Author Lionel Shriver Defends ‘Cultural Appropriation’: ‘Any Story You Can Make Yours, Is Yours to Tell’

By Lauretta Brown | September 13, 2016 | 2:02pm EDT

Prize winning author

Lionel Shriver. (AP) 

( – American journalist and author Lionel Shriver stirred up controversy on Thursday with her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival where she criticized outrage over “cultural appropriation,” arguing that “the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.”

The UK’s Independent released a full copy of her speech, which prompted walkouts and responses at the festival.

“The bramble of thorny issues that cluster around ‘identity politics’ has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing,” Shriver began.

“Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all,” she said. “Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

Shriver recounted a March incident at Bowdoin College where students threw a tequila party and wore sombreros, prompting an investigation from the school into the “act of ethnic stereotyping.” The school’s student government deemed the incident an act of cultural appropriation in a statement of solidarity.

“I am a little at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero – a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim,” Shriver said.

Shriver wore a sombrero for most of her speech.

“My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up,” she added. 

“What does this have to do with writing fiction?” Shriver asked. “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

“What stories are ‘implicitly ours to tell,’ and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within?” she asked. “I would argue that any story you can make yours, is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.”

Shriver said she hopes “crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder.”

“I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either,” she said. “We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.”

Shriver added that where writers really can’t win is that “at the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various.”

She said that in her most recent novel The Mandibles she was criticized by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white.”

“It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family,” Shriver explained. “I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.”

“Which is it to be?” she asked. “We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?”

“I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin,” Shriver said. “When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous.”

Shriver concluded that, “we fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.”

Her speech was met with criticism by the Brisbane Writers Festival, which scheduled a “right of reply” event for Shriver’s critics.

Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, wrote an explanation of her walk out from Shriver’s speech.

"It's not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can't get published or reviewed to begin with," she wrote. “In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality.”

“And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: 'I want this, and therefore I shall take it'," Abel-Magied argued.

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