On 8th September 2016 the American author Lionel Shriver, best known for fictionalising a school massacre in her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, took to the stage at the Brisbane Writers Festival to give a speech about “fiction and identity politics.”
Anyone familiar with the previous controversy surrounding Shriver’s works (particularly The Mandibles, which was accused by numerous critics of depicting Latino and African-American characters in a manner that was both racist and critically misguided) would feel somewhat anxious about the author speaking on this subject, particularly given that she approached the microphone with her face set like a warrior contemplating battle, wearing a sombrero in an act of childish defiance (see image below). It could not have been clearer from the moment she opened her mouth that Shriver was not there to make amends for past misdeeds. She was, in fact, gearing up for a no-holds-barred attack.
Shriver began her speech with the bombastic claim that concepts such as cultural appropriation and identity politics “challenge our right to write fiction at all,” and that telling people which types of fiction they are and are not “allowed to write,” when followed to its natural conclusion, can only lead to the death of fiction writing itself, or at least would make the art “so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”
Right, let’s get one thing straight from the outset. As a budding fiction writer who often feels frustrated by the lack of non-Westernised, non-white, non-cis characters, particularly in male-dominated genres such as science-fiction, I can – to a degree – understand Shriver’s point and would argue that restricting one’s creative process to only include personal identities and experiences would make for dull fiction. Part of creating a feasible new reality in a novel is creating a society populated by a range of characters, and in many cases, it may be entirely appropriate to assign different genders, races, nationalities, etc. to those characters in order to make them more believable and, frankly, more interesting. In fact, I would openly welcome more female, black, queer, transgender and/or disabled characters onto the fictional stage and would celebrate their inclusion in fiction of all genres.
There is, however, an almighty but which needs to be inserted into the above proclamation – in fact, there are several, and so I will try and address each of them in turn.
Firstly, it’s important to really understand who Shriver is referring to when she says “our right to write fiction [is being challenged].” She is, of course, referring to her own right to play around with whatever identity she likes in her fiction, but not only that, she is defending the right of all white, cis, hetero mainstream writers to pick and choose who they want their characters to be today. This is, she reasons, no less shameful than a child playing dress-up with a sombrero, or someone who doesn’t share her “genetic pedigree” deciding to don “a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.”
The problem with such an assertion is so glaringly obvious that it seems bizarre that in the 21st Century, this great era of information and sociocultural awareness, someone still needs to point it out. Put simply, not everyone benefits from occupying the same position of privilege that Shriver does. ‘Playing’ Mexican is not the same as being Mexican, because those with a Mexican heritage cannot remove their skin colour and culture once they’ve had their fun and ‘play at’ being, say, a white female American author with an inflated sense of purpose. Most people with any sort of cultural sensitivity would agree that putting on a pair of lederhosen for the local Oktoberfest for a bit of fun is very different to donning black-face to openly mock the #blacklivesmatter movement (a recent college incident which Shriver resolutely ignores when ranting about tequila parties being investigated for potential racist behaviour).
The reason? The Germans are not a marginalised group of people whose entire history was once (and still is to an extent) narrated for them by people who do not understand what they have been through, and are not prepared to make any efforts to learn. The cultural exchange is therefore reasonably equal. However, the idea that Mexicans and BME groups are on an equal footing with white Americans such as Shriver is laughable… or it would be, if it weren’t so heart-breakingly and infuriatingly misinformed.
Just pick up a random newspaper and you’ll find pictures of Presidential candidate Donald Trump being greeted at full rallies and having his hateful plans to build a wall of ever-increasing height to stop Mexicans crossing the border cheered and applauded, or reports of yet another police officer shooting a black man for no reason (there have been more than 173 fatalities so far in America this year), or reports of another senseless attack motivated by the victim’s religion, or race, or sexual orientation. For these people, race and culture is not a costume – it is an unavoidable element of themselves which is under constant attack, something which they must constantly justify and defend.
A white person playing around with these cultures does not suffer from the same oppressions: they can put on a sombrero, or dreadlock their hair, or emulate the appearance of their favourite rapper. Thus, when people talk about ‘cultural appropriation,’ what they are really referring to is an unequal exchange: one in which the privileged pick and choose the elements they like from other cultures and use them for their own personal profit/benefit, without acknowledgement or appreciation of where these concepts and ideas originally came from.
Shriver might like to pretend that cultural appropriation is little more than harmless borrowing, but the primary thread of her argument – that accusations of racism are tantamount to censorship, and that all writers ought to be entitled to write from any perspective, race, gender or background that they wish – is one that can only really be made from a position of privilege. It reveals Shriver’s underlying assumption that her rights to use other cultures as inspiration (and a source of personal profit, as her eventual goal is book sales) being threatened is a more important issue than the fact that many other writers may not be getting a fair chance at self-representation. Such an argument is positively dripping with arrogance, running a similar ethical gauntlet as other privileged protests such as #alllivesmatter.
It all comes down to this: no one is saying that white writers cannot write about black characters, or that heterosexual writers cannot write about LGBTQ+ characters, or that able-bodied writers cannot write about the disabled, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. In fact, there are readers who would greatly appreciate the chance to read about people like themselves, even if the author of said book is not writing from personal experience. However, that doesn’t mean that a writer wanting to take on a topic or culture that they are not personally familiar with does not have a responsibility to make their representations as authentic as possible. Shriver’s main failing is her inability to recognise that her “genetic pedigree” does not give her an Access All Areas pass to browse and pillage the experiences of others without reactions or consequences.
If you want to write about another person’s struggles, at least have the decency to take the time to try and understand them. Respect that they understand themselves better than you ever will. Be a good ally; get involved in the causes of the culture you wish to represent… and most of all, don’t mistake a demand for authenticity and due diligence for the cultures of others as a personal affront. Despite what you’ve been led to believe, the world does not revolve around you and your kind.
Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival can be viewed in full here.
(Images: The Guardian, and The Influence)