

Wednesday evening the Creative Writing Literary Salon provided Row with a platform for a workshop titled “Beautiful Shame: What We Talk About When We Talk About White Writing” that further explored topics such as the trend toward erasure of historical truths in the contemporary fiction publications of white novelists. 

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Author Jess Row discusses fiction writing and cultural appropriation