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.
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