Following the dustup surrounding Lionel Shriver’s speech in Brisbane last week I thought it might be useful to provide a summary and to gather into one place as many links as I could. While I’m sure much of the outrage was confected, and indeed planned for, the underlying debate around Cultural Appropriation is of ongoing relevance. For me it began with a report in The Age of 11 Sept 2016:
Brisbane Writers Festival has been swept into a storm of controversy after the opening address of American author Lionel Shriver caused members of the audience to walk out.
This report was seemingly in response to an article in the Guardian of 10 Sept by Yassmin Abdel-Magied headed:
As Lionel Shriver made light of identity I had no choice but to walk out on her
referring to Shriver’s BWF opening address of the previous night, ie. Fri 9 Sept. At this point we understood that Shriver had claimed the ‘right’ as a writer to stand in the shoes of/to represent the views in her fiction of any person of any gender, ethnicity or colour that she chose. And that Abdel-Magied claimed that this represented ‘cultural appropriation’, with which view I largely agree. The Age further reported Festival volunteer Yen-Rong Wong as saying:
The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share.
A “Right-of-Reply” event hurriedly organized by the BWF was held on Saturday night, 10 Sept to give speakers opposed to Shriver a forum for their views. Then on Monday, 12 Sept the key players were all interviewed on the ABC’s The World Today. The following day my favourite commentator on all things cultural, Helen Razer in (pay-walled) magazine Crikey, appeared to suggest that Shriver was known for her opposition to ‘political correctness’ and that BWF may have been courting controversy for the sake of publicity.
At about the same time, the New York Times put up an article about the affair with, embarrassingly, a great deal more detail than was available in The Age, claiming amongst other things that the Right of Reply symposium was deliberately timed so that Shriver would not be able to attend, and that the text of Shriver’s speech had been taken down from the BWF website. This last was frustrating for those of us interested in the debate as we had very little idea what Shriver had actually said until finally, on 13 Sept, the Guardian obtained and put up a transcript.
So who is Lionel Shriver? She was born in North Carolina in 1957 and changed her name from Margaret to Lionel as a teenager. She has always been explicit that she did not wish ‘female’ to be her primary identity. Shriver is the author of 13 novels, most notably We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) and her most recent, The Mandibles (2016). Blogger Kate W of booksaremyfavouriteandbest went to see Shriver at the Melbourne Writers Festival the previous week (Sun. 4 Sept) and wrote, “She is, without question, one of the most compelling and powerful authors – no, people – that I’ve ever heard speak.” Kate, who has reviewed a couple of Shriver’s books (Double Fault and Big Brother) cited an article from earlier this year by Shriver, Gender – Good for Nothing which begins:
From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses …
In the article Shriver makes a compelling case that second wave feminism with which she grew up has failed to eradicate male/female differentiation. That, because it has become accepted that we are now able to choose our gender identity anywhere along and beyond the LGBTI spectrum, it is exactly those old male/female stereotypes that we use to determine our orientation. She writes:
I am often asked how I manage to write persuasively from a male character’s point of view, which I do frequently… the crucial constituents of our characters have little to do with gender, unless we insist on labelling clumps of qualities—forcefulness, violence, inability to cry; tenderness, consideration, inability to drive—as exclusively male and female, which they are not.
In her BWF address, and I strongly recommend that if you have got this far, that you read it in full, she makes a series of ‘commonsense’ examples about dressing up in other peoples’ clothes, leading up to her central argument:
What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.
I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.
Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.
The young woman who challenged Shriver, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “is a mechanical engineer, social advocate, writer and petrol head and is the 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.” It is clear from her bio that she pursues a career as a ‘public intellectual’ with a high profile on programmes like Q&A. In her Guardian article she writes:
[Shriver’s] question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?
Not every crime writer is a criminal, Shriver said, nor is every author who writes on sexual assault a rapist. “Fiction, by its very nature,” she said, “is fake.”
There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.
Cultural appropriation, Abdel-Magied concludes, is a “thing”. Colonisation has taken everything from peoples all around the world, should they now also surrender their identities?
Interestingly, I have not seen any comments by Aboriginal writers on this issue. Googling Anita Heiss brings up a Twitter post from a month or so ago “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm”. Heiss has addressed the issue of who should write Aboriginal stories previously in Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003) which I reviewed earlier this year.
Finally, let me knock down a straw man of my own. It is often said that in a multi-cultural society, and indeed in a multi racial world, that authors fail to properly represent society if they present a mono-racial picture, and as it happens I made just that criticism recently of Liane Moriarty. So let me be clear. I do not think male authors should not have female characters. I do not think white writers should not have characters of other ethnicities or colour (or class). I think they should fill their books with such characters, just not the protagonist. What they should not do, what the members of any dominant culture should not do, is attempt to pass themselves off in their fiction as representing the views of an oppressed culture. The stories of the oppressed are not ours to tell. Middle class white men back off!
We generally acknowledge that white men in management (and politics) will have fewer opportunities for advancement until women and people of colour have taken their rightful place amongst them. It has been clear for some time that the same must apply to white writers. That is not a denial of their rights, but simply a reduction of their privileges.
I do not think fewer white men should be published, as MST has pointed out the problem is not in publishing but in what receives attention. I don’t even think white men should be stopped from telling the stories of women and people of other ethnicities. But I do think we should call them out when they do.
26 Sept 2016. Shriver has replied in the NYT (here).Thanks to Tim Harding of The Logical Place, who reposted the Shriver Kerfuffle, for putting this up.
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