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Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’

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This is the full transcript of the keynote speech, Fiction and Identity Politics, that writer Lionel Shriver dedicated at the Brisbane Writers Festival

I hate to frustrate you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point this address will not be about community and belonging. In fact, you have to hand it to this celebrations 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.

The topic I had submitted instead was fiction and identity politics, which may sound on its face equally dreary.

But Im afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around identity politics has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies lately come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are allowed to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that wed indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.

Lets start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, whichthe horror numerous partygoers wore.

When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the culprits threatening an investigation into an act of ethnic stereotyping. Partygoers were placed on social probation, while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoins student newspaper denounced the attendees absence of basic empathy.

The student government issued its declaration of solidarity with all the students who were injured and affected by the incident, and demanded that administrators create a safe space for those students who have been or feeling specifically targeted. The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that creates an environment where students of colouring, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feeling unsafe. In sum, the party-favour hats constituted wait for it cultural appropriation.

Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros if perhaps not for long. At the UKs University of East Anglia, the student union has banned a Mexican restaurant from devoting out sombreros, deemed once more an act of cultural appropriation that was also racist.

Now, I am a little at a loss to explain whats so insulting about a sombrero a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sunshine with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travelings, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the keepsake to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, Im more than happy for anyone who doesnt share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.

But what does this “re going to have to” do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: youre not supposed to try on other people hats . Yet thats what were paid to do, isnt it? Step into other people shoes, and try on their hats.

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any route of doing and telling things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-dont-touch. Those who espouse a vast scope of identities ethnicities, nationalities, races, sex and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other people attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

Yet were their authors honouring the new regulations against helping yourself to what doesnt belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowrys Under the Volcano. We wouldnt have most of Graham Greenes fictions, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which hence have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.

In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginals voice though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled because he had not been through a World War I mutilating himself and therefore had no right to appropriate the isolation of a paraplegic we wouldnt have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun .

We wouldnt have Maria McCanns erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt in which a straight girl writes about lesbian men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, its worth noting that we also wouldnt have 1961 s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of blackface. Having his scalp darkened Michael Jackson in reverse Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. Hed be excoriated today, yet that volume made a powerful social impact at the time.

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 appropriationas taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone elses culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another cultures dance, dress, music, speech, folklore, cuisine, traditional medication, religious symbols, etc.

What ten-strikes me about that definition is that without permission bit. However are we fiction writers to try permission to use a character from another race or culture, or to hire the vernacular of a group to which we dont belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that award limited rights to hire an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the route 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 one another and exchanging ideas and practises 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, devoting rise to proliferating proscriptions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively stimulates our work impossible.

So far, the majority of these farcical cases of appropriation have concentrated on manner, dance, and music: At the American Music Awarding 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for garmenting like a geisha. According to the Arab-American novelist Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is white appropriation of Eastern dance, while according to the Daily BeastIggy Azalea committed cultural crimes by mimicking African rap and speaking in a blaccent.

The felony of cultural sticky thumbs even extends to workout: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga educator was shamed into suspending her class, because yoga originally comes from India. She offered to re-title the course, Mindful Stretching. And get this: the purism has also reached the world of food. Supported by no less than Lena Dunham, students at Oberlin College in Ohio have protested culturally appropriated food like sushi in their dining hall( luck cuss in my day, we never had sushi in our dining hall ), whose inauthenticity is insensitive to the Japanese.

author
Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, the winner of the 2005 Orange Prize. Her other volumes include Game Control, A Perfectly Good Family, and Double Fault. She lives in London. Photo: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Seriously, we have people questioning whether its appropriate for white people to feed pad Thai. Turnabout, then: I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue.( I bet theyd swap .)

This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, actually? Who presumes other people voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts terms 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, stench, sensation, or overheard dialogue 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, thats 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 denounced assassins from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.

As for the culture polices preoccupation with authenticity, fiction is inherently inauthentic. Its fake. Its self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who dont exist and events that didnt happen. The name of video games is not whether your novel honor reality; its all about what you can get away with.

In his 2009 novel Little Bee, Chris Cleave, who as it happens is participating in this celebration, dared to write from the point of view of a 14 -year-old Nigerian girl, though he is male, white, and British. Ill remain neutral on whether he got away with it in literary words, because I havent read the book yet.

But in principle, I admire his fortitude if merely because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: When a white male writer writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity steal? the reviewer asked. When an writer pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential scope. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters , not have them for his plot.

Hold it. OK, hes inevitably representing his characters, by portraying them on the page. But of course hes have them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.

This same reviewer recapitulated Cleaves obligation to show that hes representing[ the girl ], rather than exploiting her. Again, a false dichotomy.

Of course hes exploiting her. Its his volume, and he made her up. The character is his being, to be exploited up a blizzard. Yet the reviewer chides that special care should be taken with a story thats not implicitly yours to tell and worries that Cleave pushes his own borders perhaps further than they were meant to go.

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 are able to make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the authors personal experience is part of a fiction writers chore.

Im hoping that crime writers, for example, dont all have personal experience of committing slaying. Me, Ive depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: Ive never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a educator, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we opportunity our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end its still about what we can get away with what we can put over on our readers.

Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesnt belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me merely permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, shutting on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but eventually able to buy the odd new shirt. All thats left is memoir.

And heres the bugbear, heres where we really cant win. At the same day that were to write about merely the few toys that landed in our playpen, were also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various.

My most recent novel The Mandibleswas taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is straight and white. It happens that this is a multigenerational household saga about a white household. I wasnt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at colleges and universities with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed insure just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a phase in the latter 1990 s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a homosexual or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the homosexual rights movement, but it still grew a little bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is lesbian!

