I’ve spent the last few days thinking about cultural appropriation and the writing of fiction, as a consequence of the controversial keynote speech given by author Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and the distress expressed by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that caused her to walk out of Shriver’s presentation.
Briefly, Shriver stated her hope that the concept of cultural appropriation will be a passing fad, whilst Abdel-Magied argued that the appropriation by white fiction writers of experiences they can only imagine and have not lived is a racist and silencing act of cultural theft, in a world in which the voices of oppressed people are far less likely to be published than are those of their oppressors.
As an example of cultural appropriation, British male author Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee, in which his protagonist is a female Nigerian asylum seeker, written in the first person, is cited.
It’s the job of fiction writers to imagine and convincingly convey to the reader experiences the writer has not necessarily lived, just as it’s the job of actors to portray characters with lives very different from their own. The “authenticity” of the creative work of both writer and actor lies in her or his ability to first fully imagine, and then fully realise their characters.
I can’t interpret this creative work as an act of theft. I can imagine how it might be experienced as an act of theft, but I cannot conclude from my imagining that it is an act of theft. This seems to me a crucial distinction in an argument that has as one of its requirements that a fiction writer (or actor) seek permission from a particular group to construct and perform a story around events he or she has not directly experienced, in order to avoid committing identity theft and cultural appropriation.
From a writer’s perspective, the core of this debate is the freedom to exercise the imagination, and to realise on the page the stories and characters it produces. The writer’s imagination is nourished from all manner of sources, personal experience being but one.
That both the film and publishing industry are dominated by privilege and largely white, is beyond dispute, yet this is perhaps a separate argument, and a situation for which the imaginations and performances of writers and actors cannot be held responsible.
At the same time, a writer or actor has the option of refusing to portray the experiences of a minority to which she or he does not belong, and instead urge their industry to seek out the voice of experience rather than settle for the voice of imaginative empathy, or at worst, exploitation.
I think both Shriver and Abdel-Magied have crucial points to make, but I can’t agree that the solution is the regulation of the imagination, or perhaps more accurately, the regulation of the imagination’s output. If a fiction writer is forbidden through shaming and accusations of theft from writing stories that contain experiences not their own, we’ll have nothing left but memoir.
As I haven’t read Cleave’s novel, I don’t know how successfully or otherwise he created the character of a female Nigerian asylum seeker, but I do know that the silencing of any writing voice is the privilege of publishers, not writers.
As Roland Barthes observed, any text is a tissue of all texts that preceded it: writers are also readers and nothing we produce stands in isolation. The text exists in a political culture of material relations that continue to produce ideologies, actions and beliefs. As he also observed, the text is incomplete without the reader, and the reader brings to any text personal experiences and previous readings that necessarily influence interpretation.
Shriver’s acerbic reaction to charges of cultural appropriation are unfortunate and defensive, yet she is right to aggressively fight for a fiction writer’s freedom to imagine and narrate experiences that are not her own. If we cease to imagine the experiences of other, we become indescribably diminished. The oppression suffered by those for whom Abdel-Magied speaks can only become less penetrable, while the possibility of redress retreats even further.
Story is one of the most powerful weapons with which to crack the frozen seas of apathy and hatred. Without the imagination, we are as nothing.