Fictionalizing Appropriation: Kamila Shamsie’s Ethics of the Other

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Abstract

As scholars from Spivak and Said to writers such as Shriver and Fee have shown, the issue of Othering and cultural appropriation is an ethically fraught one, and arguments both for and against it are gaining in strength. Yet Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie stakes out a middle ground, one that is also rife with ethical implications. Questioning why American writers and intellectuals fail to incorporate Pakistani characters and figures in their works, she states: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. …She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness.” Shamsie suggests that exclusive writing within one’s own “group membership” fundamentally rests upon an ethical failing. Indeed, while her novels echo concerns with (post)colonialism and speaking, Shamsie uses the affordances of storytelling as a way of overcoming – or at least mitigating – the Othering that is endemic to the creative act of imaginatively entering the life and being of another. In so doing, Shamsie positions herself between the views of art-as-appropriation and appropriation-as-ethically-irresponsible. Reading Shamsie’s 2014 novel, A God in Every Stone, against questions of (trans)national identity, I examine the ethical implications and repercussions of both the necessity of – and the limits to – the imaginative appropriation of the Other.