Lionel Shriver’s full speech on literature and cultural appropriation

September 19, 2016 • 10:30 am

On September 11 I wrote about an article in the Guardian by black Australian Muslim author Yasmin Abdel-Magied. Her piece, “As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her,” describes how Abdel-Magied was deeply triggered by a speech by novelist Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin and other books) at the Brisbane Writer’s festival.  In fact, Abdel-Magied was so offended that she walked out of Shriver’s talk. She was offended for two reasons: the pervasive “cultural appropriation” of white writers (Persons of No Color) dealing with the lives and experiences of minorities, and the fact that by writing about such minorities, PONCs were in fact denying minorities the right to publish their own novels. Abdel Magied:

Rather than focus on the ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had, the argument became a tirade. It became about the fact that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a “decent” job — in the eyes of a white woman — he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way. It became about mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction. (For more, Yen-Rong, a volunteer at the festival, wrote a summary on her personal blog about it.)

It was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.

As the chuckles of the audience swelled around me, reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern, I breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.

. . . In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality. The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”

. . . 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.

Those are strong accusations, bordering at last on Shriver’s being complicit in racism and bigotry. But did her speech justify these accusations? Was it so offensive that Abdel-Magied was justified in walking out?

The answer is no, as you can see by reading the transcript of Shriver’s full speech just published in the Guardian, “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” Here you see a thoughtful defense of writing about others different from you, as well as an awareness that so doing will step on some toes and raise criticism. But the arrogance and condescension described by Abdel-Magied aren’t evident, nor is there any notion that Shriver is trying to deny minorities a place in literature.

I’m aware that people like sound bites and short pieces these days, but I urge you to read Shriver’s full speech and think about it. It’s not only thoughtful but eloquent. Here are a few excerpts:

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 appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way 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 each other and exchanging ideas and practices 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, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

For who is the ultimate arbiter of whether and what an author can write about groups different from themselves? Is Abdel-Magied the one to give permission to write about blacks, women, or Muslims—or all three at once? Certainly she can protest what she sees as appropriation or racism, but what if others don’t? As I mentioned earlier, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel by a white man (William Styron) about a black man, was criticized by some blacks but lauded by others.

Shriver then mounts a spirited defense of “fictional appropriation”:

This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?

The fiction writer, that’s who.

This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.

. . . What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

Now minorities might demand that stories about their culture must “be authentic,” but if you think about it that is bogus. As Shriver notes, there is no uniform “authentic” experience within an ethnic group, just as you can’t tell a lot about a person based on their ethnicity alone. And what “authenticity” is there in the magical realism of Alice Walker or Salman Rushdie?

What Abdel-Magied is insisting, I think, is that “minority” literature must be a literature of oppression, and others who were oppressed cannot write about it with authenticity.  But I doubt that, for after all there is such a thing as research (the kind Steinbeck did before writing about “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath), and if the writer fails to convey some semblance of reality—one that would draw the reader into the book—that book will fail.

The insistence that a sense of authenticity derives only from the “lived experience” of the oppressed goes against all fiction, and, says Shriver, leads to a form of noxious “identity fiction” that demarcates certain areas as off limits to others (Shriver has, after all, been strongly criticized by some reviewer for writing about others, like Armenians):

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post [Shriver’s novel The Mandibles was criticized in The Washington Post for portraying a black character as degraded] is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

Near the end, Shriver talks about the falsity of assuming a homogenous identity of any group, and the presumption that members of that group not only are the best ones to write about it, but, when others do, push minorities to the margins (I take strong issue with that given the popularity of recent novels as well as nonfiction books about minorities):

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

You may disagree with the above, or with other things that Shriver said, but I don’t think you can characterize her talk as “a tirade. . reeking with the stench of privilege.” It is a thoughtful analysis of the role of a fiction writer in a culturally diverse world.

And Abdel-Magied? She couldn’t even stand to listen to Shriver, and stomped out of the auditorium in tears.  Abdel-Magied’s victim narrative had already been formed before Shriver’s speech, and she couldn’t bear to hear anything that contravened it. That’s a pity, for there’s a conversation to be had. Instead, Abdel-Magied wrote an overheated screed in the Guardian accusing Shriver of fomenting racism and bigotry. Without listening to her entire talk!

Well, Abdel-Magied has the right to express her views as she wants, but the kind of literary world she wants is bowdlerized, with people setting themselves up as authorities about who is authorized to write about what.

