Writing across cultural boundaries in the contemporary era

Last week American novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she railed against ‘identity politics’ and the ‘concept of “cultural appropriation”‘, because they were hindering her ‘right to write fiction’. She argued that writing fiction ‘is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous’, while bemoaning the ‘climate of scrutiny’ and ‘super-sensitivity’ that was constraining the work of ‘writers from traditionally privileged demographics’ like herself. ‘[A]re we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong?’ she asked in a tone so disdainful, it comes through in the transcript. Little wonder audience members like Yassmin Abdel-Magied elected to walk out on her.

As it happens, at the same time Shriver was delivering her speech, I was recording one of my own, albeit for a much smaller audience: a lecture for first year university students, on the ethics of writing across cultural boundaries. My fiction is largely inspired by the years I spent living and working in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and they’d been set as reading my 2010 novel, The Half-Child. I wanted to locate my work in the wider context of Australians writing about Asia; this meant talking about the Orientalist constructs that dominated Australian impressions of Asia for the better part of two centuries, which Alison Broinowski documents in her often blistering critique, The Yellow Lady (1996). While I admitted that Australian writing hasn’t entirely moved away from prejudices and stereotypes, I talked about how factors like globalisation and the emergence of Asian Australian writers have contributed not only to cultural hybridisation, but also a new accountability when it comes to the business of image-making.

As I explained in the lecture, I find this new accountability exciting. I’m by no means put off the attempt to imagine myself into the hearts and minds of people whose lives appear to bear little resemblance to my own. I agree with Gene Luen Yang, author of graphic novel American Chinese that ‘our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.’ But I’m aware of the need to step with care and humility. I feel a strong sense of responsibility when I write across boundaries of identity. I’m compelled to be meticulous in my research, and scrupulous about including representatives from the communities I write about among my early readers. I’m aware of fiction’s capacity to cause pain, and I’m far more fearful of this than of public scrutiny and criticism (being read!). Nothing gives me more satisfaction – no, it’s stronger than that, more joy – than when a Thai reader tells me I got something right.

Following the outcry, then backlash, in response to Shriver’s keynote address, I questioned whether I was merely using different language to say the same thing – to justify my choice as a writer of fiction ‘from traditionally privileged demographics’ to write  stories set in Asian countries that feature characters from a range of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, and equally stories that reflect the pluralism of the Australia in which I live. But I believe it’s more than a matter of semantics. Where Shriver and I fundamentally differ – vast disparities in our sales figures notwithstanding – is that where she sees writing fiction as a right, I see it as a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility. As novelist Jim C Hines put it in his excellent rejoinder to Shriver’s speech,

As a writer, I do have the freedom to write whatever I want. But to my mind, with great freedom comes great responsibility. I have an obligation to get it right, to the best of my ability. To recognize the power of stories. To understand that publishing is not an equal playing field, any more than the world as a whole. To listen. To recognize that there are some stories I’m not the best person, or the right person, to tell.

This, too, is what I tried to say in my lecture: that both the process and the outcome of writing fiction is about initiating a conversation, a dialogue between the work and the reader, between author and audience. Yassmin Abdel-Magied recognised this when she questioned the intent behind Shriver’s speech: ‘Was it to build bridges, to further our intellect, to broaden horizons of what is possible?’ Brisbane Writers Festival volunteer and blogger Yen-Rong recognised this when she wrote:

We definitely need to have more conversations around the way we approach culture, identity, and all the bits and pieces in between. Responsibility does not just lie with the writer, because literature is, at its very heart, a collaborative effort.

It strikes me that Shriver does not want the dialogue. She wants to retain her right to offend, but objects when others want the right of reply. She wants to write with impunity like the colonialists of old, condemning the right of others to question her ethics – a point made by Junot Díaz on his Facebook page.

She wants to write without being subject to criticism by the people she writes about – ignoring the fact that, as writer Omar Musa points out in a recent article, criticism is a fundamental part of this process: “There will be people who will tell you that maybe you didn’t quite get this right, and you just have to cop that flack.”

There is a certain irony, then, in what Shriver says towards the end of her speech – words that, amid the railing, resonated for me:

The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.

Surely the most effective way to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience is to invite others into our lives, not just our imaginations?





