'This is not an issue of ethnic minorities learning to share but of white society learning to respect boundaries.'
DEBATE ABOUT RACISM in the media follows a certain script.
It is a tiresome script; so boringly predictable that if it were given any production money, it would be canned faster than Mesmerised, that 2015 Channel 7 show which featured a hypnotist and the curious nuptials of a man and an alpaca.
Then someone – usually from a minority group, author and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied in this instance – questions the validity of their statements and calls out on their racism.
Now this is when it gets boring.
Certain well-known contrarians take offence. Not at Ms Shriver for her racism, but at Ms Abdel-Magied.
They line up along the edge of a cavernous valley, filled with carcasses of imperialism, colonialism and the rotting remnants of the white superiority complex — intent on stamping out such injustices. Everyone has a right to an opinion!
On the opposite side – equally passionate and articulate – are the activists, writers and poets. Due to the liberalisation of the media landscape thanks to the Internet, the fight is not as uneven as it may first appear but it is a pitched battle.
The contrarians fire their initial volleys in print and digital media,and it starts, of course, with ad hominen attacks.
Who is the Yassmin Abdel-Magied? Celebrated? By whom? What authority does she have to question a prize-winning author like Ms Shriver? She won a literary prize, you hear? A. Literary. Prize. Are Abdel-Magied’s opinions even real or just the posturings of a slave to political correctness?
The second round of fire follows rapidly the first, as the conservative vanguards take a break. Only the second wave commentators are little more subtle in their machinations. Were Ms Shriver’s arguments really racist? It wasn’t even real racism, just words at a festival — an intellectual exercise. No one was lynched, for crying out loud!
And what about that treasured Western motherhood statement — freedom of speech. Was Yassmin attempting to censor Ms Shriver? That is undemocratic! Unintellectual! And un-Australian!
I give you gas lighting as it happens on a societal scale — where people who have never experienced structural racism consistently readjust the narrative to deny its existence. It is not racism you are experiencing — it’s just your imagination.
Trust me, it is easy to tell the difference between garden-variety arseholery and racism. The cadence is different.
I also think that anyone who defends racism using freedom of speech as an argument automatically fails that argument — much like using the Nazis to make a point. If your right to express an opinion is the only reason you express that opinion, then your opinion is lacking in substance.
Of course, the activist and minority writers don’t take any of this lying down. Their searing prose and astute analysis is what makes even watching the farce bearable.
I know all of the above seems fairly exciting but not if you have seen it repeated at least a dozen times over the last six months. From Sonia Kruger, to Pauline Hanson and every Z-list celebrity who has had a thought bubble worthy of social media shamming.
Now back to Lionel Shriver and the Brisbane Writers Festival.
In the interests of full disclosure, I wasn’t at the Brisbane Writers Festival. In fact, I was holed up in my study attempting to finish my next book so I could perhaps get an invitation to the Brisbane Writers Festival next year.
I reveal this not because I want to give anyone insight into my rather sad life, but because it has been suggested in some quarters that unless you were there, you ought not comment.
But since people who weren’t there and have no idea about racism or its impact have made comment, I think it only fair I am allowed to throw in my dollar's worth, considering I am a writer of fiction and brown!
So I have read the full transcript of Ms Shriver’s speech and Ms Abdel-Magied's response to it, as well as all the other op-ed pieces and responses and counter responses. There are approximately 196,000 google search results on 'Lionel Shriver, Brisbane Writers Festival and Speech'.
Most of the op-ed pieces (other than those taking aim at Yassmin Abdel-Magied personally) centred on identity politics, cultural appropriation and the rights of fiction writers to exercise their imagination.
It’s all made up anyway, isn’t it? Why not make all of it up? Imagination is the limit! And what is "cultural appropriation" other than leftist political claptrap? Damn the fun police! Could you get me some pappadums love?
Whoever thinks that imagination is the limit when it comes to writing fiction completely devalues fiction and its place in the human narrative.
Humans learn through stories. Even before the advent of the written word, stories have been the cornerstone of human communication. Fiction has the ability to inform and form our consciousness and our conscience. Even the most dystopian science fiction hooks into something deep in the human psyche. The great moral dilemmas of humanity are addressed in fiction. To deny this is to deny the value fiction has to educate, soothe, challenge and entertain.
Shriver contends that anyone with a good enough imagination can step into the shoes of anyone else in the name of fiction and write that story.
"I’ll remain neutral on whether he 'got away with it' in literary terms, because I haven’t read the book yet."
Shriver goes on to celebrate Cleave’s exploitation of the character of the Nigerian girl:
"It’s his book and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm."
Before I get into the problems of a white person celebrating exploitation – in literature or otherwise – I want to explore one thing and that is the "why".
Why does a middle-aged, white British man want to "imagine" a young Nigerian girl? What is about her being a Nigerian that makes her interesting?
