Famed author of We Have to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver, has faced a lot of criticism in the wake of her controversial statements regarding cultural appropriation. As a keynote speaker during the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Shriver attacked the idea of cultural appropriation as a limitation on the arts.
She defended, for instance, the English author, Chris Cleave’s, decision to write from the perspective of a Nigerian girl in his best selling Little Bee. Ultimately, Shriver’s speech was in defense of the rights of artists to depict characters from minority groups if it worked to advance the artistic purpose. “Otherwise all I could write about would be smart-alecky-59-year-old-5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina” she said.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Egyptian writer living in Australia, walked out during the keynote speech. People in the writing community were outraged by what Abdel-Magied described as, “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”
In response to the public outrage, the organizers at the festival quickly organized a panel allowing for the “right of response,” featuring Ms. Abdel-Magied and Suki Kim, the Korean-American author of Without You There is No Us.
There is clearly a healthy debate to be had here. We should all start becoming better at navigating the fine line between artistic freedom and appropriation. Shriver’s example tells us exactly how not to go about this sensitive conversation, and hopefully the conversations to come will be better because of it.
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