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Yassmin Abdel-Magied had an article in The Guardian this weekend, talking about her choice to walk out of the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

Today, The Guardian followed up with the full speech from American author and journalist Lionel Shriver.

Shriver begins her speech by describing herself as an iconoclast, and claiming:

“Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

xkcd: citation needed

Look, if you’re going to claim you’re not allowed to write a certain type of fiction, you need to back that up. Instead, Shriver presents the example of a party at Bowdoin College, wherein hosts were punished for passing out sombreros at a tequila-themed party. You can read more about that incident and form your own opinions. It’s interesting to note that this wasn’t an isolated incident at the school. “Last fall the school’s sailing team hosted a ‘gangster’ party where attendees were encouraged to wear stereotypical black clothing and accessories,” and “In the fall of 2014, Bowdoin’s lacrosse team held what was billed as a ‘Cracksgiving’ party that featured students wearing Native American garb.”

ETA: As pointed out by Sarah on Facebook, Bowdoin also has a hard liquor ban, so the sombreros were not the only problem/violation at the party in question.

Shriver goes on  about sombreros and Mexican restaurants, and ends on a familiar refrain:

“For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.”

It’s practically a BINGO square in conversations about racism and cultural appropriation. You can’t talk about Native American sports mascots, for example, without white people popping up to say they’re Irish and don’t object to Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” mascot, so why do those “oversensitive” Native American’s object to the “Redskins”? Could it be that the situation faced by Native Americans today isn’t the same as that faced by Irish Americans? Likewise, life in this country for someone of Mexican descent is very different from that of someone like Shriver.

But what does all of this have to do with writing and the freedom to write fiction? Shriver continues:

“The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’ – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”

Shriver’s phrasing is fascinating. “Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’ … are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience…” Shriver is a professional writer, so I assume her use of passive voice is deliberate. Reading her description, it’s like she sees these people from marginalized groups as puppets being manipulated into building a fence around their experiences and traditions.

Encouraged and manipulated by whom, I wonder. Shriver never says. But it’s a telling bit of wordplay, one that strips marginalized groups of agency.

Shriver goes on to give examples of books in which authors wrote about characters and groups that weren’t like them, which also gives her the chance to drop this bit of grossness:

“…Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South.”

A white person having their skin darkened is “Michael Jackson in reverse”?

  1. Google the word vitiligo.
  2. Thanks, I guess, for demonstrating the failure mode of clever.

Shriver continues:

“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?”

strawman

It must be so much easier to argue when you just make crap up. Nobody is saying Shriver is never allowed to use an Indonesian character in chapter twelve. No one is saying she’s not allowed to write about characters from other cultures and groups. The Fiction Police are not going to kick down her door, seize her computer, and lock her up in prison for 20 years on Aggravated Cultural Appropriation in the Second Degree.

But wait, Shriver has examples! They’re not about writing, but still…

“So far, the majority of these farcical cases of ‘appropriation’ have concentrated on fashion, dance, and music: At the American Music Awards 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for dressing like a geisha. According to the Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is ‘white appropriation of Eastern dance,’ while according to the Daily Beast Iggy Azalea committed ‘cultural crimes’ by imitating African rap and speaking in a ‘blaccent’.”

This is why Katy Perry is no longer allowed to make music. This is why all white belly dancers were arrested in the Great White Naval Purge of 2015. This is why Iggy Azalea is legally required to wear a gag when in public.

Except, of course, none of that happened. What did happen is people expressed opinions. They said they were offended. They might even have (gasp) gotten angry.

Maybe Shriver is one of those “special snowflakes” we’ve been hearing about recently. It’s not that she as a writer isn’t allowed to write about other groups. It’s that she wants to be able to do so without anyone complaining. Without any pushback if she screws up. Without people getting angry. Without anyone daring to write negative reviews about her work, like the one she talked about in her speech:

“Behold, the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused [my] book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook, described the scene thus: ‘The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.'”

Behold, Shriver’s takeaway from this review: “Your author, by implication, yearns to bring back slavery.”

Sokka Facepalm gif

Maybe she simply doesn’t get it.

Strike that. I think we can say pretty definitively that she doesn’t get it. Nor do I suspect she wants to.

Turning to another example, J. K. Rowling has received a lot of criticism lately for her portrayal of Native Americans in the history and backstory of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This criticism is not because she dared to refer to Native characters and history in the story. It’s because she did so badly. Because she took sacred beliefs she didn’t understand, and played with them — stretching and distorting and changing and basically pissing all over beliefs people have fought and died to preserve. Beliefs white people have spent centuries trying to eradicate. Rowling’s distortions and portrayal? They’re one more piece of that attempted eradication.

Does this mean Rowling’s not allowed to publish her book? Don’t be absurd. Rowling could write 200 pages about Hagrid’s belly button lint and publishers would line up to publish it. She’s allowed to write and publish it.

And others are allowed to criticize, to point out the harm she’s doing, and to believe she was wrong to write and publish the story the way she did.

Back to Shriver:

“I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous.”

