The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Opposition to ‘cultural appropriation’ in fiction is opposition to empathy in art

As someone who enjoys a good provocation, allow me to suggest that “We Need to Talk About Kevin” author Lionel Shriver’s decision to sport a sombrero whilst delivering a speech about the silliness surrounding the debate over “cultural appropriation” earns her a spot in the Trolling Hall of Fame.

“But what does this have to do with writing fiction?” she asked of her decision to don the wide-brimmed hat, the wearing of which by students at a Bowdoin College party had sparked outrage and national headlines. “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.”

The sight gag helped Shriver convey a serious point about the dangers of demanding that authors stick to writing about their own kind and literalize the idea that writing of any sort, but especially fiction, is an exercise in empathy, in understanding.

While it may seem odd that such a statement even needs to be made, these are odd times. Debates over “cultural appropriation” — should a singer be allowed to perform with a certain accent; should a director be able to tell certain stories; should a dancer be allowed to perform certain moves — now consume more of our discussion of the arts than ever before. Fiction writing is not immune from such fights and Shriver, for one, has had enough.

“I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life,” Shriver said during her speech, a statement that reminds us “cultural appropriation” is just another way of saying “culture.” Except for the isolated tribes of the deserts and the rainforests cut off from outside contact, all human cultures borrow from other human cultures. Some traits are absorbed, others rejected. What remains is, simply, “culture.”

Unfortunately, the debate is likely here to stay, as evidenced by the outraged walkouts during Shriver’s speech and the Brisbane Writers Festival’s hasty efforts to arrange a new event: a “right of reply” designed to counter Shriver’s devastatingly hurtful opinions.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied seemed to speak for many of the aggrieved when she denounced Shriver on the Guardian’s website. Indeed, she was so flummoxed by Shriver’s opinions that she doesn’t quite seem to recognize the irony of this passage in an essay penned after the triggering episode:

The fact Shriver was given such a prominent platform from which to spew such vitriol shows that we as a society still value this type of rhetoric enough to deem it worthy of a keynote address. The opening of a city’s writers festival could have been graced by any of the brilliant writers and thinkers who challenge us to be more. To be uncomfortable. To progress. [emphasis added]

It seems clear that Abdel-Magied wasn’t looking for a challenge or to be made uncomfortable, but for someone willing to reinforce her preconceptions.

That the Brisbane Writers Festival was not a safe space for Magied is neither here nor there. Far more troubling is the mind-set behind her meltdown, the suggestion that writers should write only about their own experiences, that characters from different backgrounds should be treated with kid gloves. As Shriver noted in her remarks, authors currently face a Catch-22: They are required to include a smattering of non-white characters lest they face accusations of erasure or whitewashing, yet not delve into them too deeply or make them leads, lest they be accused of appropriation.

Taken to its logical conclusion, such a rule means pigeonholing writers of all backgrounds. Imagine suggesting that writers from African nations avoid writing about Europe or the Americas, or that those from poorer backgrounds avoid writing about the wealthy, or that a Chinese woman write solely about Chinese women. What could any of these authors know about middle-class white folks anyway?

The great joy of fiction is its ability to put us in the minds and bodies and situations and times of characters otherwise unknowable to us. It’s a way to better understand others and, in so doing, better understand the world.

There are undoubtedly authors who do their best work within a milieu with which they are familiar: Kingsley Amis’s insightful and funny books about middle-to-upper-class England; Stephen King’s portraits of rural Maine; William Faulkner’s poverty-stricken South. They are bringing to life a world their readers may be unfamiliar with, expanding horizons and engendering empathy in the process.

To suggest that this is the only appropriate form of fiction, however, is disastrously narrow-minded. Anthony Burgess was not a sociopath, yet we understand the nature of free will more precisely thanks to “A Clockwork Orange.” Adam Johnson is not a North Korean orphan impersonating a North Korean general, but “The Orphan Master’s Son” is a fascinating glimpse into the power of totalitarianism. Or, as Shriver puts it, “Me, 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.” And yet, she managed to earn plaudits and praise for portraying the unsettled mother of an unsettled child.

Requiring writers to write about only that which they know firsthand is not some sort of key to greater diversity on bookshelves; if anything, it would likely just lead to fewer portrayals of characters of color, period. Our literary world and our imaginations would become ever more impoverished. In this regard, arguments against “cultural appropriation” are the enemy of empathy.