About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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32 Responses to Writing across cultural boundaries in the contemporary era

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    What a fascinating – and important – topic, Angela. And you’ve touched on one of the fundamental aspects of good writing – the relationship between writer and context. It is the responsibility of the writer to understand her context, especially if it isn’t her own. And this is why it’s important to learn and understand others’ narratives. To me, anyway, those narratives inform writing, and writers need to pay attention to them. You express this beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Margot. I really feel we have moved into a new era, one in which writers of fiction like me must move away from having a sense of entitlement to having a sense of responsibility. We need to make space, too. I honestly can’t envisage a world where there are too many stories!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Olgamary Savage says:

    Wow! I found myself quoting Lionel Schriver at our Book Group on Sunday when giving a critique of The Nest ( very New York) about a family inheritance. She was talking on the Drum about how money destroys family relationships. Love  Mutti x

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think she’s a bad person per se, Mum. She’s an outspoken critic of the US healthcare system for one thing. But I think even for a self-style ‘iconoclast’, she pitched her case for creative freedom very poorly, especially when she effectively denied others the freedom to respond.


  3. Tyson Adams says:

    I remember someone remarked at Shriver’s comments at the Perth Writers’ Festival a few years ago: I wonder how much she believes that and how much is her being controversial for attention and sales?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is that, too, Tyson. She opened her speech by admitting she was deviating from the brief the festival had given her, saying that ‘inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose’. I’ve heard her use a similar shtick when talking about her books, saying words to the effect that feminising her book covers was ‘like putting a rottweiler in a dress’. Part of me suspects she would be pleased with all the attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. FictionFan says:

    I have to admit to having some sympathy with Shriver’s views though perhaps she could have expressed them a little better. I’m getting more and more concerned about groups who take it upon themselves to decide what other people should or shoudn’t do, in writing and in life – if Shriver writes an offensive book, I’ll be first in the queue to call her on it in a review, but I still defend her right to write it (not that I’ve read any of her books yet, you understand – but speaking hypothetically 😉 ). I even think misogynists have the right to write misogynistic books – if we take that right away, then we’re in the realms of censorship and thought policing. I’ve even read blog-posts suggesting that white writers should not write black characters, and that male writers should not write women! So we should all stay in our little boxes – I presumably can only read books about white Scottish women with cats – though when I think about it, is it fair on cats to have humans write their stories?

    Sure, good writers (and good people) will make every effort to understand people from different life experiences before writing about them – but bad writers should and will be thoroughly slated by the reading and reviewing public when they get it all wrong. As far as I’m concerned it should be up to the readers to police the books for themselves, not minority interest groups telling writers what they can’t write about. Sorry for the rant! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • FF, you are always welcome to rant! As a writer, I also have sympathy for the freedom to write/censorship sucks argument. And (obviously) my position diverges from those who believe writers should only write in their ‘own voice’. But the whole argument about what writers are ‘allowed’ to write a straw man (as Jim C Hines points out in his post): writers remain free to write whatever they can find a publisher for. My point is that you can choose to write with respect, or you can write with hubris; in either case, you have to remain open to criticism – scathing reviews included.

      And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that privilege is made visible. That can, and should, keep us sharp.

      End of counter-rant!

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. Indeed this is a fascinating post and wider discussion Angela. I’m still musing over what I think of it all to be honest. Did you listen to this week’s The Minefield? It’s one of the Radio National shows and discusses a thorny philosophical issue each week – this week they tackled the Lionel Shriver speech and its broader context. All very interesting and I still don’t entirely know what I think about it all. Part of me worries about the backlash against Shriver – much of it is so bloody self-righteous it makes me year for some third alternative to the left/right (or progressive/conservative) buckets we all seem to be consigned to these days. Because I agree with you (and Jim Hines) that she should expect her views to be critiqued but I also worry at the speed and vehemence with which the BWF disavowed her sentiments and went to such lengths to distance themselves from them. Aren’t writer’s festivals the perfect place for difficult, even controversial ideas to be discussed? I mean really discussed not just batted back and forth like a bloody tennis ball? To me the festival organisers and some of those who reacted immediately – without time for a moment’s thought – are as guilty as Shriver of not wanting to be critiqued or to engage in genuine discussion. As with most things I think there is a happy middle ground between Shriver’s extreme (and i do wonder if she was being deliberately provocative) and the opposite extreme…but these days we never seem to get to the middle ground…it’s all just extremists bashing away at each other.

