Friday, February 16, 2018

Leslie Karst: Appropriation or Appreciation?

LUCY BURDETTE: I love Leslie Karst's culinary mysteries and so I'm thrilled that there's a new one coming very soon and I have it ordered. If you love food and mysteries, these are for you too. However, today she has a confession to share with her readers...and us...

Buon giorno, tutti! I write the Sally Solari culinary mysteries, set in the beautiful beach town of Santa Cruz, California. My protagonist is descended from one of the original Italian fishermen who arrived in Santa Cruz from Liguria in the 1890s, and her father is fiercely proud of Solari’s, the family’s traditional Italian seafood restaurant out on the hundred-year-old wharf.

house-made pasta with clams

But although Sally practically grew up in the kitchen of her dad’s old-school restaurant, she is also sympathetic to the “food revolution” that has recently descended upon the town’s surprised old-timers. And when she inherits her aunt’s trendy restaurant, Gauguin, the dynamic between Sally and her father—hurt that his daughter no longer wants to work at Solari’s and convinced she now looks down on her family heritage—grows tense.

From all this, you may well surmise that, like Sally, I am also of Italian heritage—and many of my readers, and friends, do in fact assume this to be true. After all, I write about an Italian American family, I speak some Italian, and I have the olive complexion and (once-)brown hair of una vera Italiana. Indeed, I myself had always assumed I had, if not Italian, at least some sort of Mediterranean blood running through my veins.

But the sad truth is that I recently had my DNA test done, only to discover that, alas, I possess no Italian—or Mediterranean—ancestors whatsoever. Così triste!

Santa Cruz artichokes

So what does that mean to me, as an author of these stories about an Italian American family?

There’s been much discussion of late about “cultural appropriation” in literature, the idea that writers shouldn’t create characters with cultural or ethnic attributes different from their own. In other words, the argument goes, a young man of European descent who’s lived his entire life in Vermont has no business making his protagonist an elderly, Kenyan woman. The problem, of course, is that taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that women couldn’t write about men, gays couldn’t write about straights, and the wealthy could not write about the poor. And where would that leave us authors of fiction?

But I do get the concern. When you try to create stories about cultures far different from your own, it’s easy to fall into the trap of false stereo-types and tropes. But the key word here is “easy.” Yes, it can be easy to slide into cliché, but that’s not because of the attempt to write about another culture; that’s because of bad writing.

espresso—the writer’s friend

It seems to me that the key to being respectful in one’s writing is to do your best to truly understand your subject and your characters. Which doesn’t mean you can’t create a Japanese side-kick if you’re from New York City. But if you’re not familiar with the culture you better damn well do your homework first: hang out with some Japanese or spend time in the country; study the language; read books written by Japanese authors.

In my case, I’m not actually all that different from my protagonist, who is a fourth-generation Italian and thus relatively far-removed from her ancestral roots. Nevertheless, Sally’s culture is unlike mine in significant ways: she’s twenty years younger than me, was raised Catholic, and has older relatives who are still very much “Italian” in their sense of identity.

from the New World yet so very Italian

Yet I feel comfortable about writing the character. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for over forty years and have known numerous members of the Italian American community, some quite well. And I do my research: reading oral histories of the old-time fishermen, interviewing the guys who operate the davits (boat cranes) out on the wharf, researching the cuisine the Ligurians brought with them to California, and, of course—the very best part—sampling myriad dishes at my local Italian restaurants!

Solari’s Linguine with Clam Sauce

But most importantly, I have profound respect and affection for the community, whose vital contributions have helped make our town the special place it is. And if I can bring a sense of that vibrant community to life on the page so that others may learn something of the history and culture of my beloved Santa Cruz, then I am content.

What about you? Readers: How do you feel about characters who are culturally different than their creators? And authors: What do you think of the issue of “cultural appropriation”?

About Death al Fresco

It’s early autumn in Santa Cruz and restaurateur Sally Solari, inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, the artist for whom her restaurant is named, enrolls in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when Sally’s dog sniffs out a corpse entangled in a pile of kelp.

