Here is one of those stories that matters even though it preoccupies the Guardian. Last week the celebrated novelist Lionel Shriver gave an address at the Brisbane book festival. It was heralded as being about ‘community and belonging’ but ended up being about ‘fiction and identity politics’. In particular Shriver (the author, most famously, of We Need to Talk About Kevin) addressed the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’. As well as being a condemnatory term for wearing a sombrero or eating Thai food, this is also the current term for ‘making things up’ and ‘using your imagination’. Surely this is something novelists ought to do, you ask? Apparently not. Fiction – as well as non-fiction – should apparently strain very hard to avoid being ‘culturally appropriative’ by writing in the voice of another.
This is the view of one Lovia Gyarkye, over at the New Republic who says that ‘Lionel Shriver shouldn’t write about minorities. The lack of nuance in her 8 September speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival proves that she mostly doesn’t get it.’ Meaning that Lovia Gyarkye must only ever write in the voice of Lovia Gyarkye and Lionel Shriver must only write in the voice of Lionel Shriver. Except it appears that she mustn’t do that, either. Because the voice of Lionel Shriver turns out to be a voice that is too dangerous and upsetting to hear.
Someone called Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who was actually in the audience at Brisbane, wrote an account of Shriver’s talk. It was so absurd, deranged and self-absorbed that it immediately got picked up and reposted by the Guardian. According to Abdel-Magied:
‘We were 20 minutes into the speech when I turned to my mother, sitting next to me in the front row.
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. “I cannot legitimise this …”
There follows a fascinating, drawn-out account of what it feels like to stand up and leave a room.
But we also learn why. Not only did Shriver’s speech not go along precisely with the lines of Abdel-Magied’s own thinking (with Mama’s approval). It was, in fact, ‘a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension’. Having just watched a YouTube video of a talk by Ms Abdel-Magied called ‘What does my headscarf mean to you?’ I can safely say that she seems to be an expert in the arts of arrogance and condescension.
She goes on to explain the perils of people writing in the voice of someone they are not (or ‘fiction’ as we used to call it). But Abdel-Magied does at least know her limits:
‘I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.’
After banging on about colonialism for a bit she writes:
‘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.’
To give them credit, the Guardian have now published the full text of Shriver’s speech. So readers can discern for themselves whether it is in fact a necessary and witty assault on one of the most idiotic, up-their-own-fundament fads of our time or a totally unsubtle piece of foundation-laying for a major genocide.
I suppose it is possible that at some point in the future everybody who writes fiction will have to officially or semi-officially pass all their potential plot-lines across the desks of Ms Abdel-Magied and Ms Gyarkye and their censorious ilk for permission to write or publish. Or it is possible that intelligent and forceful thinkers like Lionel Shriver will continue to write novels that appeal to people for their pertinence while the ‘Mama, I need to leave, the bad woman is making me sad’ brigade will continue to contribute nothing of worth. I expect the latter to be the case. But when that becomes clear to them, who will these auditionee-censors blame?