Last month, novelist Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) ignited a controversy in the literary community with her speech at the Brisbane Writers Conference in Australia. In the talk, she raised concerns about the movement against cultural appropriation, claiming that the movement challenges “our right to write fiction at all.” According to Shriver, the “our” in that sentence refers to fiction writers generally, and not to a specific group within the community of fiction writers. You may find that incredible.
Shriver explains cultural appropriation by citing extreme examples from the college conduct wars and exerting her right to wear a sombrero even though her ancestry is German. Her speech did not consider any historical or experiential differences between white people and brown people.
With that approach, Shriver ignores the actual definition of cultural appropriation and substitutes a distorted one — it’s easier to battle a flimsy opponent. She also gives herself over to doomsday thinking by suggesting the movement will annihilate fiction. In her words, “the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.” Shriver does not examine the assumptions or motivations driving the desire to tell other people’s stories.
Those of us who seek thoughtful conversations define cultural appropriation differently. It means taking, without permission or respect, other people’s intellectual property, cultural knowledge, expressions or artifacts.
Here’s an example. Last month, I attended the Renaissance Festival. I was one of a few black patrons there. I saw many interesting things, including a group of traditional Irish dancers. A black man was among them. I made no assumptions about his country of origin, but I assumed he danced with the troupe because he liked it. I took for granted that he had permission and support.
Applied to fiction, conversations about identity become more difficult. First, we must agree that conversations about cultural appropriation are worth having. We have to acknowledge that a degree of care is required when we step outside of our experience. If I gathered black friends and formed an Irish dance company, I suspect most people would acknowledge our right to exist and perform the work. I would not be surprised if folks asked why we weren’t performing our “own” dances. I would also expect that the reaction to our performances would vary based on our skill, our degree of care and our sincerity. So it is with all art. Stereotypes, tropes and clichés tend to provoke outrage; people admire authenticity.
Few would challenge J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace,” even though it includes less-than-ideal portrayals of blacks in South Africa. Coetzee is white and South African; he wrote about a time and place in a story that required black characters. “Disgrace” was written with great skill, sourced by an obvious affection for his homeland and informed by a demonstrated ability to examine the richness and complexity of the human condition.
So it can be done and done well. In fact, doing it well is the requirement. Shriver’s speech should concern us — its assumptions, motivations, weaknesses and laziness are problematic — but if I met her in London over afternoon tea, my main message would be fairly simple. Those of us who encourage thoughtful conversations about identity are not saying, “This is ground on which you shall not tread.” We’re saying, “Have a compelling reason to tell other people’s stories. Tread lightly and take care. Come in with a clear purpose, and carry it forward with zeal. Give your full and best effort. Write whatever fiction your heart desires, but write it from a place of love.”
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a St. Paul essayist. Laurie Hertzel is on vacation.