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Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers

Lionel Shriver in 2014: her keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival on cultural appropriation has unleashed a torrent of opinion. Dean Lewins/AAP

Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers

Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival – and the responses to it – have continued an important discussion about questions of privilege and power in writing.

Shriver criticised the recent trend of calling out cultural appropriation, which she felt muzzled fiction writers. Volunteer Yen-Rong Wong was the first to blog about the speech. Memoir writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out in protest at what she described as Shriver’s arrogance and later wrote about why she did so. The ensuing debate has been covered by the New York Times and The New Yorker. Shriver has since responded to her critics in an interview in Time.

Shriver defined cultural appropriation as taking knowledge, expressions or artefacts from another culture without their permission. She said it was impossible to ask for a whole minority group’s permission to write about its people. In addition, the idea that one person could speak for their minority group implied that culture was monolithic and static.

But Shriver’s definition, and her conclusion that cultural appropriation is silencing writers, is flawed. Cultural appropriation can be better understood as using another culture’s stories or artefacts devoid of context or genuine engagement.

Shriver spoke of being criticised for writing about obesity when she is not obese. She seemed to assume from this example that she is silenced from speaking about all minorities – but this fails to capture the complexity of the issue, or histories of colonisation, discrimination and intergenerational trauma.

How do you write about an experience if you have never experienced it yourself? In an article prompted by Shriver’s speech, a diverse group of Australia writers recently suggested that novelists need to personally grapple with this question.

Anita Heiss has discussed how white writers can create Indigenous characters. Random House/AAP

I write on that personal level, from a position as a white, cis, able-bodied, female fiction writer, whose desires are unruly. I am still a new writer too; I am learning.

My recent novel is about a working-class Australian sex worker and petty thief, Lizzie O’Dea, a real woman whose voice is largely absent from the historical archives. Writing this novel forced me to consider my responsibilities in imagining her experiences. I also had to think about the how fiction interacts with history, a question that is particularly contentious in Australia’s national narrative.

This article is intended as part of a dialogue around how fiction writers negotiate complex power structures. This discussion has been going on for some time across fictional genres; for example, Anita Heiss has discussed how white writers can represent Indigenous characters in Australian fiction and Justine Larbalestier has considered this question in the case of Young Adult fiction.

Very few critics suggest that fiction writers limit their fiction to their own experience. Indeed, critic Nesrine Malik suggests this constrains understanding between people and the processes of empathetic engagement that can happen in writing and reading fiction.

Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities.

Novelist John C Hines, who has critiqued the sexualisation of women on the covers of science fiction books and comics, accepting his 2012 Hugo Award. Al Bogdan

For me, this discussion is a call to more deeply consider the power structures that shape both my own and my characters’ lives. Words — even invented ones — can, and sometimes do, cause harm and reinforce racist stereotypes.

The debate does not need to be a binary one: stealing culture on one hand, and avoiding it completely on the other. Nisi Shawl suggests fiction writers approach characters from other cultures as thoughtful tourists: ready to learn but also aware of their outsider status.

This was my experience when writing my novel; recall the quote “the past is a foreign country”. I wrote with a growing understanding that occupying the mind of a person from the 1920s was almost impossible, but that it can still be attempted to better understand women’s experiences in the past. Fictional language, often ironic and playful, has the capacity to draw attention to these difficulties.

Unresolved tensions about questions of representing others still exist in the novel. I made the decision to have Lizzie work alongside an indigenous woman, Thelma, in an effort to represent the multicultural diversity of 1920s North Queensland, which is present in the historical record. Yet, histories of sex work (see Raylene Frances’s Selling Sex ) pointed to Indigenous women having very different experience to white women.

Potentially, my privilege blinded me to aspects of Thelma’s characterisation. I was also confronted with questions of race when I considered how to represent racist dialogue and attitudes present in the archives. Fiction became a space to explore how dangerous and violent racism might be shown – without being reinforced. My path here was to express racist attitudes only in characters’ dialogue.

For me, engaging with these ideas also means reading texts from diverse viewpoints, setting diverse readings in classes, and teaching the canon with an awareness of the power structures that shape it. It means listening to thoughtful feedback, taking risks and learning from mistakes.

A writer in a privileged position might react to issues of appropriation with arrogance or anxiety. Neither are helpful for the evolution of my writing practice: instead I have found that awareness of privilege, research, and self-reflection continue to deepen my writing.