“[P]eople with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.” (Shriver, par. 14)
Recently, a hot debate broke out regarding author Lionel Shriver’s talk at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. The debate began when The Gurdian published an article by author Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Abdel-Magied wrote about her vile reaction to Shriver’s speech, deciding to walk out after the first twenty minutes. Her reason was that Shriver’s speech, rather than tackle the valid literary “ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had,” turned into “a tirade… mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction” (Abdel-Madied, par 18; emphasis original). Abdel-Magied’s objection to cultural appropriation is that it leaves oppressed voices silent. When a writer of privilege speaks for a minority group through a character or characters in his or her fiction, he or she is silencing voices of that minority group that could be speaking:
“The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal” (Abdel-Madied, par 26).
A few days later, The Guardian published the full transcript of Shriver’s speech. From Shriver’s point of view, the idea that fiction writers are scrutinized and ultimately criticized (especially those from privileged backgrounds) for writing about cultures and people that are not of their own experience has gone too far:
“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” (Shriver, par. 9).
Her point becomes as much an artistic one as a social or political one as she states, “Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction… All that’s left is memoir” (Shriver, par 32; emphasis original).
This is in no way a political blog nor do I have any interest in participating in political discussions. But the debate did get me thinking about one important element of fiction – imagination.
I have written before about the potential of art to transcend the boundaries of experience so that it becomes relatable to others. I think this can happen when fiction writers forgo cultural appropriation for culture depiction. There is a big difference between appropriation and depiction. Dictionary.com defines appropriation as “to take to or for oneself; take possession of” (emphasis added). It defines depiction (for the purposes of fiction) as “representation or characterization in words” (emphasis added). In the former, the unique characteristics of a marginalized group is sucked up into a vacuum so that it no longer exists, or, as Abdel-Madied eloquently describes it, “[filtered] … through [a] skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage [the privileged writer] need never experience” (par. 21). With the latter, these cultural experiences are reflected in all of their meaningful aspects, with the joys and brutality inherent in these experiences. Depiction isn’t done haphazardly or with an eye towards what is “trendy” in fiction and art at the moment but with sensitivity, respect, and dignity for the characters that populate the story, whether the author has experienced them intimately or not.
In Gerard Hanberry’s book More Lives Than One: The Remarkable Family Of Oscar Wilde Through The Generations, Hanberry tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, who, among other literary pursuits, once wrote Irish nationalist poetry for the Nation under the pseudonym Speranza, much to the chagrin of her more Protestant and pro-British relatives. Hanberry remarks, “Surprisingly, for a woman of her social background and a city dweller, she was able to reflect the turbulent emotions that were intensifying throughout rural Ireland as conditions worsened” (pp. 72-73; emphasis added). Lady Jane’s sensitivity towards the Young Irish movement as well as her association and support of those heading the movement (note that she sought to discover the emotional realities of the people that she was writing about) gave her the tools to depict this part of the culture that she was not a direct part of.
Imagination is the lens in which cultural depiction can happen. Imagination is part of the tapestry of psychological reality and, I believe, when tempered with awareness of the pain and pleasures of experience not our own, can give readers a sense of who they are reading about and why, no matter who is doing the writing or who the characters are.
Abdel-Magied, Yassmin. “As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her”. The Guardian. Guardian News. 10 September 2016. Web. 21 September 2016.
Hanberry, Gerard. More Lives Than One: The Remarkable Wilde Family Through The Generations Wilde. The Collins Press. 2011. Kindle digital file.
Shriver, Lionel. “Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’”. The Guardian. Guardian News. 13 September 2016. Web. 21 September 2016.