I found a beautiful garment in a thrift store and thought: What a great jacket to wear next time I give a reading. Extraordinary midnight blue fabric scattered with red, blue, and gold leaves in a print which mimics embroidery. The fabric is heavy enough to have a supple drape. Inside, cream fabric looks like silk with a large woven design. There is no identifying label from a store, or a company, or as I sometimes find in a thrift store item, “from the needle of” and then the sewer’s name, always a woman’s. The work is so well done, there is no sign of the sewing or piecing which created the entire and complete unto itself garment.

There is no sign of its origin or its intended purpose. It has the sleeves of a kimono, open, lined sleeves which drop down in a foot wide rectangle. There is a pair of hand-made clasps at the breastbone. It looks like a kimono, but it is not full length. Googling jacket-length kimono, I find images, all of them contemporary, most of them produced for and marketed in Western venues, many of them priced for people of wealth. The garment I found is not a mass market product, not even an expensive one. I google contemporary Japanese kimono and find prints which are not inconsistent with that of the thrift store kimono. They are a bit bolder and maybe more playful, but what I am beginning to think of as “mine” could fit, though it is more somber and autumnal.

I am thinking of it as a kimono, as I enter the fitting room and I am also thinking of it as “mine.” As I take the garment into my hands, look at the lustrous lining, search for gaps or signs of the kimono’s making, clues to its purpose and its story, I am in the presence of a mystery, a story withheld. Perhaps a story I am unable to read or understand, even if I were to find its “facts.”

I do buy the garment, but it sits in my closet.

I am not sure I will wear it because of the matter of appropriation.

Appropriation is an issue I struggle with in my writing. When I read William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner I was fresh from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. I confess, Styron’s racist impersonation of the rebellion leader disgusted me so much I didn’t even finish the book. I swore I would never write “out of” my voice. Unlike many of my reading and writing friends, I had the same reaction to Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which I also could not finish. Do not even get me started on Kathryn Stockett’s 2011 The Help.

If I drape the kimono over my shoulders and slip my arms into its sleeves and wear it out in public, am I not the same as Styron and Stockett, parading something for my own purposes because of my perception of its beauty which is divorced from its own intent and history?

In the decades since I attempted Confessions of Nat Turner, and found affirmation for my stance in a fine collection of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, I have stuck to my self-imposed rule of writing only out of my own experience and context. But. I am coming to realize that there are some “buts.” I have begun to butt up against them in my work, finding myself transgressing into denied territory.

For the moment, the kimono with the invisible history which brought it to a thrift store in Mebane, NC, hangs splendid in my closet. Given my queer life, the closet is not where it will remain.

More of writing and appropriation of voice, later.ImageImageImage

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