How to Appropriate by Not Really Trying: An Author’s Guide to Writing Socially Marginalized Communities in Romance

This post by Heidi Cullinan originally appeared on her blog on 9/23/14.

I hate to start a post with a dictionary definition, but this topic needs every card laid out on the table. Let’s begin with the beginning. Appropriation is the act of using something that doesn’t belong to you as if it does.

Authors do this hourly. It’s practically our job: we’re professional pretenders. In my published career alone, I’ve appropriated more than I have time to list, but let’s tick off a few. Long-distance truck drivers. Pawn shop owners. Ballet dancers. Football players. Poker players. Italians.

Drag queens. Practitioners of BDSM. Persons with OCD and autism. Transgender women. Gay men.

Some of these things are not like the other. If a poker player reads Double Blind and feels I got something wrong, their personal injury goes no deeper than annoyance, possibly with a side order of irritation. The same goes for the truck drivers and football players and Italian families. None of these groups currently experience deep prejudice. If I screw up when I borrow them for my work, the egg is on my face alone, and they have every right to call me on it. They will do this from a position of if not privilege, at least a confidence in their semi-comfortable place in our common culture.

If I misrepresent the groups italicized above, matters change quickly. Every group listed have been significantly marginalized by the societies in which they exist, and by simply declaring themselves part of that community, the members experience prejudice, social stigma, and often outright abuse. If I screw up when writing about these groups, not only do I have egg on my face, I contribute further harm and insult to persons already bearing a full plate of social struggle. If they simply hear about it happening, that’s bad enough. But if they purchase my book to see themselves represented in a positive way, and I slap them in the face? That’s bad. That’s very, very bad.


Click here to read the full post on Heidi Cullinan’s blog.