I’m a bit behind the times but news of Lionel Shriver’s address on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival (early September, 2016) has recently come to my attention. I’ve had dark nights of the soul, of late, about my own fiction writing, and about the future of fiction in general.
It was in David Shields’ Reality Hunger that I was first introduced to the idea that fiction may be doomed. It seemed such a ridiculous concept that I dismissed it…mostly. Now, in addition to my own mixed feelings about the meaning and ramifications of cultural appropriation in fiction, I wonder if David shields wasn’t right. Or, as Lionel Shriver apparently said in Brisbane, “All that’s left is memoir.”
Let me first say that I am terrifically disappointed that Shriver chose to make her speech in a sombrero, and that reviews from many sources, including The New York Times, Financial Review, The Daily Telegraph, and the Wall Street Journal are characterized by a similar and unfortunate degree of snarkiness, regardless of which side of the aisle they represent. I like this comment (from the website The Conversation) at least as much for its content as the sober, serious manner of its expression:
Very few critics suggest that fiction writers limit their fiction to their own experience. Indeed, critic Nesrine Malik suggests this constrains understanding between people and the processes of empathetic engagement that can happen in writing and reading fiction.
Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities.
I didn’t think (much) about cultural misappropriation while reading Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. If every writer achieved what he did in that haunting book, I don’t think we’d be having much of a conversation. And yet, in spite of this, I did feel compelled to research Johnson’s actual connections to North Korea. They are minimal. Similarly, when reviewing a book by an older white woman whose story included some Native American characters, I considered investigating if this woman did, in fact, have any (real?) connection to Native American culture. Because she is a minor player on the fiction-writing stage, I couldn’t research this online, and would have had to ask her, in person…what? What exactly would I have asked her? Are you Native American? What per cent Native American are you? Do you have friends who are Native American? Even a question like How much research did you do into this particular Native American community? seems absurd, and like it misses the point.
So what is the point?
That’s the question. What exactly do we need to know to authenticate or validate a writer’s appropriation? The quote above from The Conversation suggests that we need to know the writer gave the question serious consideration. We need to feel confident the writer asked him or herself questions like, What is my privilege? and How does it shape my writing?
It’s why snark has no place in the discussion. It’s why Shriver should not have worn that sombrero. It’s why stereotypical, easily-chosen, poorly researched names and behaviors are a fiction-writer’s doom. Do these things and you will, in my opinion, be judged as misappropriating, regardless of your intent. You will invite discussions of your privilege, and they won’t be kind.
Fiction writers can write what they want, but it better be good. And we all need to do what we can to foster the writing of people who have traditionally been subject to publishing bias and restricted opportunity. Which means buying and reading their books. Which will make all of our fiction better.