How do we empower the people we call the voiceless? Pass the mic.
– Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com, June 2016 panel at the White House’s United State of Women Summit
An editorial piece by Lionel Shriver caught my eye in the Tampa Bay Times this morning. Not familiar with Shriver’s work or immediately with the context of her situation as a keynote speaker at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the editorial puzzled me.
“Briefly, ” she wrote, “my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir. Honestly, my thesis seemed so self-evident that I’d worried the speech would be bland.”
As a writer and an avid reader, the topic interested me, and at first I couldn’t see what the issue was. Of course readers have to speak in other voices, and sometimes from the perspective of people different from themselves. Without the ability to do that, we wouldn’t have Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. Right?
“Nope — not in the topsy-turvy universe of identity politics,” asserted Shriver. “…Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among millennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.”
I could have stopped at the end of her essay, thinking her justifiably aggrieved, and wondering what the world was coming to when writers of fiction couldn’t assume the voices of diverse characters to better represent our world . But I know better than that.
One of the greatest challenges we face as a society inundated with information, news and opinions is the all too easy path of least resistance: accepting at face value everything we see and read, without delving any deeper. Conversely, one of the greatest opportunities we also have in our information saturated world is the easy availability of other views for perspective and balance. It’s more work, but it’s our duty as informed citizens, and in the service of a civil, caring society, to understand the facts of the matters at hand.
It only took Googling Shriver’s name to find a handful of excellent counterpoints to her argument that “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 peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”
Among the most cogent responses, was Ken Kalfus, who had evidently written a critical review of Shriver’s last work. He quotes Jia Tolentino, of the New Yorker, who observed that there are lot of ways to write about people sharing other identities: “respectfully and transformatively, in ignorance, or with disdain.”
Kalfus addressed well my thoughts on historical period literature when he wrote, “It was once common in newspapers, fiction and nonfiction to report the speech of “ordinary” people in standard English, while voicing minorities in dialect or vernacular, as they might sound to white ears; this still happens from time to time, unfortunately. By recording only the speech of minority characters in sub-standard English, you stigmatize the entire ethnic group as something other than normal. No one speaks perfectly. Respect for your characters suggests that if you record one’s solecisms, dropped consonants, drawl or brogue, you will faithfully record everybody else’s, too.”
He added that “The freedom to write about people of other ethnic identities or nationalities or gender is and should be widely respected,” but that doing so must not simply cloak oversimplified and offensive characterizations of people.
Another thoughtful response in The Hindu, by Nisha Susan, acknowledges we’re at a new crossroads of social awareness, with new road maps.
She recalls recent conversations with recently self-aware but “alarmed men who feel that their public or private behaviour with women in the past may now be ‘misinterpreted’ or even be ‘considered sexual harassment’.”
“How can I be natural any more?” she says they ask her.
“It’s okay if you are not natural, is always my reply. Your being natural is what got us all here.”
“As we sort out our own feelings about where we are with caste and race and gender and disability, as we educate ourselves,” writes Susan, ” there are bound to be many moments of acknowledging our own privilege as well as some moments of feeling like someone else’s political correctness is too extreme and someone else’s is not enough and ours like the Baby Bear’s is ‘just right’. If you are sincerely on the job, you will have moments of not feeling right at all, discomfort, and an unfamiliar sense of being in the wrong. When you have this feeling, lie down and don’t give a keynote speech.”
In another perspective setting read, by Stephanie Convery in the Guardian , Convery concedes that, “While it seems obvious that writers of fiction will endeavour to write from perspectives that are not their own, many writers of colour argue there is a direct relationship between the difficulties they face trying to make headway in the literary industry and the success of white writers who depict people of colour in their fiction and who go on to build a successful literary career off that. The difference between cultural representation and cultural appropriation, by this logic, lies in the white writer telling stories (and therefore taking publishing opportunities) that would be better suited to a writer of colour.”
Convery shares the views of Australian writer, Maxine Beneba Clarke, who believes consultation is important, along with writers examining their own impulses to write from another’s perspective. “What does it mean to be a writer who is not a minority writer and wanting to diversify your literature? How do you do that? I think that was the opportunity for conversation that was missed [in Shriver’s speech] … How do we feel about writing each other’s stories and how do we go about it? What’s the respectful way to go about it?”
Omar Musa, a Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, feels the issue goes beyond literature: “You probably can’t have a change in literary culture without a change in the whole culture of the country.”
In Australia, where this has been a recurrent conversation, Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke notes in the Guardian article the challenge of diversifying literature ” given that most of our writers are Anglo-Australian? Are we locking ourselves into an inevitably whitewashed world of literature?”
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Literature will continue to look different going forward, characterizations will hopefully be richer and more true to the cultural diversity writers seek to portray, ideally provided by the voices that best represent those cultures and ways of being, and in so doing, perhaps bring us closer to a world where we understand each other a little better.
We needed Mark Twain and Harper Lee to give voice to people whohistorically didn’t have free rein to share their own. But now we can connect with one another in new and powerful ways and there is no reason to make up representations of people who can speak for themselves, and tell us their own stories in their own voices.
We’re in uncharted but necessary social territory. Shriver is right on one point: Fiction is indeed a vital vehicle for empathy, and she might do well to show some, as well, perhaps, as some humility.
As Susan pointed out, sometimes as we become more culturally attuned , we’ll feel uncomfortable and an unfamiliar sense of being in the wrong. Epiphany is like that. It’s okay. Maybe we are wrong.
Pass the mic.