- Keloid GeographyThe Year in Australia
It isn't often that the Brisbane Writers' Festival is written up in The New Yorker and the New York Times, but in September 2016 it was, and the repercussions provoked readings and thoughts about life writing, women's writing, appropriation, and race throughout this past year.
The event that triggered this provocation was the opening keynote speech by American novelist Lionel Shriver, a "fly-in, fly-out" writer at the festival who ostensibly spoke on its theme of "Community and Belonging." But from the outset, Shriver set her own course: "I hate to disappoint you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point, this address will not be about 'Community and Belonging.' In fact, you have to hand it to the festival's organisers: expecting a renowned iconoclast to speak about 'community and belonging' is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose." Instead, Shriver spoke about ideologies that, she argues, call into question her right to write fiction at all. She begins with a "tempest in a teacup" on campus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As she tells it, two students threw a tequila-themed party for a friend and provided miniature sombreros that numerous partygoers wore. The student government at the college called this out as "cultural appropriation," which creates the environment where students of color, particularly Latino and Mexican in this case, feel unsafe. Shriver arrived in Brisbane with a miniature sombrero, ready for the photo opportunities that follows her speech.
What is a fiction writer to do? Writing fiction is all about stepping into other people's shoes, trying on their hats: "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 people's attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form [End Page 531] of theft," Shriver continued in her speech. Shriver went on to list the "masterworks" of literature that would not exist if authors honored these rules, if writers had to seek permission to take intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture. Are they to seek permission to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ vernacular from a group to which they don't belong? Writers, Shriver argues, dare to get into the heads of strangers, project the thoughts and feelings of others, purloin whole worlds; fiction is "a disrespectful vocation by nature," it takes "gall," and of course they are exploitative. Are writers to be relegated to the hinterlands of literature, to memoir?
Twenty minutes into this speech the writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied staged a deliberately political exit, one of a number of members of the audience who signaled dissent in this way. In a post the next day, published in The Guardian online, Abdel-Magied set out two reasons why she left the room. First, what she heard in Shriver's speech: a celebration of the privilege to appropriate the experiences of others, those who lack the opportunity to speak on their own behalf, and so further entrenching her privilege and their disadvantage. Second, she recoiled from the compliant chuckles as the audience listened to this story of sombreros, "reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern." Abdel-Magied continued, "The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my 'place' in the world. See, here is the thing: if the world were equal, this discussion would be different. But, alas, that utopia is far from realised" (Abdel-Magied, "As Lionel Shriver"). Privilege, not belonging, was now the de facto theme of the festival. By the next day, the festival organizers were in damage-control mode, moving swiftly to organize a "right of reply" session as Shriver did not "speak to her brief" at this festival, whose theme was "Community and Belonging." This was not the conversation the organizers intended to have, though of course literary festivals thrive on controversy and publicity, and...