I attended the Brisbane Writers Festival over the weekend, and while I didn’t attend the opening address by Lionel Shriver, I certainly heard about it and participated in discussions that arose from her controversial comments.
Many of these discussions concerned whether her speech was racist or just ignorant, and, as many of my friends and acquaintances are writers, the implications of the issues and questions she raised for our own writing.
In relation to the charge of racism, you can read her speech here and decide for yourself. Apart from the gross over-generalisations, ignorance, and disingenuity I found, I want to focus on the rhetorical inappropriateness of the speech.
Rhetoric: This is the persuasive appeal. There are three aspects to this:
- logos: the logic and reasoning
- pathos: appeal to audience’s values
- ethos: author credibility
Shriver began her speech referring to examples of cultural appropriation, such as the sombrero incident. By focusing on cultural symbols, she ignored the context of these incidents, the social and political concerns underpinning the events. From what I hear from those who did attend, initial audience laughs were invited by how ‘nonsensical’ this cultural appropriation argument is–what? we shouldn’t eat sushi now? By over-simplifying, it seemed as though she was setting the audience up to see that the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ argument for writing the Other is patently ridiculous. Audience members waited to see how Shriver was going to overturn this Catch-22 and offer insights for how writers might negotiate this ‘tricky’ territory.
Except she didn’t. She basically said, You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
And towards the end of the speech, her motivations for giving the speech became more apparent. She is carrying a rather large chip on her shoulder regarding criticism of her Armenian character in ‘Kevin’, and the grotesque representation of an African American in The Mandibles.
So the underpinning logic and reasoning of her speech was: that isn’t it terrible that authors are criticised for writing the Other. That we should be able to write what we want about people with little regard for how we represent them. And that no one should criticise us full stop.
In terms of pathos. She was invited to give the keynote speech to set the tone for a writers festival on the topic of ‘community and belonging’: a brief she trashed in her opening paragraph. Did she not think that people bought tickets to the event because they wanted to hear a speech on ‘community and belonging’, and that if they did, perhaps their worldviews might not be accommodating of what she had to say?
She addressed the audience as fellow authors, and made the generalised assumption that perhaps these authors might feel similar constraints on their artistic freedom. That the rising up of minority voices will stifle artistic integrity. That writers have a lot to fear from these voices being heard.
Representation is not equitable. But Australian authors now include authors with non-European backgrounds. Some were in the audience. She certainly wasn’t appealing to their sensitivities.
Finally, to ethos. Her credibility at the festival was certainly in tatters afterwards. The festival organisers hurriedly programmed a right of reply, and authors addressed the controversy during their own panel sessions.
I believe her credibility as an author has also taken a hit. For me, anyway. She argued that it was impossible to gain permission from the Other, giving a ludicrous example of taking a survey on the street. I feel that her point that she had an Armenian friend should have been enough to silence her one critic about the Armenian character. If her friend had thought she represented an Armenian person authentically, then that provides credibility. Another viewpoint would’ve been better, but I can’t judge her research process as I don’t know enough about her friendship. But research is critical. If nothing else, but to silence the critics. Knowing you have done the research process well should help write the Other well. Plot and characterisation are better informed.
Research provides credibility. Acknowledgement provides inclusion. Permission provides respect.
An author should attempt all three. It’s not damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s not a cultural minefield of identity politics. It’s simple.
The only way I can prove this, is by turning the lens on myself. What are the implications of Shriver’s speech for my own writing? I am a woman of European background but my novel An Emu War* contains Italian, Chinese and Aboriginal characters.
The presence of these characters in the setting of my story: Dongar[r]a of 1932 is logical. There were Italians, Chinese and Aboriginal people living there at the time. In the first draft, I didn’t have the Italian and Chinese characters. It was through fieldwork that I discovered how multicultural the town was, a fact that surprised me. In fact, it was much more multicultural than I have made it in my fictional story. The Aboriginal character I originally included, though, was not logically accurate. Again, it was through fieldwork that I discovered that, according to local anthropologists, there were no Aboriginal people living in Dongara in 1932. Well, imagine my surprise when an elderly white woman told me she remembered an Aboriginal family lived by the bank of the river, but that they were ‘not really’ Aboriginal. My story became logically more informed by the identity politics of ‘exempted’ Aboriginals.
The story was informed by pathos, through my wider reading of issues of representing PoC in fiction. I happened upon a blog article about the ‘tragic mulatto’ archetype. Immediately, I recognised I’d employed this in my first draft. It was unconscious (as archetypes often are), and not the message I wanted to convey, not the least for inviting criticism on the grounds of racism.
Finally, ethos. Historical fiction needs to be ‘authentic’. This comes through research. And when representing the Other, from conversations, consultatations and permission. I was fairly confident of my credibility for telling the story. The main characters are loosely based on my ancestors. As a native title anthropologist in the mid-west WA (though not including Dongara), I was familiar with the history of removals, and government control of Aboriginal people in the area. I was also familiar with some of the local groups’ cultural customs and beliefs. The first draft included a Dreaming story, which I knew. But I soon took this out, as I felt uncomfortable about appropriating it. I did not have permission from the person who had told it to me more than ten years before. In my book’s acknowledgements, I will formally acknowledge the Aboriginal people who helped me with my research. But I haven’t formally gained permissions yet, and the Shriver speech has shown me where I can do better. Permission and protection of culture are motifs in the story, and I should be a little more meta about it. Other areas of deficiency I’ve discovered are in depicting my Chinese character, and I see now, that I will need to do more research into the history of the Chinese in WA.
By examining the rhetorical appropriateness of Shriver’s argument regarding writing the Other, to look at that of my own writing, I hope I can at least ‘fail better’.
Again, it comes back to Research, Acknowledgement, and Permission.
It cannot be made more simple.
*An Emu War is my novel’s provisional title and will be changed prior to publication.
**** Edit 16.09.16 Since writing this, I’ve been wondering if maybe ‘Consent’ would be a better word than ‘Permission’, which really has a ‘tick and flick’ feel about it. Perfunctory. Whereas, consent would involve having some consultation, showing passages of writing to a person with a similar to identity you’re writing about, and asking if it is authentic, and being prepared to change or pull it, if it’s not.