The problem with Lionel Shriver’s speech

September 25, 2016 12:18 am | Updated November 01, 2016 08:43 pm IST

The writer, who says that fiction writers should be able to shape any character without being accused of cultural appropriation, is someone who tries on hats and shoes and doesn’t see the hands that made the hats and shoes

A couple of weeks ago, Lionel Shriver, best known for her book We Need to Talk About Kevin , decided to call a spade a double-edged sword. That is, she stood up to give the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival and defended at length cultural appropriation. The example of political correctness taken to a cray-cray extreme that she gave? Some students at Bowdoin, an American college, being reprimanded for ethnic stereotyping by their peers and the administration for throwing a tequila-themed party in which miniature sombreros were handed out. She complained that, “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.” She herself had grown up with parents who bought her sombreros and was also happy for anyone to borrow her German-American heritage and wear lederhosen. After all, Shriver argued, it is the writer’s job to step into people’s shoes and wear other people’s hats. Uff, so silly, was the intended takeaway of her speech.

The complexities of race Like many other people, I read Shriver’s speech and clutched my head in embarrassment on her behalf. It was a lot like listening to some pleasant male acquaintance suddenly spouting off about how women have made it so difficult for men to speak nowadays by constantly accusing them of sexism. And then he talks for the next 40 minutes (continuously barking at whoever tries to end the embarrassment, “let me finish”).

Shriver wasted a tremendous opportunity to talk of what it is to be a hugely successful writer of German-American heritage at a time when debates about race and ethnicity have received a big boost. Within two weeks of the sombrero incident that Shriver spoke of so scathingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, MacArthur ‘Genius’ award-winning author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me , wrote simply and briefly about cultural appropriation in an essay about an interview with the distributor of the new biopic of Nina Simone. The movie distributor, Robert Johnson, patently disses Simone’s descriptions of dark-skinned African-Americans having a more difficult time than light-skinned African Americans. Coates writes, “Johnson apparently believes Simone was making all of this up. ‘You think Rosa Parks’ pain was less than Nina’s when she had to endure not sitting on a bus?’ he said. Beyond being thick-witted, this is text-book appropriation — actively profiting from an experience while denying the experience actually exists.”

For someone actively trying to understand the complexities of race in 2016, there are Coates and dozens of other subtle-minded, witty, and stylish writers to read. And someone who just wants to make ‘heh-heh, these people are making a mountain out of a molehill remarks’, they can go in search of sombrero incidents in small colleges. Someone who is interested in why the sombrero party ticked off the students, a writer interested in other people’s hats for instance, would enquire what message it sent out to the college population when two members of their student government went to a sombrero party, when the same college had already recently witnessed a ‘Cracksgiving’ party where students dressed up as Native Americans and a party themed ‘gangster’ where students dressed up in black fashions. Students of colour in this particular college have complained also how fed up they are of having to spend all their time responding to racist behaviour of various scales.

This complaint was then mirrored at the Brisbane Writers Festival after Shriver’s speech where a panel was formed swiftly of three writers of colour. Suki Kim, a writer on this panel, wrote at length later about everything that happened at Brisbane including her sense of being deployed for reparations by the festival organisers because she was Korean-American. An irony more bitter since the heft of Shriver’s blunt instrument was that everyone can and should shed identities such as ‘Asian’ or ‘person with disability’. What happened to Kim later was illustrative for writers interested in cultural appropriation or race or life. Kim went to the private writers’ lounge where she was bored to death by two white men who complained among other things of how one’s book on Afghanistan wouldn’t have got a bad review if someone hadn’t made the mistake of assigning it to an unqualified Pakistani woman. (Kim doesn’t mention names but I did jasoosi and am gleefully guessing it was Rafia Zakaria, lawyer, political philosopher and author of The Upstairs Wife, who wrote a sceptical review of Rod Nordland’s The Lovers in The New York Times .)

So Kim was bored, fed up, but responded with her own experiences of racist hierarchy as a writer in festivals, still trying to Educate Whitey. To her shock, Nordland then wrote up things she said in this private conversation for an article in The New York Times , subtly hinting that Shriver was a victim in a world full of unreasonable people such as Kim. When Kim naturally objected to being quoted without her knowledge, The New York Times Public Editor reviewed it and concluded that Nordland shouldn’t have done it. But in this piece, the Public Editor says in passing that Kim “considers herself a journalist as well.” Here is Kim’s bio: “She is a contributing editor to the New Republic and an investigative journalist and novelist. Her New York Times bestselling book of narrative nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite , is about her time undercover in Pyongyang living with the future leaders of North Korea.” What do you consider Kim?

Kim writes that the worst of the Brisbane experience was “the sight of a white woman who has had great literary success playing the victim. It was the arrogance with which she declared that being Asian is not an identity; sure, we don’t want to be stereotyped according to race either, but who is Lionel Shriver to tell us that?”

Privileged and the victim Shriver is someone who tries on hats and shoes and doesn’t see the hands that made the hats and shoes, the sun that shone on the heads that wore the hats, the roads that the shoes took. But mostly Shriver is someone who didn’t stop to think that giving the keynote speech as a bestselling white American woman at a literary festival is an opportunity to talk about a million other things other than, “I am so pained that nowadays I have to stop to think occasionally before shooting my mouth off.”

It’s not very different, like I said earlier, from the young and old men in India who are feeling victimised, or let’s be honest, feeling prepared to be victimised in the near future. I don’t want to count the number of conversations I’ve had recently with alarmed men who feel that their public or private behaviour with women in the past may now be ‘misinterpreted’ or even be ‘considered sexual harassment’. How can I be natural any more, they ask? It’s okay if you are not natural, is always my reply. Your being natural is what got us all here.

As we sort out our own feelings about where we are with caste and race and gender and disability, as we educate ourselves, there are bound to be many moments of acknowledging our own privilege as well as some moments of feeling like someone else’s political correctness is too extreme and someone else’s is not enough and ours like the Baby Bear’s is ‘just right’. If you are sincerely on the job, you will have moments of not feeling right at all, discomfort, and an unfamiliar sense of being in the wrong. When you have this feeling, lie down and don’t give a keynote speech.

Or take a cue from Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, editor-in-chief of In June 2016 at a panel at the White House’s United State of Women Summit, Al-Khatahtbeh was asked, “How do we empower the people we call the voiceless?” She replied, “Pass the mike.”

Nisha Susan is a writer and co-founder of the feminist magazine ‘The Ladies Finger’.

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