You know that feeling you get when you didn’t know a thing was a thing. I usually experience it after a conversation with my daughters.
Wait, what? People are walking around trying to catch imaginary animals using their phones? There are special brushes for contouring your cheeks? Hiddleswift is off? Wait, Hiddleswift was a thing? What do you mean everyone colours in their eyebrows? A unicorn version of Uptown Funk is a thing? (I’ll get back to this, cos .. hot damn, already!)
This week, I got that feeling after stumbling onto the massive row about Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. On the one hand, it makes me want to go, “Duh, of course writers must be allowed to write about the world outside their own experiences. Their tales are made up. The clue is in the name.” But the sheer volume of outrage and the absolutely phenomenal amount of words written about what, frankly, seemed to me one of those self-evident truths, made me look a bit closer (Yes, I get the irony of adding to that ‘phenomenal amount of words’. I have a soft spot for irony.)
You can read Shriver’s speech here. And I think you should because it’s properly thought-provoking, and there’s way too much exegesis being done by people who, I suspect, may not have read the whole thing. Or who maybe read it in that way that only lets you see what you want to see. Like when I’m reading an article about upcoming movies, but really I am just looking out for Ryan Gosling’s name. Cos, you know.
Here are some of the critical articles: this from writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of Shriver’s speech. Another from Nesrine Malik in the Guardian. There are many more, and many supporting her.
Basically, I think, Shriver was decrying the argument that writers who write about cultures/races/identities different from their own are guilty of cultural appropriation. She argues, cogently I think, that without this freedom, fiction is dead.
Now, I’m not saying racism and discrimination — subtle, subliminal or shout-it-from-the-rooftops — are not a thing. The proponents of the insidious ‘us and them’ discourse are pushing their way further into the mainstream every day. You heard it in the abysmal debates surrounding the Brexit referendum here in the UK, where suddenly the gloves were off, and the kind of xenophobic ranting that you would once only have heard in the pub — and moved seats to get away from — was suddenly pouring out of the radio on a daily basis, spouted by people who should’ve known better. In the US, the ‘us and them’ brigade, led by … nah, I’m not going to name him, he gets way too much coverage all ready … you know, THAT guy, has similarly debased political discourse to the extent that I wouldn’t now let my girls watch a debate for fear of what they might hear (This from a woman who chose Billy Elliot for a family movie about a year ago, and forgot that whole opening scene. And the fanny conversation. Oops.)
It seems to me that division is getting the upper hand: hatred of the other, fear of the other and a kind of sickening moral righteousness that purports to know what is best for others — ‘how dare they seek a better life? Well, they are definitely economic migrants, so they can’t stay. Off you go’ — without acknowledging that a common humanity must be built on common rights, and to believe someone else deserves the same rights as you, you need to see that person as an extension of you — just another human being.
Life is hard enough without us all working ourselves up into a lather about what divides us. We all face that ultimate challenge: life is finite, our tragedy lies in our birth, so how do we make the most of the time we have? And of course, if you are a young black man in America, there are unique challenges; if you are a woman in Somalia, again unique challenges; and some of those challenges derive from corrupt states, or flawed institutions, or ingrained repression, and it is right that these critical issues should be called out.
But here’s the thing: Lionel Shriver was talking about fiction. About make-believe. About books, about stories, about that great urge to escape the everyday, the mundane, and lose oneself in another world, another mind. Because sometimes our own minds are really too much. It seems so odd to me that the whole discourse on this has often conflated fiction and real life.
Is it difficult for minorities to get publishers? Perhaps. Is that a reflection of a kind of racial hierarchy in the publishing world? Maybe. Are these issues that need to be talked about, debated, and addressed? Yes. Is banning a particular group from talking about another group the way forward? I really can’t see how.
If you want to read a much more nuanced take on this, check out this article. The point about gatekeepers rings very true.
I would love to be smart enough and well-read enough to write something as well researched as that. But I’m not. I’m also really busy making stuff up right now.
So I’m going to go back to writing my second novel. My main character is a Rwandan 20-something, who lives in Dublin, and gets sucked into the drug world. Yeah, I know. I’m not Rwandan, I have never lived in Dublin, and I’ve never … well, you get the picture. In my first novel, I had three main characters: a thirty-something journalist of dubious moral character, a 60-something mother who had made some bad choices, and a Somali man who ends up working for Al Shabaab. I’m none of those things. But maybe I’m all of those things. Maybe we are all the same. Wouldn’t that be great?
Now, you can bash my efforts to portray a character, but if you say that I can’t write about anything other than being 40-something, female, Irish, a wife and mother-of-two, then God help me. And you. (We already have Angela’s Ashes, so not much to be done there). I don’t want to write about my life. I do want to imagine stories, explore ideas, invent characters, and travel to other worlds. When I do that, I hope the reader will follow. I hope I will be true, in the way fiction must be true, in making sense of life, in a way that helps us live life. More fully.
I was listening to an old BBC World Book Club recording featuring Jeanette Winterson on my run the other day (the World Book Club is pretty much the only reason I run. Or rather the only way I can run.) The podcast is some years old, but it seems very pertinent today.
The author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is asked do you have any way to resolve the thorny issue of how to describe, or label, different minorities so that they can more effectively fight for their rights? What label would work?
Her short answer: “Yes, human beings.”
And then: “Im not sure we do need to be naming difference. I think we need to learn to love and accept each other, and that we are all the same. We are made in the same way. Everybody wants to love … There are civil rights issues, of course there are. But that’s about equality, that whoever we love, and whatever gender we are, we should be equal under the law and in the eyes of one another. And that’s a big broad fight, that I’d like to think everybody was involved in: straight, gay, black, white, male, female. We should want a planet where we are equal, equal in love, equal in work, equal in our lives.”
Anyway, I’ve been mulling this for a few days. And then I stumbled across this video: yes, it may be a little twee; yes, it’s easy; yes, it’s in some ways perhaps a facetious take on this issue. (And yes, I am aware it is a Michael Jackson song. What can I say? I am a closet fan.)
But as we wield the Pritt Stick ever more vigorously, sticking labels on everything, reducing and reducing until all we have left are categories that in themselves risk becoming generalisations, maybe we should just watch this, and dance.
I would like to end with what Shriver thought of the whole row. Because it makes so much sense, at least to me, someone who tries every day to inhabit other minds, other lives. She is interviewed in Time.
“Can I just say: I am dumbfounded at the reaction to that speech, the point of which I found self-evident and downright anodyne. And I find the aftermath very discouraging. The upside, however, has been that I’ve had an outpouring of solidarity from other writers. And that affirms my view that this is an important right to continue to carve out for fictions writers. But I find the concept of cultural appropriation so dubious that I am distressed that we have had such an extensive conversation about it.”
And this part, in particular, rings very true:
“The whole notion of re-enfencing ourselves into little groups, first off, encourages pigeonholing. It means that we don’t read books about people who are different; we just read books about people who are just like us. And we don’t experience the empathy that you’re recommending to me. And we all the more think of each other in terms of membership of a collective. And I don’t think that’s in the interest of any minority group. Why would they want that? And why do they want us to keep our hands off their culture and therefore ignore them? The exchange of cultural practices and ideas—even costume—is fruitful! It’s in the interest of those groups—for us to be able to exchange our experience.”
In my opinion, this exchange is critical. It’s what keeps us together. It is our shield against those who would divide us.
Ok, it’s good to get that off my chest. Now, back to the writing; to imagining (not stealing) another world, bringing a fictional (made-up, not stolen) character to life, hopefully in a way that makes people want to get inside someone else’s head. At least for a little while.
And about those unicorns: here you go.