‘Inviting a renowned iconoclast to talk about connection and belonging is like inviting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose,’ began Lionel Shriver at the opening address of the Brisbane Writers Festival last night. ‘I won’t really be talking about that.’
Not afraid to be occasionally outspoken and potentially divisive, from the outset Shriver took at different approach to connection and belonging for the hushed and expectant audience that packed the tent on the Maiwar Green. Rather than exploring what it means to belong to a community, she addressed the question of belonging in the context of ownership. Who decides who owns stories and culture? What happens when fiction writers transgress those boundaries and write about something that does not ‘belong’ to them? And what is the literary fallout of this modern phenomenon of cultural appropriation?
Shriver began with a story that made waves in the US earlier this year, when students at a liberal arts college faced disciplinary action for a tequila party at which some guests wore sombreros. Deemed offensive to the Latino community—despite, Shriver contended, being no worse than anything you might find at a Mexican restaurant—she finds it problematic that we’ve adopted a ‘look but don’t touch’ approach to ethnic minorities. She argues that this collective ban on cultural appropriation, supposedly in the name of social justice, is detrimental both to our society and to literature.
‘The lesson from the sombrero incident, of course, is that you’re not allowed to try on other people’s hats. But as writers, isn’t that what we’re paid to do?’ And how much poorer the literary world would be if this were not so. She gave several examples of authors who had been on the receiving end of criticism for daring to write fictional characters who didn’t mirror their own life experiences.
She’s attracted vitriol herself for some of her own books, for offending Armenian readers for making her protagonist Armenian in We Need to Talk About Kevin (‘Well, she had to come from somewhere!’), and from the Healthy at Any Size movement for writing about a morbidly obese character in Big Brother when she herself is thin. ‘We don’t want your advocacy’, said one spokesperson from the movement, who had refused to read the book. Although Shriver wrote Big Brother after her own brother died from complications to do with obesity, and although she pointed out that her portrayal of the obese character in the novel was sympathetic, she was attacked for telling a story that was not her own.
But in fiction, this is precisely what writers do. Good writers open themselves up to all stories, and Shriver believes that fiction writers should be able to do anything they like to characters they’ve created themselves. ‘The last thing writers need are restrictions placed on what belongs to us.’
Donning a sombrero for the Q & A session, Shriver was asked what the antidote is to this increasing concern over who is allowed to tell which stories.
‘Fight back’ was her immediate response. Provocative and controversial, Shriver certainly set the tone for a weekend of engaged debate and stimulating conversations.
We’re looking forward to hearing more from Lionel Shriver at other events over the festival, so you’ll have several more opportunities to hear her talk about her work, including her latest novel The Mandibles. Check out her one-on-one conversation with Paul Barclay for RN’s Big Ideas, or the panel on Inheritance with Jeremy Gavron, Neil Strauss and Ruth Clare.