Let’s talk about the elephant in the room

A fortnight ago, Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival talk on cultural appropriation and wrote a searing critique that quickly went viral. The Brisbane Writer’s Festival distanced themselves from Shriver’s talk, the furore went international, and some people started calling for Shriver to be banned from visiting Australia again. All over a talk on identity and fabrication, two of a fiction writer’s stock-in-trade.

Shriver argued that it’s the fiction writer’s job to ‘step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats’; Abdel-Magied criticised Shriver’s self-ascribed right to appropriate the stories of others and exploit them at random for her own purpose. Both warring parties have valid points, so where do we draw the line?

Since Shriver’s incendiary speech, confused but well-meaning able-bodied, white writers have been trying to thrash out how to go about depicting a world that isn’t entirely able-bodied, middle-class and white, without trampling over other people’s identities. The responses from people from underrepresented groups have ranged from a simple but emphatic ‘Just don’t do it’, to an exhaustive list of how to go about writing ‘the other’ with the utmost sensitivity, which brings us back to Shriver’s question: is it worth even going there in the first place?

But fiction writers should be able to, with sensitivity and understanding, write characters who have had experiences other than their own.

Isn’t the real problem the fact that there is an absence of stories from certain cultural groups, and that this gap in the literature is being filled in by more privileged voices? If we had a wealth of literature from people with disabilities, the LGBTQI community, people of colour and from other marginalised groups – if we had a level playing field – I imagine we wouldn’t be having this conversation about cultural appropriation in the first place. Fiction writers from all backgrounds would take on any character, and poorly executed, inauthentic voices would simply fail to thrive. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have much diversity in our national literature, and many of the writers that are getting published – mostly white and middle-class – are now nervously trying to assuage their guilt about claiming the publishing pie by lambasting Shriver’s gall, and attempting to find ways to be more sensitive in their writing, or to feel okay about having all-white stories. Essentially, trying to find ways to magic away their privilege.

But these clumsy and guilt-ridden efforts aren’t going to solve much. Rather than tinkering around with the ways in which more-privileged people write – to appropriate or not to appropriate – we need to address the core problem, which is: how do we ensure other voices get published? And in order to do this we need to look at what it takes to be a writer, and admit that some writers advantage from a ridiculous amount of privilege, while upholding several myths around being a writer – myths that help us all pretend that the writing world has an open-door policy, even as it shuts the majority of people out. The first myth is that anyone can be a writer – you just need paper and pen (or access to a computer). The second myth, that overlaps the first, is that most writers are poor.

There has been a lot written about how little money writers make. And don’t we all just love that romantic notion of the writer in a garret? But many writers are broke because they can afford to be broke. They may go on camping trips rather than resort holidays, but they’ve been educated and have a career fall-back plan, they have stable housing or a parent’s house they can crash at, and they are wealthy enough to be able to sacrifice the hundreds of hours of time required to write a novel, rather than spend that time in paid work.

Last year author Ann Bauer wrote a piece for Salon saying that writers need to come clean about their funding, pointing out that a large number of published authors are ‘sponsored’ by family or spouses, but refuse to acknowledge this, preferring instead to acknowledge their mentors and writing groups and talk about the few magazine pieces they’ve written in order to get by. Bauer claims that she is a prolific writer today because she has a husband in a highly paid job who financially supports her, but that this was not always the case. Once upon a time, she was married to an addict; they had three kids, one of whom had autism. During these years – almost two decades – she wrote nothing.

While few Australian writers may be as affluent as the writers Bauer refers to, she nevertheless raises an important point about the kinds of ‘privileged’ conditions in which writers can produce work.

