The Ethics Around Writing in the Voice of Another: An Interview with Paisley Rekdal
An award-winning poet and nonfiction writer, Paisley Rekdal is the author of four nonfiction books and five books of poetry, including The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, Nightingale, and more. Her latest book, Appropriate explores the definition of cultural appropriation, asking if it’s always wrong to write in the voice of another and, if not, what questions we need to consider before doing so.
Rekdal’s work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, Narrative’s Poetry Prize, the AWP Creative Nonfiction Prize, and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, the Best American Poetry series, and on National Public Radio, among others.
She moved to Utah in 2002 and is a distinguished professor at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of West: A Translation, as well as the community web projects Mapping Literary Utah and Mapping Salt Lake City. In May 2017, she was named Utah’s Poet Laureate and received a 2019 Academy of American Poets’ Poets Laureate Fellowship.
I spoke to Rekdal about her new book, what it’s like to be a poet laureate, how her dad encouraged her to read advanced literature from a young age, the line between acceptable appropriation and racism, and much more.
Barbara Platts: You are both a poet and a nonfiction writer. How are these two genres different for you? How are they the same? Do you prefer one over the other?
Paisley Rekdal: I don’t prefer one over the other. They are quite different in the fact that they allow for different types of information to be imagined and communicated. They are the same in the sense that both of them have a wide variety of modes attached to them. You don’t write just one poem. You can learn to write an elegy, an ode, a sonnet. In nonfiction writing you have science writing, philosophy, cultural criticism, memoir, personal essays. There’s just so many different types and kinds of ways you can approach this, offering endless formal opportunities and complexity.
BP: Can you share a bit about your own writing practice?
PR: I tend to write in almost obsessive bursts now. I started out writing half an hour a day, and then I built it up to forty-five minutes, then to an hour, then two hours a day. Then I changed it up to five days a week and two days off so I could make sure I didn’t overwrite something and I had some time off. And now it’s just really tough to get a daily writing practice in with teaching and research, I’ve got to do lots of other types of work. I think of them as writing adjacent.
BP: As students, we’re often told to cultivate a daily writing practice. That’s probably very good to do at first, but I imagine one can veer from that once they get used to it?
PR: And once it becomes a bodily desire. When you’ve written for as many years as I have, and you’re used to writing, you want to write, you miss it, you miss it the same way you miss exercising, and you don’t feel good if you haven’t done it for a while.
When you’ve written for as many years as I have, and you’re used to writing, you want to write, you miss it, you miss it the same way you miss exercising, and you don’t feel good if you haven’t done it for a while.
BP: How did your latest book Appropriate come to be?
PR:Well, it was a book I hadn’t planned to write at all. It actually evolved out of a Facebook post, of all things. Anders Carlson-Wee had just published his poem in The Nation, and it caused quite the ruckus. I had just that week happened to be reading Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s book The Racial Imaginary. In the book, they ask if we can think about this in terms, not of rights or desires, but what are we trying to say via these kinds of appropriated figures? I thought that was a great way of reframing the question. I applied that to the reading of Carlson Wee’s poem and an editor from Norton actually contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book about cultural appropriation. Initially I thought that sounded like a terrible idea. But the reality is, if you teach, you’re going to have a conversation about appropriation because appropriation contains within it so many different literary practices, such as adaptation and motif appropriation. There’s also subject appropriation, which is when we write from the perspective or about the lives of people not like us. Finally, there’s cultural appropriation where we might do some really damaging work that mines these stereotypes about other people. All of us engage with at least some of these practices, knowing or unknowingly. What does it mean to write about your life as it intersects with other people’s? And if you’re inspired by a story you see out there, whether it’s in the news or your friend’s lives, do you have the right to take it? So, it felt dishonest to say I didn’t want to write this book when I’ve been personally thinking about these topics for years, not just as a writer, but as a teacher presented with these kinds of questions by students who are trying to “do the right thing all the time,” but don’t necessarily know what the right thing is, as it seems to change moment by moment, as our ideas about what is creative freedom itself change moment by moment. It was funny because, as I was writing the book, it made me articulate ideas to myself I had taken as commonplace. I realized that maybe I didn’t even hold those ideas as true anymore. And maybe I disagreed, finally, with some of my strongest gut reactions. That was eye-opening for me.
BP: And you write the book in a series of letters to X, a student. Is this character based on a variety of conversations in writers workshops?
