The novelist Lionel Shriver caused a sensation earlier this month when she spoke at the Brisbane Writers Festival on the subject of “fiction and identity politics.” She began the talk with several farcical incidents involving “cultural appropriation,” including college students who were criticized for giving out sombreros at a Mexican-themed party and a yoga teacher who was reproached for exploiting Indian culture. Shriver warned that this kind of political correctness now threatens a literary world in which charges of cultural appropriation allegedly punish white writers for writing about people of color or other people not like themselves.
A self-described “renowned iconoclast,” Shriver said she had been victimized in this way by The Washington Post review of her recent novel, “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.” That June 20 review, she said, “groundlessly accused her book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line.”
The review, which I wrote, criticized the novel for several failings, including its didacticism and its mirthlessness (but, hey, some good things were said about it, too). I mentioned a couple of offensive racial characterizations — without contesting Shriver’s freedom to write about black and Latino characters. My complaints had nothing to do with cultural appropriation.
Nevertheless, after Shriver’s remarks, cultural appropriation has become a gathering topic of literary conversation. At the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino reflected that there are multiple ways to write about people sharing other identities: “respectfully and transformatively, in ignorance, or with disdain.” Constance Grady, writing for Vox, emphasizes how that disdain plays out in “The Mandibles.”
Shriver expressed surprise at the debate, saying in an interview in Time that her remarks were “self-evident and downright anodyne” — which they largely are, if taken outside the context of the book. So it might be helpful to return to “The Mandibles” and to elaborate on what the original review found offensive.
Shriver’s 12th novel is set in a near-future American dystopia where many of the concerns currently expressed by conservatives finally have been realized. After an immigration amnesty, the country is flooded with “Lats” who elect a Mexican-born president who presides over a devastating economic collapse, in part created by runaway entitlements. Shriver observes President Alvarado’s “baby-faced softness only emphasized by the palatalized consonants of a Mexican accent,” a stereotypical image of a pudgy, lisping Mexican that links his perfidy to his ethnicity as would an elliptically described hooked nose on a loathsome Jewish character.
The two black characters are similarly ill-treated. One, a social worker, is the novel’s only character who speaks sub-standard English. After Alvarado renounces the national debt, she says, “I don’t see why the gubment ever pay anything back. Pass a law say, ‘We don’t got to.’ ” 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.
The most problematic of Shriver’s minority characters is an African American woman who has married into the white family at the heart of the novel. She suffers from early-onset dementia and is a danger to herself and to others. As the economy collapses, the family loses its home and treks across Brooklyn with the woman at the end of a leash. A plot development that features an uncontrollable black person who has to be kept under restraint like a dog seems guaranteed to hurt and provoke outrage. I wrote, “If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.” I was thinking of ads in bus shelters and, honestly, I imagined they’d be wrecked.
The freedom to write about people of other ethnic identities or nationalities or gender is and should be widely respected. (I myself am an American who has published two books set in Russia.) Shriver’s full-throated defense against imaginary charges of cultural appropriation is meant to obscure the offensiveness of her racial characterizations, in the same way that certain people who make deliberate, categorically insulting remarks about women and minorities claim persecution by the political-correctness police. Readers can judge for themselves whether my review toed the Democratic Party line or reflected a standard for racial tolerance that has been observed by all parties in the mainstream of American public discourse until only recently.
Ken Kalfus’s latest book, “Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories,” has just been published in paperback.
By Lionel Shriver
Harper. 416 pp. $27.99