Fiction, Cultural Appropriation and the Lionel Shriver Fracas

Lionel Shriver has made quite a splash in the literary world by donning a sombrero (to protest the perception of white people wearing sombreros as controversial) at an Australian literary festival and railing about cultural appropriation: “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.” Shriver makes some points that sound good on their surface — writing inherently involves inhabiting and animating those who are different from the author — in the midst of some awful ones.

As two cultural critics who dabble in fiction writing ourselves, we decided to have our own say:

Moze: Another white person has tried to defend themselves against the cultural appropriation discourse —  in a way that entirely tramples the concerns of people pretty much across the spectrum of ethnic/racial/gender/sexual identities. What I found fundamentally frustrating about Shriver’s speech was that I don’t think all of the ideas and concerns she was espousing were incorrect in the abstract at all. But the sheer disregard for other people’s experiences (and the transparently defensive, weird protest tactic of the sombrero she wore) showed that she’s no spokesperson for a nuanced discussion.

We do need to keep talking about the the various dimensions of the way our collective liberal superego tries to decide what is and isn’t ethical to take, to consume, and to use in art — and about how sometimes these decisions can encroach on art’s actual transcendence of borders. But rather than proving that people who haven’t lived an experience can be sensitive to those experiences and should be encouraged to — with accuracy, research, and the decentralizing of self — stretch themselves to understand and depict them (which I do believe people should!), she made herself into another example to further substantiate absolutist ideologies about “staying on one’s side.” She came close to whining about suddenly having to *think* about representing minority characters before writing them — why should forethought and an understanding of characters’ social backgrounds ever be excluded from the writing process? Sarah, what were your first impressions of her screed?

Sarah: Look, I’m not the first (privileged) person to occasionally have the knee-jerk reaction that Shriver’s speech encapsulates. Sometimes internet discourse makes me defensive about a “damned if you do and don’t” dilemma; if you create art that’s focused on your small, known world, you’re dismissed as living in a bubble, but if you add characters from outside that world clumsily, you risk being pilloried. But of course, unlike Shriver, I have had the chance to reflect and check that reaction in myself. I mean, isn’t it the nature of art-making that we get criticized for doing anything clumsy, whether it’s sketching out a setting or writing a queer character when we’re not queer ourselves? So why do writers get so worked up about one kind of criticism and not the other?  Is it, perhaps, because it’s the one kind of criticism it’s socially acceptable to be defensive about?

It’s an easier pose, after all, to snippily deride your critics as oversensitive and censorious than it is to say something like: wahh, my pacing was awesome, not plodding, what are they talking about, they’re so meaaaann? I liked Laila Lalami’s tweet, which nailed that particular issue with Shriver’s approach:

Ultimately, the whole purpose of writing fiction is to combine the experience of self with an imaginative projection onto others. In other words, all our characters are ourselves, and none of them are us. When writers bridge the gap, the magic of fiction happens (I think of James Joyce using his own alienation and empathy to inhabit a Jew and a woman in ways that both Jews and women for a century have appreciated). Yet maybe some of that imaginative work involves assessing a potential story to see if its too far from your own life or too imbalanced, power-wise, to effectively tackle.

As  wrote after walking out of Shriver’s speech, there’s context to consider: 

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?

Moze: Shriver shows an ignorance towards her subject, too. Instead of making her case by displaying anything of an understanding of the people on the other end of her argument, Shriver goes and reduces, say, transgender representation a trend, and lists two of the best shows on television — Orange Is the New Black and Transparent — as though they’re mere quota fulfillers.

I agree in part with Shriver about outrage over these issues sometimes being outsize, and I think the media has the tendency to vilify for clicks rather than critique or interrogate (two years ago the media loved Amy Schumer and four years ago they loved Lena Dunham, now both have been flipped into caricatures of cultural backwardness, as opposed to two writers who can be hilarious and biting and also be troublingly clueless about race). The lefty media does it just as much as the right does — elevating ethical questions of representation in the arts to firestorms that can overwhelm real stories of injustice.

It seems it’s often that the case that symbols for injustice get more weight in discussions than actual injustices. Progressive bloggers will get upset with ASOS about their “Go Native” line — which certainly sounds like a reductive and clueless campaign. Yet I’ve heard far more outrage about these symbols than about the notion that, say, ASOS’s clothing is made in what VICE referred to as “modern day sweatshop” conditions.

Similarly, on the same day people were arguing about food at Oberlin, Obama’s signing of a $1.8 trillion dollar spending/tax cut package — right after the promises made at the Paris convention — that would lead to the ending of the ban on U.S. exporting crude oil and potentially be environmentally disastrous, went relatively unmentioned, despite the overwhelming damage that global warming will do. I’m not saying that those debates about appropriation shouldn’t happen, but rather that proportionality gets lost when the media (right and left wing) elevates these so-called “SJW” stories to national debate.

This argument over cultural signifiers, when applied to symbols like the sombrero, or say, what patterns people can and can’t wear on a T-shirt — feels different than those arguments about how people are represented in the stories that are told about them, which is always an important discussion for artists and critics. Thus, one major problem with Shriver’s speech is in the conflation of issues of “appropriating” symbols, foods, and other concrete objects — and of appropriating experiences. She boxes it all together, saying none of it should be criticized. Almost across the board, any case of artistic or cultural borrowing differs in its ethics. Neither a critique nor a defense of that borrowing should be universal.