Shriver is now a bit more anxious about how she depicts characters of other races. Somehow, I’m having trouble seeing this as a bad thing. Knowing people will be scrutinizing our writing pushes us to do better. (Okay, sometimes it leads to defensiveness and bizarre accusations that reviewers think you want to bring back slavery, but we can hope for the best, right?)

As a writer, I do have the freedom to write whatever I want. But to my mind, with great freedom comes great responsibility. I have an obligation to get it right, to the best of my ability. To recognize the power of stories. To understand that publishing is not an equal playing field, any more than the world as a whole. To listen. To recognize that there are some stories I’m not the best person, or the right person, to tell.

There’s so much more to say about all this, but we’re already well past tl;dr length. For those who want to better understand the conversation around writing, cultural appropriation, and so on, I recommend the following resources:

 

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Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
deborahblakehps
Sep. 13th, 2016 11:21 pm (UTC)
Sigh.
jeriendhal
Sep. 14th, 2016 01:24 am (UTC)
What. An. Idiot.

On the plus side, I'm feeling perhaps excessively virtuous that I consulted with my friend in Saudi Arabia about Arabic language questions.
3rdragon
Sep. 14th, 2016 01:30 am (UTC)
Knowing people will be scrutinizing our writing pushes us to do better.

I don't have a citation ready to hand, but a study of trainee teachers in Israel showed that a preferential bias for papers attributed to students with typical Ashkenazi names disappeared when the teachers were told that their grading practices would be reviewed by their peers.

Edited at 2016-09-14 01:31 am (UTC)
beccastareyes
Sep. 14th, 2016 01:54 am (UTC)
Wonder if I should introduce some of those 'but what about the Fighting Irish?' folks to my dad, who is an Irish immigrant and has written to the NCAA about them in all sincerity. He also gets rather annoyed about how Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

A lot of that is context. Dad grew up in Ireland and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s with a family that has ties in northern Ireland, and dealt with a lot more bias than, say, my mother (an American of mostly Irish descent) did AFAIK. Consequently being drawn as drunken violent leprechauns gets a bit more under Dad's skin.

Which goes to show that power dynamics matter. It's not a level playing field and listening to how it looks and feels from another person's experience-shaped POV is helpful. (After all, general-you are a goddamn writer. Aren't you interested in the parts of the human experience you don't have as direct a take on?)
jimhines
Sep. 14th, 2016 02:04 am (UTC)
The whole idea that because one person doesn't find a thing offensive, nobody else should be offended by it, is just silly.

Honestly, I wonder why we use any group of people as mascots. It just seems questionable from the start.
beccastareyes
Sep. 14th, 2016 12:55 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I wonder why we use any group of people as mascots. It just seems questionable from the start.

Especially ethnic groups*. At least with a profession, it's chosen by people, so you can imagine it represents traits that make people good at that job.

* Including ones like the Braves. You could make the case that this is referring to a type of fighter, but it's coded as Native in ways the 'Warriors' doesn't have to be.
cartesiandaemon
Sep. 14th, 2016 11:02 am (UTC)
I didn't know, but I did strongly suspect that "not being offended by the fightin' irish" was strongly correlated with being american with irish ancestry, not being *from ireland*.
beccastareyes
Sep. 14th, 2016 12:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah. It's one person*, but it shows the perils of asking one person, especially since experiences can vary. My dad and my uncle Michael (Mom's sister's husband, so no relation to Dad) are both male Irish immigrants to America that arrived in the late 1970s but otherwise very distinct coming from different backgrounds. (I don't think Uncle Michael even cares about college gridiron football, so thoughts on Norte Dame have never come up.)

* And, honestly, my dad is otherwise of the politically-correctness-gone-amuck crowd, if he wasn't so consistent about this, I might have dismissed it.
marfisa
Sep. 14th, 2016 03:36 am (UTC)
I can't believe Shriver actually put on a sombrero at some point during the talk in question (as shown in the final photo accompanying the *Guardian* article).

She also seems to have taken great care not to get around to reading "Little Bee," the novel by a white Englishman from a Nigerian girl's POV, lest her "let everyone [fictionally] exploit everything" philosophy be complicated by finding the writer's impersonation of someone from another culture problematical herself.
jimhines
Sep. 14th, 2016 03:42 pm (UTC)
I can believe it. I'm sure she takes great pride in rebelling against...whatever it is she thinks she's rebelling against.
(Deleted comment)
baker_kitty
Sep. 14th, 2016 09:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you for keeping an eye out on the web for stuff like this.
For that speech? *headdesk* Willful ignorance - Slacktivist has ranted about it at length - how people make themselves stupid by willfully acting that way. :(

Another one for your links: Mary Robinette Kowal's post about cultural appropriation through a dress.
http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/cultural-appropriation-textile-metaphor/
It gets to points in a way that might get around some of the mental roadblocks...
filkferengi
Sep. 17th, 2016 02:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for that link. Mary definitely Kowal-ks the walk; she's awesome!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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