And, by the way, let me take this opportunity to tout one of my own favorite novels, which deals with the situation of the British in India, and their treatment of Indians right before Partition, with sensitivity and grace. It’s The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, which, along with its Booker-Prize-winning sequel Staying On, I consider the greatest unappreciated novel in English of the last century. (Christopher Hitchens seems to have agreed.)



56 thoughts on “Lionel Shriver’s full speech on literature and cultural appropriation

  1. PONCs were in fact denying minorities the right to publish their own novels.

    The advent of automobiles denied[sic] buggy-whip makers the right to make buggy-whips.

  2. Memoirs exist to provide (usually) authentic perspectives on specific lives experiences and points of view. Fiction exists to go anywhere the author cares to take us using any tools that he or she can cobble together to make it work.

    And save a few months during our youth, none is required reading.

  3. “The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air.”

    Or, to put it another way, “My ideas began to sound pretty stupid when looked at from a different perspective, so I retreated to my rhetorical safe space where my inability to understand the perspectives of others is all their fault.”

    1. That is, Mr Phelps, the size of it, isn’t it ?

      re thus … … “victim narrative had already been formed before Shriver’s speech, and she couldn’t bear to hear anything that contravened it” is so, so true just about everywhere these days.

      It is whiningly tiring so, from the other side, I no longer expend energy or effort at trying for cogency with such narrators.


  4. So ironic that the lesson of my youth was “never stereotype,” yet so much regressive left thinking is all about stereotyping.

    Humans are pattern recognizers. We can say things about groups that are, in aggregate, valid to one extent or another. “White people have special privilege in America” for example. But I still try my best to treat every individual as an individual. I try to make no assumptions based on what “identity” groups they belong to. Yet now I’m to feel bad about that?

      1. S. King’s Dead Zone fits Trump well. An author from my country, Pavel Vezhinov, predicted attacks on New York and the Statue of Liberty falling, but he thought communist terrorists would do it.

  5. Being unfamiliar with either Shriver or Abdel-Magied I did some research. Seeing their photos my first thoughts were that Abdel-Magied appeared extraordinarily adorned with the trappings of privilege and that Shriver needed to eat a big sandwich fast and to take decompression classes.

    I can’t take this stuff seriously. Oh, my goodness, I think the stench of my own smug, clueless, and disgusting privilege has just knocked me uncons….

    1. I’m struggling in the seriousness department too. High-brow literature comes across as mildly pretentious, a bubble with its associated gatekeepers. Stuff like this reads like a fight over who should be the gatekeepers, but I can’t help think that we need to be kicking the gates down.

      Though I do see valid points on both sides of the proverbial fence (gate?).

  6. It is true that there are people on the planet who would claim I can never know what it is like to live their lives. If that is what they insist, then I cannot argue with them. The reverse is not the same. Anybody on the planet can know exactly what I think. I need only write it down. Anyone can understand my life completely if they just ask.

    The important things to my life are ultimately nothing more than classical information and even a computer could understand. Maybe people should stop hiding behind the hubris that they are special snowflakes.

  7. If a white author depicts only white characters, they are guilty of exclusionary story telling, of erasing minority perspectives. If a white author depicts diverse characters, they are appropriating culture. But that’s okay, since self-contradiction is only prohibited by the philosophies of old white men.

    1. Yeah I play video games and…

      1) if women are portrayed as equal to men, and get shot, equally, this is violence against women

      2) if women are not equal-opportunity cannon fodder, this is benevolent sexism

      3) if women are portrayed as good looking, this is reducing women to their looks

      4) if women are portrayed as unattractive and frumpy, it’s sexism again, because reasons

      There is no pleasing these people.

      A few months ago, some LGBT folk were upset that gay characters in the tv show THE WALKING DEAD ended up as zombies…as this was a clear case of discrimination. Nevermind that everyone else also ends up as a zombie…

      1. Yep, literally everyone gets to be a zombie unless they die from a sufficiently severe brain injury. That show isn’t exactly designed for positive messages of any kind.

  8. I think even if you (like me) think that the unjust nature of our social arrangements can make the “crowd out” argument almost work, there’s a bigger problem, namely: *what counts as the groups in question*, and *who* in the group is allowed to veto? Anyone in the group anywhere? Forever?

  9. A little primer on how this ‘lived experience’ thing works…

    It only flows one way.

    For example, because I am a woman, I could write whatever I want about PCC, because I am ‘oppressed’ and he is not. If I want to say that he never put any work into anything and that he is only successful because he is a cishet white patriarch, that is my prerogative, because I am ‘oppresesd’.

