Recently, American author Lionel Shriver delivered a keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival that not only wasn’t in line with the theme of the festival — community and belonging — but went directly against it. It was, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied wrote, “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.” Yassmin’s great response to it, a public walkout from the speech itself, followed by an article, went viral, so I figured no more needed to be said. The point had been made (if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so now).
Increasingly, however, especially as it has recently been picked up by the New York Times, I can’t help but notice from what I’ve seen on social media — as written by friends, in articles, etc. — that the point has very much been missed. Everywhere I look, I see people bemoaning the notion that we’re heading to a point where only white people can write white stories and only black people write black stories and oh god, the horror of our imaginations being curtailed! It’s empathy! It’s censorship! It’s… completely unrelated to anything Yassmin actually said.
I was confused until I realised that the terms of the discussion are still being framed by Lionel Shriver’s straw-man-speech. By arguing against the idea that she can’t write ethnic characters, Shriver creates the impression that this is what’s being asked of her, which is, appropriately enough, pure fabrication. As Donald Trump has so convincingly shown us this year, though, just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean that people aren’t sufficiently afraid of it to lose their ability to reason. So what is it that Shriver—and other white people—are afraid of losing here? Ironically, it comes down to the key word in Yassmin’s response, you know, the one everyone’s been ignoring, and no, it’s not empathy. It’s access.
The question is not, for example, can a white person write an indigenous person’s story? The question is, should a white person publish a story from an indigenous person’s perspective in a country that is still invested in killing and displacing indigenous people, in a country still overwhelmingly producing white stories in film, literature, and TV? Is it ethical for a white person to use their access, to profit from a story using experiences not their own, but which the market is hungry for because homogeneity is mind-numbingly boring but not boring enough to disrupt the inherent biases built into our society?
This is the context happily being ignored by spurious comparisons to crime writers and the imagination. What is the function of fiction? Should art mirror life or does life mirror art? What are the responsibilities of the artist in navigating unequal terrain? These are some of the oldest and most perplexing questions, but Shriver has no interest in answering them, as we can tell from her meandering speech which centred around a real-life frat party incident of cultural appropriation, and not fiction. (Actually, this might give you a clue about how fiction is married to truth).
In fact, hers isn’t so much a straw man as clumps of straw barely held together by duct tape and crazy glue: Shriver simultaneously argues that writers have the right to be offensive, and that there is nothing offensive in cultural appropriation, be it in life or fiction. She’s in the clear, but in case she isn’t, she’s allowed to be not in the clear, because reasons. Shriver wants to have her colonial cake, and eat it too, thank you very much. The idea that we’re all too “sensitive” these days, is fast becoming a refrain of cranky boomers, a generation who turned repression into an art form. It’s not that we’re too sensitive, it’s just that we’re unwilling to put up with the rampant racism, queerphobia, and sexism which has always been a fabric of society, because we recognise the violence inherent in them.
Remember, we lived under your roof while you set about burning the world to the ground. We know too well the damage these ideas, these harmful practices, can have because we have felt them on our bodies, seen them in our movies, our books, our TV shows, all of them warped into a twisted mirror utterly unwilling to reckon with the world as it is. Until, of course, we force it to, and here Shriver again betrays her privileged conservatism as she sneeringly refers to that “tiresome” time in the 90s when “suddenly every drama and sitcom in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple”. As if those inclusions didn’t save an incalculable number of queer lives, young men and women and genderqueer people who saw, for the first time, the mirror lean toward them, and show, fleetingly, a scrap of their face.
You cannot on the one hand proclaim the power of fiction and empathy, the “wearing of other people’s hats”, to change lives, and then on the other hand say it doesn’t matter at all who wears which hat, or how often. Of course it matters. It matters when, too often, POC aren’t allowed to wear our own hats and instead have to watch white people parade about in what they think our hats look like, or what they fear we look like. It matters when we have to watch our bodies twisted on the screen, by word, and deed. Do we need positive-only portrayals of our peoples and our cultures? No. What we need is a critical understanding of the historical forces that forged the glass in this funhouse mirror, an understanding of who is allowed to see themselves and in what light, and a recognition that for too long, we haven’t even been in the frame.
There are a few telling moments in this furore worth touching on, but perhaps none more than Shriver’s complaint about tokenism and the seeming-contradiction in criticism levelled at cultural appropriation. Or as she puts it, “which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?” Again, this is a false binary, especially since tokenism is a shitty answer given by white people to our question, which has always been about access, about having some measure of control or participation in the stories being told which feature our lives, our histories.
But what’s especially telling here is that Shriver’s garden is apparently all-white, which is a question every writer needs to ask of themselves. If we ask you to portray only your garden—to borrow her metaphor—and it only has people like you in it, I’ve got to tell you, your garden’s probably a bit shit to begin with. No wonder you keep jumping into other people’s fences to steal some colour. Diversity isn’t about throwing in the occasional non-white, non-hetero person into your novel or TV show, it’s always been about reflecting our lived experiences, which is blinding in its array of colour, its variety of flowers. Far from writing only about people like you, you should instead be paying attention to the world around you. If you really were doing that—instead of only staring at your twisted mirror—we wouldn’t need to have this conversation at all.