One of the most powerful novels I have read in the last ten years is The Road Home by Rose Tremain.  I’m not sure how many of you read this tale of an Eastern European immigrant newly arrived in London, but the novel won an Orange Booker Prize, and I have to say that I probably bored friends by pushing copies into their hands and telling them they would gain empathy with the immigrant experience.

So, it was a surprise today to hear Rose Tremain question her right to have written a novel that came not from her own ‘tribe’ (my word, not hers). The reason: cultural appropriation – using the practises of a group you do not belong to tell a story, their story!

She said on Times Radio, “The whole question of cultural appropriation, who we can and cannot be and what we can and cannot say, is very vexing for writers like me because that is exactly what I have done: pretended to be people whose lives are outside my experiences.”

It is a question that has made Tremain, author of Restoration, Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata, consider giving up writing. She said, “It is terrible to engage with someone’s life and do it badly so it doesn’t feel real.”

However, my sense is that she has not done it badly. I still think of Lev, the main character from The Road Home, whenever I’m in Earls Court. For this is where Lev first stepped of the bus with little money, no English and nowhere to bed down for the night. I loved the whole novel. It helped me understand the immigrant experience, the search for work, the alienation, homesickness and the thin thread of hope that enough could be earned to provide a better life for those back at home.

And it brings us to the important question, should writers even try to tell a story that is not from their field of experience? Should Alexander McCall Smith have attempted the tale of Precious Ramotswe? With its Botswana setting and clear-cut African characters, should this Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University have crossed gender, nationality and cultural gaps to tell Mma Ramwotswe’s tales?

Most of us who have read the detective series would say, absolutely yes! For one thing, the stories are of human weaknesses and understanding, with messages that cross cultural boundaries. Another important aspect of the series is that McCall Smith’s stories of Botswana provide a realistic image of Africa, far from Bob Geldolf’s stereotype of humble folks in mud huts facing starvation and war. He shows us modern Africa where people work in offices, drive, go to the supermarket, have offices, hairdressers and like to sit in their gardens and drink tea.

Of course, few writers are as skilled as Rose Tremain and Alexander McCall Smith. But is it not in a storyteller’s remit to imagine, to put themselves in circumstances far from their own? Was our old Homer ever tempted by singing Sirens or did he just imagine them? Did Shakespeare have personal knowledge of the tight, passionate families that came to be the Montagues and Capulets? 

Personally, I believe all authors should explore a story, and we, the readers, should decide whether or not it works.