Were now going through the same fashionable workout in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and merely write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustnt pilfer others experience, or we have to people our cast like an Id like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

For it can be dangerous these days to run the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the idea that San Francisco reviewer put forward that special care should be taken with a story thats not implicitly yours to tell.

In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, whos black. Shes married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible familys 97 -year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and maintain his progressive kids objections to a minimum. But in the end the gag is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, aims up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, theyre obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.

Behold, the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused this volume of being racist because it doesnt toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook, described the scene thus: The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrived at the Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the street of lawless New York, shes held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever constructed into a cinema, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.

Your author, by implication, yearns to bring back slavery.

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 happen 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 thats no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural outcome of that kind of criticism in the Postis that next time I dont use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

In fact, Im reminded of a letter I received in relation to my seventh novel from an Armenian-American who objected why did I have to make the narrator of We Need to Talk About KevinArmenian? He didnt like my narrator, and felt that her ethnicity disparaged his community. I took pains to explain that I knew something about Armenian heritage, because my best friend in the States was Armenian, and I also guessed there was something dark and aggrieved in the culture of the Armenian diaspora that was atmospherically germane to that volume. Besides, I despaired, everyone in the US has an ethnic background of some sort, and she had to be something!

Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that its a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be, and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU. Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.

I confess that this climate of scrutiny has get under my scalp. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didnt hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grows up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about illustrating characters of various types of races, and accents make me nervous.

In describing a second-generation Mexican American whos married to one of my main characters in The Mandibles, I took care to write his dialogue in standard American English, to specify that he spoke without an accent, and to explain that he only dropped Spanish expressions tongue-in-cheek. I would certainly think twice more than twice about ever writing a whole novel, or even a goodly chunk of one, from the perspective of a character whose race is different from my own because I may sell myself as an iconoclast, but Im as anxious as the next person about attracting vitriol. But I think thats a loss. I think that indicates a contraction of my fictional cosmo that is not good for the books, and not good for my soul.

Writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser on Vox, the author of the essay Im a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Scare Me describes higher educations current climate of dread and its heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity and I am concerned that this touchy ethos, in which offendedness is used as a weapon, has spread far beyond academia, in part thanks to social media.

Why, its largely in order to keep from losing my fictional mojo that I stay off Facebook and Twitter, which could surely install an instinctive self-censorship out of dread of attack. Ten years ago, I dedicated the opening address of this same celebration, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyones right to offend others because if hurting someone elses feelings even unknowingly is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane weve been losing.

Worse: the lefts espouse of gotcha hypersensitivity unavoidably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot tell. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.

Regarding identity politics, whats especially saddened me in my recent career is a trend toward repudiating the advocacy of anyone who does not belong to the group. In 2013, I published Big Brother, a novel that grew out of my loss of my own older brother, who in 2009 died as a result of the complications of morbid obesity. I was moved to write the book not only from sorrow, but also sympathy: in the years before his death, as my brother grew heavier, I saw how horribly other people treated him how he would be seated off in a corner of a restaurant, how the staff would roll their eyes at one another after hed ordered, though he hadnt requested more food than anyone else.

I was wildly impatient with the route we assess peoples characters these days in accordance with their weight, and tried to get on the page my consternation at how much energy people waste on this matter, sometimes distressing for years over a few excess pounds. Both writer and volume were on the side of the angels, or so you would think.

But in my events to promote Big Brother, I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us , or youre the foe. I confirmed this when I had a long email correspondence with a Healthy at Any Size activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadnt even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a volume that was terribly ached by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly “they il be” judged, could overcome the scrawny writers photo on the flap.

She and her colleagues in the fat rights movement did not want my advocacy. I could not weigh in on this material because I did not are members of the club. I received this an artistic, political, and even commercial letdown because in the US and the UK, if only skinny-minnies will buy your volume, youve evaporated the pool of prospective consumers to a puddle.

I worry that the clamorous world of identity politics is also undermining the very causes its activists claim to back. As a fiction novelist, yeah, I do sometimes deem my narrator an Armenian. But thats merely by way of a start. Simply being Armenian is not to have a character as I understand the word.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being lesbian is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity , nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel lately 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, thats sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isnt 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 holding categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we espouse narrow group-based identities too ferociously, we cling to the very enclosures 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 kind , an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

The reading and writing of fiction is patently driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.

The spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, boldnes, and compassion. Writing during the day and read when I go to bed at night, I find it an enormous relief to escape the confines of my own head. Even if fictions and short stories merely do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating obstacles between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson (@ kirstinferguson) September 8, 2016

@Clarke_Melissa pic.twitter.com/ WfWHg9UkXP

The last thing we fiction writers need is restrictions on what belongs to us. In a recent interview, our colleague Chris Cleave conceded, Do I as an Englishman have any right to write a story of a Nigerian girl? I totally sympathise with the ones who tell I have no right to do this. My only excuse is that I do it well.

Which brings us to my final point. We do not all do it well. So its more than possible that we write from the perspective of a one-legged lesbian from Afghanistan and fall flat on our arses. We dont get the dialogue right, and for insertions of expressions in Pashto we depend on Google Translate.

Halfway through the novel, suddenly the protagonist has lost the right leg instead of the left one. Our idea of lesbian sex is drawn from wooden internet porn. Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: thats a devoted. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few phases for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any kind suck. But that doesnt mean we shouldnt make anything.

The answer is that modern clich: to keep trying to fail better. Anything but be obliged to designate my every character an ageing five-foot-two smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina.

We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats including sombreros.

This is the full transcript of the keynote speech, Fiction and Identity Politics, Lionel Shriver dedicated at the Brisbane Writers Festival on 8 September. Her latest volume The Mandibles, is published by Harper Collins .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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