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.