The privilege to write

Nobody owns a culture and nobody should have veto power over whether an outsider can write about a particular culture

A file photo of author Lionel Shriver. Photo: Getty Images
A file photo of author Lionel Shriver. Photo: Getty Images

Last week at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the London-based American novelist Lionel Shriver asserted, “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.” There doesn’t seem to be anything controversial about what she said, until you place her statement in its context. She was attacking critics who complained of cultural appropriation by privileged writers. Shriver is privileged, the argument goes, because she is an acclaimed author of several novels who is a frequent fixture at literature festivals, and she is white.

Shriver showed no empathy for writers on the fringes of the profession and ridiculed those who shout “cultural appropriation”. She cited examples including Graham Greene, Matthew Kneale and Malcolm Lowry as writers who have written of cultures other than their own. If there was a personal element to her complaint, it was this—she received a couple of bad reviews for her new novel, The Mandibles (in which she portrays a black character without showing much sympathy). A bad review is not censorship.

Shriver summed up the critics’ argument as this: You are not supposed to try other people’s hats. That is unreasonable; the logical extension of the critics’ argument would curb imagination and force writers into ghettos. Put that way, Shriver’s anger sounds sensible—nobody should stop writers from imagining, surely? But the point isn’t simply wearing another hat. The point is whether the writer has sufficient empathy to bring the character (pleasant or not) to life, and not let it become a caricature. The critics of cultural appropriation are concerned about dominant voices crowding out the space, preventing other voices which are (in the critics’ view) more authentic from being heard.

Outraged by Shriver’s speech, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudan-born Australian writer and activist, walked out of the talk, blogged about it, and became an instant Internet phenomenon. The next day, the festival organized an impromptu panel, inviting Abdel-Magied, the Korean-American writer Suki Kim, and the Sri Lankan-Australian writer Rajith Savanadasa, to respond to Shriver’s claims. Identity politics was now in full play—the three panellists were “writers of colour”, taking on a white writer who seemed insensitive about identity appropriation.

If the Brisbane incident escalated beyond the festival, it was because of strident posturing. Shriver suggested that those criticizing cultural appropriation are censors posing a very real threat to writing: that’s simply not true; writers face far more real threats, such as being banned, sent to jail, tortured, and in some cases killed. Her critics resent the ease with which Shriver and other white writers “own” stories that aren’t part of their lived experience. But they overreach, as Abdel-Magied does, when she says: “It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with…. It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.” Abdel-Magied’s hurt and anger are palpable, but it isn’t as if Nigerian women can’t get published—think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Helen Oyeyemi, for example.

So the real problem is of access, and who controls it, and who wields power. That is the power of the market’s gatekeepers—publishers, booksellers, and, indeed, readers through their choices.

This isn’t an argument only about the developed and developing world, or white and non-white world. Why, the conversation is relevant within the Indian context. People from Manipur weren’t flattered when director Omung Kumar chose Priyanka Chopra to play the role of Mary Kom in the eponymous film about the champion boxer. British director Peter Brook was criticized when he cast black actors in important roles in his 1985 staging of the Mahabharata, and I had found Alec Guinness miscast as Professor Godbole in David Lean’s Passage To India (1984)—Shreeram Lagoo would have done a far better job. Kumar and Lean had got it wrong, I thought, though Brook’s staging remains a mesmerizing masterpiece and his casting was inspired. Clearly, some appropriations work, and some don’t.

Nobody owns a culture and nobody should have veto power over whether an outsider can write about a particular culture. In a nicer world, writers would not offend cultures—and produce timid, tepid literature. The powerful will dominate, and the marginalized voice, the sound of the subaltern, and the stories of the people at the bottom of the hill would remain untold and unheard. That’s a matter of shame.

But a voice isn’t valuable merely because it comes from an under-represented world; it is its sincerity which will make it heard above the din. And the dominant voice isn’t important or praiseworthy simply because it speaks from a position of power and authority and is louder. It must ring true. Otherwise it will be ridiculed, as journalists did in apartheid-era South Africa, when they saw a white student joining the United Women’s Congress’ contingent, running abreast with them, “smiling nervously, waving her fist in the sky, and copying the black sisters’ steps, but there was no room for her in the formation”, as Rian Malan observed in his memoir, My Traitor’s Heart. “Oh, baby,” one of the journalists said, “when the day comes, you’ll still be whitey.”

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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