Author Lionel Shriver’s keynote address at the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival has sparked heavy criticism. Shriver, best known for her book “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, spoke out against criticisms of authors based on cultural appropriation.
The concept of cultural appropriation is divisive: some view it as oppression by majorities who adopt or appropriate aspects of a minority culture, while others see it as a natural blending of culture through free expression.
The concept has created debates over everything from Halloween costumes to Miley Cyrus’s dancing. In Shriver’s case, she pushed back against the notion that novelists shouldn’t write characters from differing racial or ethnic backgrounds. As the New York Times reported:
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.“]
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-born social activist attending the festival, walked out of the address, later writing a response calling the speech “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experience of others, under the guise of fiction.”
The festival, meanwhile, organized a response session featuring Abel-Magied and Suki Kim, a Korean-American author who based her best-known book off her experience as an English teacher in North Korea. The festival also removed links to Shriver’s speech from the festival website.
Debates about cultural appropriation are valuable. Discussing the experiences of different groups and their representations in popular culture helps to increase understanding of diversity—of background, of origin, of race, and of ideas.
But in order for the debate to be valuable, differing viewpoints need to be heard, not silenced. According to the New York Times:
Ms. Shriver described the festival’s response as “not very professional,” and, at a later appearance at the festival, said she was disturbed by how many of those on the political left had become what she described as censorious and totalitarian in their treatment of artists with whom they disagreed.“]
Criticism of ideas can contribute to healthy discussions and learning, but only so long as those ideas are permitted to be shared. By censoring ideas, we shut down those conversations.
You can read Lionel Shriver’s full address here.
For a professor’s perspective on fiction and cultural appropriation, check out Professor Amy Sturgis’s commentary on the backlash against J.K. Rowling’s incorporation of Native Americans into the history of the United States in Harry Potter’s wizarding world.
For a perspective on creative writing and freedom of expression, check out the video below featuring Professor Laura Kipnis.