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Cultural Appropriation

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Cultural Appropriation

Steven Wells

While I was editing Yes Means Yes, an interesting incident occurred in Portland. It started when two women, while vacationing in Mexico the previous Christmas, fell in love with local burritos.  They were so enamored by the flavorful food they decided to study the skills of local cooks and learn their secrets.  After returning to Portland they opened a breakfast burrito pop-up inside a Southeast Portland parking lot to rave reviews and growing crowds.  Things were going well for several months, including mentions in the press, until a local website published an article that accused the owners of cultural appropriation.  What followed next can be best described as bizarre, and some might suggest typical of Portland culture.  They were besieged by negative comments and death threats.  They quickly closed and removed all public on-line presence.  A flurry of worldwide press started a healthy conversation about the reality of chefs everywhere learning cooking techniques of other cultures. Even the beloved Pok Pok collection of local Thai restaurants, started by a house-painter who traveled to Thailand for inspiration, creates food that is culturally from another place.  A feminist organization went so far as to publish a list of more than 60 restaurants that serve ethnic cuisine but are owned by a white person and demanded they be boycotted.

So, what does this possibly have to do with writing a book on sexual assault?  As I began researching and writing the book, I was keenly aware that I was taking on a subject that is a deeply personal experience for women.  How could I accurately express the point of view of my characters involved in sexual assault?  Based on careful research, first person interviews, and feedback from multiple test readers, I feel confident I have succeeded. In the beginning of the project, I hired a young woman who had just graduated from the University of Washington to consult with me on early versions of the manuscript. At the time, she worked with a fellow Microsoft alumnus who does great work in Ghana through his non-profit, Literacy Bridge.  We met frequently, she read early drafts, and then coached me on the experiences and expectations of female students about dating, sex, and careers. During the middle of the project, eight female test readers, aged eighteen to seventy, read the manuscript and provided feedback that shaped the final manuscript.  During our discussions, I intentionally asked them if it bothered them the book was written by a man.  Without exception, they said “No.”  I had considered authoring the book under a pen name for this reason, but in the end, chose to go with my real name.  And since launching the book, several readers have weighed in, building my confidence that a well written story, regardless of gender, can approach accuracy.  There are limits, of course, and some experiences can’t be learned. But generally, by listening and understanding, knowledge can successfully shape character development.