    However, being an ‘oppressor’, PCC cannot offer up any opinions on me. The ‘lived experience’ of ‘oppressed’ people trumps all other considerations. The ‘dominant culture’ and those who represent it are *always wrong* simply by virtue of their identity. This is also why the ‘lived experience’ of some oppressed people (AHA, M. Nawaz) can be discarded, should they disagree with regressive thought. So, if two Muslims disagree about Islamic extremism, the Muslim who says that Islam *is* a problem, he represents ‘the dominant cishet white patriarchy’ and his opinions can be dismissed.

    Oh, and any KKK visiting, say, Zimbabwe, are still oppressors, even if not dominant in #s there, simply because white culture is the dominant worldwide culture, so they are always oppressors wherever they go. This applies to all white people.

    It’s really all about where you fall on the Oppression Olympics Ranking, and this changes frequently as regressives always need to find an excuse to virtue signal and bully others. A new video is going around wherein it is claimed that a billionaire POC has less privilege than a homeless white man. That money confers zero privilege if the billionaire is not white.

  10. I guess I will have to call Susan Scafdi for clarification before I make the lunch I was planning. Two Hebrew National low fat hot dogs on a tortilla with cheese and onions and some Tapatio’s hot sauce. I am not sure who to call to get permission.

    1. I temporarily socially-reconstructed myself as a black Australian muslim woman and can give you permission after you apologize for existing.

      1. My mother was an atheist and she taught me well, but her parents were secular Jews from Eastern Europe, so I think I am OK on the Hebrew National hot dogs. But I have no latino heritage, other than living in New Mexico, so the tortilla and hot sauce are iffy. We used to have a rumor that part of my mother’s family were Sephardic Jews but that fell to the onslaught of DNA tests.

  11. The logical extension of a prohibition on writing about a group other than one’s own is to prohibit writing about anyone but yourself, or copying (appropriating) anything that is symbolic of another person.
    Biography is out; only autobiography is acceptable.

    How about that street vendor in an African village, who sells articles of clothing made in the styles and patterns of his tribe? Don’t you dare buy any of those items! Shame on you for being even tempted!

  12. What is fueling Yasmin Abdel-Magied’s rage is that there is a history of bad cultural appropriations of black culture by white folk, especially here in the USA, and in addition some very well-intentioned anti-racist art by white folk has perpetuated some rather bad stereotypes.

    That said, there seems to be a over-reaction these days to cultural mixing.

    I offer two videos- one IS an inappropriate cultural appropriation, the other is often accused of being one but really should not be.

    Video #1- Ugly cultural appropriation. Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”. (Southern radio stations would not play the Little Richard recording. Pat Boone rerecorded several black R&B hits, essentially “whitening” them so they wouldn’t scare the ladies of the south.)

    Video #2 – Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Diamonds on the Soles on Her Shoes” (This should be legit cultural mixing)

    but for info about all the controversy see

    1. JLH, I agree.

      All of the below:

      trigger warnings
      cultural appropriation
      lived experience
      checking one’s privilege

      All are completely valid and useful. Trigger warnings *do* matter if the subject is likely to be one that is distressing. Cultural appropriation if done poorly can be terrible. Lived experience is important so that we may understand those who are oppressed, and it is important that we check our privilege so that we do not assume that everyone else has it as easy as we do.

      The issue with regressives is that they take it all too far. Anything and everything is a crime against the oppressed if they deem it as such. They use these legitimate concepts and twist them in order to bully people and to signal their virtue. They make a mockery of the very people they are (supposedly) trying to protect.

      They cry wolf too often, and the end result of this is that people lump idiotic concerns together with legitimate concerns and dismiss them *both*. This is the real tragedy of what regressives are doing.

      1. I still can’t stand the term “lived experience” though. What’s the difference between experience and lived experience, exactly? Isn’t all experience “lived,” by definition? Is there such a thing as unlived experience against which lived experience must be defined in contrast?

        In my own lived experience, usage of the term “lived experience” correlates highly with BS.

    2. You’re right about the ugly cultural appropriation in Video #1. I’m gonna burn my white bucks in protest. 🙂

      As I recall, the controversy concerning Graceland was over whether PS had broken the artistic boycott against South Africa. I think the eventual consensus was that he hadn’t, in that the intent of the boycott was to oppose apartheid, not to prevent international artists from collaborating with black South African performers.

