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?