At a keynote speech at an Australian book festival, the novelist Lionel Shriver was scheduled to speak about “community and belonging,” instead she donned a sombrero and spoke about the dangers of cultural appropriation.
The New York Times reports that Shriver, who was at the festival to promote her new novel The Mandibles, criticized “runaway political correctness” including efforts to ban certain Halloween costumes that reference gender or ethnicity, as well as criticisms of writers who had written from the perspective of ethnically different characters. “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a fad, Shriver said.
She referenced a tequila-themed party at Bowdoin college where students had handed out miniature sombreros:
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favor hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
The sombrero incident, Shriver argued, was a metaphor for writing, “moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats,” she said. She referenced numerous novels written by white authors from the perspective of a person of color, arguing that they would be heavily criticized if published today. Shriver pointed to the more recent example of Chris Cleave’s 2009 novel, Little Bee, written from the point of view of a teenage Nigerian girl. Though Shriver acknowledged that she hadn’t read the book, she defended what she argued was effectively Cleave’s creative right to explore his character:
[...] I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”
Hold it. OK, he’s necessarily “representing” his characters, by portraying them on the page. But of course he’s using them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.
Shriver’s speech then moved from criticism over her handling of race in The Mandibles to fat acceptance and the definition of identity itself. It’s really quite a journey, a long, half-coherent journey in which suggestion and criticism are conflated with the dampening of creative exploration.
Shriver concluded her speech by effectively arguing that fiction should be an outward pursuit, not one defined by adherence to a group or the self in relationship to that group. She noted that, if that were the case, she would only write characters who were “aging five-foot-two smartass[es]” and set every novel in North Carolina. “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros,” she concluded, proving her dedication to the clunky comparison.
The Times notes that Shriver’s speech was not well-received by either audience or the Brisbane Writers Festival who had invited her to deliver the keynote address. The Festival publicly repudiated her remarks and scheduled a “rebuttal session” scheduled for Saturday, opposite of the session where Shriver is scheduled to promote The Mandibles.