Today was my second day at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and my third year working here as part of the team. I’d first attended four years ago, courtesy of a pair of tickets I’d won off Twitter from the ABC. I’ve always loved the atmosphere, the fact that I got to talk to other people who loved the same things I love. It’s a great way to talk to others in the literary industry, whether they be established or just starting out. And it’s a fantastic place to learn new things – new things on topics we already know about, and new things in general. It is a place of engagement, a place where stories of all different kinds are told.
I missed Jon Ronson’s opening address last year, probably because I was running around like a headless chook trying to get things ready for the next day, so I was going to make this year’s address, come hell or high water. And honestly, I come away bitterly disappointed.
Lionel Shriver has written many, many novels, the most famous of which is We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her latest novel, The Mandibles, paints a picture of a dystopian America, and was a book I’d been eying off just this morning.
Shriver kicked off with a story about a bunch of college students being accused of cultural appropriation, all because they wore sombreros at a tequila party. I nodded along internally. It did sound a bit ridiculous, after all. She then continued with what can only be described as a blistering critique of political correctness and cultural appropriation. As the minutes ticked by, I felt myself feeling more and more uncomfortable with the things Shriver was saying.
She took aim at those criticising a white, British writer for penning a novel from the perspective of a young Nigerian girl. She poked fun at those who ask that others not speak or write on their behalf. She defended the right for writers to offend. She blatantly rejected the notion of identity. And she did so under the guise of expressing dangerous ideas.
I can see where she was coming from. I really can. I can also see where she could have gone – but didn’t. People walked out of the address (and I don’t blame them). One of these people was Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who just that morning had talked to a bunch of high schoolers about her experiences as a young, black, Muslim woman. I don’t know if Maxine Beneba Clarke was there, but I imagine she’d have some choice words too.
Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life. I’m not saying that you should go out and seek such experiences, because it’s pretty awful and no one should be subject to racism – I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between empathising with an experience and undergoing it yourself. You cannot trick or convince yourself into having no identity if other people continue to see you as *that* particular identity.
Shriver covered her musings with humour (which was admittedly only humorous to those who agreed with her), and under the guise of their being dangerous ideas. But as far as I’m concerned, it is unfair and enabling to call harmful ideas ‘dangerous’. As I wrote on Twitter, it’s similar to Andrew Bolt’s presence at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas that recently took place in Sydney. The ideas that he espouses, those of racism and bigotry, are becoming alarmingly prevalent in both Australian and global society, and they are truly dangerous. Dangerous in the sense that it may incite violence against others, or heavens forbid, violence against oneself. Dangerous is too often used (incorrectly) as a synonym for ‘subversive’, or ‘a challenging of the dominant discourse’ – things that we so desperately need.
As a semi-aspiring writer myself, and one who has sunk a significant amount of time and brain power to discussing subversive women and Othered characters in non-Western societies, Shriver’s address was alarming, to say the least. The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share. In other words, the subaltern continue to be silenced, and still cannot speak.
Shriver, of course, talked about LGBTIQ representation, and that of the disabled community. I know there are deep issues there with what she said when considered in the context of those groups, but I don’t belong to any of them. I’m not going to speak on their behalf, but I would love to hear from someone who does and was also at the address themselves.
I am not afraid of my heritage, or of my background. I love being ‘Asian’. I love the richness of Chinese culture, the nuances inherent in the Malaysian-Chinese community. I love being an Australian. Nothing can change that, though many have tried. I know there are consequences to all of these, even though they really shouldn’t exist. I also know that I am extremely fortunate to feel this way, and that we all have a long way to go before everyone can feel that way too.
We definitely need to have more conversations around the way we approach culture, identity, and all the bits and pieces in between. Responsibility does not just lie with the writer, because literature is, at its very heart, a collaborative effort. The reader is complicit in the creation of the story, bringing their own prejudices and ways of seeing the world. It may be tiring to keep thinking this way, but that’s the way it should be. It is truly dangerous for us to become complacent, and I shudder to think where we might be if we all subscribed to Shriver’s ‘dangerous’ way of thinking.