PR: Yeah. X is a composite figure. These are questions a variety of students, BIPOC and White, have asked in the workshop. But some of the anxieties are particularly acute among White students who are less familiar with understanding the nuances around race, racial identity, racial formation, and the ways in which race and culture can separate, even as we keep trying to collapse them together. When I was writing to X, I had to think of a particular person I was writing to in order to make the letters, to a certain extent, believable and to solidify my own thinking in response. I wanted to think about a variety of questions I’ve been asked over the years by students and to really use it as an opportunity to show that I myself have changed my mind and may not be completely comfortable with all of the ideas I hold, even currently. I recognize so much of what I believe now is contextually shaped by the historical moments I’m living in and the body I’m living in. I can imagine coming back to this book ten years from now and going, “Oh, wow. I wouldn’t say that.” Maybe in ten years, people will also say, “I disagree with this.” As we become a far more multiracial society, I think these ideas will just become more complex because people will be asking questions rather similar to what I’m asking myself all the time, which is who am I when I live between so many different types of cultures, types of racial identities?
BP: You say in the book, you’re mixed race, half Chinese, half white, and this often leads you to wonder how you should categorize yourself. In all of your research for this book, did you come up with an answer for yourself personally?
PR: I’ve always had the answer to it. This is the dishonesty of the book, I know how I see my racial identity, and I feel very comfortable in my skin, but I was wanting, in the letter, to suggest that kind of radical ambivalence I’ve had to live with that is destabilizing in ways. But, on a day to day experience, I don’t generally feel confused about who or what I am. I find it very interesting that people want me to somehow express, “Well, that’s my Chinese side. That’s my white side,” as if these two things can be so easily separated. They can’t be, and they never have been. And I don’t think they can be for many people. So this becomes a way of trying to make other people feel better about my racial identity, whereas I don’t feel like I need to do that for myself. If there’s any painfulness I have experienced or continue to experience, it’s when people want to insist on a kind of authenticity to some aspect of my identity that I also recognize is nothing but a performance in the end, and a performance designed to make people feel like they have seen something they are prepared to see.
BP: On page 40 in your book, you write, “…to insist that a writer must be from the same group identity as the voice of the author has a dangerous flip side to it: while it warns off writers from blithely taking on subject matters outside of our own experience, it also implicitly warns writers within the same group identity that an authentic experience of that identity does exist—to the group at least—and you may be policed from within.” What would being policed from within in your own group look like?
PR: I think in terms of literature, there are implicit pressures placed on writers of color to write about a very particular and traumatized experience around race, in ways that are immediately accessible. That pressure comes from the white readership, but also, interestingly, increasingly from the BIPOC literary community that wants to challenge and change institutions and speak openly about what its historically experienced. It seems to me that if the outside holds potentially negative views of what any cultural or racial identity is supposed to mean, those ideas can trickle down into BIPOC communities who then want to create or cordon off certain types of subject matter that will authenticate that identity and become a way of implicitly policing that identity.
When I think of certain really wonderful African-American poets who’ve been overlooked by this current moment, it’s because their work has not easily fitted into some of the ways in which we greet African-American writing now. So a poet like Ed Roberson, who certainly has written about racism, is also not writing about it in the ways and with the explicitness that I think some other poets have. So he doesn’t get all the attention he might deserve. With Asian American writers, there’s a similar question: where do we put Asian-American writers who are not writing explicitly in ways that we recognize about an Asian American experience? How do we classify the aesthetics of someone like Myung Mi Kim? How do we respond to a poet like Tan Lin? Largely, we focus on much more accessible and lyric work, like the poetry of Ocean Vuong or Li-Young Lee, and that’s fine. They’re wonderful poets, but the question is, is it that we can recognize and respond to that experience more readily because we’ve been trained to understand and already imagine that experience, particularly in that aesthetic vein?
It’s always a question about if that pressure is coming from without or within. My argument is that, at some point, outside and inside start to share such similar cultural values because the pressure put on success and being seen is so great. It’s very easy to have your aesthetics and subject matters start to shift in order to make sure your work can survive. So that difference between outside and inside becomes far more porous than we’d like it to be.
BP: You dedicate the book to your father who opened your mind to a world of books, as you put it. Can you tell me about your relationship with your father and how he encouraged you to read and explore books?
PR: My dad is a voracious reader. He doesn’t read novels and he doesn’t read poetry. He loves history and the law, but he also knew I liked literature, so he would push books on me at an early age that I was not ready for. He knew I liked horror when I was a kid, so he gave me Edgar Allen Poe. I was going to Catholic schools, so he gave me André Gide’s The Immoralist when I was ten. And The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, because he saw me reading The Chronicles of Narnia. My dad had this idea that I was interested in these things so I might as well read the most adult versions of them. So I would gamely read these things without actually understanding any of it.
My dad is a very conservative person. He has a very different way of reading historical facts than I do. That was fascinating to me though. From a very early age, I understood that interpretation is something that is generated. It’s not inherent to a fact itself. I think that also taught me a lot about literature. The ways in which we wield language, the ways we interpret language are the ways we understand or don’t understand our history and the ways we do or don’t understand what other people are experiencing.
BP: He must love that you became a writer.