    /end rant (another one for you, sorry)

    I don’t know how you writers are meant to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation but as a reader I have to read what I have access to – with so few books ever translated into English (and me being woefully monolingual) often the only avenues I have into other cultures are the ones written by English-writing people – I generally do try to ascertain if the writer has some idea of what they’re talking about (have they lived in the place they’ve written about for example or only visited on a school footy trip?) but I don’t really want to give up all that kind of reading. And I do know that often outsiders have terrific insight into culture – just look at some of Australia’s best/most beloved authors who weren’t born here and yet who offer accurate depictions of the culture (Peter Temple, Bryce Courtenay, David Owen, Tara Moss, Ruth Park). I’ve recently been re-reading some of the Arthur Upfield novels – the bigoted language and attitudes in which can be guaranteed to make a modern Australian cringe – but there was an Englishman who was depicting life as an Aboriginal Australian with more nuance and insight than any local contemporary was doing at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for weighing in Bernadette. Rants always welcome on this site! I agree with you about the need for debate and the appropriateness of writers festivals as places for the discussion of ideas. I guess the challenge is to facilitate constructive debate, rather than an exchange of slings and arrows. Shriver’s speech didn’t exactly set a constructive tone in that respect.

      I sometimes think we’re losing the art of debate. The few ‘debates’ I’ve been involved in as part of writers’ events are really just stand-up routines…

      You make a good point about access to translated material. I get my hands on whatever I can, but historically, Australian publishers have been reluctant to market books by Asian writers in Australia, and books by Australian writers in Asia. This is starting to change; and having recently discovered writers like Tash Aw and Rattawut Lapchareonsap, I couldn’t be happier. But there’s vast scope for more.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So agree with you about the lost art of debating. I was a debater in high school and university (I’m quite proud of the fact I once beat Christopher Pyne in a Uni debate) and it is a fabulous teaching ground – there is nothing quite so daunting as having to argue passionately on the ‘wrong’ side of a topic (i.e. the side you don’t agree with personally but are assigned to) but it really makes you think and see things from more than one point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. kathy d says:

    I agree with much of what you say. I was disturbed by Lionel Shriver’s remarks which smacked of entitlement and privilege to me. Yes, the news about cultural appropriation came over here.
    That is an issue in the States about music and other cultural issues, but also about dress, hair, etc. And there is a lot of deep feeling about this and rightfully so. This arises often in the music world, where African-American singers, blues musicians, originated songs and arrangements and their music wasn’t promoted nor did they make money from it. But then some white singers made fortunes from the same music. And it comes up today in rap and hip-hop, dress, hairstyles, language, etc. People have a right to their own cultures.
    Writers can write what they’re going to, but do, as you say, have a responsibility to people of the cultures of the people they’re writing about. They have to be mindful of their history, often of oppression, and still existing inequities. And they should not be arrogant about their writing or about the responses, even criticisms, that then results.
    That’s the thing: One has to take responsibility for what one writes — and if it offends people, they have more than a right to react, even angrily, even in writing a response in a publication.
    The world is still not an equal playing field. Not the publishing world either. There are still book awards with mostly men nominated, with mostly men on book festival panels, etc., with very few people of color involved. When I look at the rooms where big mystery awards are given out, I see panels and audiences of people who are white. And at a big festival recently in Britain, there was offense taken because only white writers were speaking about books set in Africa!
    Publishers want big name writers to publish so they’ll rake in big bucks, so that often
    leaves out women and people of color. Look at the NY Times best-seller lists. How many writers from Africa, Latin America, Asia, including the Middle East, the Caribbean are even on it?
    There are still vestiges of colonialism, and existing neocolonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and insensitivity to Indigenous peoples all over.
    Look at the presidential election here where all of these terrible attitudes are right out-front.
    How do the people being criticized and marginalized feel? That matters a lot. They have
    to be heard — and in fiction, too.
    Your books are fine. Adrian Hyland has been left out of this discussion, but his sensitivity to Indigenous peoples in Australia is extraordinary, but then again he spent years living and working with the working about whom he writes. And he writes quite respectfully.
    No one is above criticism or being called on arrogance or insensitivity, no writers, no speakers.
    People have a right to walk out and publicly criticize if they are offended. Until there is full equality in the world in all spheres, including writing and publishing, where all cultures and peoples are represented, this will be the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Kathy. You are right that we have a long way to go before we approach anything like a level playing field.

      Another good line that was aired in the discussion following the Shriver address is that for those used to privilege, equality feels like oppression (I’ll have to look up the original source). And I feel this is true. I feel unsettled, but in a good way, for having my assumptions challenged.