The body is identified as Gino, a local fisherman and a regular at Sally’s father’s restaurant, Solari's, until he disappeared after dining there a few nights before. But after witnesses claim he left reeling drunk, fingers begin to point at Sally’s dad for negligently allowing the old man to walk home alone at night. From a long menu of suspects, including a cast of colorful characters who frequent the historic Santa Cruz fisherman’s wharf, Sally must serve up a tall order in order to clear her father’s name.

The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. She now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts. The next in the series, Death al Fresco, releases March 13th.

You can visit Leslie on Facebook , and you can go to her author website  to sign for her newsletter—full of recipes and fun Italian facts!—and to purchase all her books.


  1. Congratulations on the new book, Leslie. “Death al Fresco” sounds quite intriguing and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    As for the question regarding characters who are culturally different from their creators, I think it’s one of those “mountain out of a molehill” things since we readers would never know it if the author is as industrious as Leslie in researching and making certain the character is appropriate to the culture.
    If Leslie hadn’t “confessed” to not being Italian, her stories certainly would never have given her away . . . .

  2. Waving hi to my pal Leslie! I love this series, as you know, and I'm so excited it's continuing. I'm with you on writing about people of other whatevers - research, respect, understand, and then write.

  3. Leslie, the book sounds like great fun ... and you had me at FRESH PASTA.
    It is tricky writing from a cultural perspective that's not your own. Especially when it's your protagonist in whose head you hang around for a good part of the book. And some cultures are trickier than others. I've written a lapsed Catholic with advice from my many friends. Southern women, probably the biggest reach. This is why we have advance readers.

  4. Tony Hillerman--clearly not of the Navajo or Hopi people--yet, his respect,research, love, and writing ability created legendary characters and sense of place and culture.

    And, Leslie, maybe your DNA didn't reveal a Mediterranean heritage, but perhaps in another life? ;-) Your latest sounds like a terrific read--just right for a gloomy Ohio day!

  5. I am on the board of the Friends of the Key West Library, and among other things, help with the lecture series. One of our speakers was Edmund White, who read to us from his new book in progress. He's an older gay man and he was writing a young southern woman--and it was priceless! A really good writer can do about anything, I suspect.

  6. Good morning Leslie and kudos on the newest book. I have to admit I rarely read food books, get too hungry and have to put the book aside and head to the kitchen!

    What a good question this morning.
    "Readers: How do you feel about characters who are culturally different than their creators?"

    Other than the caveat that a lot of research needs to happen, I see no problem. If there were, no writer could write in a voice other than her own, same sex, same gender, same ethnicity, same old same old. How dull would that be? I doubt Agatha Christie was ever male, Belgian or had a moustache. Well, maybe the latter.

    I liken this situation to my own profession. It never occurred to me that I would have to be Navajo to deliver little Navajo babies, and what would I do this if the mother was Hopi? I never saw the need to be dying in order to care for a hospice patient. Or have a gunshot wound to the gut to scrub in on a bowel resection.

    Big HOWEVER, I did need to know first the basics of care, adding in a soupcon of experience every now and then, and asking/reading/learning about things that I didn't already know.

    One of the first things I learned in Tuba City was to refrain from bathing a patient who was covered in ashes and herbs and grasses, lest I wash away a very expensive treatment from the shaman.

    So I expect all of you, my darling Reds, if entering unfamiliar territory, first read the map.

    PS I was gobsmacked when I learned one of my very favorite writers of British mysteries was a TEXAN!

  7. I agree that, with research and respect, you can write about other cultures. If you couldn't, our books would be far less diverse than the communities we live in. If writers are to be honest when telling their stories, they need to be free to include characters of every background.

  8. This is so fascinating! Because you were writing who you "thought" you were, and that was fine. Now you think that's not who--but it IS who! So yeah, it's great to get your actual DNA, but your writer DNA was formed in a completely different way.

    We could list books here all day where the author is not exactly --or even remotely close to--the characters. We don;t care, though, right? As long as we're convinced.

  9. Although. I do have a writer pal who is extremely talented and well-published. She wrote a book where the main character, a teen aged girl, is a different ethnicity. Her editor waved her off,saying that might be a problem with readers who ARE of that ethnicity. So there's that. So maybe...we also need to look at it from another perspective, just along the way.
    It's tricky.
    Not "getting it right," which is doable, or being convincing, ditto, but how someone else might feel. Hmm.

