Since it’s important to the article I’m going to mention, I note that its author, Yasmin Abdel-Magied, is a black Australian Muslim woman. Her piece in yesterday’s Guardian, “As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her,” is a long whine about how authors of one gender or ethnicity have no right to write fiction that take the viewpoint of someone of another gender or ethnicity—at least when those other people are minorities. By so doing, Abdel-Magied says, they not only appropriate viewpoints about which they have no expertise, but prevent other marginalized writers from getting their voices heard.
This is all bogus, I think, but let’s see what Abdel-Magied has to say. She begins by mentioning that she went to a lecture by Lionel Shriver, who, despite the name, is a woman—a journalist and writer most famous for writing We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Apparently (there’s no record of the lecture, so all we have is Abdel-Magied’s invidious characterization), Shriver began by making light of those who were offended by students at Bowdoin College in Maine who wore sombreros at a tequila party (something similar happened at the University of Chicago about two years ago). The Bowdoin sombrero-wearers were criticized for cultural appropriation, and other students tried to impeach two of them who were members of student government. Shriver’s failure to criticize the sombrero-wearers further exacerbated Abdel-Magied when she, Shriver, began talking about writing from the viewpoints of different people. Finally, deeply and terminally upset, Abdel-Magied stalked out of Shriver’s talk:
We were 20 minutes into the speech when I turned to my mother, sitting next to me in the front row.
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. “I cannot legitimise this …”
As my heels thudded against they grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.
“How is this happening?”
Right there is Abdel-Magied’s first mistake: assuming that listening to something that offends her “legitimises” it. Where on earth did she get that notion? But of course we’ve heard it before. Inviting a speaker with controversial views to a university somehow “legimitizes” that speaker—somehow giving credence to their views. Of course that’s nonsense.
She goes on:
So what did happen? What did Shriver say in her keynote that could drive a woman who has heard every slur under the sun to discard social convention and make such an obviously political exit?
Her 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?
. . . 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.
Shriver began by making light of a recent incident in the US, where students faced prosecution for what was argued by some as “casual racial and ethnic stereotyping and cultural insensitivity” at a Mexican-themed party.
“Can you believe,” Shriver asked at the beginning of her speech, “that these students were so sensitive about the wearing of sombreros?”
The audience, compliant, chuckled. I started looking forward to the point in the speech where she was to subvert the argument.
It never came.
On and on it went. Rather than focus on the ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had, the argument became a tirade. It became about the fact that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a “decent” job — in the eyes of a white woman — he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way. It became about mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction. (For more, Yen-Rong, a volunteer at the festival, wrote a summary on her personal blog about it.)
It was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension. . . The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.
Well, I suspect that, given Abdel-Magied’s hypersensivitity, some of that characterization is exaggerated . You can read Yen-Rong’s description of the talk, which is pretty similar except sees herself “othered” as an Asian. One quote from Yen-Rong’s piece:
Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life. I’m not saying that you should go out and seek such experiences, because it’s pretty awful and no one should be subject to racism – I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between empathising with an experience and undergoing it yourself. You cannot trick or convince yourself into having no identity if other people continue to see you as *that* particular identity.
. . . As a semi-aspiring writer myself, and one who has sunk a significant amount of time and brain power to discussing subversive women and Othered characters in non-Western societies, Shriver’s address was alarming, to say the least. 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. In other words, the subaltern continue to be silenced, and still cannot speak.
Is there a whiff of sour grapes there?
But back to Abdel-Magied, who echoes this same idea: that whites (especially males) shouldn’t be writing about, or in the voices of, marginalized people, for by so doing they’re preventing those people from speaking:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience. [JAC: Whose lens isn’t “skewed and biased”, for crying out loud?]
. . . The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”
The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…”
Whoa, Nelly! Stop right there. How did we get from white people writing tales about other groups to overt accusations of racism, imperialism and dehumanization? I seriously doubt that Shriver conveyed anything of the sort; rather, what we have here is the Regressive Two-Step: someone claiming racism because only those from their group can write about their group. Further, as Yen-Rong notes above, if you don’t enforce that rule, the minorities get “silenced.”
Well, I don’t know whether a “queer Indigenous man” has told his own story (I assume she’s referring here to the Aboriginal people of Australia), but that’s not because white people have silenced them by coopting their stories. It’s more likely that Aboriginals, who were indeed the victims of persecution and racism, haven’t had the chance to become writers. But seriously, are minority writers really silenced by white colonialists coopting their narration in a literary form of “cultural appropriation”? I doubt it. Think of all the popular black writers we have, from Toni Morrison to Maya Angelou to Ta-Nehesi Coates to Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes. . . the list is long. They may have been victims of racism, but were not prevented from publishing because white people told their stories first, and better. Do I need to name famous Indian and Asian writers, too? I don’t think I need to; you can Google as well as I.
I decry any racism that takes away people’s opportunities, but I can’t get on board with Abdel-Magied’s view that only black people can write about black people, only Asians can write about Asians, and so on. The truth is that Asians and blacks all differ from each other, even within their ethnic group. In fact, it’s a form of bigotry to assume that all black people speak with one authentic and unified voice about their experiences. It’s true that the authenticity of some “black experience” or “the Asian experience” may be best conveyed by those who have lived that life, but why should others be prevented from having a try? Remember that imaginative fiction requires that you step into the shoes of someone else and imagine life from their viewpoint. John Steinbeck did that with “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee and Carson McCullers took the viewpoint of children in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Member of the Wedding. Paul Scott did it for Indians in The Raj Quartet, and Robert Graves for Romans in I, Claudius (was the work worthless because he wasn’t an ancient Roman?). Did Steinbeck engage in “unfettered exploitation” of the oppressed farmers? I don’t think so. Was Anna Karenina “invalid” because Tolstoy had only one X chromosome? No again.
And, to use an example of a white writing “black fiction,” what about the The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron? Granted, it was criticized by some African Americans, but it was also defended by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, not exactly Uncle Toms! That itself shows you the diversity of opinion about “authentic” fiction among members of a single ethnic group.
I see no bar to someone writing imaginative fiction from the viewpoint of somebody else, but of course the quality of that fiction will be proportional to the amount of research going into the effort. Steinbeck, for instance, researched and lived among the poverty-stricken Dust Bowl farmers for a long time before writing about them. Melville knew whaling well, and Conrad, as a captain, also knew the sea; both wrote fiction involving seagoing.
It’s my experience that publishers are actively seeking out literature from “othered” groups, not only because it can offer some unusual and moving narratives, and because those viewpoints haven’t been the subject of much popular fiction, but also but because colleges are increasingly incorporating such books into their curricula as a way of increasing diversity. And among those books are some very great works.
In the end, I see Abdel-Magied’s plaints as largely without merit, a cry of “pay attention to ME” from the Perpetually Offended. Let everyone write as they will, for the good stuff will indeed rise to the top, but let us also ensure that those who have unique viewpoints do not have their ambition and talent smothered by bigotry.