The Lionel Shriver Hoo-Ha Over Cultural Appropriation in Writing

The Lionel Shriver Hoo-Ha Over Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival has caused a huge international discussion, and reminded me of the angst I put myself through when writing The Past Is A Secret Country, the story of three Australian Aboriginal sisters (triplets) who find one another as adults after being separated at birth. One of the sisters is white. Freya also has an innate spirituality, the origins of which dumbfound her. That is until one of the sisters tracks her down in London. At last the truth begins to unravel.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding their conception, too – how could the two black sisters have white parents? This might sound far-fetched, but is grounded in facts that I spent a long time researching. It can happen. A dormant gene can suddenly throw itself into the mix, years later. Hence the offensive term, ‘throwback.’

Writing the story was tricky. I wanted it to be accessible to white readers, so I strove for credibility and authenticity, without being too dry, or worse, sentimental. The research was intense. It often felt like an academic exercise, a university degree, requiring hours of reading, note-taking and analysis. Some of the chapters are written from the sisters’ father’s viewpoint in the tricky second person. The aim was to show his bigotry and shame at having produced two black babies. He makes the decision to take them to Melbourne to an adoption agency, and the white girl goes too, as he is by then highly suspicious. Second person narratives are confronting, and a highly effective way to make the reader squirm. Empathetic engagement is also part of the reasoning behind these kinds of choices in writing. I think my publisher at Virago found it a difficult book to promote because the current debate wasn’t in the news back then. So it sank into oblivion. But like my other novels, it examines the human condition in a deeply provocative way. It takes guts to write books like that. Books that are challenging and confronting and make you think and reflect and hopefully, change long-held views that are narrow and dogmatic.

My second novel, Under The Green Moon, also addresses similar questions about race and inequality and the significance of Aboriginal spirituality. I found myself drawn to these subjects thanks to my solitary childhood in a bush setting just outside Sydney, where I often stumbled across rock drawings and caves with evidence of former inhabitants. I was intensely influenced by my natural surroundings: the sounds, smells, sights, animals, textures, patterns, light, and the things I couldn’t see, a primeval, powerful presence that stoked my imagination and soul. Later, when I started writing the story and read books like Daughters of the Dreaming, by Australian anthropologist Diane Bell, my childhood experiences made more sense. Obviously the Dreamings are something I would never purport to fully understand or feel capable of interpreting. Aboriginal culture is diverse and incredibly complex, and the Dreamings mean different things to different groups. For example for some Aboriginal communities the Dreamtime is a past reality, at the same time a past reality and a concurrent reality with the present reality. It gets much more complicated than that, and even some of the most experienced anthropologists struggle with their understanding of it. My novel looks at the broader ethnology while at the same time draws on some of these elements.

Under The Green Moon is the story of two young girls, one black, one white, who become friends during the Depression in Sydney. Inevitably the black girl becomes one of the Stolen Generation. There are several references to the Dreamtime and ancestral visitations and connections. I suppose you could call it a ghost story, but to me it’s a lot more than that.

The current discussion, prompted by Shriver’s speech, has reverberated far and wide. I think if she were a less haughty character she may have avoided some of the accusations about her speech being cavalier. If it had been delivered by a softly spoken, shy black writer, for instance, the reaction may have been quite different. All writers need to be brave and not tread softly.

This notion that a writer should only write about what they know is one I ditched a long time ago. If that type of constriction is going to be placed on me as a writer seeking truths and commonalities in the human experience, then I will gladly give it up and go back to teaching or journalism, both of which deal in facts. I write fiction because I want to learn not just about facts, I want to delve deep into the human experience and understand what makes people tick. Fiction writing is an endless learning curve, rarely boring except at the editing stage when every comma and full stop has to be placed in the most appropriate place, and every word has to be the best one for each job. When I write I constantly ask myself the question ‘what if?’ For example, I could have made the sisters in my story white. But that would have been tame and too much like so many other stories out there.