In a society where the arts are severely underfunded, and getting worse every year, and where money for literature is often channeled into schemes only accessible to a privileged few (how many single-parents/carers/people with a disability/full-time workers have the luxury of being able to jet off for a writer’s residency?), long-form writing will remain an act of privilege. Too few can afford to spend years on a project that will provide so little remuneration. And writers’ festivals and writing forums will continue to entertain guilt-ridden and emotive discussions about how to inject more marginalised people into our cultural stories and how to treat these subjects sensitively. Many writers will even kid themselves that cultural appropriation is the biggest issue of the day. But this only helps us avoid addressing the real – albeit less palatable – problem: that it is the institutionalised privilege that so many of us benefit from that prevents people from marginalised communities writing their own stories in the first place.


Image: ‘Elephant’s tea party, Robur Tea Room, Sydney, 24 March 1939 / Sam Hood’ / Flickr

Sonia Orchard

Sonia Orchard is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher and the author of two books: the memoir Something More Wonderful and the novel The Virtuoso, which received the Independent Booksellers Award for Best Debut Fiction. Sonia has a PhD in Creative Writing from RMIT, where she also taught novel writing in the Professional Writing and Editing Diploma.

More by Sonia Orchard ›

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  1. Hear! Hear!

    You’ve barely touched upon the barriers defending the primacy of straight white middleclass non-disabled writers while excluding the rest of us. Listeners are usually horrified when I’ve shared my personal experiences of disability discrimination and stories of gatekeeping.

    One thing I’m noticing in this post-Shriver world is that privileged authors on both sides of the debate about appropriation tend to promote other privileged authors, sharing links etc. There aren’t nearly as many people in privileged positions sharing minority views on their blogs and in their social media feeds.

    I’ve only read so many articles by PoC, queers and disableds as I have because I consciously follow other minorities in my social media feeds.

    The best part about Lionel Shriver’s speech is that it’s brought the issues out of the closet into the bright light of day where, previously, I’ve voiced my concerns about misappropriation and poor representation only to be silenced.

    Renowned authors have told me ‘[cough like Dolores Umbridge] I use my imagination’ when writing disability. No research or consultation required, shut up you disabled person you, you have no right to call for representation instead of misappropriation.

    But still, minority voices need a signal boost.

    Please, if you and your readers support minorities using our voices to tell our stories, please boost our signals. Share our posts. Help open the gates so our stories can be published.

  2. Please. What Orchard is REALLY calling for is for writers to stick to their narrow lanes of class, color, gender, sexuality, and health. No good literature will ever come of this.

    1. “But fiction writers should be able to, with sensitivity and understanding, write characters who have had experiences other than their own.”

      Congratulations on very successfully missing the entire point of this piece, Joe.

  3. I agree that is everyone’s duty to become more sensitive and reach in or reach out to represent the underpriveleged. I have worked with marginalised groups to write grant applications for projects, and it is only the extent of practice using written language that makes my editing and contribution improve the submission. Appreciating the adversity of others experience and the mental effort to remain positive and strive through it, is the first step taken together. If authors can convey compassionate wisdom, the world needs this leadership to bring society to the balance of accepting all as equal, we have a little further to go yet. Equal education and opportunities will naturally generate diversity of authors and artists in general.

  4. 1. It’s pretty ridiculous to condemn “white able-bodied writers” if they write non-white or disabled characters, and condemn them if they don’t. Then again, it’s pretty ridiculous to hold individuals responsible/accountable for structural oppression. Ought implies can. If privilege is so embedded that there’s nothing people can do about it, and it doesn’t matter whether they write about non-privileged characters or not (because they’re still privileged either way), then picking on privileged people for being privileged is blaming people for something they can’t help – just like blaming poor people for poverty. It’s encouraging ressentiment and guilt (which impede creativity), and it’s posing the problem in a way which renders it utterly insoluble.