      1. I don’t know…I think Pat Boone’s renditions were cheesy enough not to have been taken seriously. He even did a sort of heavy metal album on the cover of which he wears leathers and fake, I presume, tattoes.
        I have to confess to having liked April Love when I was 10…

  13. Trying to digest YAM’s indignation while I lunch on the last of my batch of pork tamales. I always intended to do tamales, finally did so after buying some from a couple of little kids selling from a roll-around cooler.

    This is my fourth batch this summer, and I think I finally have a really successful appropriation.. aside from my left-handed bowtie.

  14. This argument of Abdel-Magied’s is almost too ridiculous to respond to. Almost.

    The received wisdom for writers is to write what you know. It’s not to write what you are. There’s a way to know things that you aren’t: it’s called research. After all, Zola wasn’t a coalminer, and Dickens wasn’t a chimney sweep. And Kipling sure-as-shit wasn’t Gunga Din. They knew about such things — and were able to create convincing characters in riveting, realistic stories — because they had gone to the coalface and done the research. (In Zola’s case literally, in that he had gone down into the mines and lived among the miners while researching Germinal.)

    Where an outside writer hasn’t done the job, where he or she hasn’t done the research, hasn’t gotten the facts straight, has made a superficial job of it — then, by all means, call that writer out, criticize him or her on those grounds.

    And then go write it yourself the right way. Writing isn’t a zero-sum game where the first writer to broach a topic stakes a claim to all the stories therein. History is rife with examples of an outsider’s stories about a marginalized community generating interest toward that community such that a market is made for struggling writers within it. Once readers have whetted their appetites on such stories (whatever their initial source) they will clamor to hear those stories straight from the source’s mouth — stories written, that is, by those for whom they constitute “lived experience.”

    Yassmin Abdel-Magied should be given all credit due her for overcoming the hardships attending her immigrant background. It’s been claimed, nonetheless, that the dearest wish of a slave too often isn’t freedom, but to have a slave of one’s own. Unfortunately, there seem to be some among our marginalized communities for whom it is not enough simply to liberate their own voices; they must marginalize another community’s.

    1. Writing isn’t a zero-sum game where the first writer to broach a topic stakes a claim to all the stories therein.

      I think that cuts to the heart of the flaw in YAM’s argument. She sees authentic novels unable to compete with inauthentic ones for the public’s attention, and authentic writers unable to get published. There may indeed be biases in publishing houses that need fixing, but the right way to go about “solving” the problem of the popularity of bad novels, art, music, what have you, is to produce good art. You don’t ban the bad stuff. Even if you could, that would probably, ironically, just increase it’s popularity. Pssst, don’t tell the cops, but I have in my possession one of the few remaining novels with a black woman protagonist written by a white guy. Do you want to read it, to see what all the fuss is about? Of course you do.

    1. She sure couldn’t complain that Griffin hadn’t done his damnedest to gain the “lived experience.”

      And Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright never griped that Griffin had somehow usurped their stories or denied them “the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that [wa]s profoundly white[.]”

  15. I have no problem with “cultural appropriation” when done right. I often don’t even realize it. I enjoyed the police procedural/fantasy novel The Rivers of London which centers around Metropolitan Police officer Peter Grant, who happens to be black. The book was so convincing I had no idea the author was A) not a police officer and B) not black.

    Writing about *other people* is what most authors of fiction do. It’s all “appropriation.”

  16. Good grief, soon PONCs won’t be able to read minority literature either as the reading could subconsciously cause cultural appropriation.

      1. Some of his other novels are also very good. The Chinese Love Pavilion, The Birds of Paradise and others. A thing I’ve noticed about his books is that they nearly always seem to have a beautiful and eloquent closing sentence or paragraph.

        1. I’ve had those on my shelves for ages, Peter. Maybe your praise will spur me to get to them this decade. Just started a beautiful book, Orfeo, by Richard Powers. Brilliant writer! Loved his Prisoners’ Dilemma. Have yet to get to Goldbug Variations.

          1. Recommending books to people is a little bit like tipping horses to them. You’re torn between the anticipation of giving pleasure to someone and the dread that it won’t turn out well! But I can tip anything by Paul Scott with absolute confidence. I haven’t read Richard Powers but since you’re going to back my tips I’ll certainly back yours. I’m sure we’ll both be on a winner.

  17. The Raj Quartet is magnificent, I’ve worked my way through it over the last couple of years, currently working my way through the TV series which is also brilliant and does the novels justice.

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