DISCLAIMER: The views presented in today’s post do not necessarily reflect those of Writer Unboxed or its other contributors. They are solely the opinions of the author of this post, and should not be read while flossing, practicing goat yoga, or ghost-writing a book for James Patterson.
Last September – before being eclipsed by our current all Trump, all the time zeitgeist – a flurry of conversations erupted across the internet focusing on cultural appropriation. Fanning the flames of this topic was a keynote speech best-selling author Lionel Shriver gave at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival. Regardless of where you stand on cultural appropriation, it’s well worth reading the text of her whole speech.
Taking the stage wearing a sombrero, Ms. Shriver quickly made it clear where she stood, lashing out at political correctness and flat-out dismissing the concept of cultural appropriation – particularly when writing fiction. She cited a recent incident where some college students were excoriated on social media for a cruel and hurtful act of “ethnic stereotyping” – because they had been photographed wearing miniature sombreros at a tequila-themed birthday party.
Ms. Shriver observed, “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.” She went on to offer numerous examples of important books that would not have been written if the authors hadn’t dared to explore experiences or cultures other than their own:
“If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to ‘appropriate’ the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.”
A disrespectful vocation
In her speech, Ms. Shriver pushed back – hard – against the notion of writers being somehow morally restricted to writing only stories that are “implicitly ours to tell.” Instead, she maintained that “any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.” Taking her defense a step further, she said:
“This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.”
Stating her hope that the concept of cultural appropriation is just “a passing fad,” Ms. Shriver worried that if writers restrict their work to only what they have directly experienced, “all that’s left is memoir.”
I agree – in theory – with much of what Ms. Shriver said. But it soon became clear that plenty of people didn’t… [Read more…]