The Latest Row about Cultural Appropriation

lionel-shriverSource: The New York Times, September 12

Beginning of article:

Officials in charge of an Australian writers festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks.

The event, the Brisbane Writers Festival, which ended Sunday, also hurriedly organized counterprogramming, billed as a “right of reply” for critics of Ms. Shriver, whose speech had belittled the movement against cultural appropriation. They scheduled the rebuttal opposite a session Saturday afternoon in which Ms. Shriver was promoting her new novel, The Mandibles.

Ms. Shriver had been billed as speaking on “community and belonging” but focused on her views about cultural appropriation, a term that refers to the objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs or culture (or even characters of their ethnicity) by artists or others who do not belong to those groups.

Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.

Ms. Shriver, the author of 13 novels, who is best known for her 2003 book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from cultural appropriation. She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book Little Bee.

Ms. Shriver noted that she had been criticized for using in The Mandibles the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. And she defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation, if it served her artistic purposes.

“Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky, 59-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said….


3 responses to “The Latest Row about Cultural Appropriation

  1. It is a writer’s duty to appropriate, appropriate, appropriate — everything, including cultures. Then there emerges good, bad, or indifferent writing.

  2. If one writes about someone else, the author, in theory, is appropriating “culture”. I support Ms. Shriver for stating the obvious. The result will be judged on its artist merit to tell one (or more) of the Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling. To take from the rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, “Everything else is commentary”.

  3. This article concerns the issue that arose at the recent Brisbane Writers’ Festival.
    Set aside the clash of opinions between the author Lionel Shriver and members of her audience on the subject of cultural appropriateness, and look at what this article says.
    Encouraging debate and giving voice to dissent is an appropriate action for a writers’ festival, and there is no problem with the organisers quickly setting up another forum to address the issue.
    But this article goes further. According to this writer the festival organisers `censored’ their website and `publicly disavowed’ Ms Shriver’s address.
    If that’s correct then the writers festival is at fault, both for censoring a writers’ comments and for being disrespectful to a person they had invited to Brisbane as a guest speaker.