Cultural Appropriation and the Writer @ Link Wanderlust


I came across the transcript of the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival called Fiction and Identity Politics by Lionel Shriver. What she says is tailor-made for contemporary writers and so I thought I would examine it here.

While I read through her article, I realized how many times writers stopped writing a character simply because of fear that they would not be doing the character justice. There could be many reasons for this—your character could be of a different gender, caste, religion, nationality from your own. Research addresses these hindrances, but there is always the possibility of the writer goofing up completely. Shriver thinks that if a writer is afraid of wearing new hats, she can’t be a writer at all.

“At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.”

The sombrero is a symbol of cultural stereotyping. But is it really?

“Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”

This goes for writers who write about paraplegics, even if they are not paraplegics themselves; writers who write about obesity even if they thin; and writers who write about black people even if they are white and vice versa. Shriver believes that since writing is by nature a ‘disrespectful vocation’, stepping into another’s shoes is an occupational hazard, well worth the risk. After all, a reader appreciates stepping into new worlds and it’s a writer’s job to introduce the reader to the unknown.

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