Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lionel Shriver

"Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” --Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver delivered the Brisbane Writers Festival opening address on September 8, 2016. The American author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 and more recently The Mandibles created quite a stir; the topic of the speech was the freedom of the writer and "cultural appropriation" was the engine. It did not go well.

First, a definition: The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University (who is white), defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Shriver listed many such crimes:  Tiny sombrero party-favors at a tequila-theme party at Bowdoin College, Katy Perry dressing like a geisha at the American Music Awards 2013, Iggy Azalea committing “cultural crimes” by imitating African rap (Daily Beast), students at Oberlin College in Ohio who have protested “culturally appropriated food” like sushi in their dining hall whose inauthenticity is “insensitive” to the Japanese.

"... who," Shriver asks, "is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts? The fiction writer, that’s who."

And who "...regard[s] other peoples' attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft?" "Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability."
Shriver's main concern is art and there is reason to worry. The reviewer of The Mandibles in the WashPo wrote: “The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”
Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who was attending the Brisbane Writers Festival event, walked out in a huff and then quickly penned a comment piece which argued that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

"exploitation of the experiences of others?"

A NYT editorialist wrote of Shriver's speech: "Failure is less the work of political correctness and more the evidence of a morally inadequate imagination from those who already have the stage."
"morally inadequate imagination?"
Nonetheless, Shriver has a point. Must the mystery writer kill before writing the mystery? Must Melville go to sea? (He and Conrad both did.) What experience are writers writing about anyway? Is science fiction--clearly entirely made up--valid as an art form? And what to do about Stuart Little?

While there are certainly subsets in humanity and certainly writers who exploit them, the entire idea of art is broadening and unifying. Homer was writing about Greeks but also about us; that is why it is good. Our modern view--where art is personal and consequently beyond judgment--is new and probably untenable. But this personal validity argument cuts both ways and authenticity is an awkward tool. Is Starling Marte Black?  A man? A Hispanic man? A Hispanic, Dominican man? A Hispanic, Dominican, black outfielder man--who is heterosexual--who throws right handed---who bats right handed--who has a golden glove--who is an immigrant--a legal immigrant--a catholic--a father--someone's son--several siblings's sibling....Does all this just depends upon what the definition of "is," is?

It all sounds like the old question about the blind men trying to define the elephant but, in this instance, a blind elephant is trying to define itself.

And this is the broader point: How should a person define himself? Or should he just let himself be defined? We, each of us, are amalgams of genes and peoples, races and tribes, nations and families, occupations and diversions, religions and beliefs, passions and tendencies, hardware and software--and Lord knows what epigenetics means. We are a collection of incidentals. To cover ourselves in the cloak of one or two characteristics swallows us, makes us soulless.

Narrowing us, micro-defining us, making us excluding rather than exclusive--diminishes each in the shadow of the whole. Worse, it makes us subject to a tiny part, one of many elements, an accident of our lives we allow to limit us. It is the tool of the huckster and the politician who are looking for an edge to exploit; it demeans us when we accept.  It is a world shrinker, a fence builder, a mind closer, a life limiting and isolating personal and world view where every encounter jangles with some potential conflict or reward, and where every individual demands some advantage or deference not for what they are but for what circumstance says they are.

We are confusing the spice in our lives for our lives.

Lionel Shriver is a case in point. Contrary to expectation, Lionel Shriver is a woman, too.

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