- Dick of the Day or why Lionel Shriver is wrong
- Lionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 1
- Lionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 3
My response to Lionel Shriver and authors’ appropriation of ‘other’ experience is in three parts, scheduled weekly. This is part one.
Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival was the latest escalation from a distant butterfly’s wing-flap. To give this self-titled ‘renowned iconoclast’ responsibility for the latest storm is to give her too much credit for regurgitating Trump-esque ideas. The resulting fallout is both bad and good. The bad: straight white non-disabled authors’ sense of entitlement was reinforced. The good: victims of misappropriation are expressing their outrage and, to a point, we are being heard.
Trump will build a wall; Mexico will pay for it; Trump likes Mexicans — look, he eats the food. Shriver advocates appropriation of gender, race and disability; she doesn’t care what it costs her victims; Shriver isn’t racist — she’s inserted a sole African American into a white family who literally put the black character on a leash.
Historical colonialism saw white men conquering a significant portion of the known world, appropriating artifacts, slaves and culture as they saw fit while killing or exiling people with disabilities. This foundation forms the basis of current Western culture where straight white non-disabled men feel besieged by queers, women, people of color (PoC) and people with disabilities (PWD) who are calling for equity.
This siege mentality has expanded to include some white non-disabled women — some of whom claim to be feminists — who are reinforcing the barricades, defending their privilege against other ethnic groups, queers and those with disabilities by silencing ‘other’ voices and by misappropriating ‘other’ culture and experiences.
[A] reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” … Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm … sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.
Shriver is encouraging authors to appropriate the other while diminishing concern for research, it’s all about ‘what we can get away with’. Nike Sulway talks about appropriating queer culture and experience on her blog. I agree with her argument that fictional experience of minority (in my case disability) should be genuinely relatable by at least some of the minority represented. In contrast to Sulway, I’m not against non-disabled people representing minorities although, like Sulway, I want our voices to tell our stories. (I speak for myself as a person with a disability; I do not presume to speak for other minorities.)
If only people with disabilities write experience of disability, we will remain silenced. When a straight white non-disabled man — Jonathan Franzen, for example — writes domestic life, ‘it’s a novel about America’ but when a woman does likewise, ‘it’s chick lit’. Similar double standards apply for writing disability: Jojo Moyes wrote disability in Me Before You, a movie picketed by protesting disability activists overseas and in Australia while disabled authors find it difficult to be published and more difficult to be reviewed in ‘the right places’, especially if they’re women with disabilities.
People with disability are less likely to be able to write our own stories, less likely to be given permission and less likely to pass the gatekeepers. When I was at high school it was unusual for a student with a vision impairment to finish high school. Anyone who has followed me over the past few years knows my struggles as a vision impaired person at university trying to get large print photocopies for classroom materials during a writing and editing degree. Many times I sat in class unable to read and, therefore, unable to follow discussion based on written materials while my class was learning foundational techniques in preparation for assessment tests.
If we get past those barriers, if people with disabilities acquire the skills and start to tell our stories, we’re told ‘I don’t want to read stories about disability’, ‘write inspiration’, ‘write about two non-disabled women helping a woman with a disability’ (so it becomes a story about charitable able people) or ‘write a memoir and find a different writing group’. I’ve received all of these comments and more in student and professional settings.
Shriver admits ‘We do not all [write minorities] well.’ I concur. Pop culture’s portrayal of albinism — my disability — is so prevalent as the ‘evil albino’ trope that, when I was in primary school, my peers told me I must be evil. In The Heat (2013), the twist was that the obnoxious anti-social albino wasn’t the villain. The albino was a total asshat but he wasn’t the villain. Yay. [snark]
The albino in The Heat was a deeply flawed representation: he did not have any vision impairment. A common misconception is that albinism only makes people pale-skinned; insufficient pigmentation (skin colour) extends to the development of the retina (back of the eye) where the fovea and macula (bits you see with) aren’t developed properly. People with albinism have varying degrees of vision impairment depending on their degree of albinism. So to portray us as ‘just white’ but not vision impaired perpetuates misconceptions, causing problems for us as an already-reviled minority group. Dr Shari Parker, an albino and medical doctor, discusses albinism and The Heat on the ABC’s website.
We need an abundance of representations, which is why I don’t object — in principle — to non-disabled authors writing disability. However, accurate representation is essential. Albinos have vision impairment, we’re not just pale creatures of the night. Albinism is not shorthand for evil; no shade of skin color should ever be shorthand for evil. Having a disability is not justification for being evil just like being a white middleclass woman claiming to be a ‘renowned iconoclast’ should not be justification for being evil or racist. And our voices are needed to best tell our stories.
Part 2 of this series will be published next week.