Cultural Appropriation


A debate about cultural appropriation recurs in literary circles. I recall Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, debating it to himself. What did he know about the Jews and what they had suffered? The book should be written by a Jew, he reasoned, in the same way that a First Nations author should have written another of his classics, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. Tom had his critics about appropriating the story, yet who better to tell it than a well-recognized, well-respected author with no agenda of his own other than to tell a compelling story?

When I looked at the story of the Ethiopian athlete, Feyisa Lilesa, I doubted my credentials: what did I know about Oromo culture or Ethiopian politics, let alone elite running? Feyisa had made his protest at the 2016 Olympic Games to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Oromo people because that was the only way he knew to express his despair and determination. So few stories are heard in the West about Ethiopia and he did not know anyone who could write it all down in a readable story. Journalists picked up the protester’s story immediately after the Games and he held public attention for a few months, regarded as a hero in his own country and as a topical talking point outside it.

He was ready and willing when I approached him to tell the story. He sees the book’s purpose as similar to that of his unspoken but powerful message at the Olympics: let the world know what is happening in my country. I the runner, he said, could train hard for years to win a medal and raise my crossed arms in the nonviolent protest sign. You, the author, can research and write the story over 3 years and get the message out in a book.

Go forward four years plus to the book’s publication: A Time To Be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story, just ahead of the postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021. Readers so far are saying that they are learning a lot about a totally different culture beyond the runner’s personal story and are appreciating the life behind the protest.

Now another debate rages: has the IOC made the right decision, prohibiting any kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda. This will be the subject of my next blog and podcast.

I have also started a podcast series. The first one is on the same topic as the blog above:

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