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Author Lionel Shriver dons a sombrero to lament the rise of identity politics in fiction

Orange Book Awards Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Lionel Shriver, the Orange Prize–winning author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is turning heads with her latest speech.

Delivering the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Shriver gave a talk called "Fiction and Identity Politics," in which she argued that the concept of "cultural appropriation" was a made-up concept, one that she hoped would be a "passing fad," because it "is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible."

Shriver argues that fiction writing, by its nature, demands that writers step into shoes that are not theirs, that they inhabit identities that do not belong to them. She worries that in a culture that demands authenticity in its depictions of marginalized peoples, writers may be more unwilling to try to write from those perspectives.

She herself, she says, gets anxious about writing in the voices of black characters, despite the fact that she grew up in the American South and has "a pretty good ear" for "black dialects."

Throughout her speech, she wore a sombrero, a reference to the mini controversy that came out of Bowdoin College last year when students at a tequila-themed party wore mini sombreros. ("We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :) (we’re not saying that)," the invitation said.) Those students were later denounced by the student government for performing cultural appropriation.

"I am a little at a loss," Shriver said, "to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero."

Here’s what’s so insulting about a sombrero

Let’s start by putting together a working definition of cultural appropriation. Here’s a good one from law professor Susan Scafidi. Cultural appropriation, she told Jezebel, is:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. … This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

In other words, if you are white and you want to wear something Native American, it’s okay for you to buy native jewelry from a native jewelry-maker. It’s cultural appropriation to buy an "Indian headdress" that’s based on a sacred war bonnet and sold at a costume shop.

And, yes, when a campus has a history of insensitive "culturally themed parties" — like Bowdoin, which has previously hosted a "gangster" party at which students dressed like stereotypes of black people and a "Cracksgiving" party at which students dressed up as Native Americans — a party hosted by non-Mexican students in which Mexican culture is mockingly reduced to tequila and tiny sombreros sure does sound like cultural appropriation.

Certainly parts of Shriver’s argument have merit. Authors certainly do need to find a way to write about the things they do not know. Writers of crime fiction need to figure out how to write about crimes they have not committed; writers of historical fiction need to figure out how to write about real events that they have never seen. The question of whether writers can write well about cultures to which they do not belong — and whether they should even try to — is one that deserves some serious discussion.

But given Shriver’s most recent book, The Mandibles, and given her response to the criticism it has faced, it’s hard to believe that Shriver is interested in engaging in a good-faith debate on the topic.

Shriver is reacting to criticism that her latest book is racially insensitive

Specifically, Shriver takes issue with the critique that The Mandibles’ treatment of Luella, one of the book’s two women of color, is racist.

Luella has dementia, and spends most of her page time in diapers, soiling herself. Eventually, as the Mandibles — the family into which Luella has married — take to the streets in the wake of a financial collapse, they realize that they can’t keep her with them as they flee the city. They shoot her instead. But before they do, they spend a while delaying the inevitable by keeping her on a leash. "If The Mandibles is ever made into a film," Ken Kalfus wrote in the Washington Post, "my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster."

Shriver is appalled at this critique. "Behold," she cries, "the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused this book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook." The character’s fate, she explains, is meant to be a dark joke on Luella’s liberal New York husband, who abandoned his (white) wife and the mother of his children in order to take up with what Shriver describes as "arm candy of color," only to find himself saddled with an unimaginable burden.

Well, yes, Shriver is correct: Luella is just there to be a burden to a sad white man. That’s very clear. That is, in fact, what’s racist about her role in the book: that women of color only exist in this world in order to prevent white men from achieving their goals, that they consist solely of soiled bodies to be kept in chains and, eventually, killed in cold blood.

That is racist. There is nothing groundless about that critique.

It is also racist, as I wrote in my review of The Mandibles, to imagine that a Spanish-speaking, Mexican-born president would be all it takes to doom America. It is racist to suggest that an influx of Latino immigrants are destroying America’s national character; it suggests that America’s national character is, as a default, white, that America is fundamentally a country that belongs solely to white people. And The Mandibles does all of that.

That’s why I find it difficult to take Shriver at her word when she says that fiction is "born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience." Because what books like The Mandibles demonstrate is a profound terror at the idea of breaking free of one’s own experience, a terror at the idea of people who are not like you you being, by implication, white, straight, cisgendered, thin, able-bodied, and neurotypical.

It demonstrates a horror at the idea of empathy. And that is not the function of good fiction.

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