  9. kathy d says:

    Correction: Hyland spent years living and working with the peoples about whom he writes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. kathyd says:

    That’s a good line about privilege and equality. I think that those who have privileges and opportunities, do have feelings of entitlement and that to ask them to be considerate and sensitive to people of various cultures and nationalities feels like oppression to them. True.
    But I have no sympathy.
    It’s like what’s going on over here with police brutality. Athletes are responding by not standing for the national anthem. A lot of privileged, entitled people who have never suffered oppression like that are criticizing them, instead of looking at what’s going on and having empathy and understanding.
    My gosh, people have to think about others’ circumstances and broaden their thinking and actions beyond themselves. Isn’t that what a major goal of life is? And for a writer to expand their thinking about experiences beyond themselves? Learn, be kind and listen to others with respect, hear what they say about inequality and oppression — and expand one’s thinking and empathy, instead of being so self-absorbed and self-rightenous.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Lionel Shriver’s attitude is consistent with that of many authors, some of whom have told me that ‘I use my imagination’ instead of researching and treating others’ experience as a minority with respect. In some ways I’m pleased this conversation exploded so publicly because now those authors will be hearing that their position — their misappropriation and their silencing of minority objections to their misappropriation — is not appropriate.

    I’m in the process of publishing a 3-part reply to Shriver and privileged authors who appropriate other culture (http://www.darkmatterzine.com/lionel-shriver-representation-and-misappropriation-part-1/), including naming a few books wherein ‘other’ culture was appropriated without any research or with insufficient research, thereby worsening the lived experience of minorities. One novel gave non-disabled privilege by placing the protagonist, a woman with acquired disability, in a position to develop a non-existing disability culture and community to save disableds because, according to this privileged author, people born with disabilities don’t have a community or a culture for ourselves and we’re not capable of saving ourselves. This is why we need OUR VOICES to tell OUR STORIES.

    On a panel discussion I talked about a book I loved for its representation of disability. Another panelist told me that I was wrong; she didn’t like that book for reasons unspecified (I think just because a non-Asian wrote a book set in Thailand) so she said that book was not about disability, discounting my opinion. Her assumption of superiority, her assumption of her right as a non-disabled person to overrule my opinion, her blatant rejection of my point of view undermined everything I had previously said in that panel and silenced me for the remainder of the panel. Afterwards several people felt entitled to tell me they were planning to ignore my comments about misappropriation of disability when writing their stories. This is how privilege silences us and discounts our experience, undermining our stories while making our lived experience worse by perpetuating misconceptions and prejudices.

    I’m in the process of putting together a panel discussion with an Indigenous person and another person with a disability to respond to Lionel Shriver and her opinions.

    There hasn’t been enough consultation with the people disenfranchised by Lionel Shriver’s speech and disenfranchised by her attitudes shared with many authors of privilege. After all, to be an author generally implies privilege: usually middle class, fewer barriers to academia and gatekeepers give permission and opportunities to speak.

    In principle I’m not against people of privilege writing others’ stories on a few provisos:
    1) First and foremost, WE must have permission and be allowed to present OUR OWN stories; as long as barriers prevent us from telling our own stories, others should not appropriate our stories;
    2) the stories must be written respectfully; until you have 100 stories about protagonists with disabilities, don’t write 1 about disabled suicide or a disabled villain;
    3) these stories must be researched thoroughly including consultation, acquiring input from and acting on feedback from beta readers with experience of that story (if it’s disability, then readers with that disability; if it’s about a particular ethnic group, then readers from that ethnic group);
    4) if your attitude to appropriation is to see what you can get away with, then I’m interesting in writing a poorly researched biography of your life to see what *I* can get away with. 😀

    It’s interesting that Lionel Shriver has voiced objections to criticisms of her speech on the basis of ‘you don’t know what I said’ and ‘I’m not racist; look beyond me putting the only black character in one book on a leash’ (the latter is not a direct quote but is inferenced from her writing). Also, in response to comments about Shriver’s temerity in coming to Australia and speaking about minority groups about which she knows nothing, apparently she told Maxine Beneba Clarke that she expects to be treated not with criticism but “with hospitality”. I think that says it all.