    2. It’s not true that underprivileged people can’t write. There’s plenty of unemployed and underemployed people with hundreds of hours to spare. I know people on disability benefits who spend time writing. Also, if someone is really committed to creativity instead of “success”, there are still ways to drop out, albeit costly ways. Zerowork is difficult, but it’s not limited to the middle-class, a lot of squatters, Travellers and drop-outs are working-class or emarginati. They produce beautiful art and literature, graffiti for example. It’s even possible to write from a prison cell, if the screws don’t censor it. It was a lot easier to be a writer or artist when people had ‘dole autonomy’ (i.e. could live on student grants or unemployment or disability benefit without sacrificing time to work), and it would be easier still with a basic income, so maybe that would be a better place to direct your efforts.

    3. With ebooks, self-publishing and Amazon, it’s easier than ever before to self-publish. There are lots of Black, indigenous, disabled, LGBTQ+ writers out there. Amazon’s “gay and lesbian literature and fiction” section has over 100,000 books, there are 3,500 “special needs biographies”, . 7,000 “African-American women’s fiction”. They might be outnumbered by books by straight white men, but they are being written, it’s possible to write them. The problem isn’t that people aren’t writing them – it’s that readers aren’t buying them. Is this an economic issue (people from marginalised groups are poorer and buy fewer books), a normative issue (privileged and/or marginalised readers prefer books of the type which white non-disabled writers are more likely to write), or a market issue (publishers and platforms simply don’t promote non-white or disabled writers)? If it’s an economic issue then there’s no point focusing on books at all, we should focus on economic redistribution, which will then lead to equity. If it’s a normative issue, then either we need to create value systems which promote the kinds of things black/disabled authors write, or teach them to write in ways which readers will prefer. If it’s a market issue then pressure on companies and platforms is the way to go – organise boycotts, buycotts and proactively promote particular books.

    4. “ If we had a wealth of literature from people with disabilities, the LGBTQI community, people of colour and from other marginalised groups – if we had a level playing field – I imagine we wouldn’t be having this conversation about cultural appropriation in the first place. Fiction writers from all backgrounds would take on any character, and poorly executed, inauthentic voices would simply fail to thrive.” So why not go about building and fighting for that better world, instead of engaging in all these silly one-upmanship battles over who’s “privileged” and who’s not, who’s “really poor” and who’s not? There are very concrete ways we can all begin to build such worlds – by seizing back time from the world of work, building countercultural spaces, defending them from repression, fighting for a basic income, encouraging squatting, skipping, Travellers’ rights, decriminalisation of drugs and shoplifting and other everyday survival strategies… Let’s hear less about privilege and more about building other worlds, please.

  5. Wow. So glad that a minority of people have the right to assume that you have a total knowledge of the person across the table from you because they are ‘straight, white, middle class.’

    Plenty of ‘long form’ writers throughout all of history have done their work irrespective of their situation. They do what they can, when they can.

    If writers can only write about who they themselves are then basically there will be no writing of value. Presumably people who belong to minorities will therefore only be able to write about those who fit into their ‘category’ too?

    I thought the power of writing lay in what we ALL have in common – and this commonality gives us a bridge whereby we can learn about/imagine others’ differences.

    I am privileged, very aware of it. I’m also aware of when I am discriminated against because of gender/class etc. Discrimination goes both ways. Increasingly, I feel I should shut my mouth about anything and everything unless I belong to a minority.

    As it is, I do my best with all my work and relationships knowing that my current ‘good luck’ can disappear in the flash of a second. The only ‘crime’ of privilege, is wasting it.

  6. Sonia Orchard’s book Something More Wonderful is a memoir about her friend’s death from cancer. She thus focuses on something universal (death) that affects us all. Yet it is her voice that is speaking throughout and, as one reviewer put it, “As Emma’s condition deteriorates, Sonia charts the emotions and symptoms of her ailing friend, and of Emma’s young son, Noah, and his father, Iain. Primarily, though, she looks inside herself. This is, after all, Orchard’s memoir; her own take on a painful, difficult episode.” (Sacha Molitorisz, SMH, March 29 2003).

    If Sonia Orchard were to endorse her own view (‘we need to address the core problem, which is: how do we ensure other voices get published?) then surely she would have produced a book that had voices in it other than her own. Perhaps she could have given Noah’s story. Perhaps she could have moved away from her story and her friend’s and documented other ‘less privileged’ people who have lost a loved one?

