On September 11 I wrote about an article in the Guardian by black Australian Muslim author Yasmin Abdel-Magied. Her piece, “As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her,” describes how Abdel-Magied was deeply triggered by a speech by novelist Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin and other books) at the Brisbane Writer’s festival. In fact, Abdel-Magied was so offended that she walked out of Shriver’s talk. She was offended for two reasons: the pervasive “cultural appropriation” of white writers (Persons of No Color) dealing with the lives and experiences of minorities, and the fact that by writing about such minorities, PONCs were in fact denying minorities the right to publish their own novels. Abdel Magied:
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.
As the chuckles of the audience swelled around me, reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern, I breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.
. . . In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality. 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 kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote is the same force that sees people vote for Pauline Hanson. It’s the reason our First Peoples are still fighting for recognition, and it’s the reason we continue to stomach offshore immigration prisons. It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.
Those are strong accusations, bordering at last on Shriver’s being complicit in racism and bigotry. But did her speech justify these accusations? Was it so offensive that Abdel-Magied was justified in walking out?
The answer is no, as you can see by reading the transcript of Shriver’s full speech just published in the Guardian, “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” Here you see a thoughtful defense of writing about others different from you, as well as an awareness that so doing will step on some toes and raise criticism. But the arrogance and condescension described by Abdel-Magied aren’t evident, nor is there any notion that Shriver is trying to deny minorities a place in literature.
I’m aware that people like sound bites and short pieces these days, but I urge you to read Shriver’s full speech and think about it. It’s not only thoughtful but eloquent. Here are a few excerpts:
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?
I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.
But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.
For who is the ultimate arbiter of whether and what an author can write about groups different from themselves? Is Abdel-Magied the one to give permission to write about blacks, women, or Muslims—or all three at once? Certainly she can protest what she sees as appropriation or racism, but what if others don’t? As I mentioned earlier, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel by a white man (William Styron) about a black man, was criticized by some blacks but lauded by others.
Shriver then mounts a spirited defense of “fictional appropriation”:
This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.
. . . 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.
Now minorities might demand that stories about their culture must “be authentic,” but if you think about it that is bogus. As Shriver notes, there is no uniform “authentic” experience within an ethnic group, just as you can’t tell a lot about a person based on their ethnicity alone. And what “authenticity” is there in the magical realism of Alice Walker or Salman Rushdie?
What Abdel-Magied is insisting, I think, is that “minority” literature must be a literature of oppression, and others who were oppressed cannot write about it with authenticity. But I doubt that, for after all there is such a thing as research (the kind Steinbeck did before writing about “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath), and if the writer fails to convey some semblance of reality—one that would draw the reader into the book—that book will fail.
The insistence that a sense of authenticity derives only from the “lived experience” of the oppressed goes against all fiction, and, says Shriver, leads to a form of noxious “identity fiction” that demarcates certain areas as off limits to others (Shriver has, after all, been strongly criticized by some reviewer for writing about others, like Armenians):
Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post [Shriver’s novel The Mandibles was criticized in The Washington Post for portraying a black character as degraded] is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.
Near the end, Shriver talks about the falsity of assuming a homogenous identity of any group, and the presumption that members of that group not only are the best ones to write about it, but, when others do, push minorities to the margins (I take strong issue with that given the popularity of recent novels as well as nonfiction books about minorities):
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
You may disagree with the above, or with other things that Shriver said, but I don’t think you can characterize her talk as “a tirade. . reeking with the stench of privilege.” It is a thoughtful analysis of the role of a fiction writer in a culturally diverse world.
And Abdel-Magied? She couldn’t even stand to listen to Shriver, and stomped out of the auditorium in tears. Abdel-Magied’s victim narrative had already been formed before Shriver’s speech, and she couldn’t bear to hear anything that contravened it. That’s a pity, for there’s a conversation to be had. Instead, Abdel-Magied wrote an overheated screed in the Guardian accusing Shriver of fomenting racism and bigotry. Without listening to her entire talk!
Well, Abdel-Magied has the right to express her views as she wants, but the kind of literary world she wants is bowdlerized, with people setting themselves up as authorities about who is authorized to write about what.
And, by the way, let me take this opportunity to tout one of my own favorite novels, which deals with the situation of the British in India, and their treatment of Indians right before Partition, with sensitivity and grace. It’s The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, which, along with its Booker-Prize-winning sequel Staying On, I consider the greatest unappreciated novel in English of the last century. (Christopher Hitchens seems to have agreed.)