PR: I think he’s okay with it. I mean, he’s happy now. My parents were not happy initially, because, of course, it seems like a really unstable job prospect. And it is. It’s a total risk to become a writer. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I basically got really lucky, and I recognize that. I think anyone who makes it as a writer, at some point, beyond talent, beyond hard work, beyond professionalism and dedication, you succeeded because you were lucky. So I think my dad is very happy now because that risk did pay off, but it was not guaranteed to work that way.
I think anyone who makes it as a writer, at some point, beyond talent, beyond hard work, beyond professionalism and dedication, you succeeded because you were lucky.
BP: In your book, you show examples of how something may be appropriative versus something that crossed the line into racism. A good example is when you mention the Katy Perry performance of “Unconditional Love.” Where do we cross that line from it’s uncomfortable yet acceptable to this is offensive and unacceptable?
PR: Well, it was funny. I was teaching that Katy Perry video in my class, and I had to articulate that difference because one of my students said, “Well, is it racist what she does or is it just appropriative?” It was the first time I’d thought there might be a difference between appropriation and racism. In the book, I talk about how if you go to Southeast Asia and you buy a product made by an indigenous tribe that they have given explicit permission to sell and then you display it in your home, that is an acceptable form of appropriation. It’s part of the capitalist global process. If I were to wear a sari at a friend’s wedding in South Asia, that would be appropriative too, but it should also be understood as respectful for the moment because that was the family’s choice and request. Wearing a sari in and of itself doesn’t require I then behave in a way I imagine to be Indian. It certainly does not require that I parody back certain racist stereotypes about Indians. With the Katy Perry video, however, what’s interesting to me is she links bodily difference and cultural dress with innate interior psychological difference. Her song “Unconditionally” is simply about loving somebody a lot. There’s no reason she has to wear a geisha dress while singing this song except to activate that Orientalist trope in which Asian women are so submissive and self-sacrificing that they will literally kill themselves for love. Katy Perry, by dressing as Japanese, links the song’s meaning with Asianness to reify this Orientalist stereotype.
It’s a fine line to draw, but it’s important to remember because oftentimes you’ll see white people with dreadlocks, you’ll see people wearing cheongsams who are not Chinese. There are people who will find this act in itself not just appropriative and but morally problematic. I don’t necessarily find it to be, because I don’t think that being influenced by another culture is inherently and only racist. Dress, music, and hairstyles are unfortunately things that we share constantly. As our cultures change, intermix and evolve, we find increasingly that it’s hard to say that any one object is solely owned by one culture, other than objects and performances that are sacred, which should naturally stay within the boundaries of the culture that holds them sacred. But generally, I believe that appropriation crosses the line into racism when our appreciation of an item of clothing or a hairstyle becomes a way of bowdlerizing another group’s racial or ethnic identity.
BP: What do you hope readers and fellow writers take away from your book?
PR: I hope most of all that people take away a set of terms and lenses into textual reading that allow them to make their own determination about the ethics of appropriation. There’ve been a couple of readers who were frustrated with my book. They say, “Well, just tell me. Can I do this or can’t I?” I think that’s really funny because I spent the entire book telling readers they’re going to have to make their own decision. We all appropriate, thus there might be forms of appropriation you will pursue and others you won’t, and you have to make that determination for yourself. That’s what I want the book to do: teach people how to think through what they believe and why they believe it. They don’t have to duplicate my reasoning. I would be surprised if every reader agreed with me, and I don’t think that’s the point of the book either. I would hope every reader is able to say, “Now I know why I believe what I believe. And now I have a way to look at my own creative process and say, should I do this or shouldn’t I?”
BP: What does your role at the Utah Poet Laureate entail?
PR: So much. I do a lot of public workshops. I go to K through 12 classrooms, or did before the pandemic, to teach poetry. I’m often asked to write poems for occasions like the commemoration of the 150th completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, or most recently a poem for the vaccination doctors and staff with the Salt Lake County Vaccination Program. It’s been fun because there’s a lot I never would’ve thought to write about. I was just asked by a museum to write a poem for their exhibit on mining about Utah’s mining industry, so I wrote about the uranium mining industry and its effects on Navajo communities here in Utah. So I learn a lot and it also makes me really aware of what it means to be a public writer versus a private writer.
BP: And is Mapping Literary Utah part of this role?
PR: Yes. When I was asked to apply for the Poet Laureateship, I said I wanted to create a web archive of Utah writers, past and present, that would then be attached to a digital map of Utah, so people could see for themselves the relationship between writers and place. I managed to do it, and I love the website. I think it looks great. It’s one of my proudest achievements actually, and it was fun because I didn’t know many Utah writers up to that point, but now I’ve got friends all over the state; it’s been a great way of connecting with a literary community. It made me feel much more a part of this place. So, personally, it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself as a community member.
Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist, the editor-in-chief of Sweet Jane Magazine, and the managing editor of content production for Lunch Ticket. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.