There was one massive news topic on the literary landscape this week, and that was the controversial keynote speech given by US author Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) at the Brisbane Writers Festival on the subject of ‘fiction and identity politics’. Far from taking the stance of inclusion expected by the festival organisers, Shriver spoke out against what she sees as a cultural oversensitivity ‘fad’ and voiced her resentment at the idea of having to ‘seek permission’ to write about someone from another race or culture. She said she didn’t believe that any writer should be restricted in what or who they could write about. Some found her words hurtful, others felt that she was speaking sense, albeit in a harsh, clumsy way.
The topic came to my attention through an article in last Saturday’s Guardian. A young, black Muslim writer, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, was present at the event and was so offended by what she heard that she walked out of the room in protest. It was not something, she says, that she has ever been moved to do before, but she felt that Shriver’s attitude was representative of a greater ignorance:
‘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.”’
Lionel Shriver herself had made no apologies for her views, instead setting out her stall at the top of the speech by saying:
‘You have to hand it to this festival’s organisers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.’
She started with an anecdote about a recent news story – a tequila-themed party at a US university where students were reported to the university administrators for wearing sombreros and making some of their (Latino) classmates feel uncomfortable. The offenders were officially reprimanded for racially insensitive behaviour. “The moral of the sombrero scandal is clear,” Shriver said, apparently wearing a sombrero on stage as she recounted the incident, “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
Shriver then went on a broader rant about anybody being offended by racial appropriation, regardless of the circumstance, which seems willfully ignorant.
The full transcript of the speech is here if you care to read it. I’d love to actually see a recording of it for a clearer impression of the nuances. It would seem that part of the objection was not only to what Shriver was saying but to the sneering, dismissive way in which she said her piece. Get over yourselves seems to have been her overall message. And how could that fail to get people’s hackles up?
Taking a more moderate stance than either Shriver or Abdel-Magied is Yen-Rong, who was also present at the talk as a festival volunteer. On her personal blog, she acknowledges the limitations of only writing about what we know, but she too was dismayed by Shriver’s blasé and condescending attitude:
‘Shriver kicked off with a story about a bunch of college students being accused of cultural appropriation, all because they wore sombreros at a tequila party. I nodded along internally. It did sound a bit ridiculous, after all. She then continued with what can only be described as a blistering critique of political correctness and cultural appropriation. As the minutes ticked by, I felt myself feeling more and more uncomfortable with the things Shriver was saying.
‘She took aim at those criticising a white, British writer for penning a novel from the perspective of a young Nigerian girl. She poked fun at those who ask that others not speak or write on their behalf. She defended the right for writers to offend. She blatantly rejected the notion of identity. And she did so under the guise of expressing dangerous ideas.’
Putting the case for both sides of the argument, Nesrine Malik writing for the Guardian, reasons:
‘To demand that writers not encroach upon the experience of others is a death sentence that seeks to limit us not only by what we know, but also by our place in a hierarchy of inequality. The most valuable literature not only teaches us what we do not know about others (and ourselves), but also reminds us that common human traits – love, fear, loss, family – bind us together both vertically throughout history but also horizontally across race, gender, disability and sexual orientation .
‘Abdel-Magied writes: “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.”
‘But will discouraging people from writing about these things necessarily open up the opportunity for others to do so? The answer is to make sure more voices are amplified to both challenge stereotypes by white or male writers, and also tell their own stories.’
I really was of two minds about discussing the topic here at all as it’s not something I’m sufficiently informed about, nor do I belong to those demographics that feel marginalised and/or unheard. I also wouldn’t wish to offend anyone who struggles with such challenges by voicing a stupid, uninformed opinion. But the point is that this is an extremely important subject, and if any good can come out of Shriver’s undeniably insensitive approach, it is surely the highlighting of a topic that clearly needs far more consideration and discussion.
The incident has also sparked a further debate in Australia about censorship (ie. should Shriver have been allowed to express such views, so inflammatory that the festival organisers have officially distanced themselves from her message?), as well as artistic licence and respect for minorities.
On a final note, in an essay for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino made this sadly probably valid point:
‘A common lesson in every fight about cultural appropriation is that no one appears to be changing anyone else’s mind. Shriver wanted her detractors to be less touchy, and instead she reinforced their position. The Brisbane Writers Festival’s response to Shriver will, in turn, underline her conviction that free expression is being stifled. On this topic, as on most, audiences self-sort after every flare-up; opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.’