It seems that controversy over the Brisbane Writers Festival keynote address has brought forth a pretty nasty slanging match about cultural appropriation. US author, Lionel Shriver’s perceived insensitivity to the concept of white privilege caused such offence that one local writer felt the need to leave the event. Much has been said in response to an article posted by Yassmin Abdel-Magied (originally on medium.com, but now also in The Guardian Australia) in which the author describes her compulsion to walk out during that keynote speech and why. As a fellow writer, and of Eurasian heritage, I commend Abdel-Magied on her action to take a stand against Shriver’s myopic opinions. I wasn’t at that event, but it appears Shriver opportunistically used her privilege at the podium to vent her opinions on cultural appropriation. Some audience members agreed with the speaker, but others felt aggrieved enough to warrant expression of their concerns publicly the next day (including Yen Rong a festival volunteer).
I’m more saddened and surprised by the responses of the writing community who have attacked Abdel-Magied for her actions. The majority of responses to her article are self-righteous and blinkered by white goggles. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a half-Indonesian, half-English Australian, living in the affluent and privileged ‘City of Literature’ that is Melbourne. I’m also a specialist doctor (‘How much more privileged can you be?’ I hear you say). Having been subjected to my fair share of racist taunts in my lifetime, as well as having racism and religious hatred exercised towards my father, an Indonesian Muslim, I do not subscribe to the view that I can write whatever I damn well like purely because I am a writer of fiction.
The issue at stake here is offence and so many of the respondents to Abdel-Magied’s article just can’t seem to see that. Offence is a subjective experience, therefore every person will feel it for different reasons and in different ways. Writers should assume their writing always has the potential to offend someone and try to minimise that damage as much as possible; otherwise their writing can be perceived as inflammatory or defamatory. As writers, we all create characters of differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds, sexualities and genders. But we should try, at the very least, not to create characters who might be construed as clichéd, tokenistic insults. That seems a basic moral stance to aspire to.
It’s not about the fact that as a Eurasian emergency physician, I should only write Eurasian medical stories. It’s not about the fact my colleagues might be writing a deaf character or a homicidal psychopath or an Icelandic elf or a French concubine, when they may or may not be any of the above. Clearly no fiction writer can proclaim to be someone else. We try to write in a way that readers might be able to escape into a different reality. We try to get in the heads of our characters to make them seem real to our readers. But when we feel compelled to get into the head of someone we can’t possibly be, know or understand culturally, we need to show caution, respect, sensitivity and genuine interest. Do research. Make friends with people who are ‘like’ the character. Engage readers who are ‘like’ the character and be open to fair and unreserved criticism or praise. Have the humility to realise when offence is taken and be prepared to either cop the flak or change what’s caused offence.
It seems that Abdel-Magied’s action to walk out of the keynote address and write about her experience has subsequently become a case of ‘shooting the messenger’. So many respondents have taken offence to her article as if it were a threat to their very existences as writers. Abdel-Magied is warranted in having taken offence to Shriver’s subject choice delivered from such a position of privilege and power.