  10. I guess that if no one wrote about anyone who wasn’t just like them then you wouldn’t have sci-fi, fantasy, or even historical books. After all how could someone alive now really know what it felt like to live in the past? I think that as long as a book is well written and the culture is handled respectfully then writers shouldn’t be limited to just writting about their heritage

  11. I wonder if part of the issue is when the voices from other cultures/ethnicities/races etc. are written by members of the majority population and aren't given the opportunity to represent themselves. For example, if white writers write black characters, but few black writers writing black characters are being published, the landscape is skewed. If there are only X number of books being published that feature a gay main character, and most of them are written by straight writers that's problematic. Writers should write whatever they want, but publishers need to broaden who they publish.

    1. That's a good way to look at it, Ingrid.

    2. That's the way I see it, Ingrid. Is the culture I, a white hetero Christian ciswoman, want to write about marginalized? Are their authentic voices shunted aside by publishing and Hollywood? If so, I would proceed with extreme caution, both for fear of offending, but also to respect and (hopefully) make way for genuine black or Muslim or transgendered artists.

      In Leslie's case, are Italian-American writers being denied a place on bookstore shelves? Don DeLillo, Adriana Trigani, Camille Paglia and Lisa Scottolini would argue against it!

    3. Not even part of the issue but the main issue in publishing. Dhonielle Clayton, who helped found the #weneeddiversebooks movement, has been talking about it in her recent interviews. Publishers still don’t publish a lot of diverse books so #ownvoices writers who are writing their own experiences literally hear, “we love your book but we already have our one black book” and oftentimes, it is written by a white person.

  12. It would be a shame to limit my reading experience to authors who could write only about their gender, ethnic background, and time period. All the historical fiction would fly out the window. I'm super critical about stories set in my home state. If the author gets it right I don't care where he/she is from. It just means they did the research and didn't fall back on trite nonsense.

  13. Hi Leslie! So glad you have a new Sally book--can't wait to read it!

    And, boy, did you touch a nerve with me this morning. I've been dealing with the whole "appropriation" thing my entire writing career, having had the nerve to write a British series from British characters' viewpoints when I am from (as Ann pointed out!) TEXAS! It all goes back to that old "write what you know" trope. Of course we should research but we should also write about what we love and what we WANT to know. If we only wrote about our own lives, fiction would be dull indeed. And as the writer learns to see into the minds and hearts of others, the reader does, too.

    1. I remember being really surprised to hear you were from Texas Debs!

    2. I spoke at a book group this week, Debs, and your name came up in the discussion. One of the woman said, "Did you know Deborah Crombie is from Texas? I thought she was British!"

  14. Leslie, I'm right there with you on writing about "other" cultures. Do you research and be respectful. Otherwise, I'd only be able to write about a middle-aged white woman of stereotypical "American mutt" ethnic heritage, who has spent her entire life in the suburubs. Boring!


  15. I once had THE BEST breakfast ever on the Santa Cruz pier -- it was a calamari steak and eggs!! We are all Italian at heart!

    By the way, Dear Jungle Reds, my sister and I visited Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale yesterday == thinking of all of you!! And, we had dinner at Cornish Pasty. It was wonderful.

  16. A good book, good story or a good character is a good book, good story or a good character regardless of who is writing it.

    Greg Rucka has written novels and comics. He always seems to have great female characters. He wrote a pretty good run working on the Wonder Woman comic series and as you might've guessed he is neither an Amazonian princess or even a woman.

    When he wrote Queen & Country as a comic series and then later turned it into prose novels, his British spy Tara Chace was FREAKING AWESOME!!!

    He's written a murder mystery about a female musician, a series of books with a male lead named Atticus Kodiak and so much more.

    And not once did I think, oh he's a guy he can't possibly write a good female character.

    To Ingrid's point of not being enough published authors writing about their own particular segment of life, that's fine. But someone who isn't gay shouldn't be prevented from including a gay character by their publisher either.

    All I want is a good story with interesting characters told to me in an exciting manner. The gender, sexual orientation or skin color of a writer doesn't concern me when I decide whether or not to read a book.

    Since I'm stupid, I keep it simple. It's all about the story.

    I once read an op-ed in the local paper written by the head of the women's studies department at a local college where she opined that we should all go see a list of movies that were made by women. Not because the movies were good but ONLY because they were made by women. I looked at the list and half of them were documentaries. You have a better chance of me MAKING a documentary rather than watching one.