The problem with Shriver wearing a sombrero isn’t that Shriver wore a sombrero, but rather that she deployed the hat as a means to silence criticisms from the people to whom the signifier belongs. Shriver’s hat-wearing marked her from the beginning as someone who wanted to totally ignore the perspectives of artists of color rather than express concern that sometimes antiappropriation arguments’ endgame seems to be a more segmented society — which could be a fair point to argue. Allow me to, erm, appropriate a quote by Jia Tolentino from the New Yorker on the issue that I find particularly apt:

But there are all sorts of ways to borrow another person’s position: respectfully and transformatively, in ignorance, or with disdain. It’s one thing to wear a sombrero if you’re Beyoncé; it’s another if you’re a college kid downing tequila. One of the worst ways to wear a sombrero, I think, is to be a white keynote speaker at a literary festival, saying, “I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad.”

Sarah: Yes. The stance is both aggressive and myopic, positing herself as some sort of victim and crusader rather than a bully. In her speech, Shriver overestimates what happens when writers like herself fuck up. Think about it: Jonathan Franzen was derided for the way he wrote Lalitha, his Southeast Asian female character in Freedom. It was a fair criticism, in my opinion; yet his book still did well, partly on its merits, partly on the press’s adulation of the author. I can’t think of anyone who is getting a book deal denied due to accusations of insensitivity or appropriation. I mean, in recent history white men have written books about racial reassignment surgery, a young Nigerian refugee (which Shriver mentioned), the underground railroad and slavery, geishas in Japan, North Korea, you name it. White women have voiced black maids, repeatedly. They get criticized, perhaps; they also sell copies and win Pulitzers. It almost seems like writing about race is a career booster for white authors, while plenty of people of color feel locked out of book publishing altogether, excluded at MFA programs, turned into tokens at festivals. “I had been invited to the Brisbane Writers Festival as a writer, but now I was here, foremost, as an Asian,” Suki Kim wrote after being asked to respond to Shrivergate. “This was yet more proof, if it was needed, that Shriver was spewing nothing but nonsense: Some of us have no choice when it comes to identity.”

Indeed, Shriver herself has faced concerns about how she handles race in her novels (concerns which clearly stuck in her craw), yet there she was, a keynote speaker at a major book conference.

Moze: I really like Ava DuVernay’s discussion of interpretation and reflection; each character you create is interpretive, but the ways they’re perceived and treated by society are more universally felt among specific groups. So for any story you’re writing that’s beyond your own experience, unless you set it in a fantasy realm, you need to do further research into those experiences and understand that it’ll be obvious if you falter.

Clearly what rankles people so much is that for so long this was a society in which interpretation rather than reflection was nearly all that was acknowledged. Because by the very nature of oppression, the people who could give reflective portraits of the oppressed had no access to the opportunity. Thus, today it’s more visible when an interpreter gets an experience wrong. More people are getting to tell their own stories, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that that fact comes in part from the persistence of conversations that white people shrunk away from.

That said, I’m all for a bounty of interpretation when reflection is simultaneously given its fair place in the arts — which it scarcely was in the past, and which it’s only starting to now. I’m thrilled about the fact that Hanya Yanighara wrote what many have unabashedly called the Great Gay Novel; that Pedro Almodóvar gorgeously writes about his admittedly somewhat heightened versions of female experience; that Jill Soloway can create a show about a trans woman, and that that role can be even played by a man who has never ignored the fact that he’s an interpreter of trans experiences. Tambor’s acting in that role is exquisite — perhaps one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on television —  and an example of the power of crossing the bridges of experience with sensitivity and awareness, and I’m so glad this performance exists. Some people’s understandable anger over it doesn’t need to be cast aside, however, and neither should the performance! Rather, that anger underscores the real problem: trans actors themselves aren’t offered the opportunity to cross the same bridges — or even play experiences that are close to their own — elsewhere. It makes sense that until that happens, even great performances like Tambor’s will be questioned.

To an extent, the word “appropriation” is overused, because it’s taken on a note of condemnation, and so using it to label a spectrum of scenarios reduces them all to an equal notion of theft. But what Shriver fails to do is to understand that it’s crucial to argue that the same logic — of being able to cross bridges of experience — should apply to minorities and members of oppressed populations, who, as Riz Ahmed pointed out in a brilliant essay earlier, are seldom granted the type of fluidity offered to white artists. Hopefully, we can move in a direction where borrowing won’t be deemed such an artistic crime, in part because people will evolve to do it less crudely: authors, filmmakers, playwrights, etc. will become more conscious of the nuances of borrowing, of how to do it tactfully without contributing to exclusions and erasures. One way to start is by honing discussions about such topics to not seem so absolutist.

Sarah:  And as you mentioned, if artistic gatekeepers and institutions were less reflective of social prejudices, borrowing would feel more like cross-pollination rather than an act of dominance. Until that utopia arrives, it’s not an affront to ask that artists be mindful when they cross imaginary borders. Indeed, there’s an obvious pair of solutions for writers here (which Shriver misses entirely): and that is 1- be thoughtful when approaching experiences in your art that fall outside your ken. And 2-uplift, read and seek out the work of other writers from beyond Brooklyn-y, London-y, Iowa-y enclaves.

Instead of pondering solutions, Shriver’s speech pushes the conversation backwards. Right now in the literary world, writers are actually having discussions about how, craft-wise, we can approach differently-abled characters, characters from another race or gender. There are lists and comics and Tumblrs devoted to avoiding stereotypes, cliches, and pitfalls, tips for finding (and actually hearing) trusted readers who can help you not fall into traps. This discourse is making us better writers; I hope it can continue to flourish after Shriver Sombrero-gate is a distant memory.