Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Cultural Appropriation Blowup in Australia

The latest literary tempest at the Brisbane Writers Festival:
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. . . .

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 agree. The notion that writers should only write about people exactly like themselves is pernicious and would lead to the death of real art.

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.


Anonymous said...

Stupidity of an astronomical size. The Australian left is as delusional as the left here in the U.S.

G. Verloren said...


"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."

This is the fallacy of a straw-man argument. Complaining about cultural appropriation doesn't mean arguing that writers should only write about people exactly like themselves.

Cultural appropriation isn't having a faithful rendering of another culture in your work - it's having a lazy, self serving, toxic, and inaccurate one.

It's having the Lone Ranger riding out with his trusty sidekick Tonto, who is not only a walking stereotype of the worst kind, but one whose very name is an insult - in Spanish, "tonto" means "fool" or "moron". It's naming your football team "The Redskins" when you're a bunch of comfortably well off Caucasians enjoying life on the land your ancestors bloodily stole from the Native Americans while their ancestors are relegated to abject poverty in the blasted desert wastelands of the "reservations" your government so graciously "allowed" them to relocate to.

It's every cigar store "Indian"; every plastic toy bow, arrow, and feathered headdress sold to kids; every nonsense utterance of stilted, truncated, poorly structured English with an absurd accent that people think "sounds" like Native American speech (the equivalent of "Ching chang chong" Chinese, or "Durka durka Mohammed Jihad" Arabic). It's the reduction of an entire history and culture - or even many distinct, different cultures - into a crudely simplified, mindless, often absurdly commercialized shorthand symbolism, whose only purpose is to amuse and profit off of the ignorant and shortsighted.

Yes, you have every right to write about people other than yourself. Yes, you also have the right to do so in a crass, insensitive, self-serving, unequal, demeaning way. But doing so still makes you into an asshole. And you have the right to be an asshole, if that's what you want to be. But don't act surprised when people then exercise their right to censure you for being an asshole.

G. Verloren said...


If you want to write about another culture, do so fairly, on equal footing, with honesty, and integrity, and goodwill, and a conscious effort to avoid unnecessarily offending people. Particularly if you're a member of a culture that is guilty of horrific crimes against the people you want to write about. You need to be aware of the injustices that have existed - and which continue to exist - between your culture and theirs. You need to tread very carefully, because your position can very easily come off as just another in a very long line of callous, ignorant, self serving assholes stepping in to take advantage of the other culture, even if that isn't your intent.

In comedy, there are the concepts of "punching up" and "punching down". Punching up is when you make fun of people who are above you in society - the privileged, the wealthy, and generally the people who can afford to laugh at themselves and be made fun of without much bruising of the ego, because they're just so well off. On the other hand, punching down is when you mock people who are below you - when you make fun of the poor, or the mentally ill, or the physically disabled, or the politically disenfranchised, or the unjustly oppressed, or others whose lives are harder and more miserable than yours.

Cultural appropriation is the equivalent of punching down. It's writing about people from a position of power over them, in a way that makes light of their hardships or identity or experiences or values. In short, it's being an utter asshole toward them, and selfishly exploiting their position relative to you for your own desires.

Your "artistic purposes" aren't worth shit if your "art" is callous and cruel toward people who aren't as fortunate or well off as you.

Sure, maybe a particularly amazing white author could manage to write honestly and sensitively about "a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband". But such authors are very rare indeed - and more importantly, they certainly don't react to criticism and anger created by their works by simply dismissing it outright and complaining about people being "politically correct".

If you aren't prepared to sympathize with, and be kind and forgiving to, the people you might offend with your "art" - that is, to engage with them fairly and respectfully, acknowledging and validating their feelings and concerns, and moving from there to promote constructive discourse, taking the time and making the effort to reap the fruits of the seeds of controversy you chose to sow - then you don't have any right creating that kind of art. Unless you want to be an asshole, of course.

G. Verloren said...

And one final point - why do we need to defend the right of white people to write about other cultures? Why not let other cultures speak for themselves?

This is why many people complain about Hollywood, and mainstream American media in general. There are plenty of non-whites in this country, who would absolutely love to be given the chance to tell their own stories about their own cultures. Why don't they ever really get that chance?

Why is it when we set out to create a story about other cultures, we almost always put a bunch of white people in charge? Where are all the Native American made films? How many Hollywood productions of Arabs or Russians actually involved people of those cultures and ethnicities in positions of importance? We're lucky if we cast non-whites as generic terrorists in our idiotic action flicks - so can you even imagine Hollywood hiring a bunch of Russians to be in charge of creating a Soviet era period spy thriller; or hiring a bunch of Arabs to write, direct, produce, and star in a present day military film set in the middle East? Fat chance!

White authors have had centuries of being allowed to write about other cultures without criticism, and they've produced mountains of completely offensive self-serving garbage in the process. Meanwhile, those other cultures themselves have been given almost none of the limelight, none of the exposure, none of the opportunities and freedoms that their white counerparts have long enjoyed unthinkingly, taken for granted.

So why, exactly, are we so eager to leap to the defense of priviliged white writers being allowing to write whatever they want to, while happily ignoring the racial near-monopoly that exists in mainstream media?

John said...

G,, your definition of cultural appropriation makes more sense, but many defenders of this notion absolutely do assert that no white writer should ever write about people of other races, whether sensitively or not. If the plan is to attack bad writing, sign me up. But many of these activists attack the very idea of a white writer putting words in a black character's mouth, and that really would make fiction impossible. That is not a straw man; if anything I have been much less hysterical than some of these critics.

Jules said...

Let's not miss the point people... censoring of free speech means we don't get to decide for ourselves (like the intelligent and discerning people we are) what is good literature. I'd rather let the critics pan a book which is inaccurate and crass than stuff authors into a tiny space defining the boundaries of their creativity. Racism, condescension and mockery should be punished by the marketplace. You can't prohibit assholery. The music industry has used lyrics and album covers to parody anything held sacred by anyone for years, and face it, music has as much or more influence on public thought than books.