    It’s all good and well to write from a position of privilege and criticise those who do, and then to argue that those who do are writing because they are ‘guilt-ridden’. The article is thus confused, disorganised, flaccid and insufficiently aware of its own contradictions. How can you take someone seriously whose actions don’t live up to what they say?

    Francine Prose wrote probably the best article on this whole cultural appropriation blow-up apropos Lionel Shriver. See ‘The Trouble with Sombreros’ in the New York Review of Books.

    1. Left off a sentence. 3rd paragraph should read:

      It’s all good and well to write from a position of privilege and criticise those who do, and then to argue that those who do are writing because they are ‘guilt-ridden’. But then go on, as Orchard has done here in this article, to do the very thing you’ve criticised.

  7. Thanks Sonia for writing this piece. It is always important for us to acknowledge and be aware of our privilege, particularly our white privilege; this being the back bone of our country’s racist and entitled culture.
    Privilege is particularly confusing for writers, writers are not favored by Capitalism, there is a systemic oppression we face as artists –Art’s value being impossible to quantify in a system that is profit driven.
    As a white person I’ve often confused ‘acknowledging privilege’ with ‘feeling bad about myself’. (The above writer has hit on this point when they say “it’s pretty ridiculous to hold individuals responsible/accountable for structural oppression.” Privilege is the product of a system we have no control over. My job, as a white person writing, is to acknowledge it, educate myself, be aware and act accordingly. Feeling bad about myself causes bitterness, jealousy, despondency, sulkiness, depressive comas, writers block… I could go on, but you know, a general inability to take positive action in life. I can only hope other white people don’t get as confused as me. Thanks again.

  8. Thanks for writing this interesting article.

    I’m going to refer a couple of poin that you made that I dont necessarily agree with:

    · I’d like to point out that white is a colour so maybe using something different to “people of colour” will address something that is inherently written all the time by Caucasian people.

    ·Your point that non white people are marginalized, please remember that there are many countries around the world where Caucasian people are the minority and they might never be recognized based on cultural differences in those countries.

    Personally I feel there should a freedom for people to write about whatever it is that they need to in whatever context they feel is appropriate for their story.

    Like the majority of art, it will then be open to criticism as humans love to critique, its part of our nature.

    To say we must be culturally appropriate is kind of ridiculous, I don’t even know what that really means. Maybe that s because like many people we have a mixed background, my parents were from Sri Lanka, I was born in the UK and have lived in several countries around the world, what is my cultural reference?

    If a book is perceived to poorly represent a particular race or is insensitive to those people then the author should have already prepared themselves mentally that this could be the case and if they were not then it’s a life lesson learnt. The author might even disagree with those crtics.

    If an author feels they want to give back to people because they have done well for themselves, that is upto them. I personally don’t care about what privileges they have had, I’m interested in what they say in their book.


  9. Ah the good old topic of cultural appropriation. Writers should be able to write about whatever the hell they want. If you want to write about a different culture, just do your research. Speak to someone of that culture, ask them to read your work. I was born in Australia and my parents are from India and I love when people ask me questions about my culture. It is through engagement with different groups that we breakdown barriers, stereotypes, etc.

  10. I’m a white man. Does that mean I am not permitted to write female characters? Should they be excluded entirely because I do not understand the female experience? All my writing must only have white men or male children in it?

    That may sound ridiculous, but it’s literally where outrage and logic such as this is headed.

    It comes down to this: if, as a writer, you have the ability to be truthful in your work, then that’s all that matters.

    There are people with talent and a degree of application that goes beyond their own social or cultural position as an individual, whether you like it or not.

    That’s what the talent of the writer is sometimes, they have that ability, no matter how outraged anyone wants to get about it.

    If the work is good, it’s good. Period.

    Moving on.

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