I’m one of three sisters – one of which I’m not related to by birth – and we were separated at birth, my birth, when I was ejected from my father’s side of the family. So I felt I had sufficient inside knowledge to tackle the subject, especially as we also met later in life, like the three sisters in my novel, when I was in my early thirties. This kind of experience is one that millions of people have, and it shares familiar dynamics, such as a deep sense of rejection and worthlessness, jealousy, confusion, bitterness, as well as health issues like depression and despair and thoughts of suicide. These are universal human experiences. But to stretch my imagination even further in this book I came up with the idea of making the sisters black. Was I afraid of writing from a black person’s perspective? Well yes, and no. I thought black readers might object. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I was aware that I had to be careful and respectful. On the other hand I found the idea fascinating and irresistible. It held so many possibilities for a writer. I grappled with the ethics and morals of writing such a story, and at times felt intensely uncomfortable. But I knew that I’d done my research to the best of my ability. I tried to get permission, or at least, the blessing of Aboriginal elders near Uluru, where part of the story is set, to publish the story. But at that time I lived in London and a trip to Australia wasn’t possible.

Shriver has been criticized for writing a book about obesity, yet she is not obese. So, where do we draw the line with cultural appropriation? Many white writers write about cultural and individual experiences they have never known. It’s fiction! They make it up and they do their research. And this hesitancy writers have about how fiction interacts with history is also rife with the risk of censorship. Again, it’s fiction!

My latest novel, which I’m currently working on, is about a fashion mannequin in post-war Sydney. Have I ever been a mannequin? I wish! I didn’t live during that era, either. But my mother did, and she has been able to help with a great deal of oral history. She has an incredible memory and is articulate and clear with her facts and details. I’ve also spent hours in libraries both in Sydney and London, and have plans to visit museums in Paris. I’ve spent a small fortune on books to help bring that era to life in my novel, and gathered fashion details that make the story feel authentic. I’ve used the internet, in particular TROVE, the National Library of Australia’s invaluable online research library. I’ve changed and embellished historical facts and blended them with imaginative fiction. I’ve no doubt readers will pull me up on some of these points, but fortunately publishers can include an author’s note stating that ‘some facts have been changed.’ Rewriting history might seem an arrogant pursuit, but it’s fiction, it comes from the imagination, and the imagination should be granted complete freedom. Any form of censorship in fiction is, for me, immoral.

Cultural appropriation, whether it’s at a fancy dress party where everyone’s asked to come as Mexican cowboys or Spanish bullfighters, is healthy if it’s done with light-hearted humour and respect. Wearing a sombrero doesn’t have to diminish the culture from whence it was born. Did anyone object when Paul Hogan’s stereotypical outback character burst onto our screens as Crocodile Dundee, or Marlon Brando stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool to play the part of a mafia godfather? These stories and fancy dress occasions serve to broaden our appreciation of travel and experience and different cultures, even if it seems in the moment to be nothing less than a bit of a laugh or a tongue-in-cheek interpretation. We have become far too sensitive about these things.

Writers who stick their neck out like Shriver are trying to break down prejudices, and her point about building barriers by separating ourselves into groups and narrowing the gaps, is valid and true. We are all human, regardless of culture or colour, and we all share the same emotional landscape of pain and sorrow, joy and hope. How can we ever begin to understand other people if we don’t metaphorically ‘step into their shoes’? This is what empathy is all about – understanding someone’s emotions and experience, and then acting and reacting sympathetically and sensitively. It’s a bit like a child who is torturing a bird suddenly realising that the bird is suffering. A light bulb moment. Fiction should be full of light bulb moments, when the reader thinks, That happened to me! Or I know exactly what that character’s going through. Or even better, I’ve done that to someone, I hurt them like that, and I know it was wrong. Or, So that’s how it feels. Fiction digs deep and reveals and exposes human truths. That is why it is so important. It can encourage better behaviour and portray humanity in all its delicate and violent detail.

I recall another less recent debate in the media proposing that literary fiction generates deeper empathy in readers than commercial fiction. Which simply suggested to me that empathy is one of the key purposes of writing fiction. Fiction can prompt empathy far more effectively than non-fiction. As the late Elvis Presley once said, “Cut me and I bleed.” We are all the same at heart. Likewise, fiction can open hearts and minds to embrace the unknown and remove the fear. Writers, not politicians or teachers, or scientists or anthropologists, can do far more to deepen our understanding of the world’s different cultures, because they dare to imagine.

Maree Giles © 2016