    I appreciate that you as a person of privilege want to do the right thing. If you want to help, how about offering a platform for people belonging to minority groups to talk about how Shriver’s stance hurts them as a person from a minority group? How about mentoring them? How about helping them past gatekeepers?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nalini, thank you for your considered response to my post. I read part 1 of your response to Lionel Shriver and left a comment on your site, but wanted to reiterate here how appalled I was by your experience as a panellist. If I’d been chairing, I like to think I’d have had the guts to put the speaker who silenced you to shame. It’s damning that no one in the audience came to your defense either. I’m suggesting we use a strategy similar to the ‘amplification’ tactics developed by President Obama’s female staffers to make their voices heard: at writers’ events, those of us on stage or in the audience can respond to attempts at silencing by countering with, ‘Actually, I’m interested in hearing what she has to say’.

      You’re right that as a person of privilege, I do want to do the right thing. Maxine Beneba Clarke said in her Melbourne Writers Festival opening address that we can all contribute to supporting diversity in Australian writing by using whatever platform(s) we have. For me, this mostly takes the form of supporting Asian Australian writers (and also writers from Asian countries whose work is published in Australia) by buying and reviewing their books, putting their names forward for festivals and other writers’ events, attending their sessions, and generally promoting their work, e.g. when someone asks for book recommendations, whether for adults, YA or kids, I consciously include Asian Australian authors on my lists (regardless of the books’ subject matter). I also encourage and champion emerging writers, mostly those I meet as an intermittent teacher of creative writing. But your post has got me thinking about more ways I might do this. So thank you.


  12. kathy d says:

    I’m so glad to see Nalini’s response to Shriver’s talk.
    Wanted to say that Shriver had an op-ed in the New York Times, criticizing “identity politics,” the concept of “cultural appropriation” and “political correctness.” I thought it was awful; she’s excusing those who are not sensitive on disabilities, gender, etc., and saying that people have to be “politically correct” on every issue. It showed great insensitivity.
    And she addresses reactions to her talk at the Brisbane Writers Conference, and is outraged.
    Here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?_r=0
    I hope someone writes an answer, at least a letter from Australia, to the New York Times. It would give the answer clout since she spoke to and refers to the conference in Brisbane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for providing the link here, Kathy. I did see Shriver’s op ed piece. She’s not the only one who thinks ‘identity politics’ is killing the left. Interesting times, interesting debate.


  13. SD says:

    Dear Angela,
    I thought the authorial intentions you express in this article came through very clearly in The Half Child.
    The thing I liked most about The Half Child was the way you moved away from the prism of the first person POV (traditionally used in crime fiction) to a more expansive 3rd person narrative which allowed the reader to see Jane in a wider social and cultural context.
    I also liked the way that, despite being fluent in the Thai language, Jane’s understanding of Thai culture was partial and imperfect. Again, an interesting variation on the hard boiled detective, who has seen, done and knows it all and also on the totalising colonial gaze of the white suited, Graham Greenesque, expatriate.
    The closing scenes where Jane reflects on whether she has just been another well meaning but destructive farang in the Thai characters’ lives were quite powerful.


    Liked by 1 person

  14. kathy d says:

    Yasmin Abdel-Magied’s column in the Guardian which you link to is brilliant, hits the issues squarely and well. We should get that around.
    A friend just reminded me about it in her blog hitting Lionel Shriver’s talk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yassmin’s article started life as a blog post and quickly went viral, Kathy. Basically, she was the first to publicly call out Lionel Shriver for her hubris. The rest, as they say, is history 🙂


  15. kathyd says:

    Well, Yasmin Abdel-Magied’s article was in the Guardian so a lot of people have read it.
    I just read letters to the New York Times Sunday section of Oct. 2 and I’m seesawing between anger and dismay. So many people just don’t get it, but I think it’s those who have privilege who cannot or refuse to see the point of view of people other than themselves. I hate to say it, but I will: It’s like Trump supporters. And there’s a lot of underlying racism — which is not OK and should not be lauded in the publishing world — or as free speech.
    By the way, when I read what Shriver actually wrote about her own Black character, I went into the stratosphere of outrage. On top of the immorality of this, does she not want readers who are Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous?
    I remember reading that Dickens wrote about a Jewish character in a very degrading way — and he had to rewrite it — and that was over 100 years ago. it was probably pressure that cause the change, and I think that’s the only way these things will change now. It puts a lot of pressure on people of various nationalities, genders, gender identities, disabilities, etc. And, frankly, the more that there is support and pressure from the rest of society, the better. It’s the only way to change things.


  16. kathyd says:

    P.S. The letters to the NYT were responding to Shriver’s op-ed.


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