US novelist Lionel Shriver ruffled a few feathers – to put it mildly – when she spoke at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. Shriver took aim at ‘identity politics’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ and the stifling effects of these ideas on the writing of fiction. However, her speech, and the furious outbursts of denunciation that it generated, touched on issues of importance to much wider circles than just readers and writers of fiction.
Shriver began by describing in sarcastic terms an incident at Bowdoin University in Brunswick, Maine, in February of this year. Some students who had organised a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend, including miniature sombreros for the party guests, found themselves facing accusations of “casual racial and ethnic stereotyping and cultural insensitivity.” Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two students who were members of the Student Council.
Shriver said: “But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we [fiction writers] are paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
“Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”
Shriver defended the necessity of fiction writers speaking in voices other than their own, describing experiences the writer has never had, and including cultures other than their own in their fiction. She listed some classic works of literature that would not exist if prohibitions on such ‘imaginative theft’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ had been imposed in the past. Scathingly she quotes Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”
Shriver comments: “What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?”
“This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves?… Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts? The fiction writer, that’s who.”
“…The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina…”
“…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.”
“And here’s the bugbear, here’s where we really can’t win. 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.”
Before Shriver had even finished speaking, at least one member of the audience demonstratively got up and walked out. Later this person, who identified herself as Yassmin Abdel-Magied, wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian, describing Shriver’s speech as “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.” Others followed suit.
The Writers’ Festival organisers quickly distanced themselves from Shriver’s speech, and set up a ‘right-of-reply’ session for Shriver’s critics including Yassmin Abdel-Magied. The links to Shriver’s speech on the festival website disappeared due to some yet-to-be-explained ‘technical difficulty’, while the links to her critics’ comments remained active.
“The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world,” Abdel-Magied wrote.
“But there is a bigger and broader issue, one that, for me, is more emotive. Cultural appropriation is a “thing”, because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?
“In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality. The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. 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.”
“The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…”
The first thing to note about Abdel-Magied’s argument is race-baiting: the unfounded accusation that someone you disagree with is acting from racist motives. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with her, there is absolutely no evidence in Shriver’s speech of racist motivations. In order to bolster the accusation of racism, Abdel-Magied has to contrive fanciful ‘implications’ of what Shriver said.
Secondly, the extreme subjectivity and self-absorption of the entire diatribe. “As I stood up, my heart began to race. I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.” “I felt…” “I breathed in deeply.” And so on.
Thirdly, the false and demagogic claim that Shriver demanded “that the right to identity should be given up.” Shriver made no such demand – an absurd and meaningless ‘demand’ anyway. She questioned the value of such identities, but encroached on no one’s rights.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied makes one correct point when she says “See, here is the thing: if the world were equal, this discussion would be different… So access [to publishing and reviews of published work] – or lack thereof – is one piece.”
It is true that the world of writing and publishing is not a level playing field. There is bias and discrimination in the decisions made by publishers, editors, and reviewers, unequal obstacles placed in the way of writers from oppressed nationalities, narrower limits on the markets they can find for their work.
To this situation Abdel-Magied responds: “It’s not always OK 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. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story?”
This line of argument has a clear logic that ends in a blind alley. Since the ‘white guy’ who writes is not the one who makes the decision whether or not the ‘actual Nigerian woman’ gets published or reviewed, the ‘white guy’ can only…stop writing, to make room in the market. And the ‘actual Nigerian woman’ is not one millimetre closer to getting published.
Let me illustrate the point further with a well-known counterexample from the racist history of popular music in the United States.
The musical style known as the Blues took definite shape among Black farmworkers in the Jim Crow South, especially Mississippi, in the 1920s. This was a cultural world isolated by the most extreme forms of racial segregation and discrimination. The music of these Black workers was occasionally recorded, for there was a tiny market called ‘race records’ by the recording industry. But it was entirely closed off – economically, socially and musically – from the much larger world of popular music of the rest of the population.
With the mass migration of Black people to the industrial cities of the north during the 1930s and 1940s, this segregation began to break down. Workers, Black and white, found themselves side by side on the production line, sharing common problems. They started listening to and influencing each other’s music.
Elvis Presley started introducing elements of the Blues into his music, and Rock ‘n’ Roll was born, the first truly racially integrated genre of popular music in US history. Did Elvis make good music? Undoubtedly. Was it ‘authentic’ Blues? No – and I doubt that it crossed anyone’s mind even to ask that question. In the telling of the history of this music, is Elvis’s role exaggerated while the contribution of Black musicians is downplayed? Often enough.
