Officials in charge of an Australian writers festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks. . . .I agree. The notion that writers should only write about people exactly like themselves is pernicious and would lead to the death of real art.
Ms. Shriver had been billed as speaking on “community and belonging” but focused on her views about cultural appropriation, a term that refers to the objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs or culture (or even characters of their ethnicity) by artists or others who do not belong to those groups.
Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work. Ms. Shriver, the author of 13 novels, who is best known for her 2003 book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from cultural appropriation. She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book “Little Bee.”
Ms. Shriver noted that she had been criticized for using in “The Mandibles” the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. And she defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation, if it served her artistic purposes.
“Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said.
I do understand that there are things a writer from outside any culture would be rash to attempt. For example, Jamaican writer Marlon James' Brief History of Seven Killings is narrated by seven or eight different Jamaicans, each of whom speaks a different sort of Jamaican dialect, all faithfully rendered on the page; only long-term immersion in the culture can make that sort of writing possible. If I tried that, the result would indeed be embarrassing all around. But there are also two white Americans among James' narrators, a CIA agent and a reporter for Rolling Stone, and I thought James did a great job with their ways of speaking, too. Was it cultural appropriation for him to use those characters?
Absolutely not; the story he is telling demands their presence, and he did the necessary work to make them believable characters. That is where I would put the focus. I am sure that novels by white people are full of offensive, lazy, ignorant, and otherwise bad portrayals of minority characters, and by all means let us condemn them. But what is missing from those books is the work of imaginative sympathy, not the correct political attitude.
The thing that really irks me about this version of cultural appropriation – the assertion that white people should not write about minority characters – is that it turns ethno-cultural differences into an unbridgeable gap while ignoring every other sort of difference between people. Let's start with the difference between men and women, which I would say is as important in my world as the difference between blacks and whites and Asians. Should men not write about women? If not, how can they write novels at all? A huge part of the craft of novel writing is crossing the boundary between the writer and the character; who is this character, and what would he or she be doing or saying at this point in the story? Obviously it is easier to do this with people more like yourself. But that applies in lots of ways. Can a shy, socially awkward writer understand a social animal like Bill Clinton? Can a graduate of an elite university understand working people in the Texas panhandle? Can an atheist understand religious believers? Can dialogue written in English really capture conversations that were actually held in Italian or Chinese?
It is very hard to understand any other person, even your own brother or sister. Real communication is one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake, usually requiring years of effort to bear real fruit. It is probably true that the greater the cultural gulf, the more difficult it becomes. But should we surrender to that? Should we write off most of humanity as people we will never understand? I refuse to. I insist on believing that by making the necessary effort we can understand other people, including those from very different backgrounds. Are we not all human, with the same brains and linguistic programming?
I would say further that achieving this sort of mutual understanding is the very point of writing novels. Novels show us what other people are like. I insist on believing that talented writers can put themselves into the minds of many sorts of people, with results that do wonders for mutual human understanding. Would it really be better if white authors wrote about an imaginary America with only white people? only people of their own class and background? How can you write believably about contemporary American without crossing boundaries of race and class and who knows what else? Should nobody ever write about an interracial romance?
If we don't believe that good writers can create characters that live apart from them, we should forget about fiction altogether and just write memoirs. If we do believe in fiction, we have to shout down this crass attempt to narrow our world and speak up for the freedom of artists to take up any topic they please.