    It kind of ticked me off because I don't make choices on what movie to see based on the reproductive genitalia of the person who makes the movie. I'll see Star Wars before a documentary. I'd watch Sense & Sensibility (the Emma Thompson version) before I'd ever see a horror film. Because it is about what interests me in the movie NOT who makes it.

    Well, unless it is Jodie Foster, I see everything she is involved in (and I've seen some REALLY bad movies just because she was in it).

  17. I'm with you 100% cliches are lazy writing, period, and they can creep into any writing whether you are writing about your own culture or not. It takes more research to not "write what you know," but it can be great for you and readers.

    Very much looking forward to the new book!

  18. Just finally joining you all now because it's only eight a.m. here in Hawai'i where I am, but what a terrific, fascinating conversation!

    I think Ingrid makes a good point: If certain cultures are mostly only being written about by those NOT from that culture, then something is wrong, in that that the writers actually from that culture are being ignored or not encouraged to write. But this is something we as readers can help with, by seeking out those underrepresented writers and buying their books.

    Thanks so much for all of your comments! (And by the way, I LOVE that you are from Texas, Deborah!)

    1. And congrats on the book, Leslie! I hope you're having a Mai Tai or the like to celebrate!

    2. Mai Tai is my middle name these days, Ingrid... :)

  19. Aspects of this topic are sore subjects with me. I hate it when a third or fourth or fifth generation protagonist of my main ethnic background speaks that language with their family or sprinkles their conversations with words in that language. That is most definitely NOT my experience. I hate it when people expect me to "act" like I'm Italian or expect me to be familiar with Italian cuisine or culture. So, I am turned off by American-born characters who come across more as foreigners than as the Americans that they are. I'm just an American, NOT an "Italian" American. (Leslie, some relatives on my dad's side of the family had DNA testing done, and found out that we are part middle eastern, which did not surprise me.)

    (Trying to step down off my soap box now:-)

    I do enjoy reading well-researched books about other cultures that make me feel as though I've learned something, in addition to being entertained.


  20. The first thing I thought of when reading about the cultural appropriation was Diana Gabaldon and the wildly popular Outlander series, the books, which I've read all and love them. Diana had never even been to Scotland when she wrote her first Outlander book, although she's certainly made up for that since. Of course, I suspect that she did lots of research for that first novel. And, there is Debs and a couple of other authors I know who are American and write series set in England, but who at least had visited the country they write about first. I've always said that there surely is no better guide to London than reading Debs' series. And, James Ziskin writes a great series from the point of view of a female. So, I'm in the camp that you can write about other cultures and places outside of your realm of personal experience or personal genetics. Again, I don't want made-up aspects of the culture; I want dedicated research to a true depiction.

    Leslie, your series sounds, well, delicious. I am looking forward to getting acquainted with it, not only for the food, but learning more about the Santa Cruz area, too.

  21. Great post, Leslie! I love your work and had no idea you weren't Italian, so there you go. I think characters come to an author already formed (at least they do to me), like my black gay photographer Andre Eisel in the hat shop mysteries. The series would be much less interesting without him, just like my life would be without the many varied people I consider my dearest friends. I think if an author is true to their characters and does the hard work then they'll be fine.

  22. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby weren't black but because they created the Black Panther, the Falcon, Storm and other characters, black people saw themselves as superheroes, and now black actors are in all the movies. There are also plenty of black writers and artists. Maybe they primed the pump for minorities to contribute.

    While I think people should respect their culture, they don't have to stick to it. I'm of German heritage, and I don't like sauerkraut. The restaurant is named Gauguin. I guess he should have stayed in France and painted French people. I think James Michener said in Centennial something like culture is only in a museum. It can change and should since most cultures used to have slavery.

  23. Trying to comment again. I do think cultural appropriation is a serious concern. I agree the key is doing your research, paying sensitivity readers, etc. However, another key is not getting defensive when someone does say “Hey, you messsed up my culture and I am upset.” Because just like someone has a right to write whatever they want, others have a right to criticize it. I do think it is more of a concern with marginalized voices (minorities, LGBTQ, people with disabilities) than it is with a non-Italian women writing Italian women because bad rep has bigger repercussions for us.