I understand that differences are exotic and interesting; but characters need to be fleshed out for more than that. They need to be created to understand a point of view, not just because they present a fascination, much like an animal in a zoo.
Through reading Little Bee, it quickly becomes apparent that this is, in fact, not a story about a young Nigerian girl, it is about a middle class British family and how they grapple with the issues around a failing marriage and refugees.
Bee is not even really a character. She is a device to explore displacement and British attitudes towards refugees. The fact that the family "saves" the girl puts her into the permanent position of grateful servitude.
There are so many problematic racial tropes here I am unsure where to start: the white "saviour" complex, the helpless black person, the reinforcement of Africa as being violent and dangerous.
But the point here is not to critique Cleave’s work but to analyse Lionel Shriver, only Chris Cleave demonstrates exactly why white people should never "imagine" a Nigerian girl.
It is because the reasons why he does are entirely wrong reasons. It is not to explore her story, or her but to explore white culture as it relates to her — thus doubling the ignominy.
The fact that Shriver celebrates this exploitation tells you why this practice needs to stop. Now. Literary exploitation only validates societal exploitation and we are not playing the game anymore. Not in fiction. Not in non-fiction. Not in mind. Not in body. Not in soul.
I can almost hear the howls of outrage at this line of thinking.
What about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird? Aren’t they profound in their "imagining" black people? Aren’t they brilliant? Didn’t these books change the world?
Yes. These books changed the world. The impact of both books on the abolitionist movement and subsequently, the civil rights movement is inconvertible. Their reach was also global, aiding the end of colonialism throughout Africa and Asia.
Only these books were not about black people but rather about their oppression by white people. About white society and its bigotry as it interacts with people of colour. Yet again, race is used a prop to explore white society. It is not an exploration of the African-American narrative.
We almost need a Bechdel test equivalent to assess whether an "imagined" book about people of colour actually is about them or about white people. People of colour do not exist as a foil to white people — we exist in our own right.
The other contention in Shriver speech was around "cultural appropriation".
Specifically, the political correctness taskforce that polices white society and asks them to consider the impact of their actions.
"I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad."
She goes on to discuss several examples of the fruits of said policing — such as the wearing of sombreros at an American University party, which earned the party-goers a rebuke, and a renamed yoga class at a Canadian university.
She wonders why people can’t simply share and have fun:
"For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song."
Sharing is an interesting word isn’t it? As process, it is a virtue to be encouraged. It creates a great deal of good will and a shared understanding. And I go to enough ethnic food festivals just to see white people hoe down tandoori chicken so bright it could be radioactive just to foster that sense of community.
You know that’s food additives right? Stuff that could send your kids a little hyper? Natural spices are never that bright.
But sharing, in its truest sense, can only happen amongst equals. When sharing is not done amongst equals; it leaves one or other of the parties feeling deeply bereft. It is both a physical and psychological injustice that few can truly articulate without seeming selfish.
And we are not equals.
Not when Indigenous incarceration in Australia is an international shame. Not when Asian-Australians have to anglicise their names to get jobs. And certainly not when we have brown asylum seekers locked up in concentration camps where children are sexually abused.
You may relax though. There are no crack teams of Indians ready to denude the shelves of your local supermarket of pre-packaged curry paste. No one will push over white yogis in their Lululemon leotards while in their "downward dog" pose. Because this is not an issue of ethnic minorities learning to share but of white society learning to respect boundaries.
Boundaries – as any self-respecting psychologist will tell you – are the cornerstones of healthy relationships. They define the barriers within which a person is able to maintain a healthy sense of self while interacting with others. They are about self-respect and respect for others. No amount of literary privilege erases the need for respect.
Lastly, I would like to address issues of identity. Ms Shriver did talk a little about identity at the Brisbane Writers Festival. I found it as objectionable as the rest of what she said until I read an interview she did with the New York Times following the furore.
In it, she says:
‘I reject their idea of identity. It is a prison.’
Finally, Ms Shriver and I find something we can agree on.
Identity is a prison. It limits us all. It is the very anathema of the creative process.
But identity is not a construct created by minorities. It has been a construct imposed on us. It was defined by colonial forces which had in their DNA the belief that people of colour were intellectually and physically inferior — and legally sanctioned their oppression.
We live scarcely a generation after the structural dismantling of colonialism. We are still rediscovering our identities as it relates to ourselves. Or, if it is irretrievable, we are still grieving its loss and trying to recreate ourselves as ourselves, and not as a manifestation of white society.
But what this incident with Ms Shriver and the conservative commentariat has shown us, however, is that when minorities exercise our authority and define our boundaries, they will push us back into prison. With cattle prods if they need to. The bars of the prison have been physically removed, no one can see them, but our identities, by white definition, exist within them.
Su Dharmapala is a Sri Lankan-Australian author.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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