Free to be you, me – and someone else

Cleopatra, seen here in an Altes Museum Berlin sculpture, may have been queen of Egypt but she was ethnically Macedonian.

Cleopatra, seen here in an Altes Museum Berlin sculpture, may have been queen of Egypt but she was ethnically Macedonian.

Culture vulture that I am, I somehow missed the cultural appropriation wars that have erupted. That’s what you get for going on vacation and unplugging.

First, novelist Lionel Shriver apparently set off a firestorm at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival with a defense of artists using other people’s races, ethnicities, sexualities, etc. in their creations. Then Claudio Gatti outed the comfortable Roman translator Anita Raja as the author of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante novels about the friendship between two poor Neapolitan girls. 

Meanwhile, Bristol University cancelled a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” because students protested white people playing Egyptians and Ethiopians. The article contained this ignorant student remark: “White washing still exists. It’s been done enough in Hollywood. Look at Liz Taylor in ‘Cleopatra.’”

Seriously? Cleopatra was a direct descendent of Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great’s general (and, quite possibly, half-brother) and keeper of Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria. She came from a family that was proud of its Macedonian heritage and married only within the bloodline. She was white, although it is true she spoke the Egyptian language and worshiped the Egyptian gods, the first member of her 300-year-old dynasty to do so and, as it turns out, the last. So for once and for all, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is not a stretch.

Last but certainly not least, Disney had to cancel a Halloween costume that would give the wearer brown, tattooed skin like a character in its upcoming movie, “Moana.” 

Let’s begin by saying that not all cultural appropriation is equal. You can’t put on or take off your skin, so the costume seems offensive. This may be a teachable moment for parental types. Yes, we try to look beyond skin color. But the fact is we cannot change the skin we’re in, and people have suffered because of their skin color.

As for the opera, the ballet and even the theater, casting has been color-blind for a long time. I’ve seen all-black productions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” about Eugene O’Neill’s decidedly Irish-American family, and I’ve heard Leona Mitchell, an African-American and Chickasaw soprano, sing the title role in “Madama Butterfly,” Giacomo Puccini’s opera about a Japanese geisha, sung in Italian. Perhaps “Aida” – also sung in Italian – wasn’t the best choice, but in opera, the most important thing is the beauty of the voice and its suitability to a role.

As for novels, which are entirely works of the imagination, political correctness has no place. I blame not only the appalling lack of imagination in the general population but the internet and its obsession with faux authenticity for this lunacy. Everyone’s so busy trying to be real that they’ve forgotten how to be true. A novel, any work of art, is about psychological truth, regardless of whether or not it has a shred of reality. Case in point – “E.T.” The movie isn’t real. It’s science fiction. But it’s true about growing up and growing wise.

I think I have a dog in this hunt, because like many novelists I write about something for which I have no firsthand experience – gay men. Why do that? I think women are interested in what men do. And I want to explore issues that might be threatening, at a safe remove. We know that men have battered women, for instance. But for a big, strong NFL quarterback to grapple with being a victim of domestic violence – as the protagonist does in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – this allows us to see the issue anew.

Similarly, I couldn’t write a novel set in the NFL without creating a number of black characters. But I present their race matter-of-factly. It’s part of their totality as human beings.

Besides, you write the story you see in your head. Certain plots require certain characters who may not conveniently share your résumé. At the end of the day, everything, everyone you create is a part of you.