A Perfect Storm

The tempest raging around ‘cultural appropriation’ in fiction.

Last autumn, just before my novel, The Speech, was published, Lionel Shriver — British resident, and American author of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ — scared the hell out of me. She gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival that transformed a fairly minor storm of disagreement into a raging tempest of vitriolic backbiting. Her address was titled Fiction and Identity Politics — in plainspeak: issues surrounding the creating of characters in novels that aren’t of the author’s colour, race, sexuality, religion, or … you name it.

From the moment I decided to put two black Jamican immigrant characters into The Speech, I’d anguished about whether, as a white Anglo, I a) had the right to do so, and b) could accurately and sensitively portray them. The reason Shriver’s address scared the bejesus out of me was the extreme acrimony of reaction, which made it clear there were legions who would believe I had no right to write about anybody other than white males like myself, and who would be gagging to find even a hint of misrepresentation in the portrayal of anybody ‘different.’ Publishing a book can be an incredibly nervous-making act of self exposure in the first place (more about this in a future blog), and I suffered fairly crippling moments of misgiving in the days leading up to publication, imagining being pilloried for my inept — maybe even racist — attempts to ‘write’ Jamaican.

But a calmer frame of mind prevailed after I realized part of the problem with the brouhaha in Brisbane had been the manner in which Shriver put her case. She started out in a measured enough fashion talking about authors ‘stepping into other people’s shoes, and trying on their hats.’ Nice metaphor. But then things went downill. She talked about well-considered books — some being classics — that feature characters of different race, sexuality, etc. from their author. Trouble is, she listed so many examples that it began to feel she was wielding a baseball bat at the heads of what she later described as ‘cultural police.’ She went on to use negative and incendiary terms to describe anyone who dared suggest that authors moderate their portrayal of ‘others.’ I obviously wasn’t there to hear the derogatory tone of voice she doubtless used, but I can imagine it when I read an account of reaction to the speech from a woman who walked out mid-way. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a mechanical engineer, social advocate, and writer, described Shriver’s speech as “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.”

Both Shriver’s speech and Abdel-Magied’s account hold interesting, intelligent, and legitimate points about a fascinating subject. Unfortunately they’re eclipsed by the rancour of the emotional minefield surrounding so-called ‘cultural appropriation.’

For my part I decided if I included black characters in The Speech — how could I not in a novel with racism as one of its themes — I’d do everything possible to portray my Jamaican characters as honestly as I possibly could. As a student I’d been befriended by a Jamaican, a fellow labourer on the building site where I worked during college holidays. Throughout that summer he and I worked together and drank together. I spent weekends with his family in Handsworth, which at the time was a West Indian enclave of Birmingham. Before that, I’d worked Saturdays on a market stall in Wolverhampton, where at least half the customers were West Indian. I felt I already knew something of Jamaicans in Britain. I supplemented this with copious research into Jamaican music, history, geography, and general culture. My biggest worry was reproducing the Jamaican patois I’d heard as a young man. I researched the hell out if it on YouTube and other media. I sent my first draft to Jamaican author, Colin Channer, to read. He was generous and complimentary, but recommended I send a final draft to Jamaican poet, editor, and patois expert, Velma Pollard. On the whole she approved, but made several suggestions of language and phrasing, which I, of course, incorporated.

My point being this: I agree with Shriver that writers should have — and need — the freedom to portray any character, no matter that person’s colour, nationality, sexuality, physicality, etc. in order to produce effective fiction. BUT to do so respectfully, as Abdel-Magied begs of authors in the privileged position of being able to choose about whom they write.

Comments very welcome!

Here is a transcript of Lionel Shriver’s speech:

Here is Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s account of walking out of Shrivers’ address:

This is Colin Channer’s web site:

This is Velma Pollard reading wonderfully one of her poems::

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  9. Hi Andrew – Deirdre here. This is a fascinating article you have offered to explore “ethics” and “frameworks” for an author in writing. I offer a perspective which is based on my studies on Consciousness Studies, my 20 year old practice of meditation, life and writing.

    Lionel Shriver has a perspective on what identity is. I say a perspective because when you begin to reflect on questions such as – “Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going?” – with time, you begin to understand that all identity issues are subject to question. By bringing your awareness into your internal state of thinking and feeling – with mindfulness practice – you can become the observer of your thoughts, emotions and body sensations. The question then is – who is the observer?

    The observer is not the thought and neither is the observer the emotion.

    The observer is pure consciousness itself.

    How does this impact the writer and what Lionel Shriver is talking about? Well – the writer is able to step out of a illusionary identity of “self” and enter into the world of another. This other may be fictional or may exist. This is an innate capacity of human beings to transcend gender, identity, tribe and experience a consciousness beyond the limited ego.

    In my novel Eden Burning, I create the character of a psychopath. Have I the right to do that? Absolutely. I am a Catholic. Can I write through the mind of a Protestant? Absolutely. Why because I am not identified with the words I have used above. I am not a Catholic in absolute terms. I am a human being capable of treading the Divine. I share this in common with every single human being.

    I share the same pain, the suffering, the joy the anguish in common with every human being. I am not special. I am connected. In my writing I explore connectedness and depth of being – what we share – rather than what separates. Only when the writer reaches this ground can they differentiate with joy in creating their characters – the saint, the sinner, the Catholic, the Protestant, the Jamaican, the Australian.

    That is the joy of life – its dance – nothing can be held within boundaries that is worth anything. The dance has to be danced and the writer is the musician who gives the dance a reason to exist.

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