But crucially for this argument: were the originators of the Blues style diminished in any way by Elvis’s ‘cultural appropriation’? Absolutely not. On the contrary, the wider audience Elvis won also opened up wider opportunities for the Black musicians themselves. As Elvis’s contemporary Little Richard said: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”1
To believe otherwise would mean believing that the racists who decried Elvis for singing ‘nigger music’ were somehow working in the best interests of Black musicians.
Individual artefacts of culture may become commodities, and thus may be bought, sold, or stolen (as the contents of the British Museum amply demonstrate). Culture itself, the unique knowledge, traditions, and practices embodied in a living community of people, cannot be stolen short of stealing the people themselves.
However, a culture most certainly can be forcibly suppressed, marginalised, denigrated, mocked and derided. This is an essential feature of national oppression. During my childhood Maori children were punished for speaking their own language in school, and that practice brought the Maori language to the brink of extinction. I am old enough to remember explicitly racist TV shows where ‘comedians’ dressed up in blackface
and ridiculed Black people, (taking particular care, at a time when many were prevented by force and violence from voting, to humiliate Blacks who dared to stand for public office, as this example shows.)
The leading cultural institutions of capitalist society were not and are not apart from such things. At Auckland University up to the 1970s, when there were only very small numbers of Maori students, there was an annual tradition of European students dressing up in mock piupiu and doing a caricature of the haka, until protests by Maori students and others forced such racist practices to end. In doing so, the Maori students broke down one more barrier to Maori entering higher education.
This is not a thing of the past. In more recent times there have been cases of individual students at US universities painting their faces with blackface and posting pictures of themselves on social media mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.
Was there, then, an element of such racist caricature in the sombrero party that Shriver is overlooking or dismissing? I would not rule out that possibility, but having read various accounts of it, I have seen no evidence of anything other than a bit of dressing up for a party. The entire ‘incident’ seems to have stemmed from the Social Code policy of the institution against ‘racial and ethnic stereotyping.’
Such ‘Social Codes’ are in part a reflection of the fight to open the doors of these institutions to all people without discrimination, and that’s a fight I support. I will support any protest against the jeering and intimidation of racists. But the idea that a university or any other institution of capitalist society can ever be a ‘safe space’, innocently free from racism while racism and national oppression rage outside its gates, is a naïve delusion at best. More often, such ‘Social Codes’ and ‘safe space’ policies become a paternalistic fetter on freedom of expression, and a further obstacle to young people confronting and defeating reactionary ideas. (Interestingly, a statement made by the Bowdoin University president towards the end of the tequila party controversy recognises this. The impeachment charges against the two students involved were eventually dropped.)
In an article surveying the history of the debate around ‘cultural appropriation’, Guardian writer Stephanie Convery writes, “As the civil rights movement grew, so did criticism of white people attempting to exploit the images and experiences of people of colour for social and financial gain.”
This is dead wrong. Such criticisms coincide with the movement’s decline, not its growth. To find the truth of the matter we need to take a step back a little and take a look at a notable polemic from that earlier time of growing anti-colonial movement.
The great anti-colonial revolutions of the twentieth century began with China and the Asian nations that won their freedom through the Russian revolution. They burst into the open during the Second World War and in the aftermath of the war, first in Asia, then also in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Within the imperialist countries, oppressed nations also rose up to demand their rights, with the mighty civil rights movement in the US, to which Convery refers, in the first rank. From that time up to about the 1990s, oppressed nations the world over continued to wrest control of their destinies from imperialism.
In a precious few cases, proletarian leaderships developed out of these national struggles, and governments of workers and farmers came to power. But for the most part, these great movements were led by petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist forces. They changed the face of the world nonetheless.
As a secondary consequence, the anti-colonial revolt also changed the face of English-language literature. New writers emerged from the former British colonies in India, West Africa, and elsewhere, as well as from within the oppressed nationalities in the imperialist countries, sometimes as direct participants in the independence struggle. The lives and struggles of these peoples furnished a wealth of new content for literature.
The writers I grew up with were DH Lawrence, Jack London, Janet Frame, Upton Sinclair, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, and in translation, Gunter Grass and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Europeans all. Today when I look at the fiction shelves in English language bookshops I see Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, and in New Zealand at least, Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. (This is alongside shelves and shelves of Tolkien and JK Rowling, to be sure.) Despite the continuing imbalances, this represents an immense broadening and enriching of English literature.
This cultural revolution also spurred a re-examination of the existing literary canon. An Image of Africa, Chinua Achebe’s 1975 critical re-evaluation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness was an outstanding example of the new critical spirit inspired by the rising anti-colonial movement. It is worth re-reading today. In it, Achebe argues that “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.”
“Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.
“Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?
“But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”
Notably absent from Achebe’s exhaustive treatment, in contrast with contemporary debates about cultural appropriation, is any complaint about Conrad profiting by the exploitation of African characters and story. Achebe examines the question of Conrad’s widely quoted protests against the horrors of Belgian colonial rule, because this political stance by Conrad has often been taken as evidence that he was ‘on the side of Africa’ – and Achebe answers that. But Conrad’s novel is judged on its own terms, as literature, as fiction.
Another passage in Achebe’s essay caught my eye: his rejection of the argument that the utterly degraded state of the Africans Conrad describes through his character Marlow was the actual state of affairs under the horrors of Belgian rule. Achebe says that there is “abundant testimony about Conrad’s savages which we could gather if we were so inclined from other sources and which might lead us to think that these people must have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band. For as it happened, soon after Conrad had written his book an event of far greater consequence was taking place in the art world of Europe.”
He describes the bringing of African masks to Europe in 1904–05, and the huge influence these masks had on the artists Derain, Vlaminck, Matisse and Picasso.
“The mask in question was made by other savages living just north of Conrad’s River Congo. They have a name too: the Fang people, and are without a doubt among the world’s greatest masters of the sculptured form. The [study of these masks] marked the beginning of Cubism and the infusion of new life into European art that had run completely out of strength.”
So here Achebe is celebrating a famous act of ‘cultural appropriation’, holding it up as an example of a highly beneficial cross-fertilisation of cultures – and as evidence against Conrad. What a striking contrast, in every imaginable way, with the wretched race-baiting responses to Lionel Shriver.
The post-War wave of anti-colonial struggles was spent by the 1990s. Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism had exhausted whatever progressive role they once had, and were incapable of advancing the condition of the popular masses under their influence one iota. Surging mass democratic movements for freedom in Ukraine, Libya, and Egypt quickly reached an impasse. Without exception, the bourgeois leaderships can offer no way forward. Today, the impotence of bourgeois nationalist political leadership is demonstrated, tragically, in the hell on earth that is Syria today, or Gaza, or Iraq.
And the impotence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism is evident within the imperialist countries too. The Maori Party, formed a decade ago out of a resurgent Maori political movement on the streets, almost instantly ended up in alliance with the ruling party, failing to win a single significant concession.
The descent into sterile and reactionary campaigns around ‘cultural appropriation,’ the calling out of ‘white privilege,’ and the poison of race-baiting – these are the ‘left’ face of this impotence.
Here, a gross vulgarisation of the Marxist idea that ‘being determines consciousness’ plays a part, expressed as: ‘you cannot possibly understand my experience because you have a different skin colour, and therefore different experiences from mine.’ The very attempt to win someone to an idea, to convince them of the correctness or justice of a cause, is thereby renounced. Subjectivity and self-absorption triumphs. Political discourse, the act of winning hearts and minds, stutters to an end.
National oppression has not ended, of course – in fact, it deepens with the intensification of the capitalist crisis. This means that the very workings of capitalist society will continue to propel people into political action under national banners and identities. As I write this, the largest mobilisations of Native Americans in decades are gathering in solidarity with the Sioux of Standing Rock, and their opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline. This kind of ‘identity politics’ – resting on the mobilised power of the oppressed masses, courageous, outward-looking, generous, seeking out allies wherever they may be found – is proletarian and revolutionary in tendency. It is a world apart from the petty-bourgeois jealousies, rivalries and resentments represented by the critics of Shriver.
National struggles such as these gravitate towards the proletariat. Now, more than any time in the past, they require a leadership that is proletarian in character in order to advance.
(The first indications of motion towards proletarian leadership developing among oppressed nationalities may be discerned in the Kurdish freedom struggle – and this is no small part of the reason why the Kurdish struggle, against the trend, is advancing today. But to really see what such a leadership looks like, it is necessary to look further back in history, to the likes of Malcolm X, to Fannie Lou Hamer, E.D. Nixon and Fred Shuttlesworth in the civil rights movement, to the Cuban revolution.)
Forced to compete against each other for jobs, divided along lines of gender, nationality, employed versus jobless, local- versus foreign-born, skilled versus unskilled, sexual orientation and many other lines of fracture, the proletariat has a vital class interest in breaking down these barriers between us and recognising and acting on our common interests as a class.
Fiction – good fiction – can play a great part in breaking down these divisions. Shriver expresses it this way: “If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are…
“The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience… Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.”
- quoted in Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend By Gilbert B. Rodman, p. 193