A Response to Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Cribbed from elsewhere on Facebook. This has been edited with the original author’s permission.

In your 10 September Guardian piece, you asked, “How is this happening?”

You were wondering how author Lionel Shriver could deliver “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.” Specifically, you seemed puzzled that an author could cast scorn upon cultural appropriation, a governing principle – for you and others – that you consider to be of some import, obviously, because of “our histories,” although I question whom you speak for when you say “our.” You go on to say, “The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?”

Since you could not stay for the entire speech, I must also ask whether you heard this passage of Shriver’s speech, which, in my opinion, addressed your question clearly:

“If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.”

I thought Shriver was also clear on the job of a fiction writer. Yet, you charge her as well as others thusly:

“It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story?”

Why is it not always OK?

What if the queer Indigenous man does not want to tell his own story?

Would you prevent him from approaching a straight white woman, or anyone else, really, to tell it for him?

If he approached you and asked you to tell his story, would you tell it as he wished it to be told, or would you indulge in the writer’s habit of embellishing it to your own satisfaction, until it was polished to the degree that a publishing house would accept it, until it was eloquent enough to stand on its own in a blog post, an article, an online essay or in an actual book?

If it was not accepted by any publisher, would you chalk it up as the publisher being racist or too privileged? Would you self-publish?

Would you profit from his story or be selfless enough to forward any profits to the true author?

I am also puzzled by your accusation that in her role as storyteller and fiction writer, Shriver steals another’s identity by virtue of including it in her prose. Specifically, you say that such actions “led to the normalization of imperialist, colonial rule,” because writers like her regard their characters as “less than human” if their experiences do not mirror the writer’s – as if, in the process of “stealing” a non-white person’s story, writers like Shriver essentially dehumanize this poor sod because his very essence is now imprisoned in the pages of her book. He, poor queer Indigenous man, is left to wander the earth, a ghostly shell of his former self.

I must confess that this does not compute with me.

You also say that Shriver’s speech reminded you of your place in the world, although you tolerated sitting through a lengthy amount of her keynote speech, and you were not prevented from leaving.

You also posit that “…if the world were equal, this discussion would be different. But alas, that utopia is far from realised.”

If Utopia reached us tomorrow, would you still be comfortable that a straight white woman could tell a queer Indigenous man’s story? What if Utopia did not exact the changes that you desire? How, then, could the world be made equal in your eyes?

Lastly, you say, “The fact Shriver was given such a prominent platform from which to spew such vitriol shows that we as a society still value this type of rhetoric enough to deem it worthy of a keynote address. The opening of a city’s writers festival could have been graced by any of the brilliant writers and thinkers who challenge us to be more. To be uncomfortable. To progress.”

I suppose you will not believe me when I say that Shriver’s speech did indeed discomfit certain individuals and groups, and you can count yourself among them. Nor did I consider her speech to be intentionally disrespectful towards you or others who believe in cultural appropriation. You call it a concept, but given the ways you would like to see its precepts implemented in Western society, I consider it to be one of your governing principles. This not only saddens me; this makes me pity you.

I pity you because the slippery slope down which you’re sliding unawares seems to have blinded you from the implications of what you desire. You ask for respect at the end of your essay. I think the question should be, “What form of respect do you expect?” In fiction writing, what kind of respect do you want while at the same time still respecting the distance between your view and Shriver’s? She did not request the festival organizers to censure you, suspend you or boot you for exiting her keynote early, or for publishing your public response to it, yet she is receiving an astonishing amount of backlash not just from the organizers but from fellow attendees for the content of her speech. Since it’s obvious that you do not respect her or her opinions, what kind of respect do you want?

What kind of respect do you deserve?

The world of fiction writing expands daily, with many more writers self-publishing and publishing through the mainstream publishing houses and small presses. While, in your view, it is not always okay for a certain percentage of these writers to tell their own stories because of their skin color, ethnicity or race, and because you consider their stories “exploitation” of other unfortunates who possibly do not realize they do have the means to share their stories, all writers will preserve this cognizant ability to tell stories regardless of your attempts to change this fact.

Can you respect them, even if they’re not the right type of writers that you favor?

Perhaps you should ponder this question before demanding respect from them or anyone.

Sarah (Clithero)


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